We’re delving deep into the body of the cut job here in our troubleshooting portion of the Cut Doctor series. (To start with Lesson 1 in the Cut Doctor series, go here). Our topic this time is reasons why your mat or material might act up during a cut. For example, the material lifts from the mat, vinyl gets pulled off the backing, the mat or material comes out from under the rollers or gets bunched up, and more.
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I’m a huge fan of the Dallas Cowboys. At the end of last season, one of their receivers, Allen Hurns, didn’t get up after a seemingly standard tackle. When the cameras zoomed in (for the one and only time), anyone watching the game probably got nauseous like I did. Hurns was laying on his stomach, but his left foot was pointing up to the sky. It’s not supposed to do that. It was pretty evident that there was a BIG problem and his leg was not going to work that day. Thankfully, it was just a dislocated ankle — something that’s pretty easy to repair –and he should be back next season.
Why am I telling you this? Because sometimes your mat or material get skewed and is pointing the wrong direction. Or your material starts sliding around on the mat. It may freak you out, just as every player got scared in that game when they saw Hurns’ foot. But it is almost always something that can be easily fixed. Let me listen to your cut illness symptoms, diagnose the problem and give you the remedy.
Symptom: Material or cut pieces are lifting from the mat
Diagnosis #1: Older mat
When you put your material onto your mat, it needs to be held well. That’s because as it goes under the rollers and comes into contact with the motion of the blade, it’s meeting resistance. Think of it like tug-of-war: the team with more strength wins. As your mat gets older, fibers build up on it. And when you remove the material from the mat just a tad bit stays on the back of the material. Consequently, over time your mat becomes less sticky. Then when the blade pushes against in, it pushes it around rather than cutting through it.
We saw in our last lesson that the cut pieces can lift from the mat and start floating around. That’s not a good situation! But the whole piece of material can actually start shifting around as well. Once it does that, you have a piece of ruined material. Here’s an example:
That’s supposed to be a flower, but my cardstock started shifting on the mat so the cut is all wrong.
Prescription: Use painter’s tape or washi tape to hold the corners of the material down onto the mat as it gets older (temporary measure only). Clean or resticky the mat if possible. My best advice is to get a new mat — it makes a world of difference and will save you lots of frustration.
Diagnosis #2: Material is not pressed down firmly onto mat
Another reason your mat might not hold your material is if you don’t press it down firmly enough when you put it on. I have one particular brand of paper that has a type of coating on it. If I don’t remember to get that on the mat well before I start cutting, it starts sliding around and messing things up. Don’t be afraid to push down good and hard when you load something onto your mat. Just remember to watch out with paper on a brand new mat, as we discussed at an earlier appointment.
Prescription: Use a scraper tool or an old gift card over the top of the material to make sure it adheres well before you load the mat into the machine.
Diagnosis #3: Material too strong for regular mat
Some materials you can cut with a Silhouette are stronger than the mat. Leather is an example. Let’s say you buy good thick leather that’s rolled in the packaging. If you try to put it on the mat, the mat is likely to curl. That’s not only going to cause issues with the material lifting from the mat, but also with the mat or material catching on the mechanisms.
Prescription: Test with the Strong Tack mat.
Symptom: Vinyl is lifting from the backing paper
Diagnosis #1: Poor cut settings choices
Vinyl is a very thin, flexible material. That’s why we can use it on things like cups. But that’s also why it can be tricky to cut. If you don’t use the right cut settings the blade will pull the vinyl with it, particularly as it changes direction at sharp turns.
This is EXTREMELY common and is one of the biggest frustrations of new Silhouette users. The key is to understand and adjust cut settings we’ve already talked about.
Prescription: With vinyl, ALWAYS use Line Segment Overcut at 0.1 on both starting and ending extensions. The only time you don’t is with really tiny letters. Take the speed all the way down to 1. Next, lower the force (2-3 at a time). Your last resort is to lower the blade number, realizing that you may need to raise the force in conjunction.
Diagnosis #2: Cut Edge, Auto-weld or welding not used on overlapping words or designs
This is another biggie for beginners. When you cut a cursive font, the letters actually overlap. Here’s a closeup:
If you don’t do something, the letters cut into one another and pull up off the backing (note the “k” and second “g”).
99 times out of 100 you will hear folks tell you to weld cursive text. But when you do — IT CHANGES FROM TEXT TO IMAGE! That means you can no longer change or identify the font or edit the text. I very much recommend using Cut Edge or Auto-weld instead, only resorting to weld when it’s absolutely necessary.
