CB21-078 - Everything you need to know about die cutting

Everything you need to know about die-cutting

Die crafting was once a process reserved for an industrial setting, but technological advancements have brought these benefits to consumers. Die-cutting machines quickly create uniform shapes without laborious cutting, improving the process for both crafters and professionals.

There is plenty to learn about die-cutting. In this article, we explore the process and uses for die-cutting. We also take a look at the different terms used in die-cutting and the difference between machines, as well as what you need to know to get started.

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Die-Cutting Defined

Die-cutting is a general term surrounding the process of using a machine to cut out shapes. This process allows users to create multiples of the same dimension and shape without requiring the use of blades such as scissors or craft knives.

Die-cutting was primarily used for mass production, but recent trends and technological advancements have made it much more accessible for consumers and at-home use.

Die-cutting has paved the way for a time-effective method of consistently cutting professional-grade shapes from materials such as paper, cardstock, chipboard, and fabrics.

Uses for Die-Cutting

While the capabilities of each die-cutting machine are different, most are capable of cutting basic materials such as:

  • Foam
  • Felt
  • Thin fabric
  • Paper
  • Cardstock
  • Vinyl

More durable, steel-rule dies can cut tougher material like chipboard, corkboard, leather, sponge, and rubber. However, not all die-cutting machines are capable of cutting these materials. Therefore, it is important to check your die-cutting machine to verify the materials it can cut.

The most common uses for die-cutting involve making:

  • Stickers
  • Envelopes
  • Greeting cards or invitations
  • Gift tags
  • Bags
  • Party favors

Because they have such a wide variety of uses, die-cutting machines are used by crafters, scrapbookers, and many small businesses. They create uniform cuts desired by quilters, and teachers can easily use them to enhance the learning environment and reduce their workload.

Die-Cutting Terms and Accessories

Most of die-cutting is easy to understand, but there are a few specific accessories and terms to become familiar with before you get started, including:

  • Dies
  • Shapes
  • Pads/plates
  • Die-cut sandwiches
  • Embossing folders
  • Shims

Luckily, it does not get more technical than these, and learning the terms can improve your die-cutting experience.

What are Dies?

A die is the cutting template for what you are trying to cut. These appear similar to cookie cutters because they have a metal area used for cutting.

For example, you might have a gingerbread man, snowman, and candy cane cookie cutter when you make cookies. The die is the cookie cutter. Therefore, you could have a gingerbread man, snowman, and candy cane die for your paper crafts.

Steel-rule dies are very sharp, and they are usually protected using foam or plastic. These are the most durable type of die that you can use, and steel-rule dies can cut thick or layered materials.

Thin metal dies are not as sharp and durable, but they can be a more cost-effective option for basic use. Because they are not as large, thin metal dies are easier to transport and store.

Die-Cut Shapes

Die-cut shapes are the products of the die-cutting process. You may also see them referred to as embellishments, cut-outs, or ephemera.

These are the pieces of material that are cut out using dies, and they come in many different sizes and styles, including:

  • Basic shapes
  • Words
  • Florals
  • Lace patterns
  • Animals
  • Food shapes

There are die shapes for almost anything you can think of.

Die-Cut Sandwich

The die-cut sandwich is the combination of materials (platforms, mats, and sometimes shims) needed to perform the task of die-cutting. There are many different combinations to consider depending on what you are trying to accomplish with die-cutting, and many manufacturers have books and manuals to provide different combination ideas.

Essentially, what you are doing is taking the material you want to cut and placing a die on it. The material and die are then sandwiched by two cutting pads or plates, making the die-cut sandwich. This sandwich is then run through the die-cutting machine which applies enough pressure to cut your material.

A die-cut sandwich should be sufficient to accomplish the task but not so bulky that you must force it through the machine. If it is too difficult to feed it through, you need to reverse it out of the machine and adjust the cut.

Cutting Pads or Plates

Cutting pads and/or plates are used to create the die-cut sandwich. These layering components help the machine apply uniform pressure on the pad, pushing the die into the paper to complete the cut.

Die-cut pads come in many different sizes and colors, and you should replace them over time as they become worn. While this is normal over time, you can minimize wear by using the whole surface and flipping the pad or running it back through the machine.

Embossing Folders

While die-cutting machines are primarily used to cut shapes, you can use embossing folders in manual machines to create relief designs on papers.

Instead of cutting the paper, an embossing folder uses the presser to raise certain material parts and create a specific design.

Some embossing folders will cut out a specific piece of the paper while creating the relief design, reducing your workload to create a more intricate detail.


Shims are used in different processes to fill space and increase pressure.

When it comes to die-cutting, shims are usually just pieces of cardstock that you use to keep the die from moving and increase the pressure on the die as it moves through the machine.

Shims are commonly used with intricate designs to ensure the entire piece is cut out. If cardstock shims are not adequate, you can purchase metal shims for better control and pressure.

Types of Die-Cutting Machines

There are two main types of die-cutting machines, manual and digital. Both accomplish the same task of cutting shapes out of specific materials. Most of these machines are no more significant than any other appliance in the home, and they take up less space than small toaster ovens.

Die-cutting machines can easily sit on a crafting table or be stored easily, but miniature varieties show more consideration for space.

Within the two types of die-cutting machines, several brands have their differences, but they function in the same basic ways.

