-Review- 

 

Which Mug Press should you choose for Dye Sublimation Transfer Printing? (Mug Press Shoot-out, Part 2)

See Part 1 in our 1st Quarter 2003 DSSI Newsletter "Pressing Matters"

Written by:  Larry Cohn, February 2003

Review by Heat Press Model

Xpres MugXpres-300, $1199

For printing no higher than 3" tall or 1" from the handles, the MugXpres-300 mug press is one of the fastest presses. It's so fast it will give you a quick payback in a production environment, and it's easy to operate. It sits idle at full temperature which means you are ready to cook a quick mug at a moment's notice, with no warm-up time, and you get consistent timing.

It can also be used for the 18 oz. steins, as all presses in this roundup can, and for the german beer steins, which only a couple of the other pressing options can.

All that is required is a medium-light pressure for great results. It is very easy to adjust the pressure and it easily accommodates all widths of mugs, without any tight clearances.

A negative, besides the small overall printing area, is the high price of this press in relation to it's competition. There are other fast presses out there for much less.

 

It's also kind of difficult to properly center the image area to the cooking area on this press, for two reasons. First, the horizontal loading action of the press tends to rotate the mug as it closes. Second, the placement of the heating blanket itself makes it difficult to properly position the mug without getting very close to breaking the mug handle against the back metal plate on the press.

The electronic controls stop short of being useful for automatic programmed operation in most cases, (unless you want a zero second dwell time), because the buzzer goes off as soon as you reach your set temperature. It is lacking a programmable "dwell time", in seconds. Once the set temperature has been reached, the buzzer doesn't go off until a certain programmable amount of time passes with the Stahls', the Novachrome, and the Hix presses.

Personally, the way I use this press is simply by switching off the buzzer and using it as a manually controlled press. Using a $10 digital kitchen timer, I just use the time and temperature combination that works best for me.

Overall Rating

This press is priced several hundred dollars higher than the rest of the competition. It has one of the smallest coverage areas both height and width-wise. It's not set up out of the box for manual timing, it's controller timing does not allow for a programmable dwell time, and it's hard to center the mug properly for even heat. On the plus side it is one of the two fastest presses along with the Novachrome, and it can properly cook a german beer stein. So even though I own 4 of these presses and have used them for years, and love them for their speed, I'd have to give this press a rating of 3 MUGS OUT OF 5.

 

Cactus Coatings Mug Wraps, $20 each

For the best possible "handle to handle" and "top to bottom" coverage, you can't beat a Cactus Wrap, sold by Cactus Coatings. These are designed to wrap around your mug and then cook them in an oven. Since the wraps don't have to have a "dead" area on their edges, like all mug press heating blankets must have, and because they can go practically right up against the mug handles without much concern of breaking the mug handle, they can give you the full 9.5" printing width or very close to it. That means that you are able to get to within 1/4" or 1/8" of the mug handles.

 

Photo provided by C. Derrick

 

The Cactus Mug Wraps also shine in the height of the pressing area. Since, again, there is no concern for "dead areas", or overheated elements above or below the mug pressing area, there is nothing holding back the attempt at full top to bottom printing except for the tapering and curvature of the mug itself around it's top and bottom edges.

Since mug wraps require an oven or convection oven, they certainly are limited in where they can be used. And cooking the mugs in an oven with mug wraps takes much longer than cooking them in a mug press if you are only cooking one or two mugs. But if you are cooking batches of mugs, at least 5 or 6 at a time, they can be just as quick to produce, on average, as when using a mug press.

These wraps only cost $20, (lower in quantity) and can be ordered in different custom widths and heights. (9.5" wide by 4 3/8" tall is standard.) If you buy 12 wraps, for example, then you can do alternating batches of 6 mugs each. You can be assembling the next batch while the first batch is cooking, then disassembling the first batch and cooling them while the second batch is cooking....then keep repeating the process. There is a quantity price of $18 /each for 12 wraps or more, so the 12 wraps will cost $216, a quite reasonable price to be able to do that level of production.

You can also order custom cut wraps to suit your own purpose, such as a 4" tall wrap for cooking the german beer stein.

You can find a full review of the Cactus Mug Wraps in the product review section at www.dyesub.org

Overall Rating

Whether you are just starting out and want to get into the mug biz for the least amount of money possible, or you are a high volume producer who wants to get the best coverage and highest production efficiency, the Cactus Mug Wraps can't be beat for overall value and function. Therefore, I feel they have earned a rating of 5 MUGS OUT OF 5.

