Not just for paper cutting anymore, the latest cutting machines can etch plastic, cut polymer clay and emboss leather.
Photos courtesy of Alison Lee
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.)
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.”
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.
The Cricut Explore Air 2 cuts lots of popular materials, including vinyl and iron-ons, but can’t cut or engrave on heavier materials like the other machines reviewed here can.. It has a double tool holder cartridge and is compatible with the scoring and deep-point blades that are sold separately. It does work with Bluetooth, which is great when using your laptop or iPad. It’s also two times faster at cutting and writing than its predecessor. Like all the other machines mentioned, knowing what materials you want to work with and taking a look at the specifications of the machine will help you make the right purchase.
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.
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.
The Maker is the new top of the line of Cricut cutters. I love the design. This machine takes up about the same amount of space as the Cameo. The Cricut software interface to run the Maker is reasonably intuitive, but still has some actions to learn, including when to choose slice, weld, attach, and flatten. There are lots of free videos you can watch online that walk you through those tools. Knowing what line you want your Maker to cut, emboss, perforate, and engrave is essential for a successful product.
The Maker also has an assortment of cutting tools you can purchase: knife blade, fabric blade, scoring wheel, and engraving wheel, to name a few. I used the knife blade to cut flower shapes from balsam wood with terrific results. I also had success cutting crepe paper flower pieces. The Maker makes it easy to pick the right settings and tools for a successful result.
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.
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.