Interested in arts and crafts? Thinking of making your own custom t-shirts and greeting cards, as well as stickers for your car? Or perhaps you’re even thinking of making a bit of a profit with your own home décor and signage business? If any of these is true, then you’re going to need the best vinyl cutting machine.
If you’re a complete newbie, it’s not going to be a simple process for you to find the best vinyl cutter. In fact, it’s never easy even for experienced users who are now looking to buy the best professional vinyl cutter for their small business venture. For newbies, it’s a whole new world and it’s even possible that you’re harboring some misconceptions about what these things can do. So let’s start this guide with some basic explanations and answers to common questions.
What’s a Vinyl Cutter?
A vinyl cutter is to an arts and crafts hobbyist as a printer is to a student who’s writing a term paper. Students use a computer to compose their term papers with a word processor, and then the computer controls the printer in churning out copies of your text.
It’s the same basic principle for vinyl cutters.
You have a computer and you come up with a design in your graphic design software. This time, you have a machine that has a blade that then cuts your design from your material, which in this case is usually vinyl.
Let’s say you have a circular design, and the cutting machine then cuts along that outline you’ve just drawn. Once that’s complete, you’ll then have to weed out the unwanted material from your cut. That is, you yourself have to remove the parts of the material so you’re left with the circular hole in the middle of your material.
The next stage then requires you to transfer the final design onto your items, such as on a t-shirt or a coffee mug.
Now, this is a rather simplistic description, because the reality of it is that a vinyl cutting machine is far more versatile than the name of the product implies. It doesn’t just cut various types of vinyl such as iron on vinyl, as it can cut other materials too such as cardstock and paper. Some can cut your designs into something as thin as tissue paper, or as thick as leather.
Its functions aren’t even limited to merely cutting at all. The machine can produce fold lines, so you can fold the greeting card you’re making or you can end up with some origami masterpiece. Many cutters have removable cutting blades, and you can put in a pen in its place. You then end up with a machine that can draw or trace your design into your material.
What Can You Make With It?
It depends on your machine, your skills, and ultimately your imagination. Here are some items you can create with the help of a vinyl machine:
- Custom designs for t-shirts, sweaters, and other garments
- Greeting cards
- Car stickers and wraps
- Various stickers and labels
- Decals to decorate your laptop and smartphone
- Even origami
With such a long list of possible items you can make, it doesn’t take long for a hobbyist to imagine starting a business with this machine. You can set up your own business that specializes in custom t-shirt designs. You can have your own home décor or signage business. You can also produce stickers that can be put on electronic equipment. You can also start a business with cards or even with exquisitely decorated fans.
The Quality of the Vinyl Machine: Hobbyist vs. Commercial-Grade
The best vinyl machine for you will offer functions you need and deal with the materials you wish to work on—at the price you can afford. So a lot depends on your personal needs, preferences, and budget.
If you’re an utter newbie, your best bet is to start looking for the best budget vinyl cutter. After all, you’re just trying it out and you’re not even really sure about whether you can sustain your interest in making your own arts and crafts projects. At least you can start without busting your budget, so you minimize your financial risk.
Affordable starter vinyl cutters
These affordable cutters tend to have fewer features, and that’s not always a bad thing. The silver lining is that you can take less time to master the features that are available. It’s not as complicated as the more expensive models. It’s also not as large as more expensive models too, so they take up less space.
It doesn’t mean that you’re forced to suffer from inferior models when your budget for vinyl cutting machines is somewhat small. Some of them can be very durable and easy to use. Some of the best cheap vinyl cutter models are among the most popular hobbyist-grade machines because they offer a lot more than just a low price.
Professional vinyl cutters
At the other side of the quality spectrum, you have the commercial-grade models. These units have lots more features, and they’re usually a lot more powerful and versatile. But what really sets them apart is their utter reliability. These things can work every day for extended periods of time.
You have to understand that with a business on the line you have work schedules to keep and customers to satisfy. You need quality results and speedy work from your machine, and it shouldn’t break down too often to disrupt your schedule.
The main problem is that you can’t really tell for sure if a vinyl cutter is reliable just from reading the specs. Sure, the length of the warranty is always an indicator. The longer it is then the more trust the manufacturer usually has for its product. But then again there can be problems with the warranty. There may be some fine print issues, and you may have to spend out of pocket sending the thing back to get it replaced. Some manufacturers may not even be bothered to honor their warranties at all.
