“You are what you eat.” I’m sure you’ve heard that. What this old adage means is that you will only feel your best — have your best health — if you give your body good fuel. Silhouette mats are a bit like that. You get your best cuts with a good mat. In today’s Cut Doctor lesson, we’ll talk all about mats — old and new, types, caring for them and when to replace one. (To start with Lesson 1 in this series, go here.)
Note: This post contains affiliate links. That means if you click the link and purchase something, I may receive a small commission. You pay the same price. This helps me to be able to keep my business going and provide more tutorials.
About older mats
Using a worn-out mat can be like having a bad hair day. You can fight and fight trying to get things to work right, and often nothing solves the issue. Pull out a new mat and BANG! — many of the issues disappear. So what is it about an old mat that affects the cuts?
An older mat is losing its stickiness. That means it’s not holding the material or the cut pieces well enough. The material can start sliding around on the mat or lift at the edges, or the pieces can come off altogether. They can catch in the mechanisms and it sounds like your machine is dying. It isn’t — it’s just that the lifting material is impeding the movement of the motor box. If any of this happens, the cut is ruined.
Even if you don’t see that happening, the mat still isn’t holding things firmly in place in all areas so the cut isn’t clean. This is another reason you could get pulling at the corners of your design. The movement of the blade is causing friction against the material. If the mat isn’t holding it well because it’s lost its stick, the blade pulls the material with it, particularly when it shifts direction.
If the mat is losing it’s sticky, you can use painter’s tape or washi tape to hold the edges of the material down onto it. Since this doesn’t help with the cut pieces, it’s only of minimal use. Notice that the cut pieces are still lifting.
Older mats have lots of grooves in them. That creates an uneven surface, which can result in portions of your design being uncut. There are other causes for that, but if you notice that it’s always in the same portion of the mat this could be why. Think about it logically — the mat isn’t the same thickness throughout any longer so doesn’t provide the same resistance in all places. This affects sketching even more.
Here’s a well-used mat. See all the grooves? It’s easy to imagine why a pen would skip in those areas, or a cut could be inconsistent.
And here’s one where I didn’t have my cut settings right on a rectangle. The cut went almost all the way through the mat. That could cause an issue.
The same holds true for mats with leftover bits and pieces of paper on them. You’ve got an uneven surface with differing densities, so your blade can’t go through the material consistently. In the area where the bits are, you’ll notice the material isn’t cut all the way through.
When to replace a mat
Here are some signs that you need to replace the mat:
- The material is no longer sticking. This is the #1 reason to replace your mat.
- You see deep grooves in it and your material doesn’t cut there.
- Your cuts are inconsistent throughout the page.
- You’re using a good material, a good design, have Line Segment Overcut turned on, and have tried all kinds of adjustments to blade depth and force and still aren’t getting clean cuts.
A new mat may help these issues, or it may not. There are lots of variables. (Keep reading this series and I’ll teach you take all your symptoms, diagnose the issue and prescribe a treatment plan — you’ll become a Silhouette, MD).
Having said all that, I will tell you that I use my mats as long as possible. Sometimes they look like they’ve been through a war zone. I’ve even been known to use packing tape on the back when I accidentally cut through the mat. As long as the mat still holds the material and I get clean cuts, it doesn’t matter how they look. But when I get a new mat, it’s definitely WAY easier to get a clean cut without lots of fussing.
Can you make it sticky again?
I’m often asked if there’s a way to re-sticky the mat. There are a ton of opinions out there. You can try masking off the non-sticky areas and then using a repositional spray adhesive on them. This doesn’t always work and you’ll still run into the issues of the ruts and grooves. Personally, I prefer to just get a new mat.
About new mats
You know how when you get a haircut it gets easier to work with your hair each morning? Getting a new Silhouette mat is a bit like that. LOL! It makes things easier and cuts down on your frustration level. At the very least, a new one eliminates the mat as a possible cause of cut issues.
The only problem is that new mats can be extremely sticky. That means that your material, particularly paper or the backing of vinyl, can get stuck or rip when your try to remove it. The more intricate your design and the more delicate your material, the bigger issue this can be. The solution is to add a few fibers to a new mat to break down the stickiness. You do that by patting it down on your jeans or t-shirt a couple of times.
Types of mats
Another way to get a good cut is to pick the right mat for your material. Silhouette America has 3 types of mats with varying degrees of stickiness:
- Light Hold (also called Light Tack) — Use this one when you cut more delicate materials or those with a low density, such as copy paper, vellum, construction paper (but I don’t recommend it), or other thin papers.
- Regular (also called Standard Tack) — This is the generic, all-purpose mat.
- Strong Hold (also called Strong Tack) — This is the new kid on the block. It’s made to hold things like fabric or thick materials better. If you use a regular mat with fabric, you have to stiffen it with starch or interfacing. Otherwise, the fabric just bunches up. With the strong tack mat, you’re supposed to be able to do it without using anything to stiffen it first. (Cameo 4 owners can use the Rotary Blade to cut fabric without any stabilizer).
