Not just for paper cutting anymore, the latest cutting machines can etch plastic, cut polymer clay and emboss leather.

Photos courtesy of Alison Lee

*Note: This post was updated on October 28, 2020, by Heather Paulsen. The reviews of the Cricut Maker, Cricut Explore Air 2, and Cricut Joy are the sections that have been updated or added.

Digital cutting machines have caught the attention of hobbyists of all sorts including scrapbookers, cookie makers, cake decorators, metal clay and polymer clay artists, and even leather workers.

With so many cutting machines on the market how do you pick the right one? I have all the cutters mentioned here and have spent a month this experimenting with each of them. In order to determine which machine is best for you, first think through what kind of projects you’d like to make? Each machine its own parameters of what’s possible so its important to know what you’ll be using it for.

To start, are you doing this as a hobby or hoping to start a small business? I’ve always believed in buying new equipment that could grow with my ideas. I went shopping for a sewing machine a few years ago and settled on a floor model that had a reduced price. It came with a lot more bells and whistles then I needed or knew how to use at the time, but after a few classes, the creative possibilities with the machine and attachments were really exciting. I feel the same way about digital cutters.

All of the cutters I’m reviewing here are available to consumers for approximately $100-400. (Be aware that there’s a whole other category of cutters to investigate called laser etchers. There are home models now, and the market is growing, but the prices for those are much higher.)

The next thing to think about is what type of materials you’d like to be able to cut, emboss, engrave, or etch. I want to do it all, of course.

Let’s take a look at each machine. (Amazon links in this post are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate Craft Industry Alliance earns from qualifying purchases.)

Silhouette Curio

If you are looking to work with thicker material like leather, acrylic, or metal clays, you want to consider the Silhouette Curio. The clearance for the materials to feed through this machine is up to 5mm.

The other great feature is that you can pause your machine, unload your mat to check if you need to make any adjustments, and reload the mat to the same place required to continue the job. You can also load two blades at a time for two different functions, plus there are accessories like oversized mats for larger projects. The ability to use a variety of tools to create stippling and embossing textures, and even cut balsam wood, are added bonuses. I’ve used my Curio to make an embossed leather journal cover, as well as metal clay roll up beads, and the results with both projects were amazing! This is truly a versatile machine.

Artist Mags Bonham loves this machine. “My favorite machine is the Silhouette Curio,” she says. “I can cut, engrave, and draw on a wide variety of materials. Much more than the Cameo. I also love that the base is stable and that you can load and unload with precision. I engrave and cut raw polymer clay and engrave acrylic and metal. The possibilities are endless.”

Silhouette Portrait 2

The Silhouette Portrait is a space-saving machine. It takes only one blade at a time and can cut up to approximately 1mm. It doesn’t cut to the same level of detail as the other machines. Its low cost and small size are impressive. This is a good choice if you’re looking for a portable machine.

Cricut Explore Air 2

The Cricut Explore Air 2 is the mid-range machine that can do all the basics and a little more. It has a Bluetooth connection that makes it easy to send your projects to the machine and storage for all the extra tools.

With the fine-point bald, it can cut all types of vinyl, all types of paper, and the Cricut felt and faux leather that is very similar to paper. You can purchase the deep point blade to cut foam, cardboard, chipboard, and magnet material. If you want to cut fabric you need to bond or interface the fabric first and use the bonded fabric blade. You can also use the pens to draw on your project.

To use a Cricut machine you have to have their mats to cut any of the materials so you are limited to the size of their two mats. Also, not all the tools are interchangeable between the Cricut Maker and the Cricut Explore Air 2.

The Cricut Explore Air 2 is a better price for all the basic crafts you want to do. I would recommend the machine for those who want to get into using a cutting machine, but you don’t need it to cut all the extra special materials. It’s a great machine that can do a lot and it works with lots of different crafts. It would really help business owners cut quickly and accurately.

cricut joy

Cricut Joy

The Cricut Joy is the smallest Cricut machine so it stores well, and it’s really easy to set on a table to do some simple crafting. It’s a great beginner machine for people who hate setting up a larger bulky machine. It has Bluetooth technology to keep crafting mostly cord-free.

The Cricut Joy can cut all types of vinyl and most types of paper. There are card inserts that you can purchase that make card making easy and almost instant. You can also use the pens to draw on your project.

It doesn’t need a mat to cut any material so you can do really long cuts (up to 20 feet). Because of the small machine size you either need to cut down your material to fit the machine or buy Cricut’s specific Cricut Joy material that is skinny enough to fit in the machine. 

Pair the Cricut Joy with the larger machines to do tag-team cutting and to be able to craft quicker. The Cricut Joy tools are not interchangeable with the Cricut Maker or the Cricut Explore Air 2. I recommend the Cricut Joy for more beginner crafters since it’s slightly more limited than the other two machines.