Manual Die-Cutting Machines

A manual die-cutting machine uses a crank or a lever, and some have electric-powered components to reduce the labor required.

When using a manual die-cutting machine, you place a piece of paper on the platform and then lay dies on top where you want the machine to cut. A plastic mat is placed on top of these materials to hold everything in place, and then the machine moves the platform through the machine.

Manual die-cutting machines will put pressure on the mat to press the die into the material and cut out the desired shapes. Once the platform exits the machine and the top pad is removed, the cut shapes are waiting on the platform for their intended use.

Digital Die-Cutting Machines

Digital die-cutting machines are powered by electricity, but their most distinguishing feature is the software used to control the machines. They do not use steel dies, and they instead have a blade inside the machine to cut the material in the desired shapes.

Depending on the manufacturer, a digital die-cutting machine can be hooked up to most devices through a USB cable or Bluetooth® connection, including:

  • Computers
  • Phones
  • Tablets

You can purchase digital files that the machines use as a template for making cuts and cartridges that are preloaded with images. Some manufacturers also have contracts that allow you access to certain licensed work, such as Cricut and Disney.

What You Need to Start Die-Cutting

Most of the materials you need to start die-cutting are included in purchasing a die-cutting machine. Some basic materials you need to count on purchasing separately include:

  • Dies (manual machines)
  • Cartridges and cut files (digital machines)
  • Material to cut from (paper or fabric)

Manual machines come with the machine, platform, and cutting pads. You will need to purchase at least one die before you can start cutting. You can also look for die-cutting bundles at your favorite craft or hobby store to save money when getting started.

Digital die-cutting machines come with the machine and the software that you need to get started, and you will not need to purchase any cutting materials physically. Most of the software includes a few basic designs to get you started, but you may have something different in mind.

Most of these materials are available at your local crafting store, but you can always find them online.

What to Consider When Choosing a Die-Cutting Machine

While die-cutting machines do the same thing, there are many details to iron out before you take the plunge. Machines of the same type can still have different capabilities, even those made by the same manufacturer.

Before you start doing your research and get your heart set on a specific machine, you need to take a deeper look at:

  • Budget constraints
  • The intended use for the machine
  • Portability needs
  • The output size of products
  • Need for simplicity
  • Warranty preferences

Die-cutting machines have come far in recent years, and there is a machine out there for pretty much every situation.


Regardless of the type of machine you choose, the purchase will require an initial investment. This up-front cost covers the materials to get started, and the operating costs dwindle as time goes on.

If you need to keep this initial cost low, consider purchasing a manual machine and adding accessories over time. Manual machines can start as low as $40 for a decent quality machine, and die sets are usually $10 to $30 for multiple pieces.

If you are interested in keeping costs low in the long run, a digital machine might be the better option. While the initial cost is much more (usually starting around $200), you do not need to worry about shopping for dies and shapes. You may still purchase digital packs or cartridges over time, but these do not cost nearly as much.

Intended Use

Digital die-cutting machines can cut a wider variety of shapes in different sizes. They can do most of the tasks of a manual die-cutting machine except embossing or handling heavier materials. You can also cut more duplicates using a digital die-cutting machine with minimal effort.

Manual die-cutting machines are great for straightforward shapes and designs, but you do not have as much creative freedom. If you plan to work with heavy-duty materials like thicker fabrics or chipboard, then a manual die-cutting machine is necessary.


Most manual machines weigh less than their digital cousins, and they can be folded down for more accessible storage.

Digital machines are not as light as manual machines, but you do not need to worry about toting along all the manual machines’ materials. While some digital machines require a wired connection to a computer, there are many out there that you can operate from your phone or another mobile device.

Output Size

Each model of die-cutting machine offers a different width to work with. If you do not plan on cutting large designs, you can find plenty of machines around 6 inches that will get the job done.

Wider machines are more common with manual machines, such as the Sizzix Big Shot series, but for even larger designs a digital machine is the way to go.

Digital die-cutting machines allow you to section the design into smaller parts, and you can piece them together after cutting to create larger projects like signs or wall art pieces.

Ease of Use

Manual machines are simple enough that you can take them out of the box and get started without really needing to read the manual (but please–read the manual).

Digital die-cutting machines require basic technical knowledge, but most users can get them up and running without issue. Manufacturers take advantage of software advances to increase the ease of use, and the learning curve is usually insignificant.

Software instructions can also make it easier to get the hang of using the device as it guides you through the process step-by-step. Not to mention, there are usually plenty of YouTube tutorials to show you how to use the software.

Durability and Warranty

When it comes to durability, you will run into fewer issues with manual die-cutting machines than digital die-cutting machines because there are fewer moving parts and no electronics to act up. But this can be remedied by a good warranty program.

The most popular manufacturers of die-cutting machines and their warranties are:

  • Spellbinders – 1 year limited
  • Cricut – 1 year limited
  • Silhouette – 1 year limited
  • Sizzix – 3 years limited

Summary: Everything you need to know about die-cutting

Die-cutting provides the opportunity to create uniform cuts efficiently, and its recent availability to consumers improves opportunities for crafters, small business owners, and educators. 

Uncovering the die machine that works best for your needs can decrease your workload and time constraints while improving the quality and consistency of cuts.

There is little needed to start die-cutting, and it is rarely a regrettable investment.