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Friday, January 23, 2009

Vinyl Cutting: Everything You Wanted To Know

Edited To Add: Links to downloadable graphics & a FREEBIE are at the bottom of this post!
More answers to reader's questions can be found on Vinyl Cutting Machines: More of What You Wanted to Know

June 2010: I have also written a blog series for the Blog that has all the info you need to begin vinyl cutting with your Cricut, Silhouette SD, Wishblade, craft Robo, Inspiration and Gazelle. Click HERE to read EVEN MORE helpful information on vinyl cutting that is not available anywhere else online and click HERE to view specially-made vinyl cutting files you can download, cut & sell on your vinyl cutting machine!


As promised, here is all the information about my craft cutter. First, a little crash-course in the history of vinyl cutting:

Vinyl cutters have been around for quite a while but they were so incredibly expensive that commercial sign shops were the only ones who could afford them. The prices of several commercial vinyl cutters fell this last decade because technology got cheaper and vinyl lettered signs were replaced by more advanced printing techniques. These lower equipment prices allowed individuals and small businesses to buy them for home use when interior decorating vinyl applications became popular. Today commercial vinyl cutters can be purchsed for as little as $650 for desktop-sized models and several digital craft cutting machines offer the ability to cut vinyl and other papers for as little as $199.

So What's The Difference Between A Craft Cutter & A Commercial Cutter?

A commercial cutter is specifically intended to cut vinyl. Everything about it - the blades, the cutting head and the software - have been specifically designed to work with vinyl materials only. Craft cutters are a hobby machine. They lack precision and cutting quality as a trade-off for being able to cut more than one substrate. They can handle scrapbook paper, cardstock, vellum, vinyl and photo paper. The user is able to switch cutting heads and adjust the cutting depth to ensure it's reliable when cutting vinyl but the edges are never as smooth and cleanly cut as what a commercial cutter can do. They also have more size limitations, requiring you cut any vinyl down to a non-standard width before feeding it through the machine.

On the bright side, having owned a craft cutter myself, they are IDEAL for hobby & fun family use. In addition to vinyl, I cut paper embellishments for handmade cards, craft projects for Aiden to assemble and gift tags year-round. It has proven valuable in more ways than I imagined and if you are only cutting vinyl for yourself, a few friends and to use to make gifts, it's the way to go.

What machine do you have and how much did it cost?

I have the QuicKutz Silhouette. In the scrapbook world it is sold under the QuicKutz name but is actually made by Graphtec who also sells it independently as the CraftRobo.

I bought mine on eBay in May 2008 from a small scrapbook store in Utah that was liquidating it's inventory. I paid $250 shipped for my machine. At the time the suggested retail price was $399. Now the MSRP is $369 and you can often find them on sale for $299. SignWarehouse sells the CraftRobo with some additional accessories and a script font pack for $325. I would recommend calling them to order and asking to swap the DigiMAG magnet sheets for a roll or two of Oracal 631 vinyl. Be sure to ask for free shipping on top of that if it's not already included. You'll need to set up an account with SignWarehouse to do this and provide a tax ID if you have a small business that will sell the vinyl.

Oracal What? What kind of vinyl do you use?

In short, I use the good stuff. I've worked with several vinyls but trust me, you're going to like Oracal. I use Oracal 631, which is a matte vinyl. Matte vinyl looks very much like interior paint and gives the appearance of your lettering being flawlessly hand-painted on your projects and walls. At first glance you'll see it's rated very poorly for outdoor use, which is how all vinyls are rated, but it's a wonderful product. It's specifically meant for this type of indoor use and has a repositionable, water-based adhesive. This means if you gently lay it down and you need to pick it up and re-center it, you can without having ruined the entire piece. The water-based adhesive means it's easy to remove any sticky residue the vinyl leaves with just water and maybe a squirt of Windex. Oracal 631 is the matte finish and Oracal 641 is the glossy finish. If you're going to use glossy vinyl, spend a bit more and get the Oracal 651. It's thicker and won't stretch, warp or tear as easy.

