I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I just wasted a whole package/roll of (insert material name here) because it wasn’t cutting all the way through” or “it was just ripping up my material.” I always think to myself, “Why did you use an entire roll instead of taking the time to do a good test cut?”
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I’ve been using Silhouette machines since 2008, worked for several years in Silhouette’s Customer Support department, teach at All Things Silhouette Conferences, retreats and on this blog – and it is an EXTREMELY rare occasion when I don’t do a test cut. I have learned through a mountain of experience that I save time, $ and frustration when I do. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Having said that, I don’t like the Test Cut button in the software. Why? Partly it’s laziness. Once the test cut is done, you have to unload the mat or material to see if it cut. It’s a pain to have to keep loading and unloading each time to check the cut. That may not be as a big deal when you cut with the mat, but when you’re cutting vinyl or HTV without the mat it’s annoying.
Another reason is that the generic test cut may not always cut what you need to check. For example, you may be using a font with very thin ends to the letters. The built-in test cut isn’t going to help you know if the settings will work well on that, because it’s just a triangle inside a square.
So let me teach you some tricks to making smart test cuts yourself.
The Goal of a test cut
When trying to find a good setting for any material, your ultimate goal is to set the blade just deep enough and use just enough force to cut successfully through the material. If you go too deep or too strong, you’re most likely going to ruin your material. At the very least you’ll need to replace your blades, mats and cutting strip more frequently.
I’ve met loads of people who tell me that they have to double cut vinyl every time or it just won’t cut through. Vinyl is a very thin material that is not dense. That means you should NOT have to double cut it ever. If you learn to adjust settings instead, you’re going to save a great deal of time and extend the life of your blades, mats and cutting strip.
When I worked for Silhouette America, I used to frequently quiz the guy who tested all the materials for Silhouette. I learned from him a ton about what to adjust when. One key thing he told me is this: if you have any problem cutting, first take the speed all the way down to 1. That eliminates that as an issue, because you can cut too fast but you can’t cut too slow. If the speed is too high, it could rip or pull your material. I’m chicken and I don’t like to waste material, so I often cut on a speed of 1 or several notches lower than the default. A lower speed also gives a tad more downward force on the blade.
Okay, let’s get to the tips for using the test cut wisely.
Tip #1 — Test cut lower on the page
Instead of using the top edge of your material, move down some. That way, when the test cut is done you won’t have to unload to check it. This is the smartest thing you can do — it’s just common sense.
I like to put mine at the bottom edge if I’m using the mat with a full sheet of paper. If I’m cutting without the mat using vinyl or HTV on a roll, or using less than a full page, I will often put it in a blank space somewhere on the design area. If you get it at least 2″ down from the top edge, you’ll be able to easily check without having to unload.
Tip #2 — Draw some simple shapes or a word
Use your drawing tools to make some very simple shapes. They only need to be about 1/2-1″. You can even save a set of them to your library to use every time. Here are the best ones to use:
Use this to to check to see if the starting and ending points of your cut are lining up. If you’ve got too much force, they won’t. Here’s an example — the 3 circles on the left don’t meet up at starting and ending points and are also distorted, the 2 on the circles on the right do meet up).
Square or triangle
This helps you check sharp turns. If you haven’t heard me say it before, the key to nice, crisp corners is Line Segment Overcut. Turn this on at 0.1 for both starting and ending extensions. When the blade gets to a corner, it goes 1/10 mm past the corner, picks up the blade, drops it back in 1/10 mm before the corner and goes in the new direction. Without it, the blade stays in the material around the turn of the corner. That greatly increases the likelihood that it will pull, especially on a thin material like vinyl.
Turn it on here with a check mark. Then click on the 3 dots at the end of the line…
…to open the Edit Material panel. That’s where you can adjust or check the starting and ending extensions.
A triangle or other shape inside the square
This is to test the ease of weeding, particularly with vinyl or HTV. If you can remove the material that’s in the area between the square and rounded rectangle while leaving the rounded rectangle intact, you’re good. Please do be aware that some vinyl of lower quality is harder to get to stay on the backing paper while weeding no matter what you do or how good your settings are. In that case, reverse weeding is your best bet. That involves putting the transfer tape on the design before it’s weeded, flipping over and removing the vinyl backing, then weeding what you don’t need. The transfer tape may hold the vinyl better than the vinyl backing. Just make sure you’ve got your settings right before you cut. If it’s not cut all the way through, it won’t weed with any method.
