How To Use a Heat Press Machine For Shirts

If you take a look around, you'll notice that just about everyone is wearing different clothes than the other people around them. Sometimes it can seem like there's an infinite number of shirts out there. Well, that's because there basically is.

Whether it's different materials or different designs, the amount of creativity in modern clothing is unmatched.

With a bit of creativity and the right equipment, you can jump on the bandwaggon too! A heat press machine is a great way to make your own T-shirts for personal or commercial uses.

In this article, we're going to break down the basics of how to use these machines and answer some common questions surrounding them. Let's get started!

What Is a Heat Press?

As its name suggests, a heat press is a heated press. These can be used for a variety of uses, but the most popular use, by far, is to use them to make custom shirt designs.

There are a handful of the best heat press machines on the market, and most of them have a similar design. Where you get a bit of variation is when you compare personal machines and commercial-grade ones.

Personal heat press machines are generally about the size of a large sheet of paper. The press itself has two large plates that are used to sandwich your shirt during the printing process. The plates are heated to transfer a design from transfer paper onto a shirt.

How To Choose a Heat Press

If you don't have a heat press machine yet and are just looking for info, it's a good idea to first start with deciding what type of heat press machine you want, what your budget is, and how you intend on using it.

If you want a heat press machine for personal use to make a few shirts for you and your friends, a low cost, small heat press machine should suffice.

Even if your goal is to sell the shirts, you can still start with a smaller machine. As long as you're not fulfilling ordering in bulk, a small machine can work for selling the shirts in the beginning stage of your business. 

How To Use Your Heat Press

Now that you know how a heat press works, and the basics around what to look for when you're purchasing one, let's talk about how you use a heat press machine. 

Step 1: Choose A Material

If you're printing on a shirt, you need to start by choosing the shirt material. Unfortunately, you can't use just any fabric in a heat press machine. Some types of fabrics, like thin materials and synthetics, are sensitive to heat and won't work in a heat press.

Instead, look for a shirt made of more robust materials, such as cotton, nylon, or polyester. For the most part, these materials hold up well to heat, but you should still always check the tag before starting.

It's also a good idea to pre-wash your shirt before you start pressing, especially if the shirt is brand new. Wrinkles could appear after the first wash, which would affect the design later on. By washing the shirt before you press the design into it, you lessen the chance of your design getting messed up when new wrinkles appear.

Step 2: Choosing The Design

The design you put on your shirt is where you're able to let creativity shine. This is what most people consider to be the fun part. While you can always choose pre-made designs, the best part about making your own shirt is knowing that nobody else has anything like it.

When you're making a design, you can use the same programs you'd use for normal graphic design projects, like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw.

If you're a decent graphic designer, this is all you're going to need. If you're not, you can always sketch out a basic concept and hire a designer to make the final look. You want a shirt that looks professional, so take time when creating a design.

Step 3: Printing The Design

Printing the design is one of the steps you need to take your time with. If you do it wrong, you could mess up the design and waste supplies.

The first thing you're going to need when you use a heat press to make a shirt is transfer paper. Transfer paper can be printed on like any other paper, but unlike other paper, the ink you use isn't permanently on the transfer paper. Instead, the transfer paper acts as a middleman between your printer and the heat press. 

There are a few different types of ink you can use on transfer paper. The kind you use depends on the type of printer you have and the color of the materials you intend to use. Here's some info on the most common ones:

  • Inkjet - By far, the most common, and one of the best options overall, is to use a normal inkjet printer. Make sure you get the proper transfer paper to use in an inkjet printer, and you're good to go. One thing to note, however, is that inkjet printers don't print white. Instead, they leave the area blank where the white would be. If your design has white elements, you either need to choose a white shirt or tweak your design, so the white areas are off-white instead. 
  • Laser Printer - As with inkjet, you need to make sure you have the right paper for a laser printer. Most of the time, laser printers are considered to be of lesser quality, but sometimes you have to work with what you have.
  • Sublimation - By far the most expensive option, sublimation printers use special ink. The ink from a sublimation printer turns to a gas that penetrates the fabric, dying it permanently. If you're planning on using a sublimation printer, note that they can only be used on certain materials, like polyester. 
  • Pre-Made Transfers - If you don't want to print your own design, you can always buy ready-made designs that just need to be pressed in order to transfer to your shirt. 

When you're printing the initial design, make sure its a mirrored version. The image will be mirrored again when it's printed on your shirt. If you don't initially print a mirrored design, once it's transferred to your shirt, the design will be backward. 

Step 4: Preparing The Press

Now that you have your machine ready, and your design prepped, it's time to start printing! Regardless of what heat press machine you choose, always make sure you read the instructions that are specific to the machine you have. 

This article is meant to be a general guide, but the specifics of each machine vary. 

The first thing you need to do when starting to press is to heat the machine up. Most heat press machines operate at around 350 - 375 degrees. Most machines will have a light that goes on when it's heating, which will shut off once the machines at the right temperature.

Make sure you read the packaging on your transfer paper when choosing the specific temperature. 

Once the machine is heated up, you need to set the pressure of the machine. As a general rule of thumb, the thicker the materials you're printing on, the higher pressure that's needed. 

Step 5: Adding The Shirt

It's absolutely critical that the shirt is completely flat and straight on the press. It's also a good idea to stretch the fabric a bit, so the design will contract after its printed, which will prevent cracking over time. 

Align the tag of the shirt on the back of the machine to help make sure the design will be straight. 

Step 6: Transferring The Design

Once the machine is heated up and you've got the shirt placed, all that's left to do is let the machine work. To transfer the design, pull down the handle, and it should lock in place. Set a timer for the appropriate amount of time for the materials you're using, generally between 10-60 seconds. 

Once the timer goes off, open the press and remove the shirt. Peel off the transfer paper, and if everything went well, you should have a custom shirt of your very own!

Step 7: Aftercare

After pressing the shirt, you should let it rest for about a day. This gives time for the ink to fully set in. 

When you wash the shirt, turn it inside out and opt for air-drying instead of tumble drying when you wash it. 

Closing Thoughts

Using a heat press machine isn't hard, but without the right instructions, you can mess up your design, your shirt, and your heat press. 

Remember, always reference the instructions that are specific to the machine you have, and take your time to get the best results!

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