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What is a Heat Transfer Machine?

By Britt Archer
Updated May 17, 2024
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From baseball hats to T-shirts, backpacks to drinking mugs, nearly every item in today's society has some sort of design on it. The difference between the designs is the mechanisms by which they are rendered. A cost-effective, environmentally friendly and durable way to do this is by using a heat transfer machine, sometimes called a heat press transfer machine. Because it is a cheaper technology, heat transfer machines have become more and more popular to press designs onto T-shirts and other items.

A heat transfer machine uses the same inks that the average ink-jet printer uses, as well as a burst of very hot heat, up to 600°F (about 315.56°C). Sometimes special inks or dyes are used, especially if the product being printed will be exposed to extreme circumstances, such as a dishwasher-safe mug or an outdoor banner. A heat transfer machine can come in many forms to print on many products, but the two most common heat transfer machines are the platen type and the rotary drum variety. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but they both have the same requirements: ink or dye, heat and a little bit of time.

The platen type of heat transfer machine is usually large enough to be able to print a design on a T-shirt, although they do come in even larger sizes. It opens like a book, and the item to be printed is placed in the heat transfer printing machine. The items printed by these platen-style heat transfer machines are usually fairly flat--T-shirts, tote bags and other apparel, as well as wood and ceramic tiles. The design is selected and placed on the item to be printed. The operator of the machine then closes the machine and holds it steady until it heats up enough for the design to become permanent.

A rotary drum heat transfer machine passes the design and the item to be printed between two giant rollers that apply the necessary heat and pressure. Because of the way this machine is structured, an operator of this type of heat transfer machine experiences less strain, although with pneumatic technology being added to some platen types, operators no longer have to lift heavy objects or worry about the strain from using either machine. Basic platen models, some small enough to fit on home tabletops, are less costly than larger machines that have more features and are used for larger scale printing projects.

The designs for a heat transfer machine are usually composed of ink placed upon a piece of carrier paper. Depending upon the surface printed upon, the design may be topical in nature only and require extra sealant, if the surface is not porous. If the surface printed upon is porous, such as fiber-based items, then the dye sinks into the fibers, and the process is called a sublimation transfer. The designs may be bought in bulk from a supplier, or created and printed using a graphics program and computer or, in certain cases, can even be made using a color copier and special paper.

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