The only cut mat currently for the Curio is the regular one — no strong or light hold ones yet.
Caring for mats
As with anything, if you take good care of your mats they will last longer. Here are a few tips on caring for your mats:
Use different areas of the mat
- Don’t always put your designs on the upper left corner of the mat, as is our natural inclination since most of us read languages that start there. Move them around so that your mat doesn’t wear out in only one area. If you’re using a page size smaller than the default one for your machine, the software will always default it to the upper left.
You can trick it by leaving the page size at the full size of the mat, then using your grid, rulers, guidelines, reveal cutting mat or drawn shapes to mimic the actual material size. Here I’ve used guidelines to see where a 6″ x 6″ piece of material would be on the right side of my mat (the yellow area). That tells me where I can put the pieces of my design.
- If you’re cutting the same design over and over, shift it slightly or rotate it 90º each time so that you don’t get deep grooves in one spot.
- Alternate putting the mat into the machine from the bottom first (rotate 180°) so that you use different areas. You can’t put the side into the machine first, as the margins at the sides are smaller than at top and bottom.
Keep it free of dust and debris
- The higher the quality of your paper, the fewer bits you will have left on the mat after a cut. That’s because the fibers are packed together more densely and therefore don’t come apart as easily.
- Use a lint roller, painter’s or washi tape, scraper tool, or old gift card to scrape any leftover bits off your mat after each cut job.
- Store your mats flat with the cover on to keep dust from settling on it.
- If the mat starts getting really gunky, gently wash it with soap and only a tiny drop of dishwashing liquid. Let air dry thoroughly before using it again. What you’re doing is removing some of the fibers. This extends its life a bit.
Use only Silhouette brand mats
Trust me on this one — use only mats made by Silhouette America. I know other brands may be cheaper and appear to work fine. But there are some issues. The grid isn’t in the same spot because the margins are different, so you have to adjust for that. They aren’t the same thickness or density, which means much more adjusting of cut settings. Those are minor inconveniences, but there’s a much bigger issue.
Using thicker/more dense mats can eventually push the mechanisms too far apart so that the outer rollers don’t grip any longer (most often the left one). That voids your warranty. When I worked for Silhouette America, I personally had to tell 3 customers that we couldn’t replace their machine because they hadn’t used the right mats. Their only recourse was to wrap electrical tape around the fat part of the white roller to thicken it some. Not a great long term prognosis.
If you’re outside of the 1 year warranty period, or if you feel like the cost savings is worth it (the cost of a new machine may be cheaper than the long-term cost of the mats), you can risk it if you like.
HINT: You can use your 40% off coupon at Hobby Lobby for Silhouette accessories, including mats.
Also, beware of fake mats that are offered by some sellers on Amazon. They appear to be made by Silhouette America, but aren’t. There are plenty of legitimate sellers on Amazon. This 3-pack of mats includes a 30-day membership here to my site.
I actually got a fake one once. The cardstock didn’t stick even on the first cut. It’s the one you can in the pic above of the green paper held by painter’s tape. Ya, I tried to make it work. No joy.
It can be hard to tell the difference between a legit mat and a fake one, but here are some tips:
Before you buy
- Read the reviews.
- Examine the photos carefully. A poor quality photo could hint that it’s ripped off from an authorized reseller.
- Compare the packaging to the photo of the packaging on the Silhouette America website. The fake distributors may have changed it by now, but the one I got had the old address for the Silhouette offices. The current address is in Lindon, UT. Silhouette is currently changing their packaging, so some good mats will still be around with old packaging, but probably not with a different address. If the package says, 12″ Cutting Mat instead of 12 in. Cutting Mat or Cutting Mat (12 in x 12 in), it could be fake. The newest ones have the second or third wording. Even if it’s legit, with the older address or wording it’s likely been sitting around too long and therefore the adhesive could have degraded.
- The newest Silhouette brand mats have grid lines every 1/4″. There will still be plenty of legit ones out there with just the 1″ lines, and they will likely be on sale now so you can get a good deal. But I don’t think the fake ones have the 1/4″ lines yet.
After you buy
- Hold it up to the light and compare it to your other mats. The sticky area on the real Silhouette mats is kinda hazy. The fake ones are more clear.
- If the adhesive pulls right off the mat, it’s likely a fake. Even if it isn’t, that shouldn’t happen and you should get a free replacement.
- Some folks report that they have a thin plastic film on the back that comes off easily.
- The stickiness shouldn’t break down after 4-5 cuts. And the cover should still stick to it.
If you do get a bad mat, contact Amazon for a refund.
I hope you’re seeing that just like with medicine, there’s no “1 size fits all” approach for cut issues. Just like with bodies, there are many variables that affect cut health. At our next Cut Doctor appointment, we’re going to talk about the machine itself and how that can affect the quality of your cuts.