For Dye Sublimation, What Heat Press Should you Buy?

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By: Steve Spence One of the most common questions from someone just going into the sublimation business is always, “Which heat press should I buy?” And surprisingly, the answer almost always ends up the same.   Most people who enter the sublimation business want to do so on a shoestring, so they look at all the presses on the market and they hear every salesperson’s opinion who promises that theirs is the best for one reason or another and they just end up confused. Truth is, those who are real-life experience in the industry will almost always recommend the same model. But why?   There are two types of presses on the market: Swing-a-way and Clamshell. The argument for a clamshell press is that it is much cheaper and a good press to get started with and that 400 degrees is 400 degrees so what difference does it make?   Well, 400 degrees is 400 degrees but that’s where the similarities end. Clamshell presses were fine when there wasn’t anything to make but shirts and a few metal products but in today’s market, there are thousands of products to offer customers and almost all of them are easier and more profitable than shirts! Why would you want to limit yourself?   For those who don’t know, the mechanical differences between the two presses are obvious. A clamshell press opens like a clam with the heating element rising to 45-90 degrees so a product can be placed on the “stage” of the press. A swing-a-away differs in that the heating element lifts up parallel with the stage and swings completely out of the way. This greatly reduces the danger of burned knuckles but that is the least of the advantages of a swing-a-way over a clamshell. In fact, the swing-a-way is far superior in every way except for weight and price. Clamshells are about half the weight and half the cost and it is the cost that becomes so alluring to first time buyers.   First, let’s talk about cost: Sure a clamshell is half the price, maybe less but is that a good investment? Absolutely not! There are a host of products a clamshell CANNOT make, regardless of what some salespeople might tell you. They are a light duty press made for shirts, not the stuff that makes real money for a sublimation business. Some argue that one should start with a clam and upgrade later – bad idea. Heat presses last for 20 years or more. That means the investment difference between the two presses is about 10 cents per day. If you buy a clam and then upgrade you have just wasted the cost of the clamshell because believe me, once you use a swing-a-way, you will never use the clamshell again.   I have two swing-a-ways, the same ones Conde sells. One is a 16x20” George Knight KD20S and the other is a Geo Knight DK-14 Combo press, I use for making hats, plates and as a back-up press should by DK20 ever bite the dust (so far, the only time it was down was when a fuse blew and it took a couple of days to get a replacement. I have used my press at least weekly for almost 10 years now and it is just like a new one.)   The biggest advantage of a swing-a-way is the fact you can imprint products up to about 1” thickness. Clamshell presses can print very thin materials up to UNISUB Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic (FRP) which is 3/32” thick if you are careful but they’re not made to do plaques, tiles and a host of other products because they can’t close down on a thick product in such a way that the heating platen is perfectly flat against the surface of the product. This will result in an image that looks good on one end but fades to nothing on the other. Even if you are just making shirts, you can do a much better job if you use a sublimation pillow – something you can only do with a swing-a-way press.   What all this boils down to is that a clamshell for a sublimation shop that is going to make anything but shirts is a bad choice and false economy. In the end the shop will end up with two presses and one will probably become little more than a doorstop.   The key to opening a business on a shoestring isn’t buying the cheapest equipment possible, it is buying the right equipment the first time out – especially when that equipment is going to serve for 20 years or more.   In later blogs, I will discuss how to test and adjust the temperature of your press, what you should remember about heat press warranties, how to care for your heat press, and accessories.