Heat Presses – Making Sense of all the Options

With multiple heat press manufactures and multiple options from each, you have hundreds of different options/choices to make when choosing a heat press that is right for your business. In this article we will explore 4 of the main characteristic differences that you need to be aware of so you can figure out which press is going to be best for your business. These differences do not necessarily make one type better than the other, but understanding the pros and cons of each will allow you to identify the variables that will make one right for you over another.

  1. Clam Shell or Swing Away (Bonus – Draw Presses too!)
  2. Manual or Auto Release
  3. Standard or Air Operated
  4. Small Format or Wide Format
Exuma Clam Shell Press

Clam Shell or Swing Away – These first 2 options are probably the most common options/choices you see in the industry. They are the most affordable options available and at times to just come down to a matter of personal preference. Similar to a “Mac v Windows” debate where they will both nets you a similar end result, but getting there takes a different path.

The Clam Shell style press is typically the least expensive press option in the industry but do not let the price tag fool you. I have seen clam shell presses in people shops that have been used for 20+ years and are still going strong. These presses typically have the best thread-ability (You can quickly load and unload a T-Shirt) and they also tend to be fairly easy to operate. They do have the smallest foot print of the bunch for the most part as the heat platen lifts up from the base so no additional space is needed to operate the machine outside of where it sits and the space for you to do the work. Other positives are that these units can typically be equipped with an Auto Release mechanism (see the next set of option) and are great for down and dirt T-Shirt decoration, like vinyl lettering/numbering, plastisol transfers and curing direct to garment prints. The drawback to a clam shell style unit is the fact that the heat platen is directly above you and 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.

Insta Swing-A-Way Press

The Swing Away style press is typically slightly more expensive than a Clam Shell style but they also are very well-built presses that can provide a wide range options and years upon years of use. These presses can many times give you the ability to press thicker items, like awards and plaques as well as provide a much easier surface to lay out trickier garments like polos, button down jersey etc. These styles also 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 backs to the swing away style press is the need for a bit larger work space as you must have the space for the heat platen to swing away. You also have to work a bit harder as you have further to reach to get the heat platen back and forth. Now here is the bonus part; there are also presses considered a drawer press available in the industry. The presses have a bottom platen the pull out like a drawer so you can work without the heat above you, but have less work to do since you do not have to swing away the heavy heat platen. Also there are presses that both 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 ever time the timer goes off or do you want the unit to release automatically when the time is up. With that being said there are factors to consider.

The manual release presses are typically $150 to $200 less expensive than the 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. Also with the manual press, typically it is not real difficult to release the heat platen at the timer or any time before. Many times with an auto release if you want to stop it in mid cycle you have to release it another way outside of the handle and this can be difficult or dangerous.

Hix Auto-Release Press

The auto release feature is a great option to have if you have a good deal of production you need to do as it does help improve efficiency since you do not have 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 and opens on its own so you can walk away and not worry about scorching the garment or item you are pressing. One major drawback to the auto-release is that the pressure of the top releasing can be a little more aggressive and abrupt compared to opening the press manually and this can cause the item you are pressing or the transfer to shift. This can at time cause ghosting, especially with sublimation transfers.


Standard or Air Operated – These 2 options can make a big deal in the amount of stress and strain you put on your body while operating the heat press. These 2 options can also put a pretty large amount of stress 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 units and are typical purchases in most personalization/decorating shops. It is important to make sure you think through the ergonomics of using a standard unit though as table height, space around the machine and general comfort of the area are key factors in using the standard presses on a regular basis. If you table is too high or too low the leverage you need to apply the right amount of pressure is much more difficult to achieve. I suggest testing the table height if at all possible for all potential users as a person’s height will affect how easy a press is to use based on its height. Same goes for how much room you have to properly move your body to apply the correct leverage, and you also need to make sure the area you are working in gives you the best possible environment to combat fatigue.

Air Fusion Press

On the flip side of that you have the air operated presses. These presses work with a press of a button and can typically apply much more pressure than you can apply via a standard press. These work very well for people who do a very high volume of heat pressing and for people doing laser transfer paper as the more force you get the better than transfer will be in the laser transfer world. You can set a specific pressure you want, and the machines will adjust to the thickness of the item you are pressing, so changing types of garments or items does not require fiddling with a knob or crank. Also these units are great for anyone who has a disability or injury that keeps them from operating a standard press at a high production rate. The down side to them is they are typically a little cost prohibitive. The can run approximately $2600 for a 15” x 15” unit and up to $5,000 for a 20” x 25” and this price typically does not include the air compressor. Also as noted, it does require 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. What types of items will you be pressing and how big are they.


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 presses that are in the industry today and typically most jobs can be accomplished with a 16 x 20 press when you are considering t-shirt transfers and sublimation hard surface flat items.

Wide Format AIT Press

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. These presses also make the pressing function much more efficient as it allows you to gang up many more items and press them all at one time. Also you will find wide format presses that 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 typically the cost. These units typically start in the $10,000 range and head north fast depending on size and features. These units also typically require a great deal of power and will need to be specially wired into your facility as you cannot just plug them in normally.


Again, as I mentioned there are hundreds of options and features out there when looking at heat presses, but the 4 choices above are what I consider to be the most important factors in choosing a heat press. Also as mentioned heat presses typically last a long time, so make sure you factor that in when looking at your budget for a heat press purchase. Calculate out the ROI over the course of use for 10 or even 20 years, not 1 or 2 like you might with other equipment purchases. Then go out and use the above knowledge to select the perfect heat press for your needs. Happy Heat Pressing!

As seen in the July 2013 issue of A&E Magazine