Set Up for Sublimation Success in 2019

The end of the year is typically a time when people,  and businesses, take a moment to examine where they’ve been and to determine where they want to go in the next year.   Since 2019 will be here very shortly,   we wanted to take a few moments to talk about a few things a company could do to set up for sublimation success.

The first thing to think about is whether or not you want to make any large equipment purchases.   If you make those purchases before the end of 2019,  you can deduct the full purchase price from that year’s taxes.   Which means that buying a sublimation system or a heat press could net you a nice tax deduction as well as getting you equipment that can help make your business more profitable.

The next thing to do is take a look at the markets available to you.  Is there something you can do to increase your share of a market in which you already sell?   Working to increase market share should be your first goal, since you already are serving the market and presumably understand what customers in that market segment want.   Now is the time to update your literature,  examine what samples or sales pitches are working best in this particular market,  and to set your sales goals for the next year.

Once you’ve dealt with markets you already serve,  the next question is are there markets which might be interested in products you offer,  but to which you don’t sell?  It’s always good to have a few potential markets in your sights,  since no customer or market segment is ever a sure thing.   With new markets,  do the research to figure out what products might be of interest.  See if you have any contacts who can introduce you to key players in the new market.   Spend some time on social media to learn how the market communicates and what’s important to your potential customers.   Once you’ve gathered your data,  put together some samples and literature targeted to this new market.   The more targeted your pitch is,  the more likely you are to gain entry into the new market and an array of new customers.

Third,  look at the new products that are available from your suppliers.   Obviously,  you should have a slate of tried and true favorites that you offer,  but adding new products,  particularly products your competitors might not sell can be a great competitive advantage.   Visit your suppliers websites,  look out for e-mails advertising new products,  and pick a few to introduce to your customers in the new year.

Fourth,  pick something new to learn.   Maybe you’ll go to a seminar at a trade show.   You might listen to a podcast or a webinar.   There are always workshops available.   The idea is to pick something you’d like to learn or to add to your business and get the skills necessary to do what you want to do.   The method doesn’t matter.   The education does.

Finally,  identify your pain points and make a plan to fix them.   In 2018,  where did your business have issues?  Was it difficult to find new employees?  Did production times leave you scrambling to complete orders?  Were employees absent,  ghosting you or producing product at a snail’s pace?   Did you find order tracking was in chaos and no one knew what was supposed to be done when?  There are a variety of things that might need to be fixed;  the trick is to pick one or two and concentrate on getting the assistance,  finding the information,  or making the policy or personnel changes necessary to fix them.

If You Own a Heat Press, You Should Own a Pyrometer

By Tom Chambers

What is a “pyrometer”?

In my last blog post  I mentioned using a pyrometer to verify the displayed temperature of your heat press.  In this article, I want to expand on this device and how to use it, and why I think it is the single most underrated yet vitally important tool you can have in your shop.

Simply put, a pyrometer is a device to accurately measure temperature.  In the context of heat presses, and with the addition of a surface probe, it allows you to verify that your heat press is actually at the temperature you think it is.

If you’re thinking “yeah, right, it probably costs a lot…”  No, it really doesn’t.  And what it does cost, it can save you, the first time you need it.

Why buy a pyrometer?

I’ve lost count of the number of phone calls I’ve received regarding sublimation image quality.  While most of these could be traced to simple issues (more on those in a future post), there have been a handful that were directly related to the heat press the customer was using.  In almost all of those cases, if the customer simply had an inexpensive pyrometer, they could have saved themselves days of aggravation, phone calls, ruined products, and a significant amount of time and money.

Here’s the thing – unless you are very lucky, or the press was calibrated precisely in the factory, the temperature it shows on the display, dial, or gauge is not what the actual temperature is.  As a press ages, that variance will also change.  Digital gauges are the most accurate, but they still have to be calibrated periodically.  Dials or gauges that insert into the platen are notoriously inaccurate.

Ultimately it boils down to one main fact – if you don’t have an accurate method of double-checking your press temperature and you have any issues with the products you are pressing,  you simply cannot determine whether the problem is with your heat press or the product itself.

What kind of pyrometer should you get?

