Craft & Design Digital Fabrication Paper Crafts

Advertisements for cutting plotters (aka vinyl cutters) in magazines market this technology as a distribution platform for costly design patterns, available from retail outlets as files or physical cartridges. That’s a clash with Maker culture: We want to make our own stuff, thank you very much.

But don’t write off vinyl cutters just yet. You can accomplish a lot more with a vinyl cutter than the projects often highlighted in advertising associated with “craft cutters.” So we pulled together some of our favorite examples, along with some alternative uses you might want to employ.

Labels and Stickers

  • Stick physical numbers or time labels right onto the table while you photograph the stages of a tutorial or other process to help you sort through the photographs later.
  • Create labels for materials, supplies, and experiments in your own idiom, from ghoulish safety warnings, to all-caps warnings like “KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF MY STUFF!”
  • Place glow in the dark safety labels in your workshop that only reveal themselves when you flip off the lights.
Photo: Pete Prodoehl
Photo by Pete Prodoehl

Imperator Furiosa’s Skeleton Arm

Maker/Hacker/Blogger Pete Prodoehl exited a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road with a quest of his own: To produce a vinyl sticker replica of Imperator Furiosa’s Skeleton Arm. He traced the image and pasted it to the driver’s door of his own war machine (and his laptop).

Electronics

  • Create acid resist patterns for your custom PCBs, and then add “silkscreen” labels.
  • Use a conductive pen to plot a circuit in low-resistance silver.
  • Cut thin foil traces, PCB layers, and RFF interference protection for your paper circuits.
  • Create your own DIY sticker circuits, from blinking “LED stickies” to handy ad-hoc breakouts for your Arduino or Raspberry Pi prototyping.

Woodworking, Craft, and Painting

  • Create and place trim markers on plywood, MDF, acrylic, or hardwoods on-site where the project will be delivered, and then transport the materials to a better-furnished woodshop for cutting, sanding, and painting.
  • Create edge boundaries and resist patterns to take some of the terror out of painting, staining, and coating.
  • Remind yourself of the part ID and rotation when producing a massive assembly project on a CNC, laser cutter, or chopsaw. (Peel and discard when the project is assembled.)
  • Prepare stencil vinyls and plastic sheets suited to the specific water-based or solvent-based paints you will be using.
  • Create stencils and resist layers for chemical etching or sandblasting on wood, glass, acrylic, or metal sheets.

Paper Engineering

  • Cut, crease, score, and perforate papers, cardstocks, and thin plastics to create elaborate kirigami, origami, and other paper craft projects.
  • Cut and score the top layer of thin foam core or cardboard to produce instant foldable 3D objects.
  • Add fragments of paper or translucent acetate to produce colorful paper or plywood lanterns.
Photo: Natasha Dzurny
Photo by Natasha Dzurny

Light My Heart

Papercircuit designer Natasha Dzurny creates pop-up greeting cards with paper circuits like this Valentine’s Day card (and many more).

Prototypes and Project Decorations

  • Produce foam or stiff paper prototypes of product designs or scale models of buildings.
  • Test ambitious CNC and laser cuts in miniature before executing on large or costly materials.
  • Add text, weathering, decals, and patches of color to your 3D printed scale replicas.
  • Add tiny text and embellishment details onto 3D printed replica props that are too small and fussy to produce using your printer.
  • Sometimes the best cuts are hidden. Double-stick adhesive sheets securely attach embellishments to your projects, or attach your projects to walls and tables and other things.

Custom Apparel

  • Launch your next project “in character” with outfits bearing the logo, name, and purpose of your invention.
  • Create team shirts for your First Robotics team, hackerspace, or classroom.
  • Transfer any design or illustration you dream up to tshirts, totes, and temporary tattoos.

silkscreen

Simple Silk-Screen Printing

Educator and Make contributor Chris Connors shared this project in issue 36, demonstrating how to use a vinyl sticker as the mask for a DIY silkscreen project.

Homes, Schools, Hackerspaces, and More

  • Create removable vinyl wallpaper patterns on your own time and whims.
  • Add frosting or translucent blocking to window glass or acrylic laser cut projects without the messiness of acid etching/sandblasting equipment.
  • Enlarge a thoughtful handwritten note into an epic wall decoration.
  • Vectorize photographs of members of your class, team, or hackerspace. Use a marking tool in your machine to sketch portraits to hang in the space. Run the files again to produce another copy to send home with the subject of each drawing.
  • Create labels with magnetic backing material to mark who is “In”, “Out”, or who should “Clean the Bathroom.”
  • Add a permanent wall shadow to a present or missing object.
  • Cut the panels and silhouette shapes for elaborate interactive shadow boxes.
  • Make your own museum-style wall text and stick it up next to something you appreciate as art.

4 thoughts on “34 Cool Things You Can Do with Your New Vinyl Cutter

  1. Perhaps you could update this article to include tutorials/instructalbes on each of these subjects? If I saw how this actually worked I’d be a little more interested. It sounds powerful in the custom apparel, paper craft and especially electronics sections but you need some directions to actually get started.

    1. I agree with you that this article is basically a list of “what you could do if you knew how to do it.” But then again, most articles found here are. That being said, I have owned a Zing! Air (dumped it due to unreliable cuts) and currently own a Silhouette Cameo. While the Zing has a broader range of possible cutting materials, the Cameo is vastly more intuitive and convenient. One can do amazing things with either. I would steer clear of cartridge-based systems, (such as the Cricut) as you have to buy physical cartridges before you can cut anything, and you cannot import other files types (this may not be entirely accurate but it is close).

      There is a plethora of information and files to be found for free if you take the time to search the web. I don’t have any great links to share at this time, as I simply save files as I find or need them–I apologize for not being more helpful in that respect. You will find that most of the info and files available are related to crafting–scrapbooking, card making, decoration making, etc.–but the tips and techniques are applicable to makers interested in other sorts of projects.

      You can import .svgs into both Make The Cut and Silhouette Studio Designer Edition. I use Silhouette Studio much more than Make the Cut now, and I find that you can easily import almost any image (.gif, .jpg, .png, and probably a few other formats) and use the trace feature to create an accurate reproduction of the image for cutting with a little practice and patience.

      As I have a 3D printer, I haven’t fiddled with cutting/scoring 3D shapes too much on the die cutter. However, 123D Make has a feature that allows you to convert an .stl or .obj file (common 3D model formats) into a flat image with score lines, or you can cut layers that you then assemble into a fully 3D object. It’s pretty rad—you can find more information on their website or possible tuts on youtube.

      I hope this information has helped. I would highly recommend the Silhouette Cameo if you’re not planning to use it as poor-man’s CNC for thick foam or thin wood. That was my initial intent when I purchased the Zing, and I was sorely disappointed. Knowing the limitations and working within those confines make die cutters very useful for many things, including those listed in this article. For making stickers, t-shirts, stencils for glass etching, wood burning, painting, etc., the Cameo is a great little machine that has already paid for itself for my use cases!

    2. There are some wonderful YouTube tutorials for almost all tabletop plotter/cutters. I also have the silhouette cameo, and there is also a cutter from them for thicker materials.

  2. Here at Splatspace we also use our VC to create masks for electrolytic etching.

    For one-off “screen printing” you also don’t need the screen; apply the mask directly to the garment and apply the ink with a small foam roller usually used for detail paint rolling.

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