What Is a Vinyl Cutter?

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Vinyl cutters are used to produce lettering and graphics for signs, vehicles, windows and displays. Developed in the late 1980s, vinyl cutters revolutionized the sign industry and paved the way for numerous franchise and small businesses. In an industry formerly dominated by hand-lettering and screenprinting, the vinyl cutter allows the manufacture of simple signs and lettering with minimal training and artistic ability.

Computers and Software

Vinyl cutters are connected to computers via standard printer cables, or by USB connection. Cutters require special signmaking software, installed in a standard computer. The software allows lettering and scanned artwork to be properly sized, laid out and manipulated, and converts the information into computer language to be sent to the cutter. Software comes in many different forms, from simple lettering applications to full-blown graphic arts signage-design programs. Some software can be integrated with other manufacturers' design applications and is largely the choice of professional sign makers.

Vinyl Cutters

Vinyl cutters are available in many sizes, from 6" tabletop units to 60" or more. Cutters are based on pen-plotters, but use a small rotating blade rather than a drawing tool. Vinyl cutters receive information sent by the computer program, and cut the required design into sheet or roll material, which is usually adhesive backed. The operator "weeds", or removes, unwanted background material, leaving the adhesive lettering or design intact for application.

Feeding Mechanism

Cutters feature either "pin-feed" or "friction-feed" mechanisms for material insertion. Pin-feed cutters use material that has perforations on either side to facilitate insertion, while friction-feed cutters utilize friction rollers, and are not as dependent upon material width as a pin-fed unit. Many smaller shops prefer friction-feed models, as odd-sized and cut-off of material can be used for smaller jobs. Pin-feed cutters are used primarily in high-volume shops, and eliminate the occasional material slippage that sometimes occurs with friction-feed machines.

Vinyl Cutting Material

Cutting material, or "media," is purchased by the roll or sheet. Numerous colors are available, as are varying grades, finishes and thicknesses. Although the most common media is self-adhesive vinyl, specialty applications may use sandblasting mask, airbrushing and painting mask, ink-impregnated decal material for heat-applied garment decorating and opaque masking film.

Vinyl Cutter Features

There is a large price difference between similarly sized and equipped machines. Aside from usual features--such as feed mechanisms, floor stands and media-catch trays--internal components separate entry-level machines from industrial-quality units.

Buffer size: Buffers are internal storage devices that allow machines to process job-cutting information sent from the computer. Larger buffer sizes offer increased production and efficient use of time. Usual buffer sizes are from 1 to 5 megabytes.

Cutter speed: This is measured in inches per second (ips). The cutters ips is the speed with which it cuts the material. Ips does not designate material width, but rather the size of the lettering or image. Usual ips speeds are from 15 to 35 ips.

Motor Type: Stepping motors are standard in inexpensive machines, while servo motors are used in higher-end models. Servo motors are known for their reliability and smooth operation.

Downforce: Downforce is adjustable on all but the most basic machines, and is the measurement of force the blade employs upon the material. Heavy material, such as sandblast mask and specialty vinyl, requires higher downforce to cut cleanly. The usual range is 25 to 500 grams.

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