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Introduction to Craftcutters - Redux

This article was originally written for our model railroading pages, in the "Structures" section. However, we wanted to share information about this topic that would overlap into several other areas, so we are republishing it, with updates and additions here.

We define "craftcutters" as tabletop machines that are designed chiefly for the purpose of cutting vinyl and other materials for craft projects. These machines are mostly interesting to me because they can also be used to cut out objects used for other hobbies such as model railroading.

Dateline, March, 2021

Since I wrote the original article, much has changed. Unfortunately, that means that many of the amateur sites describing things you can do with specific products are outdated or just plain wrong.

For that reason, the first part of this article will include an overview of the current situation. And the approximate date of publication is prominently displayed, in case I don't update this page and you come back to it in five years. At least you'll know it may not be current.

Cricut® is Not the Only Manufacturer

When this topic comes up, most folks think immediately of the Cricut® line. Even though some people use the name "Cricut" to describe any craftcutter designed for home use, Cricut® is a specific line as well as a registered trademark of Provo Craft & Novelty, Inc.

Cricuts may or may not be the most useful or cost-effective solution for your needs. Their biggest competitor, Silhouette Cameo may suit your needs better in some circumstances (see below).

Of course, if you already have a Cricut, we will hopefully provide suggestions that will help you get the best use out of it.

Jumping Right to the Conclusion

I put a lot of details further down in this page, but if you came here wondering what to do with the machine you have or whether you should replace it (or what you should replace it with), this summary should give you some initial guidance.

  • If you mostly want to cut your own designs, or to download and import someone else's designs and fonts from the internet, check out competitors, especially Silhouette Cameo®. Silhouette supports users of even their earliest Cameos. They also claim to support professional designers by adding an "add-on" utility that lets you cut directly from licensed full versions of Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw. (Unfortunately, their software does not import .svg files unless you buy an upgrade. But they can be driven directly be Sure-Cuts-A-Lot ("SCAL"), a third-party product.)

  • If you want to cut your own designs, but you ALSO:

    • Already have a collection of Cricut cartridges that have never been "linked" to anyone else's account, or

    • Want to own a Cricut for the crafter-friendly features (perhaps for another family member to use),

    Then, a Cricut Explore or Maker should meet both needs. (If you can spare the extra cash, the Maker will be more useful for hard-to-cut materials.)

  • If you already own an older Cricut - Cricut currently supports only the Maker, Explore, and Joy models. If you already have an older model and it is working for you, consider keeping it and using it.

    • If you're not using it with a computer, you can even use second-hand, "linked" cartridges with it (though I will anger the Cricut gods just for suggesting such a thing.) Just don't expect Cricut to provide any support, software, software upgrades, or new physical cartridges to support it.

    • If you're using it with Cricut Design Studio. First, guard that computer with your life - You'll never be able to port that software to a new computer. Second, know that you can use second-hand cartridges with Design Studio, as long as the cartridge is supported (most of them aren't). So if you're considering another cartridge, check the drop-down list of cartridges in the upper left corner of the Design Studio screen.

    • If you want to cut original or third-party designs - By this, I mean designs that aren't on cartridges. You should look into using SCAL5. The program is robust and full-featured. And as of this writing, there is a third-party "add-in" that will allow you to use it with Personal Cutter, Expression, Create, or Cake.

  • If you want to cut thicker and denser materials - You should probably consider upgrading to a Silhouette Cameo #4 or Cricut Maker. Either will be useful for cutting original or third-party images and fonts, and both cut thicker cardboard, chipboard, etc., than any of their predecessors.

    The Cameo #4 is less expensive and slightly more powerful, but if you have a bunch of Cricut cartridges that aren't linked to any other account yet, you might want to spend the extra money to continue going forward with the images you've already licensed.

Now for the Main Topic:

So if you're considering getting a craftcutter for your hobby or your design projects, you really should get an idea of how craftcutters work, what they're good at, and what they're useless for, before you lay out your shillings.

A Craftcutter is NOT a Die Cutter

This may seem like an unnecessary distinction, but for certain applications, you'll probably need to know the difference eventually, so we might as well spell it out now.

