Before you shop for a manual garment press, make sure you know what features to look for.
By Rick Davis
No matter how large your garment-printing operation, chances are that manual presses play an important role. In larger shops, these presses may be used to handle sampling and overflow work, while in smaller shops manual models may be the backbone of production. But regardless of what role manual presses play in your facility, the machines must be sturdy, accurate, and reliable. What I've found is that almost every facet of a manual press is as important to productivity and print quality as the next. In this installment, I'll discuss features and functions to keep in mind when shopping for a new manual press for your shop.
Ease of use is the first thing to look for. You do not want a manual garment press that takes excessive effort to use. Some believe that the heavier a press is built, the stronger and better it is. This is not necessarily true, because some presses are built like tanks but have weak registration systems. Just because a press looks like it is built to last does not mean that it will be able to hold registration well. On the other hand, there are plenty of well-built manual presses that require twice the effort to operate. I suggest that you start your search for manual garment presses by polling your fellow printers in the industry. Ask for their general opinions on the performance of manual presses they've used. Developing a general consensus can help steer you in the right direction.
In addition to getting user feedback about different press models, here are some other features and considerations to keep in mind:
Number of colors The number of colors supported by the press you plan to purchase is always an important concern. If you're operating a fledgling company, you may want to plan for expansion from the standpoint of colors. Although you initially may be satisfied with a six-color press to keep things simple, you might instead want to consider an eight-color unit that will accommodate future jobs with parameters beyond your current norm.
Microregistration This press feature should be given serious consideration. I find one of the most frustrating aspects of manual screen printing to be movement of a design during a job run. In order to reregister the image, you typically have to wipe the screens clean and print your registration marks. Having a good microregistration system will enable you to make small, "blind" adjustments to get the print back in register without having to clean the screens. When assessing a press's microregistration, be sure that the system is easy to work with, accurate, and able to hold its position well once you've tightened down your screens.
Platen-plane adjustment Does the press allow you to level the platens? Most manual presses do not have this feature - the presses are supposedly designed to make such adjustments unneccessary. But the truth is that as a press starts to wear from daily use (and abuse), the level plane of the platens will begin to shift. This may not be an issue for those who print team athletic wear, because critical registration isn't involved in most athletic graphics. Yet it can have a major influence for those who print close-tolerance graphics, such as butt-registered artwork or process-color garment graphics.
Because most printers who attempt close-tolerance work employ highly tensioned screens, any variation in the plane of the platens can have negative effects in the form of film-thickness inconsistencies, registration shifts, and undesirable dot gain. In addition to eliminating these negatives, the adjustable platen plane also allows for increased accuracy in setting your off-contact, which needs to be very consistent when printing close-tolerance graphics. Having the ability to check and adjust your platens can prevent problems that you might otherwise encounter.
Frame-clamp format This is one feature that manual-press veterans will urge you to check closely during your evaluations. Presses today feature a variety of clamping systems and clamp configurations that present different benefits and drawbacks. The two main clamp formats include rear frame clamping and side frame clamping. The concern is the press's capacity for maintaining screen stability once the frame is locked into place. The last thing any printer wants is screen movement once the press is dialed in.
Presses that are designed with rear clamp mounts work well for trapped artwork and athletic types of printing. Although you can achieve tight registration with a rear-clamp manual press, you are more likely to experience registration shifts than you would with a press that is manufactured with side clamps. Side-clamp presses allow for greater stability because the frames are fixed to the press with with two clamps as opposed to just a single, rear mount clamp.
Most rear-clamp manual presses can be modified to accept side clamps with attachments either available through the manufacturer or a third-party accessory supplier. Side-clamp presses are preferable for close-tolerance printing and allow for the additional stability needed for such applications.
Garment-loading clearance Many first-time press buyers fail to consider this important aspect of press design. When I say garment-loading clearance, I'm referring to the workable area you have to load the garment onto the platen. Some presses have large platen-mounting devices beneath the platens that can take up valuable space needed to allow smaller-sized garments to easily stretch onto the platen. Youth platens of course ease this situation, as do elongated youth platens, which will allow you to load the garment away from the platen mount. When you're looking at a potential new press, consider the area underneath the platen in regards to the printing of youth garments. If it appears to be an issue, ask the manufacturer what your options are.
The platens themselves are a whole other issue. Manual-press platens are made out of a number of different materials, with wood and aluminum being the two dominant types. What you want is a platen that is very resistant to both solvents and heat.
The Formica-topped wooden platens work well as long as you do not leave them under flash units for extended periods of time. When this happens, not only can the Formica begin to melt, but it can also catch fire! Although you may say "I wouldn't let that happen," you'd be surprised just how easily it can occur.
Aluminum platens are of course more heat resistant. They won't melt or ignite, but they can warp over time. In either case, you would need to replace the platens - a proposition that can quickly become quite costly. Here again, you should get the opinions of other printers to see what has worked best for them in the past.
It never ceases to amaze me how many printers buy manual presses at trade shows to replace the ones they bought only a year before without doing their homework before making that initial purchase. Conducting the proper research and knowing what you need in a manual garment screen-printing press can make all the difference in terms of increasing productivity, reducing waste, and growing the profitability of your facility.
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