Sometimes you want to overlap shapes without having them cut into one another. But if you weld them, you can’t unweld them. Again — Cut Edge or Auto-weld is a better option.
Prescription: First choice: use Cut Edge or Auto-weld. If you must weld, make a copy of the text box for later reference of the font and for editing text. Note that parts of letters that are separate (such as top of a lowercase “i”) will then need to be grouped together with the larger portion.
Diagnosis #3: Design or font has thin or extremely small parts
When you’re cutting something very small, there’s not much surface area. That means there isn’t much adhesive to hold the vinyl onto the backing paper. Notice how I’m losing the tops of my letter “i”s here:
When you have a thin font like the one I’ve got there, the blade is cutting on one side of the letter, then passing very close to that cut on the other side of the letter. That means it’s very likely to pull up, particularly if you have settings or material quality issues as well.
You need to do something to help. The first thing to do is to make sure your settings are absolutely perfect, as we discussed in Diagnosis #1. But sometimes even a settings adjustment doesn’t help so you need other strategies.
- Use a slight offset to make pieces wider.
- Make extras of your smallest pieces or things like the tops of the letter “i.”
Diagnosis #4: Vinyl is old or poor quality
The adhesive on vinyl breaks down as it ages, or if you store it in extreme temperatures. That means it lifts off the backing while you’re trying to cut or weed.
Vinyl of lower quality is the same — the adhesive doesn’t bond it to the backing paper firmly enough for it to resist the pressure as the blade glides along. You can cut small on it — it’s just harder to keep on the backing and to weed your design.
Prescription: Try a new roll or a different brand. My favorite brand is Oracal.
Diagnosis #5: Blade is old
So what do you do when you’ve tried absolutely everything and nothing helps? You try a new blade. Sometimes it is getting older and just is no longer sharp enough to cut small pieces or negotiate tight turns. Think of it like someone who’s getting senile with age or whose eyes are going.
Here’s a design I was cutting one day. I tried absolutely everything to no avail. I still kept getting pulling at the sharp turns. You can see those circled in navy. I put in a new blade but kept everything else the same — it’s even on the same piece of vinyl. You can see where I’ve circled in pink that the new blade solved the problem.
Prescription: Replace the blade.
Since this is such a common issue, I want to show again you some examples of vinyl that I’ve cut and show you how small and delicate I (and you) can get with the right settings.
This is Silhouette brand vinyl. That’s a straight pin in the photo.
Here’s another cut on Silhouette brand. That’s a very thin point with a very sharp turn.
Here’s some numbers that are really small. That’s my pinkie.
Here’s the kicker on that last one. The green 2 on the left is cut from a really good brand of vinyl (Oracal). The one on the right is cut from a store brand that people dislike quite a bit. This is proof that you CAN cut small on it — it’s just harder to keep on the backing and to weed.
Symptom: Mat or Material comes out from under rollers
This is one of the scariest things that can happen, particularly when you are cutting without the mat. The bad new is it’s almost always operator error. The good news is that means you can fix it. It happens because for some reason the rollers aren’t adequately gripping the mat or material.
Diagnosis #1: Movable right roller not set at correct location (Cameo only)
A mat is wider than 12″ wide vinyl, because the mat has those margins outside the 12″ x 12″ sticky area. Here’s that picture from Lesson 18 where were looking at the top margin. This time look at the side margin. The area between the red and yellow lines shows you where the rollers grip.
Now here’s that same page size, but with None for the cutting mat selection. The solid yellow shows you where the machine needs to grip the material itself.
If you measure from side to side on the outside of the yellow now, you’ll see it’s about 1/2″ less. So when you cut without the mat on a Cameo, you have to move the right roller in. That shrinks the distance between the rollers so they can use the sides of the material as the margin to grip onto. If it’s not gripping because you didn’t move the right roller in, only the left one is holding the material so it’s not going to pull it through correctly.
Move it back
You also need to make sure to move it back when you’re cutting with a mat again. The mat is made of a substance that the rollers grip just right. If your roller is rolling over a slick material instead of the mat itself, it’s less likely to grip correctly. So the mat starts sliding around off-kilter.
On a Cameo 1 or 2, don’t move the roller farther left than that last groove. The grooves for the rollers are serrated on those models, meaning they don’t go all the way around the bar. That’s by design — the teeth of the roller sit into them. But there are 2 more grooves farther left where the rubber or spring rollers fit in. If the roller teeth get stuck in one of those, it is VERY difficult to get out.