There are two popular types of pyrometers.  You may have even seen the first type, a hand held gun-like device using an infra-red sensor, typically with a laser pointer built in.  Some people think that the laser is the sensor, but it isn’t – it’s only there as a pointer (or to play with your cats).

Those are usually the least expensive, but the problem is that they only work well on things that have no reflectivity, like walls, carpet, ceilings, or dark/matte surfaces.  Since many heat press platens are aluminum (which is somewhat reflective), it will give you a false reading.  Even if you have a coated platen with a dark matte surface that it will work with, it won’t always remain so, and will develop blemishes over time that will alter the readings.

The second type, which is what I recommend, is a hand held unit that looks much like a multi-meter, with the addition of a plug-in surface probe.  In this case, you place the end of the probe against the surface of the heat platen for a few seconds to obtain a direct reading of the temperature.  Because the temperature is measured with a sensitive probe and direct contact with the platen, any color, reflectivity, or blemishes simply don’t matter.

What’s the best way to use a pyrometer?

Heat up your press to whatever operating temperature you need, including setting the pressure and timer.  Draw a tic-tac-toe grid on a piece of paper, and use the surface probe to measure 9 spots on the platen in the same tic-tac-toe pattern.  Hold the probe against the platen several seconds, until the temperature on the display stabilizes.  Write those temperatures down in the corresponding squares of the grid you drew.

Now, run a complete pressing cycle as if you were producing the product of your choice.  As soon as it is finished, take a new set of 9 temperature readings and record those below the first set of numbers.

The difference between the first and second numbers will give you the likely drop in the press temperature during operation, and the differences between the 9 different locations on the platen will point out any hot or cold spots.  You’ll also be able to instantly see if your press has a problem.  Any significant variances (more than 20 degrees F) between the highest and lowest numbers can be a problem, depending on the tolerance the products you are pressing allows.

To set the press to provide your ideal temperature, average the first set of numbers together, then average the second set.  Pick a temp between the two averages, but closer to the higher number.  That should match the temperature recommended for the product you are pressing.  If it does not, then adjust your press so that it does.  You may have to repeat the measurement process above a few times to get it dialed in just right, but once you do it, you should only have to check it periodically.

If your press has a feature that allows it, once you dial in the temp, you can calibrate the temperature display to show that exact temperature.

What’s the purpose of all that?

No press is going to maintain the exact set temperature 100% of the time, since heat energy leaves the platen and goes into your product when you are pressing it, and the press then has to switch on and heat the platen back up.

By using your pyrometer, in addition to knowing exactly what temperature your press is, you are able to set any good quality heat press to compensate for those swings in temperature, and even minimize the variance on less expensive presses.  You also have the added benefit of diagnosing any problems that may be occurring related to heat.

Different manufacturers of presses handle the temperature in different ways, and some of those methods can cause delays between when the platen reaches its set temperature, and when the press turns off the heat, resulting in over-shooting the temperature.  The same thing can also occur on the low end before the press turns back on.  This and other reasons cause variances in temperature.

Good quality presses minimize this variance with various technologies that allow for continuous press operation and even heating, whereas lower quality inexpensive presses are typically made to meet a low price point and usually have temperature swings that can be wide enough to cause you to have to wait between pressings for the temperature to recover along with cold spots in the platen.

This will ultimately improve the quality of your products and save you time and money if you ever have an issue with your heat press, because it will let you pinpoint whether the problem is related to the temperature of the press or not.  Even if the problem isn’t the press – you’ve now eliminated it as an issue, which is something you can tell your product tech support when calling to explain that you aren’t getting the results you should be.  That will save you both some time, helping you get back up and running again quickly.

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation. 

Your Heat Press and You

by Tom Chambers

My esteemed colleague and professional writer Kristine Shreve has written much ado about heat presses over the years.  Among those articles are “Buying a Heat Press“, “ Uses for a Heat Press“,  “5 Things to Consider When Buying a Heat Press“, and “A Heat Press Primer“.  I’m sure there are more, and there is a ton of useful information in those articles.

So why am I writing yet another article about a heat press?  Because at some point after you read all the above articles and did all your research, you made the decision and bought a heat press.  Now you have to set it up and learn to use it.  How do you do that?  I know, that may seem obvious and simple, but there’s a bit more to it than just taking it out of the box and plugging it in.  That’s where this article comes in.

