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Everything You Need to Know About Selecting a Sublimation Heat Press

By Jimmy Lamb

Sublimation requires a great printer, but producing high-quality images also depends on a reliable heat press.

On the surface, it might look like any heat press will work for sublimation. After all, it’s just a heated surface applying pressure to a substrate, so how complicated can it be? You might be surprised …

Let’s start with the basics of sublimation production:

  • Time
  • Temperature
  • Pressure

Bookmark our guide to time, temperature and pressure for sublimation.

How Hot Should a Heat Press be for Sublimation?

In order for sublimation dye to transfer from the paper to the substrate it has to be heated up to 400F/204C for 60 seconds at 40 psi for most applications. There is very little tolerance with these values, unless specified otherwise.

For example, if the temperature is 390F/198C the colors of the image will probably be lighter than they should be. If the pressure is uneven, the color and image quality will be uneven.
Thus, it’s important to have a well-built heat press with precision controls for maintaining accurate settings during production.

How a Heat Press is Built and Why Quality Matters

Heat presses have two key surfaces called platens. The top one typically has heat strips inside of it, while the lower one does not. (There are a few models that have top and bottom heated platens). You place the substrate on the bottom platen and close the top platen down on top of it at the specified temperature and pressure and for the specified time. It’s important that the heat is equally distributed across the entire surface of the platen.

If some areas are cooler than others (we call those cold spots) then the image will have inconsistent color. This is a big problem and many low-quality models have problems with this. Plus, they tend to let the temperature drift during production which is no good for sublimation. It’s usually fine for other forms of heat transfer products, but not sublimation.

Your Heat Press Should be Larger Than What You’re Printing

It is normal for the outer edges of the heated platen to be a few degrees cooler because that area is interacting with room temperature. That is not a sign of poor heat press quality.

Thus, you want to make sure that when you buy a heat press it is always larger than the largest image you can print. My recommendation is that the dimensions of the press should be at least one inch larger than largest standard media size your printer can print.

For example, the SG1000 has a standard media size of 11x17in/A3, so a heat press that is 12x18in/30x45cm would be fine. But if you added the bypass tray, which could handle a sheet of 13x19 paper, then you would need at least a 14x20in/35x48cm heat press. No one makes a 14x20/35x48cm, but 16x20in/40x48cm is a standard size and would be an ideal choice for the SG1000 with a bypass tray.

How Pressure Affects Sublimation

The next area of concern is pressure. The platens “sandwich” the substrate so as to apply pressure to the transfer paper (and image ink) during production. Their surfaces must be smooth, even and perfectly parallel when closed.

Anything less will cause uneven pressure and will affect the quality of the image. (And it will be visible!)

High quality presses have very heavy-duty platens to ensure consistency in pressure. Lower quality presses tend to have platens made of lightweight metals which can warp over time and lead to pressure problems.

Again, this usually doesn’t affect other transfer processes, but will definitely have a detrimental effect on sublimation quality. In addition to the quality of the platens themselves, how they open and close can also affect sublimation quality, since substrates come in different thicknesses.

What Style of Heat Press Works Best

Flat heat presses come in three basic configurations:

  • Clamshell
  • Swing-away
  • Drawer

The clamshell press works like the jaws of an alligator. The top and bottom platens are hinged together at one end, and when opened they form a 450 angle. When they close they are parallel. They work great for thinner substrates and are the most popular heat presses in use today. But if you have a thicker substrate, like and acrylic or thick plaque, the platens are not going to be parallel when they close and thus the image quality might be affected. How much they’re affected depends on the thickness of the substrate.

The swing-away press has two platens that are always in a parallel state, kind of like the bread in a sandwich. The top platen lifts straight up from the bottom platen and then swings to the side to allow access to the bottom one. When its time to press, the top one swings back into position over the bottom one and then is pressed straight down. It works great with thicker items and maintains equal pressure on all points of the substrate surface.

The drawer press is a lot like the swing-away press. The top and bottom platen are always in a parallel state. However, the bottom platen pulls out towards the front for access. A substrate is placed on the surface, then it is pushed back under the top platen, which is closed down on top of it maintaining qual pressure across the surface.

There are a couple of other things worth mentioning with flat presses. The manual presses are the most common, but some models are also available as pneumatic, which means an air compressor is used to open and close the platens. If you are using a larger printer like the VJ 628, then you will need to consider a large format press in order to take advantage of the larger images that the printer can generate.

What Heat Presses Work for Mugs, Cups or Round Objects?

There are other heat presses besides the flat presses. They include mug presses, cap presses, and ovens designed for volume mug production. They are rather straight-forward in designs, but differences do exist between manufacturers.

Quality counts when it comes to buying your sublimation heat press, and that does mean a higher price tag. But keep in mind that if things don’t work out for you, the higher end units have a higher resale value, and you can recoup most of your investment if it’s in good shape. If you want to produce high quality sublimation day in and day out, then you must invest in a high-quality heat press, otherwise you will be having a lot of inconsistency and frustration, which means lost revenues.

Check out our dealer locator to find a heat press reseller.

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