A die-cutter uses a preformed pattern with sharp edges called a "die." The die is put into some kind of press to punch out the desired shape. These are used commercially to make greeting cards that are cut into unusual shapes, as well as so-called jig-saw puzzles and the cardboard letters you buy preformed to use on bulletin board.

A few years back, if you bought a "die-cutting" machine to use for crafts or school bulletin boards, you were buying a press and a collection of blocks with sharp patterns on one side. You would put the blocks into the press to punch out letters or whatever patterns you bought.

When ProvoCraft invented the Cricut, they wanted to take over the market that had previously been owned by craft-store die-cutters such as the Sizzix Big Shot and ProvoCraft's own Cuttlebug. True, the Cricut can do 99% of what people use craft store die-cutters for, and a lot more besides. Crafters who upgraded from Cuttlebug to Cricut considered it a direct replacement. But it's not, technically, a die-cutter. In applications that demand precision, a die-cutter with a professionally-engineered die will still outperform a craftcutter.

Sadly, since craftcutters became available, I've been introduced to a wide range of products that are advertised as "die cut," although they were produced on a craftcutter. For many craft purposes the difference is negligible, but there is a difference. And if you're working with something on a very small scale, the difference may be important.

Enter the Craftcutters

This is the Cricut Personal Cutter, the one that started the revolution.As you probably know by now, the first electronic craftcutter to find its way into many homes was the Cricut Personal Cutter, followed by the Cricut Expression, a similar product that could cut bigger media. The Cricut was designed to require "cartridges," something like the old Atari game cartridges (but much smaller) that you would plug into the machine. Each cartridge would either have a typeface for writing messages, or a collection of cutesy outlines that you could combine to make elaborate layered doodads for decorating scrapbooks or greeting cards. You would change the media to change colors, then layer the output.

Unfortunately, if you used that generation of Cricut the way they were designed, you could only cut outlines and typefaces that were on the cartridges you owned. If you saw another typeface or outline you wanted, and it was on a $30-$50 cartridge, you had to buy that cartridge, too.

Early "Hacks" - For a time, third-party software companies like CraftEdge (makers of Sure-Cuts-A-Lot) and Make-the-Cut offered software that could operate the Cricut's drive mechanism directly. They essentially bypassed the Cricut's "brains" and turned it into a sort of mini signcutter. But it could cut outlines using graphics and typefaces from nearly any source.

Upset by reduced cartridge sales, ProvoCraft sued CraftEdge and Make-the-Cut into disabling those programs' ability to drive the Cricut mechanism. Some folks figured out how to hack their computers to keep using Sure-Cuts-A-Lot to drive Cricuts.

But in the meantime, other cutters that Sure-Cuts-A-Lot (SCAL) supported grew in popularity. The Silhouette line of cutters, including their Cameos, especially benefitted. By constant improvement of their cutters and their own software, Silhouette has come to be Cricut's biggest competitor.

Unlocking Cricuts - Cricut's current software, Design Space, supports only the current models. But the good news is that it does, finally, allow third-party images and fonts to be imported.

In the meantime, an "underground" solution for using the current version of Sure-Cuts-a-Lot with the first-generation Cricuts has emerged. More information on that is contained here.

Sadly, no software currently supports the Cricut Maker, Expression 2, or Mini. Nor is ever likely to.

What First-Gen Craftcutters Are Good For

Based as they were on signcutter technology, the earliest Cricuts, Silhouettes, Cougars, etc. excelled at cutting thin materials like paper, adhesive vinyl, and light card stock. With add-on "deep cut" blades, they can cut heavier cardstock like, say, posterboard. The manufacturers also claim they can cut thin "chipboard" (the sort of dense cardboard you see on the back of legal pads). Some claim that they will cut thin sheets of balsa or basswood (both very flimsy so that's not as impressive as it sounds). I haven't tried either of those in my workshop, so I won't swear to it.

I have had success with:

  • Cutting stencils I could use to paint "building fronts" and signage.

  • Cutting layers of vinyl I could use to make weather-resistant building fronts.

  • Cutting layers of vinyl into windowframe/mullion shapes to apply to plexiglass for model buildings.

