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I recently got my hands on a Silhouette SD electronic cutter. It’s a little computer-controlled craft robot with very sharp teeth! Use it to cut out designs for all sorts of things: paper crafts and scrapbooking, vinyl lettering, glass and metal etching, stencils, and anything else that involves precision cutting of small planar materials. There’s some pretty neat stuff out there: sticky vinyl, flocked vinyl, magnet sheet, even temporary tattoo paper.

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I really like this lamp Meg Allan Cole has hanging in her living room– it’s the Midsummer Light by Dutch designer Tord Boontje. I found a flat-ish picture of the design online and traced over it in Adobe Illustrator, setting to cut out some delicate flowers. Hit the jump for the results, the rest of the review, and a discount coupon code for the machine.

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I then cut the proto-design out of Tyvek (a FedEx mailer, actually), just like Mr. Boontje’s delicate yet durable lamp.

I tried a few times to change the speed and cutting depth settings, but the Tyvek was proving difficult. It would snag at sharp corners and the “grain” of the material is course and uneven. I decided to switch to printer paper.

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I used my trusty brayer to press the paper super firmly to the carrier sheet. I figured the paper snags were due to poor settings on my part, and I was able to lower their frequency by playing with the speed and cutting depth variables. The settings seem easy to change, but difficult to master: a process of material/settings experimentation that I know well from the last time I cut anything with a laser. The software has setting presets for a few materials they think you’re likely to use, which make for good starting points.

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Despite the snags, the paper cutout came out a lot cleaner than the Tyvek edition!

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Take a look at all those paper pieces stuck to the carrier sheet. Say you trace and cut a design entirely by hand, and it takes you 40 minutes. You could probably draw and cut that design with the Silhouette machine in 20 minutes, but you’ll spend the other 20 cleaning up tiny scraps off a sticky pad with tweezers. They use some pretty well-engineered adhesive that holds the whole sheet tight but gives up tiny pieces easily, but not so easily that you can just shake them loose. This is my biggest pet peeve about the Silhouette, but there’s away around it: just make adhesive-backed stickers!

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I tried using the Silhouette to make some sticky vinyl bike lettering. I used Scotchlite reflective vinyl and looked up the Fuji bike logo font online.

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It was easy to adjust the size of the letters and connect to the machine in both Silhouette Studio and Adobe Illustrator with the (unsupported) CraftROBO Illustrator plugin available for PPC Mac (works on Intel with Rosetta) or Windows.

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Here’s what the interface looks like on the Illustrator plugin.

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It took me two tries to get the cutting depth right for the vinyl. The blade cuts through the vinyl but not he backing, so you end up with ready-to-place stickers instead of bits of paper everywhere. This has been my favorite use of the Silhouette so far. I got fast results on some pro-looking bike detailing without too much to clean up.

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The Silhouette online store, accessed from within the design software, is generally stocked with shapes and lettering appropriate for scrapbooking or greeting cards, and designs are usually 99 cents. I was able to find some interesting box shapes reminiscent of those found in one of my favorite design books, Structural Package Designs. While I’m not inclined to buy preformatted text graphics to make greeting cards, I’m happy to pay a buck for a rad folding box design that would take me at least 20 minutes to draw up in Illustrator.

Silhouette is running a special promotion through June 29 2011: use promo code CRAFTZINE to get a Silhouette SD machine and 2 packages of temporary tattoo paper for $199, plus 25% off anything else in the Silhouette shop.

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Becky Stern

Becky Stern is head of wearable electronics at Adafruit Industries. Her personal site: sternlab.org


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