Special Note: Do not ever use cast vinyl on your walls! Vinyl is universally rated by it's outdoor durability and any literature from the manufacturer will list cast vinyl, like Oracal 751 and 851, as being their most superior product. It is, but not for interior wall applications. Cast vinyl is very durable and has a permanent polyacrylate adhesive. If you put it on your walls, it will stay there indefinately or rip all the wall spackle and half of the sheet rock away with it. You'll need to replace the entire section of drywall if you want it off. Oracal 631 and 651, in my opinion, are the absolute best vinyls for home decor applications. If you're cutting decals for car windshields, 751 and 851 would be considered premium vinyl but 641 or 651 would also do the trick. They'd just peel off after 3 years instead of 7 or 8. Oracal 631, 641 and 651 are all calendered vinyls.

This might just be my opinion but I think Oracal vinyl is the easiest to weed and the most forgiving. If nothing else, it's more user-friendly when you go to apply it. THAT I have lots of experience with! The application tape that's used plays a big role, too, but that's another topic.

You mean the vinyl doesn't come out of the machine ready to put on the wall?

Far from it. Vinyl comes in rolls as one continuous sheet of film. Basically it's one giant sticker sheet without any stickers cut out of it. It's made up of the vinyl face (what you put on the wall) and the paper backing. Just like the sticker sheet, the paper backing has a slick side that covers the vinyl adhesive until you're ready to apply it to your wall. The backing is marked with a grid to help you cut the vinyl to fit your machine.

A vinyl cutter cuts lines in the piece of vinyl you give it. That's it. So when you feed a sheet of vinyl into the cutter, the sheet comes out looking exactly the same as when it went in. The only difference is there are lines all over it which you can see when you tilt it in the light. Your design has been cut but it's up to you to do the rest of the prep work. (This is why a roll of vinyl is realatively cheap but completed wall vinyl is expensive. It's very labor intensive!) YOU have to remove the excess vinyl around your design by hand. This is called weeding. Then you have to use a special tape, called application tape, which you place over your vinyl so you can peel the vinyl from the backing and place it on the wall without loosing any of your letter spacing. Sound complicated? It's not. Just time-consuming.

To save myself a lot of typing, I'm just going to link you up to an online tutorial that has pictures of all the steps you have to go through before vinyl is ready to go on your wall or project. This is called "weeding and prepping" the vinyl. Now you can laugh along with me when I hand over completely prepped vinyl designs and people ask if it comes out of my machine that way! I really wish it did. I hate taping. what TAPE do I buy?

Start here at SignWarehouse because they have a great selection, competitive prices and since they're also in Texas, shipping is less expensive because they're closer than other suppliers.

I learned the hard way, from my very first online vinyl design purchase, that a poor quality application tape can actually ruin your vinyl when you go to put it on the wall and the tape won't release without ripping the paint and vinyl back off with it. Seriously consider using a high-quality tape. My favorite is R-Tape's standard application tape "ApliTape". It's one of the more expensive but I like how thick the actual tape paper is and how it performs in general. When I first began I ordered one roll of R-Tape and one roll of Sign Warehouse's brand Endura Perfect Tear. I and everyone else who has helped me tape prefer the feel and application ease of the R-Tape.

So now what width of tape do you order? That's up to you and it depends on what you're going to do with your vinyl. 90% of the vinyl I cut is for small projects with letters that are 4 inches tall or less. For me the R-tape 4.25 inch roll is ideal for most of my taping needs. I also have an 8 inch roll of the Endura Perfect Tear that I use when I cut at my machine's maximum size so I don't have to use strips of 4 inch tape to cover the vinyl. I would honestly suggest purchasing two rolls of tape so you have the ability to grab the large roll and tape full-size cuts cleanly while also having the option to grab a small roll to quickly tape small cut jobs. If you only want to buy one size tape, you'll want to select the full-size roll and then cut off smaller pieces for taping smaller vinyl items. If your cutter can cut up to 24 inches wide, you're going to need the 24 inch roll.

Special Note: My walls are the super-crappy builder grade sprayed-on eggshell paint in a color I LOVE. And I'd like the spackle to stay there when I apply vinyl. R-Tape and Endura Tape both work very well on the most powdery-finished eggshell walls, including crappy builder grade. Other cheaper tapes do not. Cheap tapes DO work on nice, smooth satin and semi-gloss painted walls so if you're certain you'll never be applying the vinyl to eggshell walls - and you would enjoy having a full roll of heavy-duty spackle remover - then it's okay to get the cheap stuff. It's also okay to shout profanity, throw the roll of cheap tape into the street and order the better quality tape.

