I hope you’ve gotten comfortable with cutting cardstock in our first 5 beginner projects. If you haven’t yet done those, I HIGHLY recommend it. You can find project #1 here. This set of 10 projects is designed to teach you in incremental steps and I introduce new concepts in each project. Our second set of 5 projects will use adhesive vinyl, another material that’s relatively inexpensive, easy to find and easy to work with. Let’s start with a simple snowman you can put on many different surfaces.
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Adhesive vinyl – only 1 color needed
Transfer paper or tape
For more information on these materials, see this post.
Weeding tool or other sharp object such as a pin, seam ripper, etc. I actually love the test probe set from Harbor Freight.
Squeegee (scraper tool), kitchen scraper or used gift card
Scissors or craft trimmer
Project surface – I’m using a flat glass Christmas ornament, but you could put your shape on your machine, your phone case, a glass frame, a wall, a metal or wooden sign – pretty much anything – but look for a surface that’s flat (or relatively so). Curves and conical surfaces aren’t great for a first project in vinyl.
Step 1 – Prep the project surface
Before we start, we want to make sure the surface of the project is ready to receive the vinyl. As with many things, correct preparation is a key step.
–If you are putting the vinyl on glass, use rubbing alcohol and a rag to clean the surface. Rubbing alcohol dries quickly and doesn’t have ingredients that some glass cleaners do.
–For a plastic or metal, wipe with a cloth to remove dust and fingerprints. Rubbing alcohol will usually be okay on metal also, but test first on the back to make sure.
–Make sure walls are free of dust, grease, etc. Also make sure you are using a removable vinyl for interior walls. The vinyl will stick better to a flat or eggshell finish paint that to a glossy one. It also sticks better to a smooth surface than a bumpy one, although I’ve had success with both.
–Vinyl sticks best on wood when it’s smooth, not rough. Sand as appropriate and remove the dust with tack cloth.
If you want to test how well the vinyl sticks to your surface, just cut a small square off the corner of your vinyl and check it on the surface.
Step 2 – Start a new file
Start with a clean drawing area. Go ahead and leave your page size at 12”x12”. I’ll remind you to check the page size again before we cut.
Also make sure to choose Cameo cutting mat in your page setup. Yes, you can cut vinyl without the mat, but that isn’t the best way for beginners. I’ll show you later how to do that.
Step 3 – Add the shape to the page
Look in your library for the set of free shapes that came with your machine. Find the one called “Snowman.” This is like the first shape we cut on cardstock – a single, solid piece.
Step 4 – Resize the shape
Measure the surface you’re going to put your snowman on. My ornament is relatively flat, but it does curve at the outsides. I’m going to make my snowman a size that will easily fit on the flat area with a bit of space around. There are tricks to adhering to a rounded or curved surface so you don’t want to mess with that in your first project.
Once you’ve determined how much flat area you have, resize your snowman to fit it. Be sure to either use a corner square to resize, or close the lock on Lock Aspect Ratio so that your height and width change proportionally. I suggest making your snowman no smaller than 3” tall.
Step 5 – Set the page size
Your page size will be determined by 2 variables – the size of your vinyl and the size of your snowman.
Vinyl typically comes in 9” and 12” widths. But just like with cardstock, you don’t have to put a full 12”x12” piece on the cutting mat. In fact, in the beginning I think it’s easier not to.
My snowman is approximately 1.6” wide x 3” tall. I’m going to cut a piece of vinyl to 2.5” x 4”. That means that’s also what I need to set as my page size. That will give me a bit of room all the way around the shape. You can do this any time you are using a piece of material that is smaller than the size of the mat.
Sometimes I will cut the appropriate height but use the full width of the vinyl, so 3” x 12”. Do this if you want to cut more than 1 snowman.
Move your snowman to the center of the page size you set. You can eyeball it, or use the Center to Page icon in the Quick Access Toolbar.
Step 6 – Choose cut settings
We’ve already learned a good deal about cut settings. Open the Send area and we’ll stick with Action by: Simple for this project. Select Vinyl, Matte as your material type. Make sure Cut is the Action and AutoBlade is the tool.
The default settings for this material are:
- Blade 1
- Speed 5
- Force 10
- Passes 1
- Line Segment Overcut off
Let me give you more information about each.
