Heat Presses – Making Sense of all the Available Options

blog_heatpressesThere are multiple heat press manufacturers and several options from each, resulting in lots of different choices when selecting a heat press that is right for your business. In this article we will explore the four main characteristic differences that you need to be knowledgeable about to determine which heat presses might be right for your needs.

  • Clam Shell or Swing Away (Bonus – Draw Presses too!)
  • Manual or Auto Release
  • Standard or Air Operated
  • Small Format or Wide Format


Clam Shell or Swing Away
– These first two options are probably the most common types of a heat press in the industry. They are the most affordable options available and sometimes just a matter of personal preference. Similar to a “Mac vs. Windows” debate where they will both net you a similar end result, but getting there takes a different path.

Clam Shell Press

The Clam Shell style press is typically the least expensive option in the industry but do not let the price tag fool you. These heat presses typically have the best thread-ability (ability to quickly load and unload a T-Shirt) and tend to be fairly easy to operate.  For the most part, they have the smallest foot print of the bunch as the heat platen lifts up from the base so no additional space is needed to operate the machine outside of where it sits. These units can typically be equipped with an Auto Release mechanism (see the next set of characteristics below) and are great for t-shirt decoration, like vinyl lettering/numbering, plastisol transfers and curing direct to garment prints. The drawback to a clam shell style unit is that the heat platen is directly above your work area, so if you are not careful you could burn the back of your hands, especially as you are working towards the back of the machine where the heat platen is closest to the base. Also due to the heat being directly overhead it can be difficult to layout projects like transfer paper because the transfer paper has a tendency to curl from the heat above it.

Swing Away Press

The Swing Away style press is typically slightly more expensive than a Clam Shell style.  They are very well built heat presses that can be selected with a wide range of options and provide years of use. These heat presses can give you the ability to press thicker items, like awards and plaques. Also, they provide an easier surface to lay out trickier garments like polos, button down jersey etc. These styles move the heat platen out away from the base (hence the name Swing Away) which provides a much safer environment for laying out your heat pressing project. This style press works well for heat transfer paper, multi-layer vinyl projects, Rhinestone transfers and mixed media projects. The draw back to the swing away style press is the need for a bit larger workspace to allow for the heat platen to swing away. Also, it requires a little more physical work for the operator as you have further to reach to get the heat platen back and forth.

Bonus, there are also presses considered a drawer press available in the industry. The presses have a bottom platen that pulls out like a drawer so you can work without the heat above you.  In addition, there is less physical work since you do not have to swing away the heavy heat platen. Further, there are presses that swing and draw pull, so you can have both together.
Manual or Auto Release
– These options are just as simple as they sound. Do you want to manually lift up the heat platen every time the timer goes off or do you want the unit to release automatically when the time is up? Below are the factors to consider.

The manual release presses are typically $150 to $200 less expensive than their auto-release counter parts. Also, the auto release feature (outside of the air operated which we will cover next) is only available on clam shell style presses. Therefore, if you want a swing away style press you will need to go the manual route. The manual press, typically, is not difficult to release the heat platen at any time; however, to stop an auto release in mid cycle you have to release it via a switch type release. This can be difficult or dangerous.

Auto Release

The auto release feature is a great option for larger production as it increases the rate of work since you do not need to wait by the press to open it. Also, this feature is great for smaller shops where the owner or employees wear many hats and can sometimes be pulled away from their heat press duties unexpectedly. When the timer goes off the press releases so you can be away from the press without worry the garment or item will be scorched. One major drawback to the auto-release is the pressure of the top releasing part is not as smooth as opening the press manually, which can cause the item you are pressing or the transfer to shift resulting in ghosting, especially with sublimation transfers.

Standard or Air Operated – These two options can make a big difference in the amount of physical strength needed while operating a heat press. These features can also put a large amount of strain on your wallet too, so choose wisely.

A standard heat press works with leverage, springs and shock absorbers. The up and down movement of a clam shell, the downward pressure of a swing away and drawer, as well as the side to side movement of the swing away are all “powered” by the human body, but aided by springs, levers and shock absorbers. The units are the most cost effective and are typical selections in most personalization/decorating shops. It is important to consider the ergonomics of using a standard heat press. The table height, space around the machine and general comfort of the workspace are key factors in ensuring the operators ability to use a standard press on a regular basis.  Noting incorrect table height for an operator can impact the leverage needed to apply the correct amount of pressure.

Air Operated

Then there are air operated presses. These presses work with a press of a button and can typically apply much more pressure than you can with a standard heat press.  They work well for people who do a high volume of heat pressing, as well as those doing laser transfer paper as the more force you get the better the transfer will be. You can set specific pressures, and the machines will adjust to the thickness of the item you are pressing. This eliminates fiddling with a knob or crank when changing types of garments or items. Also, these units are great for anyone who has a physical limitation that keeps them from operating a standard press at a high production rate. The down side to the air operated press is they are typically a little cost prohibitive. The can run approximately $2,600 for a 15” x 15” unit and up to $5,000 for a 20” x 25”, which usually does not include the air compressor.  It should be noted, this type requires an air compressor to operate, and those units can be very loud and obtrusive if you do not invest in a higher end air compressor.

Small Format or Wide Format – Another set of options is one of just pure size requirements. The size and types of items you will be pressing.

A small format press is typically considered units ranging from a very small 6” x 6” press or the 9” x 12” hobby style presses on up to the 16” x 20” presses. This category can also include some of the larger units like a 20” x 25” press. These are the bulk of the heat presses that are in the industry today and most jobs can be accomplished with a 16 x 20 press.

Wide Format

A wide format press typically starts out at the 30” x 40” size and goes up into the super large size like a 60” x 120” when talking about platen models. These large format presses are for all over style garment pressing, flags, banners, floor mats and more. The pressing function on these units can be more efficient as it allows you to press several items at one time. Also, wide format presses can have heat platens on the top and bottom, so you can press all over garments front and back at the same time. Almost the entire wide format press category are air operated and if not, I suggest being ready for a daily workout of epic proportion! The drawback to these units is the cost. They can start around $10,000 and increase in price quickly depending on size and features. These units require a great deal of power and will most likely need to be specially wired into your facility as you cannot just plug them in normally.

Again, there are a number of options and features to consider when selecting a heat press. The four main characteristic differences noted above are what I consider to be the most important factors in choosing a heat press. Heat presses typically last a long time, so make sure you factor that in when looking at your budget for a heat press purchase. Happy Heat Pressing!

Author: Aaron Montgomery

I have been in the garment decorating industry since 1999, and have worked with many small businesses to help them make money and improve their marketing and sales. I love helping small businesses as I have been involved with or had my own small business since I was a teenager. In my free time, I enjoy volleyball, bowling and spending time with my sons. I have lived in St. Louis since 2010 by way of Boston, Colorado Springs and most major cities in Arizona. Aaron also delivers a bi-weekly Podcast called "2 Regular Guys" with industry friend Terry Combs. You can catch it at 2 Regular Guys.

4 thoughts on “Heat Presses – Making Sense of all the Available Options”

  1. I’m not happy with this comparison. We received our swing away heat press the other day and it barely opens up, even with the pressure cranked as loose as possible. I would have thought that would have been mentioned as a CON, opposed to saying that thicker items could be pressed by getting that model. We can barely fit a trick or treat bag on the press!! Very disappointed.

  2. Thank you for your blog. I am finding that a lot of the heat presses are labeled as “sublimation heat transfer” I am not using sublimation and need to know if the heat presses with that label are only for sublimation transfers or for heat transfer vinyl as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *