What is a Heat Press and How Does It Work? An Informative Look

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Cover Image: What is a Heat Press and How Does It Work?

Have you ever bought a T-shirt with an awesome print and wondered how that print was so cool-looking and resistant? Does your favorite coffee mug have a sarcastic, witty, or inspirational quote and you wondered how it got there while you sipped on some more of that black magic liquid? Have you ever wondered how jigsaw puzzles, plates, or other products got their design? The answer is most likely the heat press.

What is a Heat Press Used For?

Man Printing On a white T Shirt In Workshop using heat press machine

A heat pressing device is basically a machine that is designed to transfer a certain design onto an object by using the powers of pressure and heat. If you believed that this was possible only for fabrics, know that heat presses actually work on a variety of other different surfaces as well.

A heating press can be either automatic or manual, and while they used to be very expensive, the technology has now become affordable enough that some people even buy these for home use. They can cost between $300 and $3,000, depending on a lot of different factors that influence the quality of the end result. For example, expensive heat presses use a form of digital technology that allows the person who operates it to choose the timing, pressure levels, and heat output.

How Does a Heat Press Work and What Do You Need?

The most common heating presses use a flat platen for heat and pressure application. Those that have a clamshell design have the heating element placed in the upper part of the press, while swing-away presses are heated on the lower side.  The way in which a heating press operated will heavily depend on the type of machine used. They use adhesive materials such as vinyl to secure items, often soft goods like linens and fabrics.

Clamshell Press

Man using heat press machine at table near white brick wall, closeup

This type of machine basically has a clamshell-like opening. The upper side opens up and that’s where the heating element is placed. Once you “lift the hood” you can place the application design on the substrate on the exposed lower side of the machine. You close the top side and you can then proceed to make the required settings. In general, clamshell presses are portable and very easy to operate.

Because of their ease of operation, it is a great heat transfer machine for novice creators. Since there are only a few small steps in setting up the machine, they will also help you have time. The fact that the top side opens up means they also take up less space. This type of machine is generally bought because of its portability as well, meaning it can be taken to events when need be. It allows you to produce more items in a smaller time frame.

However, this type of machine doesn’t work well with thick fabrics. You might also get burned if you don’t pay attention when operating the machine. If the closing mechanism of the upper side is somewhat damaged, then the machine will not apply even pressure, resulting in unwanted results.

The Swing-away Machine

Man printing on a red t shirt in workshop using heat press machine

These heating presses are the most common ones used on a professional level. Compared to the clamshell model, the swinger machine (as it is sometimes called) is suitable for a variety of different vinyl projects and objects, including thicker ones. The way this works is by swinging the upper part of the machine sideways, thus exposing the lower side where you can adjust the design and substrate. These types of machines aren’t suitable for home use because they occupy a lot of space.

They are, however, suitable for those who need a heat press for business reasons, as they provide more accuracy compared to the aforementioned type of press. They also offer an even pressure distribution level plus a full view over the layout area. They are safer to use because you won’t come in contact with the heated element.

However, printing one item takes longer because there are many more settings to attend to. They are complex to work with, which makes them unsuitable for beginners. They also cost more.

The Draw Heat Machine

This is basically a machine that somewhat resulted from a combination between the clamshell and the swing-away press. This works by lifting the upper side of the machine, but the lower side also requires pulling, much like a drawer. The designs and substrate will then be placed on the lower side of the machine.

Young man printing on a white t-shirt at workshop using a Draw Heat Machine

This type of machine is also time-efficient but manages to save space at the same time. You get even heat distribution and portability. These machines are the most expensive ones so far and aren’t suitable for projects that require stationary workspace because of their intricacy.

Important Features for These Machines

There are a few things that really make a difference when you’re considering buying a heating press:

  • Buying a machine with a digital timer is very important. In heat press application, accurate timing is of the essence, so finding a machine with a timer is like having an over with an alarm that goes off when the steak is ready. More advanced heat presses will even open automatically once the digital timer reaches zero.
  • The second most important thing about a heat press is temperature. You want a machine with RTD probes, as these are more accurate in terms of degrees, while bimetallic thermometers have a lower accuracy (they can sometimes be off by as much as 10 degrees). For the best results, make sure there are no more than 2 inches of space between the heating elements.
  • The third most important factor is pressure. If you purchase a heat press that comes with a digital display, it will most likely give you information on the pressure adjustment.


Man Printing Image On a white T-Shirt using a heat press machine

Heat presses aren’t very complicated machines to understand. You just have to figure out some basic features that you may or may not need, and try to answer a series of questions that will determine what type of heat press best suits your cause. Consider your budget, how much free space you have available, the type of fabrics/objects you want to customize, how fast do you want the machine to operate, and what quality of printing you’re aiming for.