Buying a vinyl cutter to have alongside your heat press may seem like a huge undertaking. How do I know which cutter is going to work best? What’s going to give me the best results for my budget? Do I even need a vinyl cutter? Here at HeatPressNation.com we’re about more than just heat presses. Vinyl cutters are a fundamental tool for literally thousands of businesses and are a perfect complement to your heat press. This blog post will give you the tools needed to make the best decision on which vinyl cutter is most well-suited for you.
Vinyl cutters are the machines which essentially help create heat transfers or decals by cutting the shape of the transfer’s graphic, as set by cutting software, onto a desired material. The most popular applications for vinyl cutters (which are sometimes referred to as “plotters”) are Heat Transfer Vinyl, Adhesive Decal Vinyl, and Contour Cut Printed Graphics, also known as Print & Cut.
Heat Transfer Vinyl, commonly referred to as HTV, is used primarily for customizing T-shirts, hoodies, and other garments and textiles. HTV comes in a wide variety of colors and specialty finishes like glitter, metallic, foil, and more! Adhesive decal vinyl has a large spectrum of applications. The most popular are going to be car decals, window graphics for businesses, and wall decor. Adhesive Decal Vinyl also comes in a broad range of colors with many premium materials, namely chalkboard, etched glass, and glow in the dark. Contour Cutting Printed Graphics involves printing a graphic with registration marks, having your cutter read those registration marks with a specialized optical sensor, then using those marks as reference points to allow your cutter to perfectly cut your printed graphic out of the background.
The first four features you’ll want to look out for when comparing vinyl cutters deal with performance. These are going to be Speed, Force, Cutting and Media Width, and Tracking.
Speed is listed by how fast your cutter can cut in a straight line; it's often measured in inches, centimeters, or millimeters per second. Actual cutting speed may vary depending on the amount of curves and corners in your graphic.This is because each cutter handles curves differently than another. Your cutting speed may need to be further adjusted depending on the material being cut. The max speed listed on the cutter’s spec sheet provides a great baseline for a relative idea of how fast it will cut. Force is how much downward pressure your cutter will apply to the blade. Most heat transfer and adhesive decal vinyl require about 60-80 grams of force. Glitter vinyl and heat transfer paper will require around 90-120g, and there are other materials that require more force. A greater max force doesn’t necessarily indicate a better cutter, though it may be an important feature if you’re cutting thick and rigid materials.
Cutting Width and Media Width are two separate measurements. Media width is the widest material that can be loaded into your cutter, while cutting width is the maximum width of that material which can actually be cut by your cutter. Some vinyl cutters are advertised by their cutting width and others by their media width, with both values provided in the cutter’s specifications. Cutting and media width should both be taken into consideration when selecting a cutter. Tracking is often overlooked when selecting a vinyl cutter. Tracking is listed in feet or meters and indicates the maximum length of material the cutter is capable of cutting accurately. This is important if you intend to cut large jobs, or large quantities of a smaller job that will require a long stretch of material.
Now we’ve talked about basic performance capabilities, let’s consider a couple more features. These are equally, and possibly even more important when selecting a vinyl cutter. These are going to be the Optical Sensor, type of Motor, and the included Cutting Software.
The Optical Sensor on a cutter is what enables it to detect registration marks. As mentioned earlier, registration marks are used by the cutter as points of reference to ensure accurate cuts around the edge of your printed graphic. The printer will print the image with registration marks on the outer borders of the media, which the optical sensor can then register and use them to plot a course for the blade to precisely cut the printed image. Some cutters also have media detection, which allows them to use their optical sensor to measure media width and length, which are then relayed to your cutting software so you know exactly how large your material is.
The Motor in a vinyl cutter is what drives the blade from left to right across the surface of your media in addition to rolling it forward and backward. Vinyl cutters come with either of two types of motors: stepper and servo. Stepper motors are more simple in design and are generally found in more affordable cutters. As the name suggests, they operate in steps while performing the cut. Servo motors are more advanced, thanks to their intricate design. Servo motors are often found in higher-end, commercial-grade cutters and allows them to operate faster, more quietly, and with greater precision than those with a stepper motor.
