Steve Jobs once said, “Stay hungry, stay foolish if you want to grow and evolve. It may sound corny, but such advice got me through the challenge of teaching myself the detail-oriented art of graphic design. My hunger increased, and only making a tidy profit from my art could satisfy it. However, I was still a bit foolish about how other people in the t-shirt business mass produce garments.
Enter heat transfers & vinyl cutters! Then suddenly, I can replicate one design on thousands of t-shirts without having to convert my humble print shop into a sweatshop. A dependable vinyl cutter enables you to make clean and accurate cuts of your artwork on heat transfer vinyl.
Result? Your customers get a professionally done tee at a fraction of the cost. That sounds like a win-win scenario for all parties concerned. And that’s what business is all about. Well, at least to me. Anyway, learning about and adapting to new technologies is always daunting.
Fret not. Vinyl cutters are not some new-fangled tech. And as you’ll see, the learning curves and technical verticals aren’t that steep. Today, I’d like to confess that it took me 2 days to fully augment a vinyl cutter for t-shirt printing processes in my workshop. But, it will take you a shorter time because I’m here to guide you.
With that said, there are loads of basic concepts you need to grasp before we proceed. So, let’s start ticking them off the list as we explore how to use a vinyl cutter for t-shirt printing processes.
What is a Vinyl Cutter Machine?
Vinyl cutter machines can be traced back to the dreary streets of London in the 1750s. It spread like wildfire to the rest of the world, much like the other technologies of the industrial revolution. It’s worth noting that Artists mainly used heat transfers to decorate English tea sets and other bits of ceramics.
However, this method was too crude to print t-shirts and other garments using heat transfer vinyl. Eventually, they added a metal plate or roller to help curve intricate details onto transfer paper. They also added a system that could inject ink directly onto transfer media. It wasn’t the safest method, but it still gave faster results when compared to hand painting.
Enter Thermal Transfer Papers
Heat transfer vinyl, glitter transfers and other thermal transfer papers changed the game. This technology was developed by “SATO” in the 1940s, but we got the first heat transfer printers in 1981. We take printing, cutting and weeding out Heat transfer vinyl before making a perfect print for granted.
How Does a Vinyl Cutting Machine Work?
A vinyl cutter is used to trim vinyl and other transfer media into articulate shapes or letters. What makes working with such a machine easier for me is I can connect it directly to a computer. This measure enhances accuracy and cuts down on my processes as my computer handles them.
These machines feature a stable articulating platform that holds sharp blades. These blades move in an exact X & Y orientation with the help of CAD software. The primary function of these blades is to cut any shape you want onto adhesive vinyl sheets.
When these letters or shapes are cut with the vinyl machine, you can stick them on any surface you may like. That way, you avoid the errors you create when merely using a hobby knife and a self-healing cutting mat.
You can interface your vinyl cutter with your favorite vector art design software like Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, or Corel draw. It adds more convenience to your workflow.
The cutter follows vector paths in your design to cut out your vector-based artwork smoothly. Its capabilities stretch beyond t-shirt printing. You can also use it for larger projects like banners and billboards since vinyl materials come in rolls.
The only drawback to a vinyl cutter is that you can only use it cut shapes or letters on strong colored vinyl. So what happens to your design project if it has too multiple colors? You’d have to be a little creative to ensure you export each color separately. You can layer them over each other in the proper order while sticking them to the desired surface.
Despite these limiting factors, Vinyl cutter still produces durable and solid designs resistant to the vagaries of time.
Can You Use Vinyl Cutter for Cutting T-Shirt Designs?
At this stage, it’s worth repeating that a vinyl cutter machine cuts instead of printing on paper. But, having one helps cut down on the time you need to create a t-shirt design. All it takes is a little planning for the perfect execution.
When I have the time, I’ll create my design in Adobe Illustrator, infinity designer or any other vector design software (I’m a master of various kinds). From there, it’s merely a matter of separating my vector paths to different layers and weeding out the vinyl. Then I press the design onto my t-shirt – Simple!
Alternatively, you can print on heat transfer vinyl and design a vector path to guide the blade away from your design. This way, all you’re left to do is weed out the vinyl and heat press your t-shirt.
But isn’t that a whole load of fuss? Yes, it’s too much work if you’re printing less than a dozen t-shirts. However, such a design and print-proofing process allow you to delegate and automate a massive t-shirt design process that produces thousands of branded garments.
What Do You Need For Using Vinyl Cutter for T-shirts?
Vinyl cutting machines are a staple in sign houses and other businesses that produce street signs or branding products. However, t-shirt businesses also use them to reduce the workload on bulk orders.
Today, we’ll explore the process I use to execute a flawless design, even on massive projects. So it may be wise to grab the following things before we proceed:
- vinyl cutter
- a laptop or PC
- a vector design software
- a vinyl cutter software
- a Flexible material or HTV (Heat transfer vinyl)
- a t-shirt (100% polyester, 100% cotton, or 50/50 cotton-polyester blend t-shirt)
- a piece of parchment or paper
- a sharp pair of Scissors
- weeding tools (Curved tweezers, Exacto knife, hobby knife, scalpel etc.)
