Many artists are familiar with traditional tools of the trade: oils, pen & ink, or acrylics on paper or canvas. But when you’re thinking of plying your art with less conventional material such as t-shirts, mugs, or hats — either for exploring new means of expression or monetizing your art in a new way — you’re going to need a specific kind of tool; a heat press machine.
I dove deep into the world of heat presses to help clarify where these tools live in the artist’s toolkit and how to select one that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
What is a heat press?
Why should an artist consider one?
Scaling art to maximize profit
Art requires canvas. And often the easiest way to produce art is to use a new canvas for each piece you create. This has obvious limitations; the cost of producing a new work requires the same level of investment, both in time and money.
A heat press allows artists to scale their art by changing the medium; from a canvas to a transfer. This reduces both the time required to create the new piece (pressing a transfer into life takes all of 60 seconds) and the cost, as full-color transfers can be purchased for under $2 each (or significantly less if purchased in bulk quantities).
More art — faster — for less.
Expanding price point
If you’ve ever participated in an art festival, you know that not everyone shows up ready to pay top dollar for an original piece — or even purchase top tier art at all.
Transferring your art to other mediums allows you to expand the kinds of items you make available for sale and create a natural variety of price points. A mug is simply going to cost less than a 24”x36” original, and stratifying your price points helps less investment-minded art patrons take your work home too.
We’ve all produced something we love, uploaded a digital version of it to a custom product site, overpaid for a custom shirt, waited patiently for the shipment, and been disappointed by the final product. It’s terrifying to hand over the quality of a finished product to third parties whose business models are optimized for producing the cheapest thing possible.
A heat press gives you more control over the final product — don’t like the quality of a t-shirt? Find one you love. Unsatisfied with a transfer’s color replication? Try a different brand.
You avoid disappointment and ensure your art is replicated with an appropriate level of quality.
Beyond giving you a more diverse set of products available to those interested in your work — the sheer variety of items you can create with a heat transfer machine means you’ll have a unique array of products. Other sellers often won’t be able to match that spectrum of inventory and price points in live settings such as an art fairs or pop-up boutiques, giving you the edge over your competition.
You can also keep your own inventory, sell, and fulfill from your online shop, social media, and digital marketing campaigns. Being able to produce on demand with no middle agents is incredibly rewarding, requires minimal product investment, and produces the best profit margins, too.
Types of heat press machines
As with every kind of artist’s tool, there are different types of heat presses. The two most popular are called swing-away and clamshell. Both are flatbed machines but have different strengths and use cases.
Swing Away Machines
Swing-away machines are called “swing away” because the upper platen swings on a pivot away from the working area. This gives you more workspace than a clamshell and is excellent for higher-volume, larger transfers, or flat materials other than fabric — such as tile.
They require more space than a clamshell due to the platen’s horizontal movement and are generally more expensive than clamshells.
The upper platen on a clamshell only moves vertically — clamping down on the material from above to deliver heat then reversing back into the upper position. These are fantastic for simple transfers or smaller working areas, as they have a smaller footprint than their larger swing-away kin.
The tighter clearance between the upper and lower plates limits working space, making larger items challenging to work with and burns a little more common.
What to look for in a heat press
In addition to the style of your heat press, you’ll need to consider the kind of release it will offer. These are generally manual and automatic (or timed) releases.
Your selection should be informed by the volume you plan on producing. Manual releases are better for one-at-timing or low-volume pressing; auto releases will be better for higher-volume work or if you’re managing multiple processes at once.
A manual release requires you to physically remove the press from the material. This is the simplest and least expensive route but can also be error-prone — if you’re not paying attention, you can ruin the material with prolonged exposure to the high heat of the platen.
If you’re occasionally tackling heat transfer jobs or just want the most straightforward tool for the job, a manual release will undoubtedly get it done.
An automatic release will pop the press open via a timer. No standing around waiting or counting the appropriate amount of time — these are much more set and forget. They’re also more expensive and are more likely to shift the print upon release due to their automated opening “pop” vs. the smoother operation with a manual release.
If you’re running a busy production shop or plan to be multi-tasking while processing, an automatic release can be more than worth the asking price.
Much like manual and automatic releases, the operating mechanism also has manual and assisted variations known as “standard” and “air-assisted.”
A manually operated press is a bit like a WWII fighter plane — no “fly by wire,” the physical input of the operator operates all springs, hinges, and levers. This kind of operation is simple, effective, and inexpensive, but it can also wear on the user if you’re cranking out more than a few pressings at a time.
The act of operating a manual heat press can be repetitive and requires considerations for things like operator ergonomics & layout, which is why removing the tensions of running a press with an air assist can make a lot of sense. They enable users to operate the press with the push of a button, exert more force than a manual press, prevent the typical wear and tear of repetitive manual movement and are serious workhorses.
