Starting a T-Shirt Business: How to Choose a Heat Press

When you are first starting your own t-shirt business and have decided to use a heat press and custom heat applied transfers to print your shirts, the next step is to decide which is the best heat press to get for your business.

There are a lot of heat presses out on the market. Like shopping for most products, there is a wide range of prices, quality, and features. The same holds true for heat presses. And like most products, “you get what you pay for”.

The take-away?

If you are starting a t-shirt business, a heat press is going to be your primary piece of equipment, if not your only piece of equipment.

Since it is all you need, you want to make sure you get a heat press that you can depend and rely on. Not all t-shirt presses are created equally – literally.

Cheaper presses are cheaper for a reason. They are made using inferior components and also using shortcuts.

This will have a direct impact on the ability to apply transfers correctly and consistently. This single piece of equipment can almost cause you to succeed or fail in your t-shirt business.

Since it is so critical to get this right, we put together this guide on how to choose a heat press that is right for your business, whether it is a small business or not.

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The Ultimate Guide for Choosing a Heat Press

There is a quality press for every budget and level of business.

Even if you are a beginner, you want to get a quality heat press right off the bat for several reasons. First of all, if you are learning to heat print, your press can help you or work against you.

As a beginner, if you are having application issues, it will be much more difficult for you to trouble shoot the problem with a bad press.

Secondly, one bad order for a customer will be hard to fix. You don’t want your reputation as a new business to get off on the wrong foot.

The amount it will cost you to fix that bad order could be the difference of price of the better heat press if you just bought the good press to begin with.

If you put yourself in this situation, you still have a poor quality press, and are working even harder to regain your reputation.

1 step forward, and 3 back.

We want to help you avoid this scenario and give you the best chance to succeed in your t-shirt business.

[Related Content: Why You Need to Spend More Than $300 for a Heat Press]

T-Shirt Business Growth

Even if you are starting out as a hobbyist and plan to work with heat transfer vinyl or iron on transfers, you want to think ahead and plan for the future. If there is any possibility that you will grow your business and want to use custom screen printed transfers, you need to have a reliable heat press for that. Screen printed transfers apply at a much higher rate of precision from the heat press.

It doesn’t take long to “grow” into screen printed transfers. If you are doing an order of 5 to 10 shirts or more, it will be beneficial for you to move over to screen printed transfers.

Make sure you are planning for this. You don’t want to buy a less expensive heat press, just to figure out a few short weeks later that you do in fact want to upgrade to a nicer heat press.


Budget for Heat Press

When you decide how much money you would like to spend on a heat press, there are many factors to consider.

Each heat press will have various levels of bells and whistles. Some are important, while others are luxuries and make it easier to apply transfers.

When considering what you need, you will need to think about things like the volume of work you will be doing, the size of space you have, and whether or not you will be taking your heat press with you to on-site locations.

Don’t forget that even if you don’t have the money immediately up front for a particular model, there are financing options available.

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Volume of Business

Try to estimate the volume of throughput. If you are just starting your t-shirt business, have you started talking with prospective customers already to get a feel for your volume?

If you foresee yourself putting in the time and effort to grow your business, you will need a heat press that can handle the higher volume of heat applications.

This is two-fold:

  1. Higher volume in a short period of time – meaning your heat press can withstand heat applying a lot of shirts or other apparel in a certain time period that you are pressing. A good heat press and platen will stay at or near the prescribed temperature for many presses in a row without losing temperature throughout.

A poor heat press will drop in temperature after several applications. At this point, you will have poor quality adhesion, and will have to periodically stop and wait for the heat press to get back up to temperature.

  1. Higher volume over time – meaning your heat press can withstand heat applying a lot of shirts over the course of its’ lifetime. The more applications that a heat press was made for, the longer it will last you and not break down so quickly.

If you plan on being in business for the long haul, make sure your heat press can get you there.


Physical Ability of Heat Press Operator

There are two types of heat presses, manual or automatic. A manual heat press will use some sort of lever handle to pull up and down to operate the heat press.

An automatic press uses an air compressor to power the heat press with simply hitting some buttons.

Hotronix Air Fusion heat press

The Hotronix Air Fusion is an automatic heat press run by an air compressor.

Here are some things to consider when choosing between a manual or automatic heat press:

What is the physical ability of your heat press operator? As we mentioned above, think about volume here.

The amount of movement and energy it takes to press high volume amounts can lead to operator fatigue with a manual press. This can cause slower productivity and also just tiredness in general.

What is the number of items you will be heat applying? If you plan on heat applying hundreds or thousands of items a day, or heat pressing several hours a day, you may want to consider an automatic heat press.

Think about your health situation as well. An automatic press allowed one of our customers to continue her t-shirt business after having cancer and surgery, when otherwise was not able to physically use the manual heat press anymore.

On the other hand, if you plan on a much less intense volume of heat pressing each day, a manual press will be work out great for you.