A word in the font you’re using
This it to see how well the font cuts and weeds. I like the word “violet,” because it checks all the things I’ve talked about — sharp turns (letters “l” and “v”), weeding ability (o” and “e”), starting and ending points (“o”), and small dots (“i”). At the very minimum use at least 1 letter with internal pieces in the size you are cutting (unless the word is really large — then just use some simple shapes).
It also checks the letter “t,” which is a letter that crosses itself. Testing that letter will make sure you don’t have Line Segement Overcut set too high on the starting and ending extensions.
Tip #3 — Start with the default or lower
The default settings are just that — a generic default. They will often work, but not always. There’s no one 1 setting could work every time for all machines, all pieces of materials, with all blades and mats and cutting strips, on all designs, in all kinds of local weather. It’s just not possible. So consider them as a good starting point, then learn what to adjust when.
If you are cutting a material that’s not sold by Silhouette America, there’s going to be more variation. With something like HTV, there’s not much. But with paper of any kind, there’s a world of difference. In that case, you will need to do more testing before cutting your full project. Start on the low side of what you think you’ll need, then gradually move up.
- Ripping and tearing? The blade and/or force are too high.
- Pulling at the corners? Turn on Line Segment Overcut and slow down the speed. If it still happens, lower the blade and/or force.
- Can’t see the cut at all on the back of the material? Take the blade number up.
- Cut all the way through in most spots but hard to weed? Raise the force. I usually go about 3 at a time. If the spot where it isn’t cutting through is always in the same spot side to side on the page or in the same spot on the mat, check the condition of your cutting strip and mat.
Tip #4 — Check the cut before you unload
If you’ll do this, you’ll save yourself lots of time. Get into the habit of always starting on the low side of settings for blade and force. If they’re too low, you can always raise them and cut again in the exact same spot AS LONG AS YOU DON’T UNLOAD. Unless you’re using a Curio, you’ll never get the mat back in to the exact same spot if you unload.
Tip #5 — Scoot over and test cut again
If you had any problem with the cut, adjust your settings, scoot the shapes over and test again. I like to select the test shapes, use CTRL or CMD + →, then scoot the duplicates over just a tad. Don’t forget to either delete the first set or set them to no cut. I prefer the latter because that way I don’t accidentally put a new test cut or move the design into an area where I’ve already cut.
Tip #6 — Save your settings
Once you’ve discovered a setting that works for a particular material, you don’ want to lose that. There are different ways to keep them.
- Use the sticky note feature — In version 4.1 and above, you can add a sticky note to any file. You could use this feature to make note of your settings. Use this for materials you don’t use frequently. If it’s one you use often, you won’t want to hunt every time for which file has the sticky note.
- Create a custom setting — This is my go-to option for materials I cut frequently. For example, I found a setting that worked great for some wedding invitations I was helping my friend make. Since we were cutting quite a lot of them, I didn’t cut them all in 1 day. By creating a custom setting and naming it “Skie Invitation,” I was able to come back the next day and pick back up where I left off. To create a custom setting, open the materials list and select “Add New Material Type” at the bottom of the list. Then input your settings, name it and save it. You can read more on Custom Settings here.
- Save the settings — The settings you have for a material will stay intact until you close the software or choose to Revert to the default. When you close the software you are asked if you want to save that setting permanently. If you say “no,” the next time you open the software the material will be back at it’s default setting. If you answer “yes,” it will prompt you to save it as a Custom Setting.
Even if you do create a custom setting, it’s a good idea to use the sticky note or write it down somewhere. If you ever have to delete your software Preferences folder, they will disappear because that’s where they are saved. The same goes for changing computers. The Preferences folder is created when you first install the software, so on a different computer those custom settings won’t automatically be there (although you can save them and transfer them over, but that’s a post for another day).
I have a nice, long series on getting great cuts called The Cut Doctor. You can find that starting here.
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