They’re also expensive and noisy, so you may or may not want one in your workspace if it’s located within your home.
The purpose of your heat press machine is critical: what will you want to print on? The answer to that question will potentially lead you in two very different directions.
If you want to print on hats — and ONLY hats — you only need a single-purpose hat heat transfer machine. You may consider purchasing a higher-end machine if it’s single purpose, as you’ll avoid paying for attachments you won’t use (or have to keep track of.) You won’t have additional functionality of multi-purpose units, but if you don’t need it, why bother?
9 out of 10 people will buy a single-purpose machine because they only need to print on a single surface (such as t-shirts.)
A multi-purpose machine will give you multiple printing options from a single device. This has the advantage of opening any material or shape to you for your printing needs — but they’re also more expensive and more complicated to use. They’re also overkill for the simple, single-purpose needs of most hobbyists and crafters.
Going back to that question of what you want to print on to help determine the purpose of your heat transfer machine, there’s another follow-up question that will help determine the appropriate size for it: what will you be printing?
Some printers are relatively small, with some smaller than a typical clothing iron These work well for single projects like labels or unusually-shaped items like shoes. They’re not going to handle t-shirts or even multiple projects very well, but they’ll work for the lowest level of need.
Moving up from these hobby-level heat presses, you’ll generally encounter 9”x12” and 15”x15” presses, which are far and away the most popular. They’re large enough to tackle the most common sizes of shirts and hoodies and will offer both clamshell and swing-away formats as well as auto and air-assisted features.
One notch higher gets you into the 16”x20” range, which is about as big as you’d want to consider for home use. Anything larger isn’t really practical for use outside of running a print shop, and commercial-grade presses get into the tens of thousands of dollars. They are also out of scope for this article.
A note on sublimation vs. heat transfer
Many people struggle to understand the difference between the two most popular types of transfers; heat transfer printing and sublimation printing. These are, in fact, different methods of printing but similar enough to be confusing.
Both ways use paper, heat, and pressure to transfer a design to fabric. Still, with sublimation, you’ll only be transferring ink to the canvas vs. heat transfer papers which include a separate layer in the transfer process.
When would you use one vs. the other? That depends on the project, and comparing the nuances of heat transfer paper to sublimation is a little out of scope for this article, but do know that in either case, you’ll need a heat transfer press.
How to use a heat press machine
Heat presses are, in general, straightforward machines. They really only do one thing: transfer heat from one object to another. Of course, the devil is in the details — and some presses are more complicated than others — but most follow these basic steps:
- Power on the machine
- Adjust the press time and temperature for the job
- Place the material on the bottom platform
- Allow the material to warm for 5-10 seconds
- Place the subject fabric on the lower platform
- Place the transfer paper on top
- Lower the handle and start the timer
- When the timer alerts, lift the handle
- For best results, wait 24 hours for the print to set into the fabric before vigorous handling
Small Heat Presses
If one thing is true about heat presses, they tend to be pretty ungainly & utilitarian, making them feel out of place in an artist’s studio. This is where Cricut’s line of heat presses stands out. Their EasyPress line of heat presses is designed with usability in mind.
The buttons are big and clear; it uses a color-coded system to let you know when it’s ready for use. While the EasyPress Mini looks like an iron, it uses an edge-to-edge heating system that ensures much more even heat across the plate than an actual iron.
They also include an insulated base that protects your surfaces and prevents little hands from unintentionally touching the heating element.
Cricut also offers a pretty impressive line of accessories, including a pressing mat that has more give than your counter or work surface — this helps apply heat from both sides of the transfer and seal it much more consistently than a more rigid surface. They also offer a heat-resistant carrying case for, you know, pressing on the go.
Sometimes you just don’t need much to tackle a job, and if you’re occasionally working on heat transfers, the Cricut EasyPress mini is enough to get the job done but small enough to tuck away when not in use.
Also, if you love the Cricut design but need a larger press than the Mini provides, the EasyPress is available in multiple sizes, from the 1.92” x 3.25 Mini up to a 12” x 10” press for tackling full t-shirt transfers.
Another smaller heat press, the HYTIREBY, isn’t as feature-rich as the Cricut, but it offers a larger footprint at 7” x 3.8” while still being small enough to stick in a drawer or cabinet and not looking like something out of an East German factory.
The HYTIREBY is the right size for patches, vinyl tags, or other smaller rectangular transfers. Larger transfers will require transferring in sections which can create issues with consistency.
The button interface is decidedly Spartan, but that simplicity works in its favor — it’s incredibly easy to use. The included instruction booklet provides an easy-to-use table of settings for various DTF transfers. There are even a dozen transfers included in the box to help you practice before going all-in on your own designs.