This is the setting you adjust based on how thick your material is. As with any material, you want your blade setting to be just deep enough to cut all the way through the material. You should never have to go beyond a 2 with vinyl, because it’s a very thin material. If you’re trying to cut vinyl and have to take your blade up to a 5, something’s wrong. It could be that you need to adjust force instead. Or that your blade cap isn’t fully on. Or that the blade isn’t seated all the way down in the holder. Or that the blade isn’t fully locked in.
Here’s a big mistake I made as a beginner. I would try to cut something and my material would rip and tear instead of cutting. My thought process went like this: “My blade must not be sharp enough. I must need to set it on a higher number.”
That was the exact opposite of what to do. Ripping and tearing typically indicates blade number, speed or force is set too HIGH and needs to be lowered.
The general idea with speed is that the thicker or more dense your material, or the smaller/more intricate the design, the slower the speed needs to be. For example, with Cardstock, Plain, the default speed is 4. Vinyl is a thinner, less dense material than most cardstock, so it makes sense that you could go faster.
Here’s the problem: a faster speed means the blade is moving more quickly through the material. That means there’s a higher likelihood that the blade will pull at the material, particularly around corners.
When I worked in Customer Support for Silhouette America, I used to frequently corner the guy who did all the testing of materials and pick his brain. I learned a great deal from him, particularly about cut settings. He told me whenever he was testing a material and had a problem, the very first thing he did was take the speed all the way down to 1. You can cut too fast, but you can’t cut too slow. So by taking it to 1, you eliminate that as an issue very easily. I still cut many materials at a 1 or 2, because I find I actually save time, money and frustration in the long run.
So, for our first project, I’m going to suggest you take the speed all the way down to 1. This will give you the best chance for success.
This setting determines how much downward force the machine exerts on the blade mechanism. After speed, this is the setting I recommend adjusting. You adjust this setting based on the density of the material – how tightly packed the fibers or materials that make up the media are. For instance, a piece of copy paper and construction paper may have the same thickness, but the fibers in the construction paper aren’t packed as tightly together. That means is has a lower density, which would require a lower force setting. But please note that I don’t recommend cutting construction paper on your Cameo. It doesn’t cut well and makes a mess on your mat.
For most materials, the default blade number is going to be pretty accurate, particularly with Silhouette brand materials. The one with the most variation is cardstock, because there are a kazillion types of cardstock with many variations of thickness and density. Since Force is a smaller adjustment, it’s more of a fine-tuning. So if your material is cutting almost through but not quite, adjusting Force instead of Blade Number is a smarter option. I go in increments of 3 usually. If you understand this, your blades, mats and cutting strip will last much longer.
If you notice ripping and pulling as you cut, or that your machine makes a stuttering/chattering sound, your Force or blade number is set too high. The blade gets caught in the mat momentarily, so while the motor box isn’t moving the rollers are. That’s what makes the sound.
You should not ever have to have more than 1 pass when cutting vinyl, because it is such a thin material. If you find yourself having to double cut vinyl every time, one of your other settings is off.
Line Segment Overcut
I’ve already told you how much I LOVE this setting – even more than I love a good cafe mocha (that’s saying A LOT!). It is absolutely ESSENTIAL that you use this on vinyl.
Look at the snowman shape. See the “v” shape where each of the balls on his body meet? With a thin material like vinyl, if the blade stays in the material as it makes that turn you will definitely get pulling. But if you turn on Line Segment Overcut, the blade will lift and then lower to go in the new direction.
This sample is on cardstock, but it shows you what I mean. The only difference in the photo on the left and the one on the right is that I turned on Line Segment Overcut.
Pretty dramatic, huh? Get used to ALWAYS turning this on when cutting. Just click on the box to turn it on.
Where to start
Remember also that it’s better to start on the low side of the settings if you are unsure. If your settings are too low, as long as you figure that out before you unload you can adjust the settings and send the job to cut again. It will cut in the exact same spot. If your settings are too high, you will likely ruin your material.
For my machine, these settings for vinyl are usually too low and I need to bump them up. But NO ONE can give you a magic setting that will work for every machine, with every blade, on every piece of material, on every design. It’s just not possible. So learn to test cut and adjust settings based on what you observe from the test cut.
