Why Everyone Needs a Vinyl Cutter
OK, so maybe not EVERYONE needs a vinyl cutter but if you’re a computer savvy, artistic or crafty person like me … a vinyl cutter is one of the coolest gadgets you can have at your disposal.
Why are vinyl cutters so awesome? Simply because they give you the ability to cut your own vinyl lettering and vinyl graphics that can be applied to any smooth surface and will withstand years of outdoor exposure. Some of the most common applications are vehicle graphics, vinyl signs and banners, but with such a versatile material and the ability to cut any shape imaginable, the possibilities and applications are endless.
In addition to vinyl cutters being fun and useful tools, they’re also a great way to start a small business with minimal investment. If you’re already graphic designer with a basic knowledge of Adobe Illustrator, you can combine that knowledge with a vinyl cutter and have a business that’s ready to make money! Of course you’ll have to do a little market research and stock up on some related supplies, but sign making is a very easy industry to break into.
What Is a Vinyl Cutter?
A vinyl cutter (or vinyl plotter) is essentially a computer controlled plotting device with a blade instead of a pen. A vector based design is created in a software program (usually Adobe Illustrator) and then sent to the cutter where it cuts along the vector paths laid out the design. The cutter is capable of moving the blade on an X and Y axis over the material, cutting it into any shape imaginable. Vinyl cutters come in a variety of widths from 8” up to 47” and wider! Since the vinyl material comes in long rolls, projects with significant length like banners or billboards can be easily cut as well.
The one major limitation with vinyl cutters is that they can only cut shapes from solid colors of vinyl. A design with multiple colors must have each color cut separately and then layered on top of each other as it’s applied to the substrate. Also, since the shapes are cut out of solid colors, photographs and gradients cannot be reproduced with a standalone cutter.
Despite the limitations in the design process, the durability of solid, cut vinyl and it’s resistance to fading far outweigh any negatives in common applications. Also, in addition to the capabilities of the cutter itself, the adhesive vinyl comes in a wide variety of colors and materials including gold and silver foil, vinyl that simulates frosted glass, holographic vinyl, reflective vinyl, thermal transfer material, and even clear vinyl imbedded with real 24 carat gold leaf! (Often used in the lettering on fire trucks and rescue vehicles.)
What Type of Vinyl Cutter Should I Buy?
There are many reliable brands of vinyl cutters on the market from premium companies like Roland, Gerber and Graphtec … but there are many more generic brands floating around on discount sign supply sites and on eBay. When it comes to selecting a brand, I ALWAYS recommend going with one of the premium equipment manufacturers. Not only will they be higher quality, but they’ll come with better support, more advanced features and replacement parts will be easier to find.
You also want to consider that the adhesive vinyl you’re cutting can cost you hundreds of dollars per roll, so while a generic vinyl cutter may save you a few bucks up front, it may cost you much, much more in ruined vinyl due to jams, bad cuts, misalignments and lost productivity. The bottom line, buy a good vinyl cutter up front and save yourself the aggravation.
My experience has traditionally been with Roland, so that’s usually the brand I recommend when people ask me.
For most users who intend to make money of their sign making equipment, I recommend the Roland CAMM 1 Servo (GX-24) Vinyl Cutter. It’s not their top of the line machine, but it’s a workhorse, wide enough for almost any project, reasonably fast, easy to use and reasonably priced at around $2000.
If you need to cut larger graphics or need higher output, I would recommend the Roland CAMM 1 Pro line (GX-500/400/300) of vinyl cutters, available in 47”, 39” and 29” widths. These vinyl cutters start at around $3000 and go up to around $5000. Despite the higher cost, it usually pays off with a savings in time since they cut faster than less expensive models … especially if your projects are physically larger.
If you’re budget is tight or you’re just looking for a light duty vinyl cutter, you may want to look into the Roland STiKA line (SV-15/12/8), available in 15”, 12” and 8” widths. They’re not going to have tremendous speed or be able to handle large projects, but for a hobbyist or office environment they’re perfect.
Despite my affinity for Roland vinyl cutters, I’m not a Roland representative and there’s definitely more than one game in town. Just remember that vinyl film is expensive and buying and off brand to save a few dollars on the cutter isn’t worth it if you’re wasting even more on ruined vinyl. I urge everyone who is thinking about the purchase of a vinyl cutter to shop around and be sure to test the equipment hands on. If you can’t find a local rep or service center in your area that can give you a hands-on demo … it’s a strong sign that you should steer clear of that brand.