Setup

The very first thing you need to do when you receive your new heat press is to open up the manual, read what the requirements are, and do a bit of preparation.  If you have access to the manual before you receive your press, you will be ahead of the game when it arrives.

Before you set it up, you need to have a work area large enough for both the press and the work you will be doing.  If it’s a clamshell, you’ll need enough overhead clearance so the upper platen can be raised and lowered without hitting your knuckles on a cabinet bottom (or anything else).  If it’s a swing-away or drawer press, you’ll need additional space to the side and/or front.  You’ll also need a sturdy table, counter, or dedicated stand to place the press on.

The press should be conveniently located near an electrical source that meets or exceeds the requirements of the press. The electrical requirements will be expressed in amps, volts, and watts in the manual (or on the web site) for the press you bought.

You should make sure that you do not exceed the capacity of your electrical circuit and always plug directly into an outlet, not an extension cord.  Overloaded circuits can cause issues ranging from simply tripping a circuit breaker, all the way up to starting a fire and burning down the building.  My recommendation is that if you don’t know what you are doing here, consult an electrician.

If it is an air operated press, you’ll need an air compressor with enough capacity to supply the press, an air supply line of an appropriate diameter and length, plus any fittings necessary.

Not having appropriate electric and air supplies can also cause issues with the operation of the heat press.

Settings

Once you’ve set everything up, you should familiarize yourself with the features your press offers, especially the controls and how to change the settings.  For example, many presses offer the ability to store presets for various products in memory for easy recall.  This can be a real time saver if you have to press a lot of different products with different settings.

No matter the manufacturer, model, or style of heat press, they all have 3 settings in common.  Those are:  time, heat, and pressure.  Whether you plan to do sublimation, vinyl, transfers, rhinestones, or anything else, every single thing you will want to use your heat press for uses those 3 in varying degrees (bad pun fully intended).

Therefore, you will need to know what those 3 settings should be for whatever you are pressing at any given time, and that the settings will vary widely between products.  Manufacturers and distributors have recommended settings, and you will usually obtain those from your place of purchase.

Of the 3 settings, “time” is most consistent and reliable from press to press.  Typically this is a digital timer that either prompts you to release the press, or automatically does it for you, after your set period of time has elapsed.

You would think that the second setting, “temperature” would be consistent as well, but that is rarely the case.  Most heat presses vary anywhere from a few degrees to 20 or 30 degrees F from their displayed temperature, and this can change as they age.  It is important to know what your actual temperature is, because that directly affects the end results of what you are pressing.

Knowing the actual temperature requires a tool called a pyrometer with a surface probe, and purchasing one will be the best investment you make for your heat press.  It can potentially save you hours of frustration and thousands of dollars in ruined products.

Finally, there’s “pressure”.  On a manually operated heat press, setting the pressure is simply an educated guess.  Heavy pressure means you have to put a good amount of force on the handle to fully close the press.  Light pressure means you only have to put a little force on it.  Some manual presses provide a sensor and graphic display for the pressure, but those should not be taken as precise.  By contrast, an air operated press has an adjustable gauge or dial that shows you exactly how many psi (pounds per square inch) of line pressure is set.

Support

Now you are ready to press.  Follow any additional instructions for your press, but don’t be afraid to experiment either – it’s common to have to make some adjustments to published manufacturer settings as you press different things, and what works on one press may not be exactly the same on another.

It’s usually best to leave your press on even if you won’t be using it for an hour or two.  Turn it off only when you aren’t going to be using it for several hours or more.

Be sure to drain water from any air lines daily, follow any manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations, and keep support numbers handy for any questions or repairs.

As always, contact us with any questions.

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation. 

5 Things to Consider When Buying a Heat Press

Buying a heat press is a big investment,  and the decision about which type of press to buy should be made carefully to ensure that you get the type of press you need and one that will provide the most utility for your shop. Since a heat press is one of the more costly items that people who create sublimated goods will need, it pays to do the research and the math before purchasing a press. When making your buying decision, here are five things you should consider.