Step 7 – Put vinyl on mat and load
If you haven’t done it yet, cut a piece of vinyl to the size we set up in Step 4.
Attach the vinyl to the mat in the upper left corner. Because we set that smaller page size, the usable area will always be in that upper left. Make sure the vinyl is well attached to the mat and load your mat into your machine.
Step 8 –Test Cut
This is the first cut we’ve done with vinyl, so we want to test our settings before cutting the whole project. Get into the habit of doing this. Taking that little bit of time will make you a much happier Silhouette user.
I’ve already told you that I don’t like the test cut feature in the Silhouette software, because you have to unload your mat to check the cut. Who wants to mess with that?
Go back to your design area. Use your drawing tools to make a rectangle approximately ½” in size in the lower left of the page. Note that this won’t be in the lower left of the mat, because your page size is smaller than your mat size.
Open the Send area again and set your snowman to No Cut.
Go through your cutting checklist and cut the rectangle. Don’t unload your mat.
Now check the cut. Use your weeding tool to try to lift away the rectangle. What you want is a kiss cut – you want the vinyl cut all the way through but not the backing paper. If the cut wasn’t what it needed to be, adjust your settings based on the information in Step 5. Move your rectangle to another part of the page and try again. Continue adjusting and testing until you get a great cut.
Step 9 – Cut the shape
Now you can to delete the rectangle so it doesn’t cut again. Set your snowman to Cut and send the job to the machine. Remember to check the cut before you unload. Unload only when you’re sure the cut went through the vinyl. You can test that by starting to pull up a corner of the vinyl and seeing if it separates from the snowman when you get to that area.
Step 10 – Weed
You may not yet be familiar with the term “weeding” in the Silhouette world, but think about a garden. When you are weeding your garden, you are removing things you don’t want (weeds) and keeping things you do want (flowers or vegetables).
The principle is the same. To weed vinyl means to remove the pieces you don’t want and keep the pieces you do want. In this case, you want to remove from the backing paper the rectangle that’s around the snowman but leave him in place.
What do you do with the part you weed away? You can toss it if you like. Or, if you are careful and don’t rip it as you remove it, you can save it to use as a stencil for painting, glass etching, etc. In those types of projects, you use that outside piece instead of the design itself. Here’s a great hint: use the shiny side of your blue mat cover to hold that piece temporarily. Then when you’ve removed your snowman shape from the vinyl backing paper, you can transfer it there to save for later.
Step 11 – Apply transfer media
This is probably the step that’s hardest for beginner vinyl users to visualize. We use transfer tape or transfer paper to transfer our vinyl piece to our project.
Why do we need that? Can’t we just lift the snowman up and plop him down on our project surface? In this case, you might be able to because he’s small and he’s only 1 piece. But when you get multiple parts or larger pieces, you won’t. Believe me, it can be a sticky mess trying to move vinyl without transfer media. The vinyl is pliable so it can be used on curved surfaces. But that means it’s not stiff enough to pick up and move easily — it flops all over the place. Using the transfer media also keeps together multiple pieces and retains their spacing.
Let me give you an overview, then I’ll go into more go more detail. The transfer media has a sticky side and a non-sticky side, like regular tape. You put the sticky side on the top of your weeded vinyl design, so the sticky side of the transfer media is on top of the vinyl. The transfer media lifts the vinyl off the backing paper. You then carry it to your project surface and lay it down. The vinyl sticks to the surface. You then remove the transfer media and your project is complete.
Let’s walk through each of those steps.
Cut a piece of transfer paper or tape
I like to use transfer paper because I find it easier to work with so that’s what I’m going to demonstrate here. I like that transfer tape is clear, but I find that sometimes it’s harder to get it to release the vinyl when pulling it from the project. You’ll have to test a few products to find what works best for you. One piece of advice I do have – read the manufacturer’s information regarding what transfer media to use with what type of vinyl. I see lots of folks who get upset when their transfer media either won’t stick to their vinyl or sticks to it too much, but it’s because they haven’t used the right combination of products.
Cut a piece of transfer media slightly larger than the size of your design but a bit smaller than the vinyl backing paper. It can be tricky to get it on square so having a little wiggle room helps. This bit of extra height will also give us an anchor point.