Even if they do replace your machine when there’s a major problem, the problem is that this is still a huge disruption to your schedule. It’s annoying if you’re just doing this as a hobby, but an utter disaster when you’re using it for your business.
So how do you know whether or not a cutting machine generally arrives at your doorstep undamaged? How do you know how long it will last?
The Importance of Customer Reviews
The best way to find the answers to these questions is to read a lot of the customer reviews. These vinyl cutter reviews will give you a fair idea of just how often a machine arrives with broken parts. Many reviewers also add newer sections to their reviews regarding a breakdown, or to report how it is still working even after a period of time such as a year or 2 years.
Customer reviews can also tell you about how easy it is to use a machine. In fact, “ease of use” actually starts with the assembly. Some machines arrive largely preassembled, and for the DIY-impaired this is a truly convenient advantage. In other cases
The most trustworthy reviews are from “verified customers”, and like all surveys, you get more accurate results when you’re checking out a large number of reviews. Take a look at the negative reviews and see what’s wrong. Sometimes the model gets blamed for something inconsequential like a late delivery. In other cases, a model may get a low score simply because the customer ordered the wrong item.
The Price Factor
The good news about the prices of vinyl cutters is that they keep getting more affordable. A few decades ago, if you wanted the best commercial vinyl cutter you’d need to talk to a bank for a sizable loan. Even personal vinyl cutting machine models rival the capabilities of those earlier expensive models. You may even want to wait to get a newly-launched cutting machine. Some models drop down in price in just a year or so.
Still, like most industries, the vinyl cutting machine market operates under the rule that you get what you pay for. If you’re looking for a newbie machine or one to just use for a hobby, then you may want to look for the best vinyl cutter under $300. You don’t really want to buy cutters that cost too low since they may come with cheap quality as well.
The best professional-grade models, on the other hand, can have a price approaching $1,000. However, you may find excellent models that can be had for about $600.
The Quality of the Cut
For both newbies and small business owners, perhaps the most crucial factor is the quality of the cut the machine offers. If you do have a business, then cutting quality will determine the quality of your designs and the popularity of your business. Even if you’re a newbie, this is important too. There’s nothing more disheartening than painstakingly creating a design and then your machine mangles the cuts.
1. Media Size is not the same as Cutting Size
The first thing you need to remember is that the “maximum media size” is one thing, and maximum cutting size is another. Then you also have minimum cutting size, which pertains to the precision of the cuts.
With maximum media size, it’s about the size (width) of the material you put inside the cutting machine. You have tiny cutters that can take materials that measure just 6 inches wide, and these are great if all you ever want to do is to produce decals for coffee mugs. For many though, the best vinyl cutting machine for crafts ought to measure about 9 to 12 inches wide for maximum cutting width. These are still small and affordable machines, but you can produce patterns and designs big enough for shirts.
However, some machines are much bigger, especially for commercial purposes and for certain businesses. For a signage business, you’re really better off with a 24-inch machine at least. This means that you can take in vinyl materials that are 24 inches wide.
2. Cutting precision
So now let’s get to the precision part of the cut. This is a matter of importance even if you’re just trying to put witty sayings on shirts. The fonts you use for vinyl lettering for crafts don’t always use simple shapes. Often they may feature various details like “serif”, and it can get especially detailed when you delve into cursive fonts. If you’re using small letters only an inch high, then you need to make sure that your machine can actually make cuts that small.
Of course, for this, you need good blades. But at least with blades, if you’re not satisfied with the blade that comes with the machine then you can just swap them out with your aftermarket blades. It’s also crucial that you monitor the sharpness of the blade and you keep replacing them after using them for so long. These cutting blades are just like shaving razors, scissors, kitchen knives, and lawn mower blades—they turn blunt after you use them a lot.
But the key to the best vinyl monogram machine is still going to be the motor. There are two types: the stepper motor found on the more economical models, and the more advanced servo motors.
Stepper motors are mostly mechanical, and they can be relied upon to cut larger sizes accurately enough. They’re just a bit too noisy, and but that’s a small price to pay for the discount you get. The less palatable sacrifice for some is the loss of precision, as these motors are generally unreliable once you work on designs and letters that are smaller than half an inch. This is a physical limitation brought on by the large gears in these motors.