- a self-healing mat (just in case you need it)
NB: It may make more sense to opt for vinyl paper over signage brand vinyl. Such material sticks better to garments and produces long-lasting results.
You can move to the next section if you have all these items at hand.
Using Vinyl Cutter for T-Shirts Step-By-Step
Step 1: Work Shopping Your Design
Before you start, it makes sense to brainstorm where all your design elements will appear on the t-shirt. For instance, you may have a logo, symbols and texts that need to be applied. In most cases, I download a t-shirt template for adobe illustrator or whatever design software I’m using.
I usually opt for a pdf format that is universally compatible across various platforms. This provision allows me to give the client a digital preview of the final product. That way, I can make any required alterations without printing out anything.
Step 3: Visualising the Final Product
Next, you’ll need to prepare a prototype to guide you through the repetitive process of laying down weeded out vinyl. Most of the seasoned pros in this industry skip this step. But I don’t because it adds some quality control to my t-shirt heat-pressing process.
Sketch the design on the back of the tee using a sharpie and paper. Go wild! Add whatever elements you want. However, you can limit the text size to 30 to ensure that it’s easier to scale them to larger fonts at a later phase if needed.
Keep the following things in mind as you visualize the final print:
1. Long texts and intricate shapes increase your “weeding out” time.
2. Using shapes with simple silhouettes makes it easier to create in vector art software.
Step 3: The Digital Design Process
You can download a vector image that’s print-ready from various websites. But, I prefer creating my vector graphics from scratch. This gives me greater control over the vector paths I use to orient my vinyl cutter.
Here’s how I do it:
1. Creating Vector Graphics and Paths Form Scratch
Now it’s time to create a digital version of your design from the sketch you made in the previous step. I’ll show this by using Adobe Illustrator CC 2022. But you can follow along even if you use Inkscape, infinity design or even the free apps on iPad or Android devices.
- Fire up Adobe Illustrator (or your preferred application)
- Click File and choose New.
- Ensure that the units are set to inches (trust me, this will save you loads of heartache later.)
- Change both the width and height to 12 inches
- Click Create to confirm your settings
From there, you can use the shape tool to make an outline of your design. Take your time and use as few anchor points as possible to ensure you create a smooth vector path around your design.
2. Curing Downloaded Images for Vinyl Cutting
Most t-shirt business professionals shy away from downloading complete vector graphics. Even the free ones usually have copy-written claims than can haunt you later.
For this reason, insist on using the following process while working with images you download from the internet:
- Include “silhouette” in your google search or type clip art + the image you want to download.
- Alternatively, you can add (.PNG) to your search query. PNG or portable network graphics come with transparent backgrounds that reduce the work you need to do.
- Go to “File” in Adobe Illustrator, scroll to where you saved the downloaded image, and Select place.
- Scale down the image to ensure it is the right size by tabbing to Object, then transform and finally scale to ensure a uniform size across the X and Y axes.
- Click on “window” and select “Image Trace” to convert the image into a smooth vector path. Ensure you switch the mode to color.
- You can use the pathfinder to unite all the shapes into one inclusive vector path.
3. Adding Text Elements to Your Design
Despite their appearance, fonts don’t have vector paths in illustrator until you format them as so. This makes them hard to scale and equally hard for a vinyl cutter to produce. You can prepare text elements for a vinyl cutter in illustrator by:
- Scrolling to type then font or type then size.
- This gives you a dropdown menu with dials to help you lock in on the text’s preferred look and size.
- Next, go to Type and select create outlines to convert text into an editable vector curve that your vinyl cutter can understand.
After this step, your File is ready for export to a vinyl cutter. All that’s left is to save it in a memorable name on a storage drive that’s easy to find. It may also save you some time if you add the preferred vinyl color to the filename extension – I’ll leave that to you!
Step 3: Exporting Digital Files to a Vinyl Cutter
This is the easiest part of the exercise since my laptop connects to my vinyl cutter via a USB cable. When I’m in the field, I can also email the vector file to one of my associates so they can get cracking. It’s also worth noting that most vinyl cutter machines feature a USB port, which allows you to import vector files using a flash drive.
Step 4: Cutting Your Design onto Vinyl
Next, you’ll need to prep the vector art for cutting inside the vector cutting software. Open the image and select “Mirror.” This measure mirrors, i.e., it flips your artwork horizontally with a simple right-click. Mirroring your image may sound like overkill.
But, as I’ve learned through the pain of trial and error, it’s the best way to ensure you get a clean cut –every time! I also add a clearing box at this stage to make my weeding process more manageable. Ensure you load enough vinyl to your cutter and set the blade to the origin point.
This is usually the bottom right corner, which can help you save on wasted material. I also turn on my heat press while making these preparations. This ensures that all the temperature, time and pressure settings are correct. It takes up to 10 minutes to heat up the press, and I love getting cracking as soon as my cutter pops out the design.
You can fire up the vinyl cutter and let it do its magic with all that in place. After this, double-check the product to ensure the design is mirrored before moving to the next step.
NB: A properly mirrored image appears backward or as you’d view it from a mirror.
