How To Heat Press Vinyl At Home – Beginner’s Guide

Learning how to heat press vinyl is a great way to personalize clothing and gifts for yourself, friends or potential customers.

Although it might seem daunting, working with heat transfer vinyl is surprisingly easy to learn. Heat printing is great either as a new hobby or as a side hustle.

In this guide I’ll try to explain everything you need to know to get started.

How Does a Heat Press Work

Best Heat Press Machine

A heat press can come in different sizes and shapes but generally they all have 2 plates, the upper and lower one. The lower plate is normally stationary and doesn’t heat up, whereas the upper plate can reach high temperatures and can either move horizontally or vertically.

Normally you will put your fabric with the vinyl on top on the lower plate and then press it with the hot upper plate.

For this to work, you will need to use special heat transfer vinyl, also known as HTV. This HTV contains a thin layer of vinyl on a layer of clear plastic. As soon as you apply high heat the vinyl comes off the plastic and sticks on the fabric.

Of course, there are different types of fabrics and vinyls you can use but most of them work in a similar way.

If you want to know more about which heat press to use, you can read our heat press buying guide.

Do you Need a Heat Press for Vinyl?

If you just want to make one or two decorated T-shirts at home you definitely don’t need to buy an entire heat press.

Since the vinyl is transferred by applying heat, you can also use an iron to do the job. However, it can be a little tricky to apply heat evenly to the HTV if the design is bigger than the iron itself. So using an iron only work well for small projects.

A heat press comes in handy if you are planning to make bigger designs, because the two plates are normally big enough to cover the entire T-shirt.

An additional benefit of using a heat press is that you can work very fast. This is probably not very important for a hobbyist, but if you are planning to make vinyl shirts as a side business it will save you a tremendous amount of time.

What Fabrics Can You Heat Press?

how to use a heat press machine to make vinyl shirtsIn my opinion, the best fabric for heat transfer is clearly cotton. It is easy to work with and can withstand high temperatures without any problems.

Using the right temperature and time settings, you can also use materials such as polyester, nylon, spandex, leather, or a blend of these materials.

But try to avoid more delicate materials such as acrylic or velvet, since you will ruin them if you heat them at high temperatures required to transfer the vinyl.

How Cut Heat Transfer Vinyl?

Some store sell pre-made vinyl stickers that you can apply to your T-shirts. But what’s the fun in doing that, right? You probably want to come up with your own designs. And unless you have super fine motor skills, cutting the vinyl by hand isn’t going to be very successful either.

That’s why people use vinyl cutters such as Silhouette or Cricut. All you have to do is load your design in their software program and it will cut the vinyl for you. And it’s probably faster and more accurate than you will ever be. It can even cut the same design over and over again, in case you are selling them.

If you want to cut simple words or shapes you can make those designs directly in the software that comes with the vinyl cutter such as Silhouette Studio. But for more complex designs it’s best to make them in specialized drawing software, then load that design into the vinyl cutter software, and finally cut the vinyl.

What is the Right Heat Press Temperature for Vinyl?

Knowing at what temperature to heat press vinyl is not as easy as it might seem. The right temperature will depend on the type of vinyl, the type of fabric, the pressure of pressing, and the time you press.

For example, clothing made out of polyester might start to melt if you heat them for too long or at too high temperatures.

The safest way is to check the instructions that came with the HTV. But just in case you didn’t get any or threw it away (oeps!), here are some very general guidelines.

  • Basic vinyl on cotton – 380 F for 15 seconds
  • Basic vinyl on polyester – 270 F for 10 seconds
  • Glitter vinyl on cotton – 350 F for 15 seconds
  • Glow in the dark vinyl on cotton – 300 F for 12 seconds

That being said, you might have to do a little bit of trial and error to get the result you are looking for. So try to save those scrap pieces of vinyl and old T-shirts for practice.

You can also achieve some interesting effects by playing with the time. Using a shorter time might not transfer all the vinyl, resulting in an old or retro style shirt.

