Which is better: clamshell or swing away heat press?

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For first-time heat press buyers, the choice between styles can be puzzling. Which heat press should you go with: a clamshell press or a swing-away design?

Both styles have advantages and disadvantages, but generally, you can use either and produce great results. Depending on your circumstances, you probably have valid reasons to choose one style of heat press over another.

First, a clamshell heat press is the most common style in homes and businesses. It is simply designed and doesn’t take much practice to start using. It features two metal platens that close like a clamshell when you pull the handle downwards.

The upper platen is heated and through a combination of temperature and pressure, your artwork (whether it’s a variety of heat transfer vinyl or sublimation ink) is adhered to your base material (like a t-shirt or tote bag or sign).

The upper platen of the clamshell press only opens to about a 50 to 70 degree angle. This makes seeing the entire lower platen difficult, and you could burn yourself on the hot upper platen. (We recommend wearing gloves while you work).

The swing away heat press design, by contrast, lifts the upper platen completely to the side and clear of the lower platen. You have full access to the work area and you can make sure all of your transfer material is properly lined up.

The disadvantage of this is that the swing-away press requires more space to operate in in your craft room or workshop. You need space to the upper plate to open on at least one side of the press. The clamshell design has a small footprint and can work in tighter quarters.

The other big advantage of the swing-away design is that it can press thicker base materials. While most people think that heat presses are just for making t-shirts, many people are pressing thick objects like plaques or wood signs.

A swing press will do a better job pressing thick objects because the upper platen applies pressure straight down. A clamshell heat press will apply greater pressure near the hinge of the platen than at the front edge when pressing a thick object.

A compromise option is the draw-style heat press. In this form, the upper platen opens like a clamshell, but the lower platen slides forward (like a drawer) to allow greater access to the work area without risk of burns from the upper platen.

The draw-style heat press has the same footprint of the clamshell and the ease of access of the swing-away, but it still does not have the even plate pressure on thicker materials demonstrated by the swing-away press.

To summarize, the main differences between clamshell presses and swing-away heat presses:

Clamshell heat presses:

  • Somewhat limited access to lower platen work area
  • Small footprint (less space needed to operate)
  • Doesn’t press thick materials as well

Swing-away heat presses:

  • Full access to lower platen work area
  • Larger footprint (more space needed to operate)
  • Presses thick materials well

Draw Heat Presses:

  • Full access to lower platen work area
  • Small footprint
  • Doesn’t press thick materials as well

Click here for a full rundown of our heat press buying guide and our recommendations for top 10 heat presses, including best swing-away press under $200 and best heat press for t-shirts.


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