Step 5: Weeding Out Excess Vinyl
You’ll need a trusty wedding tool like a pair of tweezers or a hooked weeding pick for the next step. A scalpel, Exacto knife or a trusty hobby knife will do the trick. Lay the machine-cut vinyl on a flat surface or a self-healing cutting mat if you have one.
Gently lift the paper as you remove the border surrounding your artwork. Start weeding out the excess vinyl from large areas as you work towards smaller regions.
Work from one edge of the design to the other while applying gentle yet consistent force to avoid peeling off the areas you’d like to remain. Eliminate all filler pieces, i.e., the center blocks on letters like Q, O, P, B, etc. Now, you’re ready to heat press your design to a t-shirt.
Step 6: Applying Heat Transfer Vinyl to Your Custom T-Shirts
Lay your t-shirt or garment on a flat surface. Ensure the backside is facing up, then smooth out any bumps on the surface. You can also use a cold household iron to ensure the flatten the surface of the t-shirt to prevent any bubbles from forming when you stick the vinyl paper.
At this point, you can refer to a t-shirt template to see where the text and symbol elements go. You may also need to separate them depending on where you positioned these elements.
Now, peel the sticky part of the vinyl from the matte side as you place it on the t-shirt. Smooth out any bubble using your fingers or a squeegee.
Step 7: Heat Press Your T-Shirt
Your heat press should be heated up and ready for the next task. Lift the lid and place your t-shirt carefully on the platform. Please ensure the sticker vinyl face up for the best results. Now, lower the top wait for the timer to go off.
This should take about 15 seconds as vinyl adheres to cloth at 305F at medium pressure. Once this is done, take the t-shirt out of the press carefully to not singe your hands. All you’re left to do is peel the plastic sticker backing from the vinyl – You’re ready to enjoy your freshly minted t-shirt!
Step 8: Post Production Instructions
Creating the perfect t-shirt design is one thing. Making it last is another game that involves proper care and following washing instructions. After all, it boosts your customer care initiative if the end consumer doesn’t get a garment with a chemical or plastic smell.
- Here are a few things that ensure your vinyl print t-shirts last longer:
- Turn the garment inside out before washing.
- Use warm dishwashing fluid, hand or machine wash with cold water.
- Don’t use bleach or detergents with cationic surfactants.
- Tumble dry with medium heat settings or hang dry in a shaded place
- Avoid dry cleaning at all costs (I’ve been there, explaining the waste to my client was not a cakewalk!)
NB: these instructions only apply to maintaining vinyl prints and not the fabric. For such instructions, please refer to the manufacture tag on your t-shirt.
What Software Do I Need for Vinyl Cutter?
I’m never surprised whenever this question pops up, even though virtually every vinyl cutter comes with companion software. The problem is that some of these programs offer few tools that go beyond the basics. So, you may want something more pragmatic to get your designs off the computer and onto a garment.
Today, I’ll play favorites by recommending Inkscape. I love it for its simplicity and navigable learning curves. Plus, it’s not a freemium product that asks you to make payments for support and additional feature or a free to preview platform.
Inkscape is open-source software, which means you can access the source code and tailor-make improvements if you know some PHP or python.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s also a dependable vector graphic design software. This means you never have to worry about importing the final product to another software – You get to enjoy a seamless process from the onset to the conclusion.
Other vinyl cutter software that comes highly recommended include:
For more information about these vinyl cutter software, please read this article, where I go over each program in great detail.
1. Do you need a computer for A vinyl cutter?
It depends on whether you have a manual or electric cutter. As the name suggests, manual ones are cheaper and don’t need computers to run. While electric vinyl cutters, which are more popular, need a computer. Electric cutters are also ideal since they make the task less labor-intensive.
2. Does a vinyl cutter come with software?
No, you don’t need to get a cutter that features a companion software. But it doesn’t hurt to get one. As you can see from the list in the previous section, there are also loads of CAD software that pair excellently with various vinyl cutter brands.
3. Can a vinyl cutter make stencils?
Yes, you can make a stencil for t-shirt printing with relative ease using a vinyl cutter machine.
4. How do vinyl cutters make money?
Vinyl cutters make money primarily by preparing decals and stickers that you can stick on various types of signage. They can also deploy their skills in the t-shirt, small gifts and decorations by preparing print proofs that can be attached to various surfaces.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), I got mentored in this t-shirt business by one of those old-school graphic design purists. Not to knock his council, but this guy lived with the unshakable belief that you can only produce quality t-shirts via screen printing. And I couldn’t countermand him since he’s probably the Michelangelo of screen printing.
Where am I going with this? Well, eventually, I had to match to my own beat. And it was a backbreaking ordeal until I made a vinyl cutter a significant part of my fledgling t-shirt business.
Result? I moved from struggling to keep the light on to hiring people or at least hosting some art school interns. Simply put, buying a vinyl cutter and a heat press allowed me to expand my client base –And it can do the same for you!
I can go on and on but let me stop there. I’ve sparked the touch. Now, take it and go light the path for others with your exemplary design skills. Feel free to leave a comment or share what you’ve made on my social…. See you in the next article.