Put the transfer media onto the vinyl
I find it helps also to use painter’s tape to tape my vinyl backing onto my table. This makes sure it won’t move around. The transfer media can also have static that can pull the vinyl piece toward it as you apply, so having it taped to the table eliminates that issue.
There are several methods for getting the transfer paper or tape onto the vinyl. I’m going to show you several different ways in our various projects. Try them all and then find one that works best for you.
If your transfer media has a backing, remove that now and set it aside but don’t throw it away. Take the top end of the transfer tape and press just that part onto the blank area of the vinyl backing paper just below the top edge of the backing paper. You don’t want the transfer media on your vinyl just yet. This will be our anchor point. It helps keep the transfer tape from wiggling as we go through the next steps. Press firmly along that edge.
Now with one hand hold the transfer media off the project, and with the other begin to use your squeegee to gradually press the transfer media onto the surface of the vinyl. It helps to work from the center outward if possible. Work slowly to avoid getting wrinkles in the transfer media. If you get some, don’t panic. It will usually work just fine.
Once the transfer media is all the way down on the vinyl, use the squeegee to burnish the transfer media to the vinyl. This helps prevent bubbles when you put the vinyl on your project surface.
At this point, I like to trim the whole thing to make sure the distance between the design and the edge of the transfer media is equal on top and bottom and on each side. Since I struggle with getting things on straight I find this helps.
Step 12 – Remove the vinyl backing
Flip the whole thing over. Hold down the corner of the transfer media with one hand, and begin removing the vinyl backing paper with the other hand. Work slowly. You want to make sure the vinyl is sticking to the transfer media. Set the backing aside but don’t toss it yet.
You now have 2 sticky surfaces exposed – the back of the vinyl and the back of the transfer media. The front of the transfer media isn’t sticky.
Step 13 – Adhere to project
Now it’s time to put the vinyl onto your project surface. Getting it on straight takes some practice and some tricks, so don’t stress about that too much for right now. Our main goal in this project is to learn the general principles. I’ll show you more alignment and application tricks as we do other projects.
Pull your project surface in front of you. Hover the sticky side of the vinyl+transfer media over the project. Bow it in the middle, so that the center of the design is close to the surface while the edges are up further. That allows you to see the surface better and work from the middle outward.
When you’ve got it aligned well enough (remember – don’ t worry about this too much), gently touch the bowed middle to the surface. Then gradually roll down each side, either together or individually.
Use your squeegee or gift card to burnish the vinyl onto the project surface.
Step 14 — Remove transfer media
Starting at one corner, gradually pull the transfer media up from the surface. Work slowly, making sure the vinyl is sticking. Here are some hints:
- Vinyl tears easily, so be careful.
- Pull in such a way that when you get to the spot where the design is, you are pulling against a long edge rather than a corner or short edge. The vinyl has a better chance of releasing from the transfer media if more of the vinyl’s surface area is on the project.
- Instead of pulling the transfer media up at a 90 degree angle to the project surface, keep it parallel (folded back on itself). This helps prevent bubbles and aids in the vinyl releasing from the backing paper.
- If the vinyl pulls off the surface as you try to remove the transfer media, roll it back down and use your finger nail, weeding tool or other object to help hold down the edge of the vinyl onto the project surface. Vinyl also dents easily so don’t press too hard.
- Sometimes you can reuse transfer tape or paper a few times. Place it back onto the backing paper you saved and try using it again next time. Also, if you saved your weeded part of your vinyl, you can put that back on the vinyl backing paper to save for another project.
You’ve accomplished your first vinyl project and are well on your way to becoming an expert! Add a few embellishments to your project if you like. If you’re feeling brave, cut some features for your snowman. Since they would be pretty small pieces, you can easily lift them off the vinyl backing and place them by hand. I added some button studs and ribbon, and filled the bottom of my ornament with stuffing to imitate snow. We’re going to add a snowflake to this project in a future lesson, so keep him around or make an extra.
Don’t forget that you can use the background portion as a stencil for painting or glass etching. Check out this post for how I used a hummingbird design to create watercolor paintings. You can get the hummingbird cut file by signing up for my newsletter.
In our next vinyl project, we’ll use a design with multiple pieces and I’ll show you more tricks to applying your vinyl to your surface.
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