Prescription: Set the right roller at the correct spot based on your mat size or, when cutting without the mat, the material size. Do not attempt to cut with the roller in a location other than 1 of the 4 grooves.
- Cameo-sized mat
- 12″ wide material without the mat
- Portrait-sized or Stamp mat
- 9″ wide material
If you’ve moved it to cut without the mat, make sure to reset it the next time you use the mat.
Diagnosis #2: Movable right roller not fully set into groove (Cameo only)
So let’s say you’ve unlocked your roller bar, moved your right roller and relocked your roller bar. You load your mat or material and start cutting. Everything seems to be normal, then your mat starts going askew. What’s going on?
If you don’t get that roller set into the groove and, on a Cameo 3, relocked, it’s not going to give the right amount of pressure against the lower roller bar. Because the left and right rollers are using different amounts of pressure, the left one is going to win and pull the mat crooked.
Prescription: Make sure roller clicks into groove. On Cameo 3, ensure roller is relocked. Do not attempt to cut with the roller in a location other than 1 of the 4 grooves.
Diagnosis #3: Mat or material loaded crooked
This is another really common problem. If the left and right rollers don’t grip at the same time, your mat or material goes in at an angle.
That issue is magnified the farther you get into the cut. Eventually, one side or the other is going to come out from under a roller and the mat or material turns sideways. When you’re loading something like vinyl or HTV without the mat, it can be really tricky because it’s not rigid.
Another problem I see with beginners is that they think they have to unlock the roller bar on a Cameo to load their mat or material. You ONLY unlock it to move the roller, then you relock it before you load. If you try to load while it’s unlocked, it’s not going to grip. If you realize that and then try to lock it again with the mat or material still in there, it’s probably crooked.
Prescription: Lock the roller bar before loading (Cameos only). When using a mat, grip it from the bottom and butt it up against the white rollers with even pressure. Use the riding on cardstock method for loading when cutting without the mat. After loading, look behind the roller bar at the mat or material in relation to the cutting strip to ensure they are parallel. If they are not, unload and try again.
Diagnosis #4: Material leading edge not straight when bypassing mat
Here’s another REALLY common ailment. It’s similar to Diagnosis #3. If the edge of the vinyl or HTV that you’re loading into the machine isn’t PRECISELY perpendicular to the side, it’s going in crooked. Yep — one side will eventually come out from under the roller and your material skews. For more on that, see this post.
Prescription: Don’t assume the material is a good 90° perpendicular to the side, even from a new roll. ALWAYS check and trim it, preferably with a paper trimmer.
Diagnosis #5: Wrong guideline used when loading
If your mat or material starts too far left or right, the rollers aren’t both holding it. The farther into the cut you get, the bigger the problem it becomes.
Prescription: Cameo — Use the shortest or blue line on left edge of platform. Portrait/SD/Original — with the mat, use the farthest line to left; without the mat, ensure that the white rollers are the same distance from the sides of the material.
Diagnosis #6: Mat loaded sideways
This is a possible issue with the Cameo. The sticky area in the middle is 12″ x 12″ and there’s a non-sticky margin all the way around that. The margin is wider on the top and bottom than on the sides. So if you load your mat into the machine side first, it’s not the proper length top to bottom. The machine thinks you’re loading it correctly, so assumes you have the 12″ sticky area plus 1″ of top margin and 1″ of lower margin. It’s going to start the cut too far down the page. Since you only have the 12″ sticky area plus a scant 1/2″ at both top and bottom, the bottom edge of the mat will be past the rollers when you get to the bottom of the cut.
Prescription: Only load top or bottom of mat into machine first, not sides.
Diagnosis #7: Wrong orientation used in loading
In your software, you’ll notice that there’s a black arrow on the virtual mat. That corresponds to the arrow on your actual mat. That arrow is telling you which edge goes into the machine first so that you position your designs in the right place. It’s usually pointing up on your screen, which makes sense. That’s not usually an issue when you cut with a mat.
When you are cutting without a mat, it can be a problem if you aren’t paying attention to it. Depending on the page size you set up, that arrow may shift to the left. It’s especially tricky when you set your page size to 9″ x 12″ on a Cameo. The software is ALWAYS going to put that arrow at the left with that page size (and some others). If you rotate your page, it may even go to the right or down. For a longer explanation, see this post.
Here’s the bottom line. If you load your material the wrong direction, you may run out of material at the bottom (so both sides come out from under the rollers) or your right roller isn’t set at the right location (and we already know that that means).