#1 Is Cheaper Better – A heat press is a big investment and, especially if a business is just starting out with sublimation,  the impulse might be to go with a no-name Chinese press from eBay or to start with a smaller press that is less costly.   There are,  however,  a couple of problems with this approach.   One is that no-name presses often don’t have service or technical support which leaves you with few to no options if your press breaks.   Buying a smaller, less expensive press can also be problematic as the size of the press will place limits on what can be sublimated.   The rule of thumb is to assess your needs and take into account technical support and repair options and then buy the biggest press you can afford.

#2 Consider your physical abilities – No, running a heat press isn’t as physically taxing as mining coal or being a mover,  but it does take a toll on the body.   Smaller people may have more issue with opening a manual press.  Standing all day can have an impact on the knees and feet.   There are options like auto release pop-up which can make a press easier to operate.   Don’t assume that everyone will be able to operate a press with the same level of ease.   Take into account the physicality of running a press for hours at a time and do what’s necessary to make that physical toll a little less.

#3 What type of goods will you be sublimating? – One of the biggest questions that needs to be answered before any heat press purchase is the type of goods your shop will be selling.   If the goal is to just do garments,  a flat press,  most likely a swing-away press,  would be a useful option.   If you want to do hats or mugs or something that won’t work well in a flat press,   your best bet would either be a specialty press or a combo press.  For those shops doing a variety of items,  a combo press may be best,  as it combines a flat press with the specialty press options.

#4 Where’s the best place to buy a heat press? –  The temptation to buy a heat press on eBay or Amazon,  where the prices seem cheaper may be overwhelming,  but that’s not always the best place to buy a press.   In our opinion,  the best option for purchasing a heat press is from a company that knows and uses heat presses.   If you can purchase directly from the manufacturer that’s great.   When that’s not possible,  the next best option is purchasing from a supplier who uses the presses they sell and knows them well.   Keep in mind the place that sells you the press may also be the place that provides technical and repair support.   The better they know the press,  the more able they will be to assist you when you have an issue.

#5 Can you add other disciplines to maximize the utility of your press? –  Yes,  sublimation is one decoration discipline that requires a heat press,  but it is not the only one.   If you’re buying a press,  you might also want to consider what you already do,  or could add to your shop which could make a heat press that much more useful.   Rhinestones,  screen print transfers,  adding patches to hats or bags,  there are a variety of options for how a heat press can be used.   Spreading the utility out over a variety of disciplines may help your press pay for itself faster,  and help you justify the expense of a bigger and better press.

Sublimation Hints and Help

Like most decoration techniques,  sublimation does have a learning curve,  although it’s considerably less steep than some other decoration options.   Still,  if you’re just starting out,  or even if you’ve been creating sublimated goods for a while,  there are probably things you don’t know that could help you create sublimated items a little faster and a little better.   Every once in a while we like to do a sort of round-up post where we list some sublimation hints and tips,  in the hope of assisting our customers in their quest for the best possible sublimated product.

Cool, man! A basic step in the sublimation process is letting items cool.   Make sure the transfer paper is removed quickly when the item comes off the press,  and make sure items are laid out separately and not overlapped when cooling.   An item like a sublimated mug can be cooled in a room temperature bucket of water.   Make sure the water is not too cold,  as that could cause the mug to crack.

Humidity is the Enemy! Moisture can make a mess of your sublimated supplies,  so it’s always good to make sure humidity is kept to safe levels.   Protect your sublimation paper from humidity by keeping it in a plastic bag,  or a resealable bin.   If you’re worried the paper you’re using is too moist,  set it on your press for a few seconds.  The warmth will help remove excess moisture from the paper.   The pre-press technique can also work for garments.   Also,  using a cover that absorbs moisture,  like newsprint, in place of Teflon can help eliminate moisture problems.   Just make sure to change out the absorbent cover sheet after every press.

The Heat is On! One of the most common issues that cause sublimation failure is a heat press that isn’t heating up to the correct temperature.   Yes,  the gauge may show the proper reading,  but the actual temperature of the press can vary widely.   Make sure to test the temperature of your press frequently,  using either a heat gun or temperature test strips,  to make sure the press is actually heated up to the required temperature.