There's MORE? What else could I possibly need to buy?

Oh yeah, there's more! Let's forget all the fonts and graphic art collections that are out there and focus on the tools you're going to need:

X-acto Knife: This one is a must. You can buy them in bulk online or you can buy one at Michael's or Hobby Lobby. Most people use it to weed. I personally don't but I use mine frequently to finish cuts that my cutter stuttered along or simply didn't connect correctly. (see: Craft Cutter)

Weeding Tool: Lots of people use an X-acto Knife but if you're cutting small little letters you're going to need something better. I LOVE this bubble popper tool. They're about $2 after shipping and worth every penny. This is my primary weeding tool and also my small-vinyl application tool. You use the needle end to stab and pull away excess vinyl - like the little half-circle left in the top of a lowercase 'e' - and then you flip it over and use the burnisher to apply the vinyl to buckets, valentine mail boxes, glass votive holders....anything! When you want to remove the vinyl, the needle end helps you get under the edge to get it started.

Squeegees: You need something to mash the vinyl onto the wall with and these squeegees are easier to hold and use than a credit card. They're not absolutely necessary but for only a buck after shipping, why not have a tool meant for the task? I opt for the yellow 4 inch ones because they're easy to spot among discarded pieces of backing & application tape so they're not accidentally thrown away. (For this reason I would suggest you not buy the white!) They also come in other hideous colors and 6 inch widths. Being the color-coordnated person that I am, I buy the 6 inch squeeges in blue and the 4 inch squeeges in yellow. Again, this is so I can quickly grab the size I need out from under all the junk I keep on my work table. :)

Yard Stick: Just go to Wal-Mart and get one. The wood ones are $2 and the metal ones are $5.
You'll need it to measure larger things, like blank wood boards. I also use strips of blue painter's tape to tape my wooden yard stick to the wall to give me a firm, straight edge when I hang phrases without having to make and then erase pencil lines that smudge my crappy builder paint. (The vinyl is thin enough I can slip it between the wall and the yard stick for letters like 'y' that dip below the line.)

Level: Get a 36 inch one if you can. If not, 24 inches will work. These are at Lowe's and Home Depot for $20 - $35. Even better, buy your husband one for Father's Day or Christmas. Two birds with one stone... You'll need it for drawing level pencil lines on the wall and for leveling in general.

Tay's Cheap Trick: Of course I have a cheap trick! Stack any size level (usually tiny) on top of your yard stick and place both on the wall, holding them together firmly. Once you are level, trace a line along the bottom of your nice long yard stick. No huge level required. Works great when your friends barely have enough tools to justify owning a garage but they want you to hang their vinyl while you happen to be over one day. :)

Comfy Grip Scissors: Not absolutely necessary but we fight over my one rubber-cushioned pair when I have friends over to help prep vinyl for our craft days. They're worth the money.

Vinyl Colors I Use The Most: (it may surprise you that pink doesn't top the list)

Chocolate/Dark Brown
Light Brown (more of a caramel or khaki shade; Oracal #081)
Light Pink (Oracal Soft Pink #045)
Metallic Silver
Dark Red (oracal 631 #030)

I have a rainbow of other colors but these are the ones I always seem to be cutting. I first ordered just White & Black. I had them a day and ordered Ivory & Dark Brown, wishing I'd had the ivory to begin with. I really haven't cut as much from black as I thought I would. I'm on my second big roll of Dark Brown and Ivory and third roll of White. Hopefully this helps you choose. Be sure to splurge and order a roll in your favorite holiday color or one that matches your child's room. I just HAD to have navy blue to go with the dark brown for Aiden's surfer room. I've cut off the roll just three times but each time I'm so happy I have it!

If you only need one piece of a specific color or you want to try a color before you buy a roll, check out eBay. E-mail the seller to have it pre-cut to fit your machine.

You never did tell us how big your Silhouette can cut, Tay.

Oh, right! The Silhouette claims it can cut 8 inches tall by 39 inches long. I haven't tried a cut longer than 30 inches because I had tracking failure at that length. If I ever feel like trying again, I'll move the cutter onto the largest flat space I can find and feed only the smoothest, uncurled piece of vinyl through. Hopefully that will work out better for me.