But now we have the servo motors, which are digital instead of mechanical. With its digital encoder translating the software commands, you get blade and motor movement that’s precise and smooth. The blade is able to pivot and turn along really smaller paths with greater precision. This means that with some models, you can actually cut letters that are ¼ or even ⅛ of an inch. Peer at the letters this small, and you can actually see the serifs, which is the small line you may see at the end of a stroke in a letter included in fonts like New Times Roman.
These servo motors are also helpful in providing excellent tracking. This is the ability of the machine to cut a straight path along the length of your vinyl. This may seem such an unimportant feature until you encounter a machine with poor tracking. You end up with non-straight lines that mess up your lengthy designs and leads to wasted time and material.
Most of the time, the vinyl cutting machine offers two settings which you can adjust. You have the blade level setting or thickness setting, which allows you to set how much of the blade is exposed. Usually, this will depend on the thickness of the material you’re cutting. You don’t want to expose too little of the blade since you may not be able to cut through. But if you expose too much of the blade and you cut beyond the actual thickness of the material, you may end up dulling the blade more quickly. The blade tip may even break.
The other setting is the force of the blade, and again it all depends on the thickness and hardness of the material. You don’t really need much force if you’re cutting tissue paper or ordinary paper, but you need greater force for card stock, fiberboard, and even leather. Some machines even offer a “double pass” feature, which really makes sure that you get the cut you want in a particular area.
In some cases, you’re able to adjust the speed of the cutting, which is measured in mm/second. For simple cuts, you may want to go faster so you get the job done within your schedule. For some detailed cuts and for harder materials, slower cutting speeds may be necessary.
Again you may have to experiment with the right settings for your vinyl materials so that you get accurate cuts without blunting your blade unnecessarily. You can always go online and do research so that you can find and use the right setting for your machine and your particular vinyl material.
The more types of materials you cut, the more you have to remember what their optimal settings are. That’s why some higher-end models offer pre-programmed settings. All you really need to do is identify the media you’re cutting through the software. The machine will then automatically use the right blade depth and force to cut through the material cleanly.
With some models, you can even experiment on your own and find the optimal settings. You can then save these new settings as part of the pre-programed settings.
Your Computer and Software
It is actually possible to use a vinyl cutter without any sort of separate computer at all. These come with special cartridges that have preloaded designs. They then have controls that let you pick the design you want, and the machine cuts the design for you from the cartridge. The cartridge is like a sheet of letter stickers and you pick the letters from it to spell your name on your notebook for school.
But for the most part, you need a PC for the vinyl cutter just as you need a PC for your printer. This then leads us to the software that’s often found in these vinyl cutters. They can allow you to pick designs from the library of preloaded images to use. You may also be able to make changes to these designs, so they’re more like templates. Of course, you can also use these programs to create your own original designs from scratch.
Making arts and crafts is a creative hobby. You really should concentrate on coming up with your own designs and not just use preloaded or downloaded designs as your own. This is especially true when you’re going commercial—you can’t download a Walt Disney image, put it on a shirt, and then sell your custom shirt online. Mickey Mouse’s lawyers will not be amused.
So to make your designs, you may want to use CorelDraw, AutoCAD, and Adobe Illustrator. These use SVG image files that many of the best vinyl plotter models can recognize. Photoshop is the most notable exception—the program uses raster graphics instead of vectors that cutting machines can’t plot.
If you like using your smartphone to make your designs, you may also want to get a wireless vinyl cutter so you don’t have to connect via USB. Some models also offer apps you can download.
Accessories and Cutting Machine Kits
To use these vinyl cutting machines, you then first need to know where to buy heat transfer vinyl and other materials you’ll wish to cut. You also need to get weeding materials such as transfer tape and knives for weeding the excess vinyl material.
But for many beginners, the most convenient purchases are the cutting machine bundles. These come with the cutting machine as well as the various vinyl materials, plus the weeding tools. With this, you can experiment with various vinyl media and practice weeding the excess vinyl from the cuts. You may even find bundles that also include the heat press, so you just about have everything you need to start making your custom T-shirts.
When you think you’ve settled on the best vinyl cutting machine for you, go to YouTube and find out just how many videos there are for you to consult if you ever have a problem. Get to the manufacturer’s website and download the manuals. Find forums that offer advice concerning your model. Sooner or later you’re going to ask a question or encounter a problem, and you better know if you will have the answer you want quickly!