Stick to It! Heat tape is probably one of the most underrated items in your sublimation arsenal,  but it’s a must have for every shop.   Use it to keep your transfers securely positioned on your blanks.   Make sure not to tape across the image area,  instead securing the transfers on the sides.    Another useful item is a strong adhesive tape,  which can be used to secure sublimated images onto things like pendants or belt buckles.

Primary Colors! Anyone who prints on an inkjet printer knows about nozzle checks,  but they might not be as familiar with primary charts.   A good primary chart will show solid blocks of color without any lines or gaps.   Running a primary chart and a nozzle check is definitely a good idea if you haven’t used your printer for a while.   For details on how to run a primary chart from your Virtuoso printer,   visit this blog post from Sawgrass Ink.

 

Buying a Heat Press

dc16ap3A question that often comes up in forums and groups about sublimation is what kind of heat press is necessary.   Do you need specialized presses for mugs?  How big should the press be?   Is a cheap press made in China that you found on eBay going to work?  What brand of press do experienced sublimation experts recommend?   A heat press is a larger purchase,  so it’s easy to understand why there would be a lot of questions.   Since we’ve been sublimating and dealing with sublimation supplies (and heat presses) for a lot of years,  I thought I’d try to answer some of the questions I see most frequently.

Q1:  Do you need a specialized press for any good that isn’t flat?  For the most part,  yes.   Hats,  mugs,  plates,  anything that isn’t flat will most likely require a specialized press in order to take a sublimated print.    In some cases,  where a lot of different items will be sublimated,  a combo heat press might be the best option.  This type of press is usually a flat swingaway press that comes with attachments that will allow you to do mugs and other goods that aren’t flat.   A standalone cap press will have a curved platen that allows you to sublimate caps faster and more easily.    Mug presses are generally adjustable and are designed to handle different sizes and shapes of mugs.    If you’re planning to sublimate a lot of one particular item,  investing in a specialty press can be a wise move.

Q2:  How big should the press be?  What’s the biggest thing you’ll ever be likely to sublimate?   The answer to that question will help determine how big your press should be.   Keep in mind that smaller presses may have smaller price tags,  but they aren’t always suitable for a production environment.   When deciding on the size of your press,  you should also take into account how often it will be used,  and for how long each time.    Optional extras like air operated opening should also be considered.   They may add to the cost of the press,  but they’ll save a ton of wear and tear on the operator.

Q3:  Is a cheap press worth the money? There are a lot of off brand heat presses from China available on eBay,  with prices that can be very attractive when you’re on a budget.   Two things to consider before purchasing a press like this are 1) who will service it should it break down and 2)is cheap necessarily going to translate into reliable and accurate?   A press from an eBay seller that may have been made in a foreign country is not likely to have maintenance or tech support attached, and that matters.   Service for a malfunctioning machine can help extend its life and get you back to work faster.   Tech support can help you solve problems and teach you how to use your heat press more efficiently and profitably.     A cheap press may also come with a set of reliability and accuracy issues.   Temperature gauges may not accurately reflect temperatures.   The platens may not heat to the required levels.   There are good bargains to be had,  and there are people who have purchased off brand presses and had them work fine,  but it’s a calculated risk.

Q4:   What brand of press do experienced sublimation experts recommend?  To answer this question,  all I can do is tell you what we know,  from years of experience.    We sell George Knight heat presses,   and the reason we sell them is because we’ve used them.   Our parent company has six plants across the United States,  and all of them have heat presses.   George Knight presses have been in our shops,  working day in and day out for years.     The presses are reliable,  easy to use,  and George Knight has top notch technical support.   So,  when asked,  George Knight is what we recommend,  and not just because we sell them.   We’ve used them,  so we know how well made and reliable they are.   Yes,  they may cost a bit more,  but they’re worth every penny.

If you have a question about sublimation,  please feel free to leave a comment here or to contact us and ask.   We’ve been working with heat presses and sublimation for quite some time,  and we’re always happy to help.

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A Heat Press Primer

Anyone who works in garment decoration will probably acknowledge that a heat press is generally a vital piece of equipment in any garment decoration or ad specialty shop.   Heat presses can be used for sublimation,  direct to garment printing,  inkjet transfers,  screenprint transfers and, in a pinch, simply for getting the wrinkles out of a garment, or the moisture out of transfer paper.   A good heat press, which is the right size and type for your shop, can be a huge asset.  A heat press, on the other hand,  that is the wrong size and type, or which doesn’t function properly can be anything but an asset.   If you’re just starting your business, or are looking to purchase a new heat press,  here are some basic tips to help you make the right decision for your business.