Okay I just bought a Silhouette and it has cut itself and ruined everything I have fed through it! It's nothing but a $300 paper shredder! Help me?

Welcome to the Owner's Club! Don't feel bad. I have a college degree and am what most would consider to be "very crafty" and it still took me a week to get my machine to play nice. This won't make sense to anyone else but here's the run-down:

Use the Blue Cap

Set the Media Type to "Film, Vinyl with Adhesive Back"

Set the cutting speed to 9 for letters over 2 inches and 8 for letters smaller than 2 inches tall;
Set the thickness to 7 for Oracal white, ivory, lime tree green and ice blue vinyl colors;
Set the thickness to 6 for most other Oracal colors
(You're on your own with other brands of vinyl.)

*Do NOT cut Oracal 631 white vinyl on anything less than a speed of 9, thickness of 7. You can up the speed to 10/thick 7 for white vinyl with letters over 2 inches. Less than this and the vinyl will only be scored, not completely cut.

Do you happen to know the name of the software I need to "unlock" my Cricut so I don't have to buy these ridiculously priced cartridges?

Yes, you're looking for Sure Cuts A Lot by

Can Commercial Cutters and your Silhouette use the fonts you have on your computer?

Yes. Silhouette accepts True Type fonts only. You'll need to use an editing software to type your phrase in an Open Type font and then save it as a JPG or an EPS and then cut.

What is an EPS?

It's the file format commercial cutters use.

What software do I need?

Nothing really, your machine will come with software that lets you cut text & basic shapes. If you want to re-size images and save them in different formats, Photoshop Elements is all you need. (And some lessons on how to use the software from your local community college.)

How do you know all this stuff?!!

I like to know a little bit about everything and I read a lot! And I worked as a graphic design artist before I had Aiden. :)

EDITED TO ADD: Yes, I design graphics for both commercial and hobby vinyl cutters! You can find them at I pride myself on delivering extremely clean, smooth-cutting graphics that surpass everything else being offered on the market today. (My friends say I'm the worst perfectionist they know! LOL!) All commercial EPS files are repositionable to give you the ultimate freedom in mixing and matching text & flourishes to deliver the custom cuts your clients want.

EPS Graphics With Commercial License

Personal Use Craft Cutter Graphics (SVG & GSD)

FREEBIE WordArt for Commercial & Hobby Cutters

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008

While I'm thinking about it - after discussing with some in-laws tonight - I thought I would post my information and business decisions based on this act.

First let me say that, of course, this would only impact the children's bracelets that I sell, not my adult jewelry line. Legislation or not, since I made my first design in 2003 I have been completely unwilling to ever endanger a child by using sub-standard materials. My designs consist of professional series stainless steel (coated with nylon) stringing wire, .925 Sterling silver crimps, clasps and beads, glass beads, Swarovski crystal beads and culinary-grade lead-free pewter end rings for ultimate durability. (This was until legislation was passed. Children's bracelets should now have a much more expensive soildered .925 sterling silver end ring at a significant cost increase to both me and my client.)
I do not use plastic beads or any type of painted/lead beads on ANY of my jewelry. EVER. They're not good for you, your skin and to be quite frank, they look like crap!

Unfortunately this does not exempt me from submitting my product for testing and having it certified as "safe". Moreso, because I use Swarovski crystal, which is a name brand leaded crystal, it generates a lot more confusion and liability. (To educate my readers, the lead in a leaded crystal is locked in the matrix of the crystal - as opposed to being a paint or coating - and is not dangerous to wear and/or ingest. So low is the crystal lead content that up to 1 gram of crystal can be used in children's jewelry designs and still fall within the new extremely low legal tolerances for lead.) To further illustrate this, let me say that you will ingest more DEAD INSECT body cells by licking an envelope or inhale more microscopic FECES particles in a public bathroom than you will be exposed to particles of lead from a Swarovski crystal.

I have considered several options. I can submit my jewelry for testing at an estimated cost of $1,000 per design and become certified. I can conduct my own less-sensitive lead testing at a cost of about $50 but be liable for fines and prison time should an unacceptable amount of lead ever be found in any children's jewelry I have made. Or I can do what most of the other small business owners are doing and not sell children's jewelry.

