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Plotters and Signcutters.

Our 'Introduction to Craftcutters' article is an overview and an index of our articles related to home cratcutting machines like the Cricut(r) and the Silhouette Cameo(r).  Click to go to the article.Most of this material was originally part of our "Introduction to Craftcutters" article because it explained some basic principles that were helpful for new users of craftcutters. Since then, most people who've dabbled with these things or watched a YouTube video have a pretty good idea how they operate. However, we're keeping the content posted for anyone who wants to dig a little deeper into the origins and mechanics of these things.

Why is This History Relevant to Craftcutter Users?

Because the basic technology that moves the little blades back and forth on current craftcutters is the same one that has been used since 1953 for drawing blueprints, product plans, topographical maps, weather maps, and other things that are 99% lines.

You don't need to know this to use your home craftcutter, of course, but if you want to get beyond typical home uses, it might help to know the background of the things.

The first plotter was created by Remington-Rand. It was designed to draw technical designs created by with the help of the UNIVAC computer (the one that filled a building). It held a pen instead of a blade, of course, but that's where the technology to drive your home craftcutter began.

In 1967, H. Joseph Gerber introduced a fabric-cutting machine that used plotter technology to cut fabric patterns in factories. Subsequently, Gerber adapted the technology to vinyl cutting, and sold their machines to sign shops. The programming that ran the machines was proprietary, running on a sort of internal computer.

Gerber's signcutters were revolutionary, in that they allowed sign shops to cut letters out of vinyl in a fraction of the time it would take to paint them by hand or jigsaw them out of wood. Only one font came with the machine - extra fonts cost $248@ and came in cartridges you would plug in.

Sorry I don't have a bigger photo of this one, but it should give you some idea of the size of these things.Though several competitors emerged, Roland eventually introduced a signcutter that was less expensive to purchase and install, in part because it was driven by a separately-purchased external computer (the ancestor of today's PCs).

In some ways, ProvoCraft (makers of Cricut) took a step backwards when they invented a sort of miniature signcutter with internal programming and plug-in font cartridges. But, like Gerber a generation earlier, they were targeting users who mostly did not own computers at the time. Furthermore, most of their early adopters were users of their craft-oriented die-cutter machines, which didn't even plug in. So, one step at a time.

Most of Cricut's competitors are more like Roland's signcutters, controlled almost exclusively by software on an attached computer. But most Cricut users today use their machines with a computer, so the difference isn't a great as you might think - especially if you use your craftcutter to cut your own designs.

Thinking in Two Dimensions

The first-generation plotters used a single pen, controlled by a computer, that would go back and forth across a piece of paper drawing lines.

But if that's all the device did, at the end of your "job" all you'd have is one big line - a one-dimensional image as it were. How did plotter manufacturers make the device draw in two dimensions? Most of them decided to get the second dimension by making the paper go back and forth as well. To draw a square, for example, the machine would go through the following motions:

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Graphics designers, mathematicians, and a host of others use the term X axis and Y axis to describe the movement that creates lines in each direction.

Ohio Art's Etch-a-Sketch has remained essentially the same since 1960. It's a good example of how the X axis and Y axis work together to creat shapes.  I didn't draw this picture, but I couldn't find a credit.  Click for bigger photo.Remember Your Etch-a-Sketch? - If you grew up with an Etch-a-Sketch, you got used to controlling the X axis with one knob and the Y axis with the other. But on your Etch-a-Sketch, your "pen" moved in both directions and the media (the screen) stayed in the same place.

Unlike the Etch-a-Sketch, a plotter or cutter moves the pen or blade along one axis and the media (paper, vinyl, etc.) along the other axis. (A few plotters and cutters have been made in which the pen/blade moves along both axes, but they are in the minority).

Plotters (and Cutters) are Line-Driven Devices.

How do you draw a diagonal using X and Y axes? Well, on the Etch-a-Sketch, you had to move both knobs (X and Y) the same exact amount at the same time - not an easy task. On a plotter or cutter the programming causes the pen/blade (X) and the media (Y) to move at the same time.

Whether the computer is built into the machine (Gerber and Cricut) or plugged into the machine (almost everyone else), the computer calculates the precise direction - or vector that is necessary to draw the desired shape, then the "driver" software figures out how the combined movements of the pen/blade and the media will create that line on the media.