Prescription: Ensure that the direction of the loading orientation arrow matches which edge you load into the machine.
Diagnosis #8: Material is wrong size
Cameo machines are designed to cut only 9″ or 12″ wide material when bypassing the mat. Portrait machines are designed to cut 9″ wide only. If you try to cut vinyl or HTV without the mat at other sizes, your rollers may not grip it. In other words, let’s say you have a scrap of vinyl that’s 8″ wide x 20″ tall. The rollers aren’t going to grip the width.
When you’re cutting on a mat the rollers grip the non-sticky margins around the 12″ x 12″ sticky area. We’ve already discussed that you have to move that right roller in on a Cameo to account for that on the width. But you also need to account for that bottom margin.
On any machine, you have to have material that is at least 1″ longer than your design when bypassing the mat. Because the material doesn’t have the non-sticky area at the bottom, it grips the material itself. Now, if you don’t have it, by the time the machine gets to the bottom it won’t cut past that. Let’s say you cheat and tell the machine your material is longer than it really is (yes, I know some who have tried to use this as a workaround). Once it gets there, the bottom edge of your material is past the rollers and they have nothing to grip. Your material starts doing the “I’m free from the rollers dance.”
Let’s look one more time at those pictures of the difference in with vs. without the mat. This time we’re looking at bottom margins.
With the mat
Remember that I’ve outlined the mat in yellow and the page size is set to 12″ x 12″. The area inside the red indicates the sticky area of the mat — the full 12″ x 12″ cutting area on a Cameo. That red line is my cut border. The space between the red and yellow lines indicates the non-sticky margins where the rollers grip, as we’ve talked about before. It has to grip above the material to pull the mat in.
It also needs margin below the material. Pretend the bottom of the mat wasn’t any longer than the paper size. When the machine got to the bottom of the page to cut, both the mat and material would be past the rollers since the motor box with blade is behind the rollers. That bottom margin is what the machine grips.
Without the mat
Now I’ve set None on my cutting mat. That’s the only change I made — the page size is still 12″ x 12″. That red line is still my cut border, but notice how it’s no longer at the bottom edge of the page. That area in yellow is what the machine needs to grip. So to cut a design 12″ long, I’d need a piece of material approximately 13″ long to give it that lower margin.
Prescription: Only use material that is the correct width for your machine. When cutting without the mat, make sure you have enough material for the lower margin. Use Show Cut Border in the Page Setup panel.
Diagnosis #9: Page setup is wrong (Cameo 3 or Portrait 2)
The Cameo 3 and Portrait 2 machines read the set up in the software to determine how far to pull in the material or mat. Remember that because the mat has a margin at the top above where you put your material, the machine needs to pull it in farther than when you’re cutting without a mat. If you are cutting without the mat and forget to select “None,” the machine is going to pull your material in too far. Let’s say you had just enough material. By the time you get to the bottom of the cut, you don’t have enough and the material is out from under the rollers.
Look back at the pictures just above and notice the red cut border. When I’ve got a mat on, it’s approximately 1″ down from the top of the mat. Without the mat, it’s at the very top. The machine rotates the roller as it loads more times for with the mat than without it. So not only is it going to start cutting too far down, by the end you’ve run out of material.
Prescription: Select None on Cutting Mat when bypassing the mat.
Diagnosis #10: Wrong loading method (Cameo 1 or 2, Portrait 1, SD, Original)
On these machines, you have 2 options: Load Mat or Load Media. Because the mat has a margin at the top above where you put your material, the machine needs to pull it in farther than when you’re cutting without a mat. That can mean you run out of material at the bottom.
Let’s think through that. Let’s say you’ve design a phrase that’s 30″ long. You’ve read the info on setting up the correct page size and leaving the correct margins, so you’ve set your page size to 31″ and cut that much vinyl from your roll. When you load, you accidentally press “Load Mat” instead of “Load Media.” The machine pulls the vinyl in an extra 1″ to account for the non-sticky top margin on the mat. It thinks it needs that because you told it you were loading a mat. It starts cutting 1″ down from the top instead of at the very top. By the time it gets to the bottom, it still thinks it has room so continues rolling the material in. The bottom of the material goes past the rollers so nothing is gripping it.
Again, look back at the pictures in Diagnosis #8 to see the difference.
Prescription: When using mat, select Load Cut(ting) Mat. When bypassing mat, select Load Media.