In most cases, a manual press is completely fine for most t-shirt businesses just starting out. Most small businesses choose a manual press, as it works great for a moderate amount of applications that a business of this size will take on in any given day.


Heat Press Style

Besides a manual or automatic heat press, there are a few other types of presses. There are clam styles, draw styles, and swing-away styles.

The type of heat press to choose here depends on space, mobility, and of course, preference.

When you are in the hunt for a heat press, how much space is available where you will be working? If you are limited on a work space, this may guide your choice in choosing a press.

A clam style press takes up the least amount of space. It opens like… you guessed it, a clam! Because of this minimal movement, it has the smallest footprint. All you need is about a 3 foot work space.

clam style heat press

The Hotronix Auto Clam opens automatically.

This type of press tends to be smaller and lighter as well. If you plan on taking your t-shirt printing on the road to shows and events, a clam style heat press makes a great choice since it is less weight to move around.

For this reason, some t-shirt businesses invest in this style of press as a second heat press for their business, just to take it on the road. It is a great mobile option.

A draw press and swing-away heat press, both take up a little more space than the clam because of the way they operate. Yet, many choose this option for a heat press because they do have their advantages, as well.

On a draw heat press, the bottom platen will pull out like a drawer. The top platen stays in place. With the bottom platen pulling out, it gives more space for the operator to align the apparel and transfers on the platen before application without the worry or nuisance of the upper platen in their way.

Hotronix Fusion

The Hotronix Fusion is both a draw and swing-away heat press.

The draw-back (no pun intended), is that this takes up a little bit more space in front of the press when the platen pulls out.

The third style of heat press is a swing-away. This popular style allows the upper platen to swing-away to the side instead of the lower platen pulling out. This still allows the operator to work in a clear space without having the heated platen in the way.

Hotronix Fusion heat press

The Hotronix Fusion upper platen will swing to the side out of the way.

In this case, you will need some extra space for the upper platen to swing to the side – about 18-24 inches more for a safe amount of space.

The draw and swing-away presses weigh more than a clam style due to the extra materials it takes to build this style. Because of the extra materials, it also costs more for draw and swing-away presses.

Besides space and mobility, it also comes down to preference on how you want to work. Some people like a clear space on their lower platen when aligning apparel and the heat applied transfers. Others don’t mind reaching “inside” the press with the clam style.

Auto Clam heat press


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Heat Press Size

There are different sizes of heat presses available. This will determine the size of your “canvas” that you can heat apply and work with at once.

There are smaller heat presses in the 11” x 15” range, intermediate sizes with ranges in the 15” x 15” and 16” x 16”, and then larger presses at 16” x 20” or larger.

The size of your heat press will limit what you are able to print to some degree. With a larger heat press, you can print larger size designs, of course.

Another important consideration is that with a larger heat press, you will have more options of extra platens that will fit on your press.


Heat Press Accessories

Interchangeable heat press platens are a big advantage for printing various types of jobs that don’t quite fit on the default platen that come with the press. This can make your life much easier to match a platen that fits with the job at hand.

extra platens for heat printing

Don’t underestimate this benefit. You’ll be thankful later.

Another thing to consider is how many other accessories are available for your press. Adding accessories later may be something you want to help make pressing easier.

For example, are there stands that you can add your press to, to higher and lower the level of your press for comfort and ease of use for each operator.

These stands can also help make your heat press “threadable” if it isn’t already. This means that you can thread or dress a garment onto the platen so that you can apply to one layer of the apparel at a time.

Heat Press Caddie Stand

This feature allows you to avoid seams and other obstructions, which also help in a successful application.

[Related Content: Heat Printing Tips to Avoid Seams]

Time, Temperature, and Pressure

As we mentioned before, the 3 key ingredients of a good heat application are time, temperature, and pressure. It is very important that your heat press is accurate with these and also consistent.

Some heat presses have digital readouts of these items, so you know exactly what your press is operating at. There is no guessing involved.

Heat presses with different price points will vary when it comes to these key features. Make sure your heat press has even pressure throughout the entire platen. Uneven pressure will give you immediate application issues.

Hotronix heat presses ensure even pressure with the pressure being distributed from the top middle of the platen.

While you may be able to get away with a cheaper heat press for crafting products, you will be pulling your hair out in frustration if you want to use custom screen printed transfers.

The three components of a successful application – time, temperature, and pressure – are not as critical for products like iron-on transfers, which have a little more fluctuation and give when applying.

However, for screen printed transfers, these 3 ingredients are crucial. These types of transfers are meant for long-term use and are prepared for much more wear and tear.


Service and Support

The last thing to consider is the support and warranty that you will be getting with the heat press you buy. This is an unseen part of the press you are getting and many times, unfortunately, it is overlooked.

Cheaper presses come with no warranty and no service once the press arrives. When your heat press is not working properly, you are on your own to fix it.

Conversely, with Hotronix® heat presses, you are never on your own. The Blue Ribbon Support gives you access for help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If your heat press is giving you trouble, you are one call away from help.

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