 

Cowtown Oven Press (similar to mug wraps), $45 each
 

These are similar in function and wide coverage results to the Cactus Mug Wraps. The differences are that the Cowtown Oven Presses cost $45 each, are constructed with a steel band supporting the outside, and take a little bit longer and/or a bit higher oven temperature in order to cook a mug properly compared to the Cactus Mug Wraps.

 

Photo provided by C. Derrick

I have found that the way that the Cowtown units are unfastened from the hot mugs after removing them from the oven is a bit cumbersome, compared with the way the Cactus wraps easily fall off the mug. On the plus side, their steel band construction may allow these units to hold up longer than the Cactus wraps, although the Cactus wraps are well known for having a very long life span.

You can not order custom sizes at the same price, but it would be easy enough to customize the size to your own liking by cutting it down to size with a metal shear.

Overall Rating

These units have a similar function to the Cactus wraps but are more than double the price. They theoretically offer a longer life, but they require a bit more time and temperature. Therefore I am ranking this mug pressing option as 4 MUGS OUT OF 5.

 

Geo Knight DK-3 mug press, $749

The best mug press for overall maximum coverage area is currently the Geo Knight DK-3, which has many other compelling features such as the full digital (manual) controller and display, hot idle temperature, and the best warranty. At $749 this press is a great value.

Negatives: a tight fit on wide mugs, the hard-to-use pressure adjustment knob, and the medium-high pressure required for proper operation, for starters. You also need to fully protect the mugs with paper to keep the unprinted areas of the mug from turning yellow. This is apparently due to a problem with the type of adhesion used in the heat blanket which reacts with the mug coatings. Most importantly, the cooking times with this press turned out to be roughly tied with the Hix press for the slowest press on the market.


Photo provided by R. Salcedo

 

The imprinting area on this press is the best, short of mug wraps. The pressing height was as tall as you can get for a 15 or 16 oz mug, stopping short of a full top to bottom print only due to mug curvature issues, and not mug press issues. Also, handle to handle pressing is very impressive. I will say that in my testing I was able to get proper imprinting very close to the handle, closer than with any other mug press and almost as close as the mug wraps. I'd say that 1/4" clearance to each handle side on an 11 oz mug is very achievable with this press.

Overall Rating

If it wasn't for the slow cooking times, this press would have been a stronger pick in my book due to it's great coverage area. Since it takes twice as long as the fastest press to cook the same mug, and cooking speed is a very serious consideration for most people, I rank this press as 3.5 MUGS OUT OF 5.

 

Cactus ORG-3 mug press, $745

This press has the versatility to be run as either a hot-idle press or a cold-idle press. It can provide a better than average overall coverage area, and is a bit easier to load and unload the wider mugs than the Knight DK-3. It requires much less pressure than the DK-3 in order to get good even coverage, and has much less expensive replacement heat blankets than any other mug press. The higher heating density towards the base of the mug helps it keep the times down and give it a more even heat coverage based on the ceramic density of the mug. This feature seems to work better for the 11 oz mugs than the 15 oz mugs, due to the current placement of that higher heating area, and may actually be a disadvantage when cooking the larger mugs. It's price is within the average range of the other presses, and it offers above average value.

 

Negatives are the lack of digital controls or a digital display, and a coverage area that is less than the DK-3 or the taller heat blanket version of the Novachrome press.

Overall Rating

Based on the fact that this press seems to do many things well, (but not exceptionally well), and is fairly fast, I'd give it a rating of 3.5 MUGS OUT OF 5.

(Note: I've been told there will be an ORG-4 introduced third quarter 2003 which will have a digital controller and temperture display, and will provide an even higher coverage area.)

 

Cactus ORG-2 mug press, $695

This press sells for $50 less than the ORG-3. There are 2 differences between this model and the ORG-3. First, it operates as a cold-idle press (it does not have a hot-idle option). Secondly, it's maximum effective heating height is 3.00" to 3.25" instead of 3.50" to 3.75".

Overall Rating

To be fair, this mug press is a great press and has no major flaws, but compared to the current competition seems to be a bit dated. So although I probably would have rated this press a 4 or 5 just a couple years ago, I now have to give it 3 MUGS OUT OF 5.