The latter is my final decision. Right now the interest in buying children's jewelry is low but the demand for adult jewelry seems to be never-ending and this recent legislation is the final nail in the coffin. Moreso, the teensy tiny profit I would make on one piece of jewelry (thanks to ever-climbing sterling prices) is not worth the risk of financial ruin or worse - being taken away from my precious son to serve prison time - because one supplier sold me beads that erroneously contained lead one part per million over the legal limit.

As of Monday January 12 the State of Texas was made aware that I am not going to be selling children's jewelry and as of now, ALL production of children's jewelry has ceased, putting me well within the February 10th compliance date and sparing me from any future legal trouble. This is not an invitation to rush-order jewelry. I will not make it. Please don't ask for baby jewelry as a shower gift. I will not give it. I'm sorry but this also means I will not do repairs on any jewelry that is or will be worn by children. I will be selling off some smaller sized beads except for ones I am keeping for myself should I ever have a daughter. (While I can't SELL the jewelry, it is not illegal for me or you to make your own items for your own child to wear. The beads are safe but no one can afford the testing to prove it to Uncle Sam at this time.) This year I will only be selling adult earrings, necklaces, bracelets & jewelry sets unless that becomes a pain in the butt, too! At which time I will be grateful that no one gets lead poisioning or exposure to phthalates from graphic design. :)

I must admit that this legislation has created an opportunity for me to exit one boring business facet (OMGosh, silver, clear & white bracelets are the MOST HORRIBLY DULL DESIGNS EVER!) and allows me to enter a new realm that I have been struggling to find time to launch for nearly a year. Ironically a shipment of brand new product, to accompany this new work, is already en-route and I'm not looking back for a second! For me this is the silver lining of an otherwise ridiculous rain cloud which is going to force some of my favorite bargain events, like Baby Daze and garage sales, to become black-market, underground activities. Did you know that if you haven't had every snap on that Gymboree onesie from two years ago tested you can't legally re-sell it anywhere? At least not until Gymboree pays to have all the old snaps tested but honestly, do you see that happening? All I see is the potential for landfills to get really, really full.

And there is one last thing I want to add, for my personal friends and family. This legislation has the ability to really ruin some of our mommy fun - like eBay and Etsy - which means that if you're not crafty, creative or otherwise resourceful it could begin to create some new and difficult challenges. The last thing us moms need is more items for our self-critical eyes to focus on. I see the world through a rare set of rose colored glasses. I see a potential for problems when the less-creative (and bad sewers like myself) loose their Etsy suppliers while the more-creative continue to crank out cool stuff, widening the gap that so recently seemed like it could have been eliminated. But I also see the potential for us to help each other. I am not a baby jewelry seller so I can (legally) show anyone who asks how to use crimping pliers and crimp beads to make your own jewelry. I do not - and never did nor will - sell felt play food so I can show anyone who asks how to make those safe and delightful toys. My next blog project is to post the information about my craft/vinyl cutter, since it's a frequent request, so you too can do what I do. I would like to invite all my friends who find themselves in my same situation - or who discover they're the lucky owner of any craft or skill knowledge - to share what they know with anyone who asks. This legislation is going to kill a lot of small businesses. Let's make sure these crafts survive long enough for Washington to fix this mess. And for anyone too shy to ask, please don't be, it's really the most flattering complement. For anyone who is certain we won't answer honestly, you might have judged us too harshly. What can asking hurt? For anyone who thinks they don't have a creative bone in their body, I have a secret: 99% of what we call "creativity" is really clever construction, copying or crafty combining. Take some materials you want to work with, put them together how you want, with a bit of your own flair, and watch people insist you're creative. ;)

Time Flies

Today Aiden is 22 months old and my sister's newborn is 9 days old. How is it possible that time flies by so quickly? Ironcially I remember when Aiden was 9 days old. I whispered in his ear that day that he was my precious little nine-day-old and cuddled with him most of the day, feeling that first pang of panic that he was growing too quickly and never again would his age be in the single-digits of days. Silly, I know, but it's those experiences that made me realize early on that I need to savor every moment! Some are more savory than others but I enjoy them all.