  • Cutting house shapes out of posterboard both for model railroads and for "putz" houses (though such buildings will be a little "flimsy" without additional bracing or support).

  • Cutting building details like siding, roofing shingles, and "cedar shakes" out of card stock.

  • Cutting windowframes out of card stock both for model buildings and for "putz" houses.

"First-Gen" craftcutters include Silhouette Cameo 1 and 2, Cricut Personal Cutter, Expression (1), and Create. The Cricuts work best for model builders if you use Sure-Cuts-A-Lot ("SCAL") to drive them. If you already have one, try making it work with your computer using the instructions and downloads that this page links to. If you don't already have one, don't rush out and buy one for my benefit.

First-gen Cameos are still supported by Silhouette, which is a good thing. However the default ("free") software they use doesn't import .svg files, so you'd need to upgrade your software, or use SCAL, which will also drive them directly and is more flexible.

Not on this list are Cricut Expression 2, Imagine, or Mini, which you can no longer hook up to a computer since Cricut discontinued the only software that every worked with them.

What Second-Gen Craftcutters Are Good For

It's probably not fair, but I'll consider second-gen craftcutters as those that are a little bit more robust and have features that the first-gen craftcutters didn't have, such as double tool-holders. For me, the Explore series and the Silhouette Cameo 3 fit that category.

Second-gen craftcutters will do everything you can do with first-gen cutters. They can also

  • Cut thicker cardstock and chipboard, thick enough to use as structural walls on model buildings in O and smaller scales. (Possibly Large Scale, too, but I haven't tried it yet or seen any examples.)

  • Cut card stock thick enough to make double-hung windows for O gauge and smaller buildings.

  • Cut basswood pieces thick enough to use as structural lumber in O and smaller scales for things like rafters and bridge components.

  • Draw lines with a pen and cut the same piece with a blade.

  • Depending on your setup, score lines for folding and cut lines for "punching out" in the same "cut."

  • Using "register lines" on pieces you print out to make certain your cuts follow your project's outlines.

What Third-Gen Craftcutters Are Good For

With the advent of things like laser cutters and 3D printers, major manufacturers have "stepped up their game" and made cutters that are even more robust. In this category I would place the Cricut Maker and the Silhouette Cameo 4. Both will cut thicker materials than their predecessors. So they'll do everything you can do with first- and second-gen machines and then some. They'll cut thicker card stock, thicker wood sheets, chipboard thick enough to make free-standing structures, and so on.

I haven't experimented enough to give you a long list of projects that you can do. Just know that Cameo 4s or Cricut Makers (or their equivalents from other manufacturers) are less likely to "hold you back" from ambitious or even audacious projects than their predecessors. If you're buying a new craftcutter anyway, don't try to save $100 by buying one that will be less likely to do the jobs you want it for.

What Used Craftcutters Are Good For

Although I don't recommend paying "real money" for a used craftcutter, if you're on a very tight budget and you come aross a used first-gen unit in working condition for $25-$65, it might get you started. Look at the section on "What First-Gen Craftcutters are Good For" to see what capabilities you should have.

Used, second- and third-gen craftcutters are useful, too, and most of them are still in useful condition. If you go with a used Cricut Explore or later, though, you should know that you won't be able to register it in your name or use it to "link"(register) your own cartridges to your account. (In fact there's a danger that you will be "linking" your cartridges to the previous owner's account.)

Caveats:

  • You'll probably need to make an additional investment in software.

    • If you buy a used Silhouette of any age, you'll need to upgrade your software to import .svg files. That could entail buying the "Designer" upgrade to Silhouette Studio software or buying Sure-Cuts-A-Lot 5 or later outright.

    • If you're shopping used first-gen Cricuts, you'll need to buy Sure-Cuts-A-Lot to make it work with your original or downloaded projects, plus you'll need to download and install a minor hack that works as of the date showing near the top of this article. I also recommend the Expression (Cricut Expression (CRX001). If you need a dinky cutter, go for the Create (CRV002). Whatever you do, don't buy an Expression 2, Imagine, or Mini - they won't cut your patterns at all.