How to Apply Heat Transfer Vinyl with a Heat Press

Although different machines might slightly deviate, here are the general steps for heat pressing:

  1. Open the heat press, turn on the power and set the thermostat to the right temperature.
  2. Adjust the pressure using the pressure knob or the machine interface. The thicker your project is, the more pressure you will need to apply for a good transfer.
  3. When the thermometer indicates that the machine has reached the desired temperature, open the heat press, spread your T-shirt, and press one time to smoothen out the shirt
  4. Place the heat transfer vinyl on top shirt and remember that the vinyl design should face the T-shirt while the plastic backing should face upwards.
  5. Set the timer of your heat press (if it has any) or set your stopwatch
  6. Close the heat press until it is firmly locked to start applying the heat.
  7. When the time is up, open the heat press again and remove the shirt. Be careful not to burn yourself as the shirt can be quite hot.

Warm Peel Vs Cold Peel

HTV either comes as warm peel or cold peel. This indicates whether you have to remove the plastic backing while it is still hot or after letting it cool down. Normally it is clearly labelled on the vinyl which type it is.

If your vinyl is warm peel, make sure to use some kind of protective gloves not to protect yourself in the process.

On the flip side, if you are working with cold peel you can let the T-shirt cool down on the lower plate of the heat press or carefully move it to cool somewhere while you press the next shirt.

How to Heat Press Vinyl on a Shirt

Here is an example of how to heat press a vinyl shirt.

How to Heat Press Vinyl on a Hat

Applying vinyl onto a hat is a little more tricky because the hat is a rounded surface whereas a normal heat press is flat. But you can still make it work if you use some heat resistant gloves and hold it against the hot upper plate yourself as shown in this video.

However, if you are planning to heat press many hats, it’s better to buy a special hat press or get an add-on for your current heat press that will let you transfer vinyl to hats much easier.

How to Layer Heat Transfer Vinyl with a Heat Press

Most sheets of vinyl only have a single color. So what if you want to make something that incorporates more than 1 color?

Layering is a technique used to apply a layer of vinyl on top of an already existing layer of vinyl. This will really let you up your game and allow for more complex designs.

One important thing to keep in mind is that you want to prevent overheating the vinyl. So instead of heating every layer for 10-15 seconds you should only heat it for up to 5 seconds. This is long enough for the vinyl to come off the backing plastic but not fully stick to the shirt.

Only when you apply the finishing layer do you want to heat press for the full 10-15 seconds, depending on the fabric you are working with.

Not every type of vinyl can be layered successfully. The most common example is glitter vinyl. Although glitter vinyl can be the last layer of your design, you can’t layer anything on top of it.

Vinyl Heat Pressing Tips and Tricks

  • Wash the T-shirts before using the heat press. In most cases, this will prevent the shirt from shrinking and looking wrinkly after washing the heat pressed shirt.
  • Make 100% sure that you place your T-shirt correctly on the heat press. The last thing you want is your design transferred to the wrong location under an awkward slant. You can use the tag of the shirt and the armpits as a guide to find the center.
  • Wash your newly pressed T-shirts inside out and don’t dry them using a dryer to make them last much longer.
  • If it is your first time or you simply changed to a different vinyl or T-shirt, make sure to do a trial run.
  • You can use a regular iron to transfer really small designs that fit underneath the iron.
  • If you have trouble smoothing out the T-shirt, press it without any transfer for a couple of seconds. This removes any moisture and smoothes out the shirt for you.

How to Remove Heat Press Vinyl from Clothing

Every now and then disaster strikes and you completely messed up the vinyl transfer. Instead of throwing away the shirt, you can try to remove the vinyl and save the shirt.

Since the vinyl sticks to your shirt using an adhesive, you remove HTV by applying a second time to melt the adhesive. While it’s hot, you can use some tweezers or a pair of scissors to remove the vinyl.

Since the vinyl needs to stay hot while removing it, one trick is to wrap the T-shirt around a hot iron during this process, as shown in the video below.