 

Photo provided by C. Derrick

 

Novachrome Mug Pro Plus, $799, second attached mug press or plate press $399
 

Possibly the most versatile and best overall press is the Novachrome Mug Pro Plus. It's one of only two presses that can handle the german beer steins, and it can press almost as much overall coverage area as the ORG-3 using it's standard sized heat blanket. With the taller heat blanket installed, it provides the best coverage area except for the Knight DK-3, (as discussed below). It also has a fully programmable digital controller and temperature display and runs at full idle temperature.

 

It has a "piggyback " connector which allows a (controller-less) 2nd press, $399, to be hooked up to share the same controller as the primary unit. The combination of this press and it's attached second press makes for a formidable combination, especially for the money. For roughly $1200 for both, you have the ability to do double the production in the same time as you would with the Xpres MX-300, which retails for roughly $1200 for just that one press, and has roughly the same pressing times.

Negatives? Duh...help me out here! I can't seem to come up with any! OK, one. In actual testing, I haven't been able to get good coverage as close to the handles (side to side coverage) as with the DK-3 or with the Cactus or Cowtown wraps. The best I can do is 5/8" to 3/4" away from each handle side.

Overall Rating

Due to the quick cooking times, the overall functionality, and the unexpected bonuses of: 1) being able to add a second pressing unit for just a little more money, and 2) being able to choose a taller or a shorter heat blanket at the time of purchase, I have to give this press a rating of 4.5 MUGS OUT OF 5. If it cooked a bit closer to the handle sides I'd be giving it a 5 MUG rating.

 

Stahls' MightyMug™ press, $745

This press is also sold through Xpres as the Xpres MX-400. Advantages: High 430F maximum temperature. Digital controls which let you set an idle temperature between 205F and 300F, set the maximum temperature you want your mug to reach and then set the number of seconds you want to keep cooking your mug at that maximum temperature. By using this type of programming you can eliminate the timing variable of starting off with a colder mug stock or a hotter mug stock. This press can go slightly higher in cooking height than some, cooking 3.25" to 3.50" high. But since it looks like it can be used as a much taller mug press, that little bit of extra effective cooking height is disappointing.

 

Negatives: slower cooking cycle than the faster press like the Xpres and the Novachrome, since you are supposed to wait for the idle temperature to drop back down to at least 350F before starting to cook your next mug. If you don't wait you can be penalized by much shorter heating blanket life, according to Stahls'.

Overall Rating

This press has a middle-of-the-road speed, due partly to the fact that it is sold with the recommendation to let the press cool off between cycles (adding time to the average cycle times). It has only an average coverage area. It offers a good programmable controller and temperature display, but is set up with a warm, not a hot, idle temperature. It's price is not bad but seems high compared to other presses that do more for the same price. I give it 3 MUGS OUT OF 5.

 

Hix CW-550, $829

This press is also sold as the Airwaves AW-5000 and the Blanx XM-2000.

This press can't quite reach the 400 degrees needed for ink jet sublimation and is pushing the life of it's fusible link if it is run continuously at it's maximum 390 degrees, according to Hix's tech support. The fusible link feature should be an advantage, but the tradeoff for avoiding the slight possibility of a premature heat blanket failure is a lower maximum temperature. This press is one of the most expensive on the market, leaving me with little good to say, in spite of Hix having a very well deserved great reputation for their flat presses.

Good points? It has a fully functional digital controller, similar in operation to the Stahls' MightyMug programming. It lets you set the idle temperature at up to 8 degrees below the maximum temperature set for your programming cycle, which basically makes it a hot-idle press. It has a one year heater blanket warranty, 6 months longer than some other brands.

 

One unique feature of this press is that the heating element itself is installed behind a protective metal band. This, according to Hix, provides more protection to the heat blanket against wear. Then there is a foam/metal "wrap" sitting in front of the heating blanket's metal shield. Since the back layer of this wrap is metal, with foam rubber on front, the back metal of this wrap mates with the metal shield of the heat blanket. Now this is where it gets tricky to explain. The right side of this wrap is left unattached. The end result is that the mug is inserted into the wrap, and then as the press is closed, the two metal sheets slide over each other, leaving the mug transfer protected from being strained or shifted by the heating blanket assembly.

My opinion of this feature is that it may be a plus for some but it's not really much of an issue in real life, either for prolonging the life of the heating blanket or for preventing strains, stresses or tears to the mug transfer as the press is being closed up. The bigger question is whether these extra layers of protection are worth the drop in effective temperature delivered to the mug surface, which results in a much longer cooking time. I say NO (my personal opinion).

