How Much Pressure to Cut Vinyl

Vinyl cutting machines have become increasingly popular over the years as the technology has improved. They are used to cut a large range of materials from vinyl (obviously) to paper, fabric, foil, and even balsa wood (which is a lightweight wood easier to cut and commonly used for crafts and model-building). It’s quite amazing that these things can cut through so many materials, but naturally I was wondering about the pressure settings used to cut through various materials (especially vinyl) so I looked it up.

So how much pressure should you use to cut your vinyl? A good rule of thumb is that you should always use just enough pressure to cut through the material but not so much that it begins to cut into the support surface (usually just a cutting mat). How much pressure you apply very much also depends on the thickness and tackiness of the vinyl you’re cutting.

One thing you should always get in the practice of doing before any new project and when using a new material is performing test cuts. There are other things that can affect the quality of your cut that are easily overlooked like blade depth, cutting speed, and blade angle.

I’ve found that the main reason you need to be doing regular test cuts is that there actually is no one short answer to how much pressure you should apply to the vinyl you’re using. Trust me, I looked hoping there was some chart out there with specific pressure settings for specific materials. Nope. Although there may be general guidelines, it varies from machine to machine, even within the same model.

Although vinyl cutting machines are obviously most often going to be used to cut vinyl for various projects like decals, t-shirts, signage and much more, one of the great advantages is that they can cut a great variety of materials, even some exotic ones you may not have considered. The suggestion that you be conservative about the pressure usage of your machine applies to every material you’ll run through it.

Be sure to consult the guidebook or manual that comes with your machine as a starting point for what pressure setting you should use. In general you’ll find the sweet spot for your project through trial and error.

Blade Pressure

The blade pressure on your machine is basically how much downward force it applies to the blade to cut through materials. There are usually settings on desktop machines that allow for you to adjust this to suit your project. It may even be called something different depending on your machine. On some Silhouette cutters it’s not called “blade pressure” but blade “thickness”. I’m not exactly sure for this bizarre naming, but it’s misleading and perhaps confusing to some new to vinyl cutters. Just know that it means the same thing as blade pressure.

Thicker materials will need more pressure. You’ll also want enough pressure so that all cuts are completed correctly facilitating the weeding process.

Importance of Test Cuts

The only way you’re going to really know how much pressure to apply to your material is to test each and every material individually. A lot of the common potential problems that occur when a machine is cutting a project can be completely avoided — or at least LESS likely — if you simply perform test cuts beforehand. You should do a manual test cut on a small piece of vinyl, or whatever material you’re using.

I would also do a quick run on the machine as well. Common problems that arise during vinyl cutting projects are jagged lines, superficial cuts (the blade is not cutting deep enough), perforated skips, rounded corners, or incomplete corners. By playing around with the settings during a test cut you can tailor everything to your project. You’ll want everything to be right so that when it comes time to start weeding the material (removal of excess material unused in the final design) you won’t have any problems.

When To Do Test Cuts

I would perform one of these test cuts before starting every project iteration. It’s also wise to do one every time you change from one type of vinyl to another or switching to another material altogether, for instance paper.

People are commonly doing projects involving paper (scrapbooking and card-making immediately come to mind), and the vinyl cutting machine is being increasingly used to speed up the process. Papercrafts are attractive because paper is cheap, versatile, and ubiquitous. However, counterintuitively, paper can be a little tricky to get right on a vinyl cutting machine.

Because it’s so thin (unless cardstock, cardboard, or some other hard material is being used) it’s easy to cut, but also easy to apply TOO much pressure or leave too much of the blade exposed when cutting.

Doing a quick test cut before every project can help you quickly determine the optimal settings for your project. The idea is that you should generally be using the lowest setting or the setting that puts the least amount of stress on your machine to complete a task well.

Blade Depth

Before you decide to adjust the pressure setting on your machine first make sure the blade depth is right for your project. Blade depth is how much exposure your blade has to cut materials. It should only be sticking out just far enough to cut through your material without damaging the cutting mat or support surface. If it’s protruding too much you can not only damage the backing but also wear down your blades prematurely. An extreme result is the blade gets damaged altogether.

If the blade isn’t sticking out far enough you’ll get subpar results. Either it will barely score the surface with the back of the material intact, or it may cause “faded” cuts (where it begins to cut correctly but gradually decreases in pressure as the line is completed).

The thicker your material the more you want the blade exposed, but again, only enough to barely cut through the material and not score the mat. Err on the side of the blade length being as short as possible. This often can be shorter than you think it does to get the job done.

Manual Test Cuts

With desktop hobby cutters you should be able to easily remove the blade holder from the machine. Consult the manual for your particular machine, but it should be fairly straightforward. Some of the older hobby cutters have blade holders that are color coded. They may have a click-adjustable blade that allows you to customize blade length.

You’ll perform a manual test cut by holding the blade holder in your hand and running the blade over a piece of scrap vinyl or other material. The scrap material doesn’t need to be much larger than about 4 in. square. You can adjust the blade depth lower or higher often by twisting the blade holder.

After manually doing a test cut place the blade holder back in the machine. If after performing a test on the machine and it’s still not cutting deep enough, remove the blade holder, adjust the blade, do another manual test, and try again.

Cutting Speed

Although you’re probably chiefly concerned about blade pressure, another factor affecting the quality of your cut is cutting speed. It may be tempting initially to play around with blade offset or pressure when an aspect of your cutting project goes awry, but sometimes it’s just something as simple as cutting speed that needs to be adjusted.

You’ll usually want to start with a slower starting speed for testing purposes and move your way up. If your project involves small details I would definitely make sure the cutting speed is a little bit slower. I would keep turning up the speed until you start to see that the speed is compromising the result in the test. If you start to see tearing or skipping it’s probably good to dial it back a bit.

Related Question

What angle blades should I use for my vinyl cutter?

Cutter blades come in a variety of angles for different uses. 45 and 60 degree blades are the most common and can be used for most projects, although some manufacturers also have a 30 degree blade. The 45 degree blade tends to be the workhorse. You’ll probably use this one the most. It is best used for thinner materials and will work for most vinyl. The 60 degree blade is best if you’re using thicker vinyl with tougher material.

You can usually find all of these blades fairly cheaply and they should last you a while.