Diagnosis #11: Cutting over 10 feet in length
Here’s the official wording on maximum page length from Silhouette America:
When cutting longer materials that have their own adhesive backing (such as adhesive-backed vinyl), you may cut lengths of up to 10 feet so long as the material is wide enough to be gripped by the pinch rollers. EDITED 3/23/20 — the official word is now 16 feet.
So why is 10 feet the limit? It’s not that you can’t design projects larger than that or that the machine couldn’t roll something like vinyl through that far. It’s that no matter how good of a 90° side-to-top angle you have on your material and how well you load it, it’s just not perfect. It can still shift slightly during the cut, especially when you factor in all the movement. When you get past 10 feet, it’s very likely that one side or the other will come out from under the roller.
Prescription: Know the limits of the machine. If attempting to cut over 10 feet, try buying 15″ wide material and cutting it down to 13″. That gives you a bit of wiggle room. Also read my series “Cutting Without the Mat Without Losing Your Mind” for extra tricks.
Diagnosis #12: Non-Silhouette brand mat used
This is one that, as I told you in our appointment on the mat, is the subject of some fierce debate. But I can tell you from experience as a Customer Support Rep for Silhouette America that using thicker mats can force the mechanisms too far apart after time. The left roller no longer gripping is the sign that this has happened.
Prescription: Use only Silhouette brand mat. If your left roller no longer grips, wind some black electrical tape around it to thicken it up a bit. But that’s not a great solution so it’s best to play it safe.
Symptom: Material bunches on sides when cutting without the mat
Diagnosis: Using material of wrong width
Believe it or not, Silhouettes are not the only machines that cut vinyl and HTV. There are commercial machines that cut 15″, 20″ and 24″ wide materials. In fact, that’s how Silhouette got its start. Graphtec, a company that makes commercial cutting machines, developed a smaller version for crafters. They originally marketed it as the Craft Robo, then sold it to QuicKutz who made the Original Silhouette Digital Craft Cutter. Eventually, Graphtec bought it back and created a division of their company called Silhouette America and continued adding new models. A few years ago, they spun it off as its own company. Okay, history lesson over.
When purchasing materials like HTV and vinyl online, you’ll often see those wider widths. In fact, 12″ x 15″ sheets of HTV are cut from 15″ wide rolls, not the other way around. You can get a better price per square inch by buying those wider widths and cutting them down.
Some people like to bypass the step of cutting them down and just load them into their Silhouette machines. Or, they have a Portrait and buy 12″ wide vinyl. Because the machines aren’t made wide enough to accommodate that, the material can bunch up at the sides. This is less of an issue on the Cameo 3. The cutting width is still about 11 1/2″ when cutting without the mat, but there’s more distance between the edge of the rollers and the side walls of the machine.
Prescription: Use the correct width of material for your machine, or one that is only slightly wider. Make sure your machine can accommodate the extra width, taking into account that the material shifts slightly while cutting.
Symptom: Material bunches between mechanisms when cutting without the mat
Diagnosis: Material isn’t feeding correctly
What’s happening here is that the leading edge of the material isn’t going under and over what it’s supposed to.
- It may catch in the groove under the roller bar, which it’s supposed to go over.
- It can catch on the bar the motor runs along, which it’s supposed to go under.
- On a Cameo 3, there’s a guard between the 2 rollers. It’s a long, white plastic piece that is below the motor box. The material should go under that.
- It can catch on the serrated band in the back, which it’s supposed to go under.
- The crosscutter groove in the back is someplace it quite frequently catches. It’s should go over that.
When the material gets caught, it doesn’t feed through and so bunches up.
Prescription: Store vinyl and HTV flat or rolled loosely on a large roll. Use “riding on cardstock” method to load materials without the mat. Roll material past mechanisms before beginning the cut. Cover the crosscutter groove with painter’s tape.
Symptom: Fabric bunches up
Diagnosis: No stabilizer used
Fabric on its own is not stiff enough to cut with a regular machine and blade (with the Cameo 4 and Rotary Blade, it’s much easier and does not need a stabilizer). It needs some help. That’s just the nature of fabric. Like vinyl, it’s made to be able to curve around things. So that makes it flexible instead of rigid like cardstock or other materials.
So we’ve talked about issues that happen before the cut and during the cut. Next time, we’ll get into problems after the cut is finished. And after that, we’ll get to the best part of the series — understanding why a material might rip or tear instead of cut, or not be cut all the way through. Be sure to make your next appointment!