Another tiny option is the ETROBOT Easy Press, which comes in at just 2.28” × 3.54” and is more of a “pocket press” machine. Roughly the size of an iPhone, its small footprint & pointed tip makes it super versatile — ideal for quick fixes or getting into the corners on oddly shaped projects where a flat press simply won’t work.
Plus, it’s super simple to use — with just three buttons; power, time, and temp, it’s far from intimidating.
The final of our mini press recommendations is the Naturalife Mini, which has a more oval heating element than other mini heat presses, which makes it great for clothes, hats, or masks — essentially any iron-on item that needs high, even heat.
The Natural Life Mini is kind of adorable (insofar as an inanimate object can be), and the included pressing mat is a nice touch. I like the auto shut-off feature, which keeps things safe if you’re using it to tackle craft projects with the kids.
Single Purpose Heat Presses
The TUSY heat press is a more traditionally sized, clamshell heat press at 15” x 15”, so while you won’t be using the TUSY for shoes or hats, it’s the perfect size for any flat fabric transfers you might want to do.
The TUSY has a few ingenious touches, such as the front handle on the lower part of the press. It’s a little thing, but getting leverage from both the top and bottom handles gives you some serious torque and eases both the opening and closing movements.
The pressure adjustment knob is big and well placed on top of the upper handle, so dialing in the pressure exerted by the press is incredibly quick. This ensures you can adjust the pressure to match differing project or material pressure requirements, going from low pressure to medium in a few seconds, for example.
A few potential shortcomings of the TUSY are the top of the upper platen does get very hot, and the lower foam portion isn’t fixed in place, so you may want to velcro or somehow affix it to the bottom if you don’t want to remove it with each transfer.
The recommendations from TUSY are to remove the foam, place the garment on the foam, then put it into the press, but a stationary lower is more accessible for most people to work with.
For a single-purpose press, the PowerPress lives up to its name — it puts out 1,400 Watts of power and has been known to trip circuit breakers if plugged into a circuit with other power draws, so consider a dedicated outlet for this guy.
The time and temp controls are easy to reach on the front of the unit, and setting either requires a simple press and hold on the button to dial them in. The top platen is Teflon coated, which means you can forego protective sheets if you’d prefer. Worth noting — as with other clamshell units, the upper heating element can get very hot, so bear that in mind when thinking about location.
Adjusting the pressure is done with a knob atop the unit, and while the knob placement is not as easy to reach as on the TUSY, it’s straightforward and easy to dial in. One unique safety feature with the PowerPress is its use of a fuse box to protect from overheating, which gives you access to replace the fuse should it be necessary.
What I liked (in addition to the raw power output of the PowerPress): its tubular arm and industrial build; they’re super durable. These are made to last, and I’ve heard accounts of people using these for years without issue, which is fantastic given the price point.
These larger 9” x 12” single-purpose heat press machines often have room for better interfaces, and the Transfer Crafts Heat Press is an excellent example of a heat press that uses its larger size to its advantage.
The big, bright LCD is easy to read and gives you both a precision heat reading, so you hit the required temps for a variety of appliques with no guesswork, and the press time — which you start with the press of a button once the press is locked down onto your fabric.
Once the timer expires, an audible alarm beeps, letting you know it’s time to remove the heat, helping to avoid burning or destroying your work.
Plus its swing-away design gives you a ton of room to work.
Another Cricut product, the Cricut Mug Press, is a clever single-purpose mug press that uses all of the Cricut design aesthetic packaged in a mug-specific heat press. The simplicity they achieve with their mug press is impressive — no big hulking levers, clunky arms, or scorching pads.
The opening mechanism is a user-friendly lever atop the press, which you lift to open the heat plate opening. Place your mug and transfer into the unit, press the lever down to secure the heat plate in place, and you’re off.
The exterior stays cool to the touch (although the mug does get extremely hot and needs 10-15 minutes to cool down), so this is a decidedly kid-friendly (and workspace-friendly) heat press.
Cricut also sells their line of Infusible Ink transfer sheets specifically for these mug presses, from which you can select a variety of designs that are highly regarded — and if you’re anything like my clumsy husband, will long outlast the mug itself.
Heat transfer machines can make for a fantastic craft project, unique gifting idea, or clever way to kick off an at-home business. There are a lot of options out there — and some much higher quality than others — but there’s no shortage of opportunity to explore this enjoyable medium without breaking the bank.
If you’re careful to define what you need before jumping into the heat transfer pool, you’ll have a much easier time navigating these waters — but some presses are inexpensive enough that it can be helpful to just grab one and start. You never know till you try — and before long, you’ll have a collection of presses for every project under the sun.