One of the first things to decide is the type of heat press you need.   EnMart sells two types of heat presses – clamshell and swinger or swingaway.    A clamshell heat press is a hinged press where the top platen lifts straight up.  These presses generally require a bit less space,  but they also are a bit more limiting.    If you are going to be doing thicker garments or want to sublimate items other than garments,  this type of press may not be for you.

A swinger or swingaway heat press, by contrast, is one where the top platen lifts up and then swings to the side.   This sort of press requires more space,  as the platen needs to be free to swing.   It also is a bit more forgiving when it comes to the thickness of the items you will be pressing.   Swingaway presses also move the top platen completely out of the way, which allows for easier loading and unloading of your press.

Another thing to consider when looking at presses is the size of the items that you will be pressing.  A 9″ x 12″ heat press may seem like a great way to start because it doesn’t take up much space and it’s less expensive, and for some people it will be the ideal press.    If you are looking at doing a wide variety of garment sizes,  however,  this press may be too small and too limiting for your needs. When choosing the size of heat press you think will work for your business, always take into account the size of the largest thing you think you could ever possibly press and buy a press that will accommodate that size.

You should also take into account your physical abilities when considering the press you will purchase.  You can find heat press which are air operated,  heat presses with auto pop-up functions,  and presses that will need to opened and closed with good old muscle power.   If you believe your press will be used quite frequently, or if you’re a smaller person,  you may want to consider a press which opens more easily and doesn’t rely on brute force.

Finally, when you purchase your press,  you may also want to consider purchasing a digital pyrometer and surface probe kit.  The temperature gauge on your heat press may not always accurately reflect the true temperature of the press.   A digital pyrometer will allow you to spot the differences between the temperature reading on the gauge and the actual temperature of the press.

Sublimation Tip Sheet 4/15/10

Over the years that we’ve been doing sublimation, we’ve learned a lot.  Some of what we’ve learned needs to be explained in detail, and is best suited to a longer blog post.  Other tips and tricks are just small bits of information that don’t necessarily merit their own post,  but could still be useful.   Because we still want to share these tips and tricks with all of you, I’ve created the Sublimation Tip Sheet.  These posts will appear whenever it seems necessary, and will include various sublimation and ChromaBlast tips and tricks which will help you get the most out of your printers, inks, papers and heat presses.

Tip 1:  Sublimation Paper Storage

Properly storing your sublimation paper is important, and can significantly affect the results you get when you print and press.  Most paper can absorb humidity, and depending on the coating, some absorb a lot more than others.  As a general rule, best practice is to store your sublimation paper sealed either in the original packaging or in a reclosable bag in a dark area in a climate controlled office or other area.  Moderate humidity in the 40% range and temperature around 70 degrees with low or no light, is usually considered ideal storage conditions.  Realistically however, these conditions may not be practical, so just try to get as close to that type of environment as you can reasonably achieve, and you should be good to go.

Tip 2:  Heat Press Temperature

A heat press with an even temperature is a vital part of sublimation success, but not all heat presses heat evenly.  To make sure that your heat press does not have hot spots or cold areas which could have an impact on the evenness of your sublimation print,  check your press frequently with a pyrometer.   Taking a few seconds to check the temperature of your press could save you a lot of frustration and wasted blanks.

Tip 3:  The items you sublimate should be Polyester or Poly Coated

This seems like a pretty elementary fact, but I see this question on forums all the time.   For best results, whatever you sublimate should be 100% polyester fabric or should have a poly coating.  If you sublimate a garment that is some percentage polyester and some percentage of another material, the sublimation ink will only bond with the polyester fibers.   This can lead to a patchy,  faded graphic.   Attempting to sublimate a mug or a mousepad that does not have a poly coating will most likely not work at all.

If you have a sublimation or ChromaBlast tip or trick that you’d like to share,  please leave it in the comments or e-mail me at kristine dot shreve at myenmart dot com.