My First Vinyl Cutting Project

I’ve always liked vinyl as a material since the process of labelling and thinking about the text has always felt like a meaningful part of my work. Sometime back I also enjoyed working with cutting acetate-type sheet material, but cutting it by hand was quite a schlep. Whilst mindlessly browsing a certain (ahem) short-form mobile video sharing social media platform, I kept seeing lots of “behind the scenes” shots of people using cutting machines to creating stickers and vinyls as part of their “quarantine etsy home business”. Some of them showed sophisticated uses of the machines to do precision things like layering vinyls, foil embossing, heat transfer film, debossing, etc. ie the things that mainly is done at a commercial print shop, even if we’ve had the technology for ages and ages and it is pretty simple. (The less impressive ones were just repetitions of the same type of etsy product copied from one another, and some pretty basic things which made me say “HOW IS THAT EVEN A BUSINESS? People pay money for this???”)

One of the electronic cutting machines I kept seeing was the Cricut and Silhouette, the latter of which I had used once in NYP’s Makerspace, somewhat fruitlessly (because the grip maps were not maintained well in the shared working space). Somehow, I had not really thought about a home vinyl cutter before.

This class of electronic cutting machine can cut vinyl, paper, cardboard, plastic, stickers, cloth, thin sheets of wood, basically practically any sheet material with perfect accuracy. You can also insert a pen into the slot and it will draw for you, but it is so perfect you may as well have used a printer. There are no errors. I couldn’t possibly draw as perfectly as this machine, unlike my experience using more shonky plotters. In fact, when considering what a precision device this is, this makes the line-us look like a toy.

To be honest, the downside is that the machines are not open-source, and now I’ve also read that Provo Craft has been aggressive in pursuing legal action against software makers who have tried to reverse engineer their software in order to make the machines cut their files directly (bypassing the default cricut design space). So the machines have their own ‘ecosystem’ catering to communities of users who are largely home-crafters and small businesses. The cutting files have to be uploaded via their proprietry software (it accepts png/gif/jpg/svg) and sent to the printer via their software. Up to about the 2010s it appears that it ran on a cartridge system and everyone had to buy these pre-set cartridges which wouldn’t have been interesting to me at all.

Probably the weirdest part is that it seems to have created a niche of users who are not skilled or tech savvy enough to design the files, all searching for cutting files and ultimately willing to pay shocking amounts for files that they can cut with. (Cue more of the “HOW IS THAT EVEN A BUSINESS? People pay money for this???”)

Knowing all this backstory to the way it is run, why would I still get a machine like this? Well… although there are alternatives like the KNK Force/Maxx/Zing, Skycut, GCC, Saga, Vicsign, Teneth, Liyu, Boyi, etc (so many), many of these are pricier, all have their own software to deal with, not all are as well documented, and I may not have the time to calibrate the blade settings one by one for each material… so… eh. The most important thing is that I can just send an svg file over and get it sliced, like how I might do with the laser cutter. That’s all I really need. So for me, going with the big name machine means that it works out of the box.

Since Illustrator is kinda my thing, I just did up a quick idea for a metal style name text for Beano’s toy piano in it. Some people prefer to use things like inkscape, Sure cuts a lot (SCAL) or Making the cut (MTC – which appears to be abandonware now) to produce the svg files (I also know that SCAL and MTC were the two software makers who were forced to make their software non-compatible with cricut). I think this points to it being a casual crafter user base, not an art/designer user base, where I would have thought that Adobe Illustrator would be considered the industry norm for software used to generate SVG files. Anyway, could also imagine coding up the svg markup too to get the files, maybe through Processing again.

The shapes in the SVG have to be “welded” together in Cricut Design Space or else it will try to optimise the space and rearrange your cut items all around.

I bought the cutting machine online, but I did make a trip to Plaza Singapura’s Spotlight where Cricut has a big area in the front of the entrance, along with its vinyls. I took one look at the price of the vinyl there and basically made an about turn – they were in the 17-45 range (*spits out my tea*).

For supplies, I got rolls of Oracal 631 Matte for cheaps online. After doing a bit of research, it appears that a standard vinyl used by vinyl shops is the Oracal 631 (removable) or Oracal 651 (permanent). The adhesive on 631 vinyl is a clear, water-based removable adhesive while 651 is a clear, solvent-based permanent adhesive. Maybe I will get 651 for future projects but at the moment I just got rolls of the removable 631 vinyl which I could then use for household projects as well as screenprinting…

At Spotlight the Cricut brand removable vinyl was SGD17 for 4 feet of Black Removable Vinyl (SGD 4.25 per foot). But online I got SGD44.70 for 30 feet of Oracal 631 Vinyl (SGD1.49 per foot for the Oracal 631 Black Vinyl). I also got Transfer Tape in a roll online at 24 for 50 feet (SGD 0.48 per foot). For the “default” vinyl, I was a bit wary about getting random chinese brand vinyl just because I wouldn’t know what kind of adhesive it would be using, although I guess if I want to experiment more with materials I will need to order more samples from different producers esp when it comes to the weird and wonderful world of HOLOGRAPHIC VINYL.

I got some tools from the Nicapa brand which was a lot cheaper than the cricut brand tools. I think you really do need the tools to do the “weeding” or removal of excess vinyl. Although, I could have packed in more items in the vinyl sheet, but this was my first try I didn’t want to be THAT adventurous. It seems inevitable that there will be a bit of ‘wastage’ along the way.

I sometimes try to imagine what a printmaking class would comprise of (Having never studied printmaking or art or design when I was younger (in a formal way). If printmaking mainly was about the psychomotor skill (and not about having to study the history of printmaking or the cultural aspects of the medium), then in the future, would anyone really need to study printmaking or could they also quite possibly totally DIY it with a precision cutting machine like this? A print would be made by simplifying an image into the main regions and colours, and then vinyl cutting those specific areas in the right coloured vinyl that one could obtain. With a physical vinyl, more vibrant or unusual colours beyond the digital printing colours could be obtained – like spot colours, pearlescence, reflective mirror finishes, or holographic effects…

Actual time spent making the digital file and writing this post was several times more than the time spent on actually executing this project physically. Took me probably a maximum of 15 min from cutting the vinyl, loading it up on the lightgrip mat, cutting the vinyl, weeding, laying over the transfer tape, cleaning the target surface, and transferring the vinyl to the surface. So yeah… precision and speed was achieved.

The final product!