    • If you have a modern Cricut (Explore, Maker, or Joy), you can use Design Space to drive it, but you will likely want better software to do your design work. (Note: as of the dateline near the top of this page, Cricut is promising updates to Design Space, most of which will be more useful for scrapbookers than hobbyists, but still . . . . )

      Actually, I use a professional vector graphic program, Corel Draw for my design work no matter which cutter I'm going to port it to. You can use cheaper software, even bitmap graphics for some purposes, though. Just know that when you see those brilliant, complex cuts on Etsy or whatever, that they were probably produced by a graphic artist using professional programs. (For more information about software options, click here.

  • You may need to update your drivers and firmware.
    • Silhouette's customer service will help you get any drivers you need, even for a first-gen cutter.

    • This article will steer you to the upgrade information you may need for a first-gen Cricut, including a possible firmware upgrade and a possible USB driver upgrade.

  • You may not be able to register used second- and third-gen cutters. (Most first-gen cutters didn't require registration for full access to their features and support, and Cricut doesn't support first-gen cutters any more anyway.)

    When the first owner of a Cameo 3 or 4 or of a Cricut Maker, Joy, or Explore downloaded and installed the software that drives them (Silhouette Studio or Design Space, respectively), the device attached to their computer may have been automatically registered to their account.

    • In the case of Cricut Explore, Joy, and Maker, you CAN'T operate them unless you have an account, so as far as I know every used Explore, Joy, and Maker on the market has been irrevocably registered to the original user. If you buy a used unit and call them about the registration, Cricut's "customer support" may treat you as a "cheater" of some kind - almost as if you must have stolen the device you're trying to register. They will certainly refuse to change the device's registration over to you. Moreover, if you try to "link" your cartridges using a used Explore, you run the risk of linking them to the original owner's account, and consequently making them useless for your purposes.

      That said, you can still register for a user account in your name, and you can use a used Explore, Joy, or Maker for everything but registering your cartridges. My guess is that they're holding out hope you subscribe to one of their image rental plans.

      They claim that you can register your cartridges to your own account manually by photographing them front and back and sending the photos to customer service (ask them first so you get an incident #). So basically, they will hassle you unnecessarily if you buy a used Explore, Joy, or Maker, just not too much - they hope you'll spend money on "image sets," and subscriptions going forward. Don't ask me how I know this stuff.

    • The software that sets up Silhouette's later Cameos also induces you to register your machine, so most, if not all, used Cameo 3s and 4s are "permanently" registered to the original owner. But, after a bit of whining on my part, Silhouette's customer service offered to change the registration for my used Cameo 4 over if I send photos of the serial number and other information. And they followed through.

      Again, having the device registered to your name or not makes very little difference in your use of the machine; it's just nice to deal with a company that doesn't treat you like you're doing something illicit. (I helped an art student out by buying a machine she no longer needed, when I could have bought a new one for about the same amount, and for that I should be penalized?)

  • You may get zip customer support.

    • Actually from Cricut, you will get zip customer support.

    • Silhouette was helpful to me even when my only Silhouette was a beat-up Cameo 1 I bought from Goodwill, so I give them big points for that.

Pros of Starting with a Used Cutter

  • Most first-gen cutters are still in working order. You will probably save money.

  • By the time you have figured out your best uses for the thing, the cutters that are newest and best this week will have been replaced (and may be available on Black Friday sales).

  • Cricut and Silhouette both have huge user communities, as well as third-party sites that basically exist just to sell you stuff, but still provide useful tips and tricks. Yes, both types of sites tend to keep obsolete material online, but there are at least folks who will answer your questions, and who don't have to be "politically correct" from the manufacturer's point of view.

Conclusion

We have articles about specific projects planned, but we got so many questions from the first few things we posted, we thought establishing some context would be helpful. Consequently, this article is mostly background information for people who are just getting their feet wet, but if that describes you, I hope is helps steer you in a good direction. And maybe clears up some common misconceptions.

Watch this page: more articles are in the works.

As always, we want to hear your suggestions, criticisms, additions, etc. Enjoy your hobbies, and especially any time you can spend with your family in the coming months!

Paul


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