What is a heat press machine? Basic Guide


A heat press machine as the name indicates is basically used for passing on designs and imprints on various surfaces and materials using heat and pressure. Heat press machines find across-the-board applications in businesses and companies involved in processing large-scale garment-printing orders. Heat presses can also be used for transferring impressions, graphics, illustrations, and icons on ceramic, wooden, metallic, and wooden surfaces.  

You’ll come across four distinct types of heat press machines-clamshell, swing-away, draw–out, and vacuum-style presses. Heat press machines make for both automatic and manual operation, though it is the digital presses that are more popular. A digitally operated heat press comes in perfectly handy for performing heat transfer jobs exploiting different techniques on various fabrics and surfaces.

Heat presses tend to be immensely versatile as you can use the machine for completing personalized printing projects and also handle large-scale commercial assignments.  

Heat Press Machine: What is it?

Heat presses are complex and sophisticated machines especially designed for transferring graphic imprints and impressions on different substrates, using pressure and heat for a specific duration. The substrate on which the heat transfer printing technique is applied is more often than not a fabric like cotton. However, you can also use a heat press for transferring images, illustrations, graphics, and icons on caps, mugs, and plates, and numerous other substrates.

The earliest heat press versions operated manually evolved into digital ones, thanks to technological advancements made in printing technology. Electronic or digital heat presses enable you to adjust the heat, pressure, and timing in accordance with the heat transfer material. The digital heat press machines also have other practical features that facilitate perfect heat transfer of your designs onto substrates.

Nowadays you’ll also come across fully-automatic and semi-automatic heat presses that offer a greater level of flexibility in heat transfer. The fully-automatic or automatic models open up automatically as well as close on its own once the transfer is complete. On the other hand, semi-automatic models feature an electromagnetic opening system but you need to close them manually.     

How Does a Heat Press Machine Function?

At the heart of a heat press machine is a flat heat platen that passes on the imprints onto different surfaces, using heat and pressure. The platen comprises the upper part of the heating component and is usually constructed from aluminum. Embedded within the upper heat platen is a heating element, most commonly a coil or a heat rod.

Heavy-duty heat presses extensively used for imprinting in high volumes and on a continual basis, typically come with dual platens. The heat press has a lower plate or platen where you place the substrate on which the heat transfer process is applied. Once the timer sounds the alarm, you lower the upper platen onto the bottom plate which thereafter transfers the impressions applying the prescribed pressure and heat.      

Heat Press Machine Types

You’ll have four distinct styles of heat press machines to choose from for completing different heat transfer projects and assignments. They are     clamshell, draw out, vacuum, and swing-away heat press machines. We explore each type in brief in the following sections:-

Swing-away heat presses

A swing-style heat press machine, as the name clearly expresses, features a swivel arm or lever for shifting the platen. You can also use the swiveling handle for adjusting the lower plate in order to effectively position the substrate onto it.

Clamshell-style heat presses

A clamshell heat press is designed innovatively and painstakingly to open up just like an oyster or a shellfish. To be precise, both the upper and lower platens open in the same way as the shell of a clam. Clamshell heat press machines are ideal for imprinting on mugs, artworks, ceramic plates, jigsaw puzzles, and containers but not on mouse pads or thick apparels.

Draw-style heat presses

A draw-type heat press is designed in a manner that enables you to draw or pull out the lower platen away from the upper plate. When you’re through with your heat transfer jobs, you push back the bottom platen to its original position.


A vacuum heat press makes the most of air pressure to actuate the heat transfer process for transferring impressions on substrates.

Making the Most of a Heat Press Machine

All heat press machines, regardless of whether it is manual or automatic, clamshell or swing-away type, employ the same technique for heat transfer. The following are the integrated steps that make up the heat transfer process:-

Presetting the temperature, pressure and time

At the outset, you preset the temperature, pressure, and the duration of the heat transfer process based on the substrate. The length of time for which you need to apply the stipulated heat as well as the pressure you exert on the platen varies from one substrate to another. The majority of heat press machines have built-in digital controls for presetting temperature, time, and pressure.

As a printer, you should be aware of the specific temperature and pressure you’d have to set for different fabrics and materials. At the same time, you must also know the exact duration for which the heat transfer mechanism will last for a particular substrate.    

Laying the substrate on the lower platen

In the next step, you’ll have to position the fabric on the lower platen with the front surface facing up. Ensure that the surface is perfectly smooth and flat without any pleats or folds.


If your substrate is a fabric, then you’ll first need to preheat the material for doing away with moisture or folds. If you try to transfer the image or logo onto a creased and moist fabric, the end result will not be to your liking.

Placing the carrier sheet or heat transfer vinyl (HTV)

In this step, you’ll need to carefully place the sublimation paper or heat transfer vinyl atop the substrate for transferring the design with perfection.

Pressing down the heat platen on the bottom plate

Be very careful in lowering the heat platen over the lower plate so that the former presses down hard enough to emboss the design onto the substrate. A digital machine comes with a timer that’ll go off when the preset time for the heat transfer is complete.

Removing the sublimation paper or HTV

If you’re using a HTV or sublimation paper for passing on icons and logos, ensure to remove the same while it’s hot. You’ll struggle to peel away the sublimation paper or carrier sheet from the fabric surface, once it cools down. 

What Are the Different Printing Techniques That a Heat Press Can Perform?

Inkjet transfer

As per this printing technique, you first print a copy of your design with an inkjet printer on a dual-layered carrier sheet. Thereafter, you place the carrier paper atop the fabric after which the heat press transfers the imprint onto the latter.

Laser transfer

This printing process is similar to the above method where you use a laser printer instead of an inkjet model for turning out the design on a special laser transfer paper. 

Plastisol transfer

Many printers take advantage of the Plastisol heat transfer method for embossing designs on t-shirts owing to the high quality of the imprints. Impressions transferred via this printing process have an extremely soft texture and a rich feel to them. A specialized ink, Plastisol basically contains plastic pigments that are passed onto a special sheet, filling up the design.

Finally, the Plastisol-based impression is passed on to different materials and surfaces.  

Sublimation prints

When it comes to sublimation printing, you transfer the impression onto a sublimation or carrier paper with a special ink. The heat transfer technique makes the substrate (the cloth or fabric) adsorb the ink following its dispersal from the sublimation paper.

HTV prints

According to this procedure, the imprints are first passed onto on vinyl films or sheets. The heat press machine then transfers the images from the HTV to the fabric following which you remove the film.  

Can You Afford a Heat Press?   

Heat press machines are available in different styles and sizes and at prices ranging from $300 to over $2,500. If you’re looking for an entry-level machine for printing garments in small volumes then you’ll find many affordable heat presses. Alternatively, if you’re a professional printer who has to process orders in large volumes, then you’ll require a specialized machine that comes at a price.  


A heat press could go a long way in helping you to develop your printing business provided you know how to make the most of it. Hence you should know everything about a heat press that there is to know as well as about the various printing substrates, inks, carrier sheets, and so on. It doesn’t bear emphasis that you’ll be able to use a heat press to the hilt if you’re aware of the ins and outs of the machine.