By Erik Merkley
Why Use a Heat Press?
Whether for hobby or business use, heat presses are the perfect tool for applying flex and flock vinyl or large rhinestone designs. If you’ve struggled with a normal iron to get large vinyl designs to stick or find they peel off after several washes then you will benefit from a heat press.
There are three crucial ingredients to getting a long-lasting vinyl application:
- Precise timing
- Even temperature
- High pressure
While an iron is fine for small designs, it can’t deliver the consistency of temperature over a large design for the right amount of time. Heat presses have specially designed plates which spread the heat evenly, adjustable pressure, solid silicone bases to squeeze the vinyl onto the garment, and electronic control over temperature and timing.
So can I just use an ironing press?
No! Commercial heat presses are fundamentally different to domestic ironing presses. A domestic press is designed to iron and steam garments flat – hardly a task that needs high precision! There are few reasons they are unsuitable for use with vinyl:
- Ironing presses have very uneven temperatures over their heating plate, with some areas far too hot and others too cool
- Even a small amount of steam escaping can destroy a vinyl design
- The soft foam on the bottom plate great for pressing pants, but it doesn’t allow the force needed to bond vinyl into fabric
- You have no precise control over the temperature of the press or the time it is use.
Buying a heat press
Heat presses used to be an expensive, specialist tool reserved for serious apparel businesses. But in recent years a variety of cheap models have become widely available, in part due to products like the Brother ScanNCut that have opened up heat transfer vinyl to hobbyists.
While you won’t find heat presses in many stores, they are easily available online. I’m recommend starting with eBay. There are lots of different options you’ll need to consider when choosing the right press.
There are three main style of heat presses:
- Clamshell presses have a simple hinged top plate. They are the cheapest and most compact design, but are a little more fiddly to use when placing a shirt over the entire plate
- Roll-out or drawer clamshell presses aim to overcome these difficulties by mounting the bottom plate on rollers, so it can be pulled out 20-30cm. While they are easier to use they also cost more, and the drawer mechanism can make it impossible to slip small shirts over the plate. They also suffer from reliability problems because of the high stress put on the roller bearings.
- Swingaway presses can lift the top plate and swing it completely out of the way. They give much more convenient access to load garments but the trade-off is they are much larger, heavier and more expensive.
My advice: Start with a clamshell for your first press, unless you know you’ll be doing high volumes initially and have the space for a swingaway. Avoid roll-out clamshells, they have too many downsides.
If you’re using a press for many hours each day, you’ll quickly realise just how much upper-body strength is needed. Equally if you limited shoulder movement or strength, you will benefit from a press which does some of the heavy work for you.
- Manual: As the name suggests, you operate the press. Pull down on a handle until it locks, wait for an alarm to go off, then lift the handle to unlock.
- Semi-auto: The press does half the work. Pull down on the handle until a magnet locks it in place. Once the time is up, the magnet will release and the plate lifts by itself. This also means you can be busy doing other things and not have to run to the press when the alarm sounds.
- Full auto/pneumatic: The press does everything for you. These presses connect to an air compressor (an inexpensive but noisy requirement) and use compress air to raise and lower the press at the touch of a button
- My advice: Go straight for a semi-auto press. They don’t cost much more and will save you a lot of physical exertion. Even if you’re lacking in shoulder strength you can easily use your body weight to pull the press closed. Consider a full-auto press if you are using it for more than 3-4hours each day.
This refers to the size of the press’s plates – the maximum area you can heat at once. Vinyl designs are almost impossible to apply in multiple pressings, so this will limit the largest design you can apply. Common sizes are:
- 15” x 15” (38 x 38cm)
- 16” x 20” (40 x 50cm)
- 16” x 24” (40 x 60cm)
My advice: Start with a 15” square press unless you absolutely need a larger size. Even setting aside the cost of a larger press, they are harder to use and less reliable.
The market for heat presses has split into two extremes:
- Cheap “no-name” brands: typically sold online (mainly eBay). They aren’t fancy and suffer serious reliability problems, but will give a good result.
- Recognised brands: major names are Hix, Stahls and Geo Knight. These will usually be 5-7 times more expensive than a “no-name” press. Although they are more reliable and better made, this doesn’t necessarily justify the vastly higher price
My advice: Definitely start with a cheap press bought online. It will help you decide what you really need if you later choose to get a brand name model. Expect a cheap press to not last much longer than its (typical) two year warranty. They are notorious for just failing randomly, and are generally not worth repairing. Also make sure the online seller you choose has a long trading history and good reputation – you may well need to claim on that warranty!
Even with these known problems of cheap presses, a name brand can be hard to justify unless it is getting daily use. Make sure you are certain what style you want before you commit.
Prices vary, but some ballpark samples are listed below from online sellers shipping within Australia:
Even an entry-level heat press is an exciting step for your business or hobby, because it opens up a new world of possible uses. These are outside the scope this article, but search online to learn about:
- Rhinestone templates
- Dye sublimation printing
- Direct-to-garment printing
- Plastisol transfers
- Printable vinyl transfers
Take the step – you’ll be glad you did!