Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tools & Gadgets – Silhouette SD die cutter

Okay, I sew on antique sewing machines. But I still like tools and gadgets, and just got a new one to share.

A while back there was a discussion on one of my email lists on software that let you create your own design for one of the personal die cutting machines. I was intrigued, but discovered that the software didn't support Mac, and didn't really "need" one, so moved on to other things.

Silhouette Studio work space
Recently a project came up for work, and I decided a die cutter was the way to go. I started doing some research for a die cutter that met my criteria. It had to work with a Mac, you had to be able to design your own patterns, and the price had to be reasonable.

I found the Silhouette SD, from Silhouette America. It had very good reviews, met all my criteria and I got a great deal on it by buying from

I've been using it to cut adhesive vinyl for the project for work, with excellent results, and tried it out this weekend on fabric, with acceptable results which should get better with tweaking the settings.

Here's a review.

heavy adhesive vinyl cuts very well
The SD comes with the Silhouette Studio software, which installed easily on my Mac, and I'm sure would do so on a PC as well. There's a good video tutorial, but I jumped right in and found most of it pretty intuitive. The software creates vector images, like Adobe Illustrator, which I've used for years, so I picked it up quickly. One of the nicest things about the software is that it will load TrueType fonts from your computer, so you can use what you already have. I only found one or two fonts on my computer that didn't work in the software.

The software comes with a library of 50 or so images, and you can download images from the Silhouette site at a cost of about $1 each. I like the idea of buying just what I want, rather than paying big bucks for a collection I might not use.

fabric prepped with MistyFuse
One of the nicest features, and one that takes a little practice, is that you can import images in other file formats, then "trace" them to create a cuttable SD image. I was able to import an image from Adobe Illustrator, trace it, and with just a little work, make it a cuttable image.

There are two ways to save images. You can save items into your library, which you will import to a file later. Or you can start a file and create the images on the file. You can combine these by creating new images or text and importing from the library. It's easy to create text and change fonts, but I found it a little difficult to go back and select the text for editing after I'd moved the cursor away.

fabric loaded on carrier mat
The machine itself is, I guess, pretty standard. You load the media under a roller and it stays in place until you eject it, useful if you want to make more than one cut. It has a cartridge with a blade in it, and three caps, which you use to change the depth of the cut. It's very easy to get the cartridge in and out, and change the caps. You can also buy special pen cartridges, so you can "draw" on your design as well as cut it. It comes with a sticky mat that you use to hold your media in place, if it doesn't have a backing to do the job (as the adhesive vinyl does)

in the die cutter
The machine is small enough to be easily portable. I'm planning to make a carrying case to keep it and the accessories in. It connects to your computer with a basic USB cable, or you can save the designs on an SD card and insert them into the cutter. I haven't tried that feature yet.

When you are ready to cut your item, you "send" the design to the Silhouette from the software, and choose from a large number of settings, for different materials, different speeds, and different blade depths. Once you've sent a particular file, the settings are saved with that file, so you don't have to enter them every time.

letters cut out
My first project was applying our business name to these buckets, using the premium vinyl from Silhouette. It cut well and looks good when finished, though it is quite tedious to remove the excess vinyl from the backing. After removing the excess, I used their transfer paper, a tacky paper that comes on a roll, to pull the letters off the backing, keeping them in place, then placed them on the buckets. Blue painters tape would probably work well, too, for smaller cuts like these.

letters quilted and applied to project
The fabric was a little more difficult. I prepped my fabric by pressing it and pressing MistyFuse to the back, using parchment paper to keep it from sticking to my iron. Then I removed the parchment paper and placed the fabric on the carrier mat. For the most part it cut well, except for skipping cuts at some interior and exterior curves. I think I had the machine set to cut too fast, so it caught, then skipped.

But a little trimming with applique scissors and my letters were cut out and ready to use.

I think next time I'll try leaving the fabric on the parchment paper and using it as backing instead of the carrier mat. I'm confident that with a little tweaking, the cutter will do a good job on fabric.

When time permits, I'll experiment some more and report back.

More later