Silhouette Cameo 3

The Cameo 3 uses the same software interface as the Curio, but only has a 2mm cutting ability when using the deep-cut blade. It loads differently than the Curio as well, using mats instead of hard platforms, and though you can pause the machine, you can’t remove the cutting mat entirely and reload to the exact place; instead it’s a bit of a guessing game. The cartridge holds two tools at a time, which is excellent for doing two different tasks at once, like sketching a design, then cutting out either an outline or another shape.

Silhouette Cameo 4

The Cameo 4  is the latest Cameo to be released. There are lots of new features added to this machine, mainly that it’s faster and stronger than its predecessor. It’s got the ability to use a rotary blade and craft blade as well as a single tap auto blade, so cutting material like felt is now easier. There is a touch panel on the side and a dual-motor system. It cuts material up to 3mm thick. Here’s my warning: As of now, Silhouette is still working out the glitches with this machine. I recommend joining a Facebook group that shares information about these issues before purchasing.

Cricut Maker

The Cricut Maker is the machine that can do the most. It can cut really fine materials like chiffon and tissue paper, and it can also cut really thick materials like chipboard and leather. It has a Bluetooth connection and storage for all the extra tools.

The Cricut Maker can cut all types of vinyl, all types of paper, tissue paper, felt, interfaced fabric, non-interfaced fabric, leather, faux leather, foam, rubber stamp material, magnet material, cardboard, chipboard, basswood, wood veneer, kraft board, and aluminum sheets. Most of these must be purchased through Cricut so that you get the right material for the machine.

There are lots of cutting tools that can be purchased separately to cut all the different materials. There is a rotary blade for cutting fabric, a wavy rotary blade for cutting fabric or tissue paper, a foil transfer tool, a debossing tool, an engraving tool, a perforation blade, a scoring wheel, a double scoring wheel, a fine point blade for most materials, a deep point blade, and a knife blade for all the thick materials. You can also use the pens to draw on your project.

To use a Cricut machine you have to have their mats to cut any of the materials so you are limited to the size of their two mats. Also, not all the tools are interchangeable between the Cricut Maker and the Cricut Explore Air 2.

The Cricut Maker opens up the world of crafting since there are so many materials it can cut. I would recommend the machine for those who dislike cutting or can’t get an accurate cut, for children who love to craft but need help with the cutting, and for business owners who want to cut quickly and more accurately.

Putting your cutting machine to work

Both Silhouette and Cricut have thousands of digital files for sale starting at .99. Copyright restrictions apply to individual files, so make sure and check the fine print if you’re planning to sell what you make.

A good way to begin to learn to use your machine is to work with a file that is ready to use. This will eliminate beginner frustrations. Eventually, you’ll want to add your creative touch by creating your own original design files.

If you’ve never used a graphic or vector-based software program and want to create your own designs, this will be the biggest hurdle. In the end, it’s worth it because you’ll have lots of creative tools to develop your vision. In vector-based software, you’ll be creating and editing vectors, which are scalable lines and shapes with adjustable anchor points that make up the image. Each design will need to be a vector before it can be cut, etched or drawn with a cutting machine. These programs also allow you to save your files in a variety of file formats, including SVG (scalable vector graphics), which is the file format most cutting machine software prefers.

Inkscape is a beginner software programs I recommend because it’s free. It is not very intuitive or user-friendly, though, so if you’re able to subscribe to the Adobe Suite and get access to Adobe Illustrator, you’ll find that easier to learn.

Silhouette also has free software which is quite user-friendly. If you purchase the upgrade to the Designer Edition, you can save your file as an SVG, which means you can design in Silhouette, but cut on Cricut or any other cutter that uses that file format.

Artist Pam East designs with the Silhouette software and loves it. “I’ve struggled through Photoshop, Illustrator, and many other graphic design software packages,” she says. “Either you practically need a degree in graphic design to use them, or they have so few tools as to render them virtually useless. Silhouette Studio has more buttons and whistles than I ever imagined and yet remains user-friendly with a very reasonable learning curve. I do all my design work in this software now.”

Silhouette Designer and Silhouette Business Software are not free, but I think worth the cost for all the added features. Again, there are lots of videos available online to help you learn the features. Start with a simple first project and build from there.

Which Cutting Machine Should You Buy? A Review of the Top 6 Most Popular Digital Cutting Machines
Alison Lee

Alison Lee


Alison is the creator of CRAFTCAST.com, the number one leading website where crafters can take LIVE online Master Classes with the top working crafters in their creative fields, as well as watch hundreds of video tutorials. The CRAFTCAST™ podcast features interviews with master crafters, and has had close to a million downloads.

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