Plotters and Cutters are Better at Drawing Lines than "Filling In." - Remember how you filled in "dark" areas on your Etch-a-Sketch? You went back and forth about a hundred times with one knob while turning the other knob just a little so your lines would overlap. Now, occasionally, folks who use plotters will need to fill in a space, and the software does the same thing. But you have to agree that's a very inefficient use of a machine that will draw lines like a bat-out-of-you-know-where.

When it comes to cutters, there's no point at all to "filling in." Lines - technically vectors - are all you need.

Vector Graphic Software Designs the Lines - It's probably no surprise that the earliest and still the most popular use of plotters is to draw blueprints, product plans, topographical maps, weather maps, and other things that are 99% lines. To create such patterns, you need software that excels at creating precise lines. Among its other uses, AutoCAD is a "vector graphic" program. So are CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, and Inkscape, a free program that many craftcutter owners have gotten to know.

"Paint" Programs are Less Useful - Vector graphic programs are in contrast with "paint" programs like PhotoShop, or Paint Shop Pro that manipulate millions of tiny dots arrayed in a matrix called a "bitmap." Can you draw a diagonal line with a paint program? Yes, but when you zoom way in, you'll realize that the edge of that line is anything but straight.

There are ways to convert simple bitmap drawings so that they will work with modern craftcutters. In fact, that's what the Brother scanner/cutter is designed to do. But it's much more precise to start and stay with vectors if you can.

Click for bigger picture.Layering a Signcutter's Cutouts

As the early cutters became more precise, software got more powerful, and computers got faster, it became apparent that they could do more than just draw lines and simple typefaces.

Clever print-shop and sign-shop owners, using the right software, could design a graphic that would use just a few colors - say gold letters over a black "shadow" over a green oval over a black shadow over a dark red background. Then they would put one color of vinyl into the cutter at a time, cut out the pieces they needed in that color, then move on the the next color.

Finally, they would layer the pieces they cut out to create the sign. That may seem like a lot of work today, but it's still a lot easier and more predictable that jig-sawing or hand-painting the letters.

Click for bigger picture.And once you had the graphic designed, you could tweak the sign infinitely and replicate in almost any size, whenever you wanted.

In the 1980s, only big shops could afford the kind of computers and the specialized software needed to drive the early signcutters. But by the 1990s, vector graphic software became more affordable and powerful, and less expensive cutters arrived. A complete setup, including computer, might still cost $3000-$5,000, but that was a fraction of what it would have cost a few years earlier. And by the late 1990s, the Internet had made literally thousands more typefaces and templates available.

I know, some of you who are already familiar with Cricuts are jumping ahead of me - this is almost exactly how Cricut users build up multi-colored images - just on a smaller scale. But scale is only one difference, and a minor one at that. The big difference is that, with vector graphic software, once you've created the original graphic, you can go back and change the typeface, the name of the business, and anything else with relatively minor tweaks. You - and not some cartridge designer - have complete control over everything that gets drawn and eventually cut out.

Testing Our Test File - By the way, if you want to experiment with the "Clancy's" sign I used as an example, you can download a .svg file by right-clicking here and selecting "download as" or "save link as," depending on your browser.

This large-format printer is big enough to paper your car.  It was selling used for ten grand when I came across it.  Click for bigger photo.Signcutters Are Supplanted

By the way, many sign and print shops have started using large-format color laser printers for the kind of projects that signcutters used to handle. So don't read this article and assume that your friendly neighborhood sign shop will be able to help you if you walk in with a collection of vector graphic files. (Even if they have a signcutter, many shops will still look at you funny, because they're used their customers being non-technical. Don't take it personally.)

While I was researching this article, I did track down several signcutters that don't cost any more than some of the craftcutters we discuss in the other articles. And I know local folks who keep their vinyl signcutters busy as well. If you ever need a really big job done, it is possible.


I realize that this page mostly discusses principles that folks who've owned craftcutters for any period of time have already figured it out. But if you're on the fence because you're still confused about what such technology offers you, I hope that this has given you a basic understanding of the technologies involved.

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!


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