How to Decorate Difficult Substrates with Heat-Applied Graphics

If there's anything worse than turning down a job — and potential profits— it's turning down a job when you know you could've done it if only you had the right tools. Fortunately, saying no to difficult substrates is something that you can avoid less and less, if not altogether, thanks to ground-breaking new products and heat-seal equipment.

Improving Technology
Heat-applied graphics and heat-seal presses have come a long way since their humble beginnings. Technology has dramatically improved the quality and durability of transfers to the point where they're equal to, if not better than, screen printing.

Print-and-cut technology also has benefited from technology improvements, including the ability to print a full-colour design on white media and cut it so it's ready for application. What does that mean for you? It means there's no waiting for a custom order from a contractor or having to invest in screen printing equipment. Further, new materials developed specifically for print-and-cut technology give you more decorating options, including the ability to decorate water-proof nylon, 100% polyester, and super-stretchy materials such as Lycra® Spandex.

The Right Tools
Your first step in eliminating the headaches once associated with difficult-to-decorate items is to find the right equipment, starting with your heat press. While clamshells and draw-style heat presses have their benefits, a swing-away press is ideally suited for challenging items because it keeps heat away from the workspace, making layout extremely easy, and it locks down from over the centre onto thick items, giving a better seal.

What's more important than this design consideration, though, is finding a swing-away press with an open throat design, which allows for clearance underneath the bottom platen; the base of the press is affixed toward the back, not in the centre. Why does this matter? Let's say you're decorating a golf bag. You'll want all that extra space underneath to let the bag hang off. Finally, for the most hassle-free decorating experience with the most space underneath, look for a press with a stand (as opposed to a tabletop configuration), sized at least 40 x 50 cms.

When choosing a swing-away press, look for a fully digital unit, which will give you digital time, temperature and pressure measurements, giving you more precise information while decorating. For instance, every time you set the knob to a particular PSI (pounds per square inch) setting on a digital unit, you're assured of getting the same pressure as the previous time.

If you don't have a swing-away press, that doesn't mean it's impossible to tackle difficult-to-decorate items; it just means the job will be tougher than it needs to be. If you try to tackle the items anyway, set up your press so you have as much clearance as possible underneath.

Another critical feature for difficult-to-decorate items is interchangeable platens. For example, a 15 x 25cm platen works well for baby shirts, youth garments, small jerseys and bags. Other standard platen sizes include 20 x 25cm and round 18cm, which works well with roll bags that have circles at either end, or umbrellas.

Custom platens also are available from suppliers for around £125 and a two- to four-week turnaround; they can even make a single custom platen to accommodate two items. Decorators may want custom platens for fold-up chairs, leather portfolios, luggage, lunch cooler bags, and other challenging items.

Most suppliers will request that you send in the item or items that you want to heat press and they will custom manufacture a platen to do the job. In addition to the item, they also need to know the make and model of your heat press. For high production situations, a custom platen can make a huge difference in efficiency and productivity as workers spend less time positioning the item on the press and then taking it off.