Overall Rating

This press is one of the higher priced presses, only provides average coverage area, is the slowest press on the market, and offers several unique "features" compared to the competition that are, at least in my opinion, of dubious value. I give it 2 MUGS OUT OF 5.

 

Geo Knight Digital Combo Press mug attachment, $300

There is a "mug attachment" available for the Geo. Knight Digital Combo press. I really don't recommend this since it is only going to let you cook one side of the mug at a time. Also it is a fixed metal curve which may not make good contact on various widths of mugs. And the idea of switching the head and base on the Digital Combo press to the mug attachments, and then back to a different attachment, is somewhat limiting compared to having a stand-alone press. Especially if you are attempting to switch the heads while they are hot!

Overall Rating

I give it 1 MUG OUT OF 5.

 

Conclusions

The "best mug press" is hard to declare. As you can see above, the Novachrome Mug Pro Plus and the Cactus Mug Wraps both scored the highest overall considering all features and options, speeds, and coverage area. But let's see how the various pressing options rank assuming that your priorities are more specialized:

Best Coverage Area

If you consider the overall coverage area to be your highest priority, then you'd want to choose the Cactus Mug Wraps, the Cowtown Oven Presses, the Knight DK-3 press, the Novachrome press, and then the Cactus ORG-3 press, in that order.

Best Speed

The fastest cooking presses are all in a very close race to each other. The Xpres MX300, the Novachrome press, and the Cactus ORG-2 and ORG-3 presses are all in the same speed league, assuming proper calibration of the heating controllers to the heat blanket. (In other words, assuming that when you take a heat gun reading of the heat blanket, your reading roughly corresponds to the temperature reading on the controller, or in the case of the ORG presses, to the temperature that you set it at.

If the Cactus Mug Wraps are used to cook 6 mugs at a time and 2 sets of 6 mug wraps are used, then the Cactus wraps can cook a mug in pretty much the same average time as the above presses.

Best Value

The best value, by far, for the money for cooking mugs is to get a set of Cactus Mug Wraps. Even if you add up the cost of a reasonably priced convection oven in addition to 12 wraps, you've only got about 1/2 the money invested compared to the next least expensive press option. (And the other wrap option, the Cowtown Oven Presses, are going to cost about $324 more for 12.)

The next best value would be the Novachrome Mug Pro Plus, especially if you add the satellite 2nd press for $399 extra and gain twice the production capacity. Just the fact that you have that option, coupled with the overall best performance and coverage of this press, makes it a certain contender for best value.

For fast cooking times and high ranking coverage area at a reasonable price, along with the best price by far on a replacement heat blanket, the ORG-3 is a third place best value.

Miscellaneous Factors (that may make a given press the best choice for you)

If you are looking for the best pressing option to cook the german beer steins, you'd want to go with (custom ordered) Cactus Mug Wraps, the Novachrome Mug Pro Plus press or the Xpres MX-300 press.

If you like the "programmed" operation, where you set the temperature you'd like to reach, and then the "dwell time" you'd like to cook the mug at once it reaches that temperature, then the best presses which include that feature are the Novachrome press and the Stahls' press. The Hix press has this feature but doesn't seem to offer much else to make it stand out as a recommendation.

If you want a press with the best overall warranty, choose the Knight DK-3 for it's one year warranty on the mechanical press, 3 years on the controls, and up to 3 years or 10,000 pressings on the heat blanket. The Hix and the Novachrome presses both have a full one-year warranty including the heat blanket, so those presses offer better than average warranties as well.

If you want a press option that draws the least amount of power, choose any pressing option EXCEPT for the Cactus Mug Wraps or the Cowtown Oven Presses, since you need to cook those in an oven or convection oven.

If you already own the Knight Digital Combo flat press, only plan on pressing one-sided designs on mugs, want to do quantity "runs" of mugs occasionally, not just "onesies and twosies", and have some time for letting the platen cool before switching them around, then the mug attachment for this flat press may conceivably be your best option.

If electrical safety is tops on your list of features, then you only have one choice, the Hix CW-550. It has UL approval, and it has thermal protection from overheating in the case of equipment failure. As an added bonus, the Hix press is the only one that has an anti-wrinkle design for clamping onto your mug art when you insert your mug and close the press.

Please do your own research, ask your own questions, and realize that I may have made a mistake or two, as much as I tried to be accurate. This guide is simply intended as a starting point, to give you a framework for the right questions to ask and to provide a rough comparison of models. Good luck!

See Part 1 in our 1st Quarter 2003 DSSI Newsletter "Pressing Matters"

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