Every cutter sold at HeatPressNation comes with Cutting Software included for free. Vinyl cutters require a special format for the image files used for cutting. These are called vector graphics, with the most common types being PDF, SVG, and EPS. Cutting software is used to process these vector graphics and send them to your cutter. But how do you create these graphics? For that, you will need vector graphic design software. The most commonly used vector design programs are Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw, and Inkscape. These programs are for design only and require you to export your images as a vector file and then import that file into your cutting software. Some cutters include combo programs, which combine cutting and design software. Combo programs allow you to import & edit graphics, create new graphics, and send those graphics to your cutter - all in one! Some combo programs, like Vinyl Systems SignMaster, also allow you to export your created graphics to use with your preferred cutting software. Examples of combo programs are Vinyl Systems SignMaster, Silhouette Studio, and Graphtec Studio. In general, combo programs are easier for beginners, those just getting started with vinyl cutters, or those with little to no prior graphic design experience. If you are looking for a combo program compatible with a wide range of vinyl cutters, consider getting Vinyl Systems SignMaster, which is included with every Vinyl Systems cutter and available separately at HeatPressNation.com.
Part of what makes picking a vinyl cutter tough is figuring out which one is best suited for your purpose. Maybe you’re looking to make t-shirts for friends and family as a hobby. Perhaps you are looking to start a custom shirt business. Or it’s possible that you are ready to open a full production facility with HTV as your main product. Whatever the case, we have you covered with our three main classes of Vinyl Cutters: Home, Small Business, and Commercial.
Home Use cutters are best suited for hobbyists and are the most affordable and compact to own. Home use cutters are commonly referred to as craft cutters. Don’t let the small size and low price-point fool you - these craft cutters can cut just about every type of heat transfer vinyl that the big boys can. This is why many folks who are just getting into the business choose a home use cutter for their first machine. Some notable home use cutters are the Silhouette Cameo, Vinyl Systems Specialist, and GCC’s i-Craft and AR-24.
Now if you’re starting your business and are ready to invest in a professional cutter, our Small Business class cutters are what you’re looking for. With these cutters coming in larger sizes and working at speeds up to 25 inches-per-second, they are better suited for the increased volume and precision demands of professional small businesses. Some examples of small business class cutters include GCC’s Expert & Puma; Vinyl Systems’ Edge, and Graphtec’s CE LITE-50.
This brings us to our Commercial (or Production/Industrial) class vinyl cutters. These cutters are specifically designed to handle the demanding rigors that come with a cutting in a commercial setting. These cutters are designed for high-production garment customization businesses, with applications in the sign & banner industry and beyond. Several examples of commercial class cutters are GCC’s Jaguar and RX series; the Vinyl Systems Evo, and Graphtec’s CE and FC series.
Lastly, there are a few additional accessories which are often bundled with vinyl cutters. These are things to look out for that may influence your decision on which vinyl cutter to select. Most vinyl cutters will function on top of a desk or table. However, having a vinyl cutter stand will not only allow the cutter to stand alone to save space, but the stand also operates as a roll feeder. This allows you to load a roll of material below or behind the cutter and feed it to the cutter with ease. Some stands even have a media basket which keeps your materials clean and off the floor when cutting extended lengths. Some smaller cutters do not have stands available, but they do have roll feeders which allow you to take advantage of using rolls instead of sheets of media. For example, the Graphtec CE LITE-50 comes with a front-loading roll feeder and the Silhouette Cameo has a similar front-loading roll feeder sold separately.
At the end of the day, there is no “best cutter” for everyone - only the best cutter for you. It may seem intimidating to find the right vinyl cutter considering the technical details at hand. But with the information provided above, you now have the tools to make the best decision based on your application and intended use.