Understanding Die Cutting: A Comprehensive Guide

Die Cutting Application

Die cutting, a process widely used in industries such as metalworking, printing, and packaging, involves cutting, shaping, and shearing sheets of stock material into unique shapes and designs.

By using a die - a specialized tool designed to cut a specific shape - manufacturers can produce a high volume of identical items quickly and efficiently. In the printing industry, for instance, die cutting enables the creation of uniquely shaped labels, adding a touch of customization to products.

What is Die Cutting?

Die cutting starts with a "die," a specialized tool used to cut the material. Imagine a cookie cutter shaping dough into a specific form; similarly, a die shapes metal or other materials into the desired shape. The die removes the matrix, or excess material, from the label before it is cut off. The 'die line' is the outline of the area that the die will cut, typically represented in proofs by a thick colored line.

There are several die-cutting styles, each with unique benefits and applications. Three primary methods to consider for label creation are flatbed, rotary, and semi-rotary die cutting. We will delve into the differences between these methods in the following sections.

Die Cutting

What Are Dies?

Dies are metal patterns, words, or letters used to cut images from a material. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here are some types of dies:

  • Nesting Dies: These dies have a uniform design but come in a range of sizes. Each die within the set is slightly smaller than the previous one, similar to a set of nesting dolls.
  • Corner Dies: These dies are positioned in the material's corner, allowing for the creation of detailed designs. They are ideal for crafting unique scrapbooking borders.
  • Edgeable Dies: Similar to corner dies, edgeable dies run along the edges. They are excellent for adding unique features to the edge of a gift box or greeting card.

Types of Die Cutting Machines

Die-cutting machines come in various types, each suitable for different applications:

  • Manual: Manual die cutters use steel-cutting dies activated by a lever. These compact machines are ideal for home use or hobby desks.
  • Digital: Digital die cutters are another home-friendly option for cutting paper shapes. They require a computer cartridge containing an image and electricity to operate. Instead of a steel die, a sharp blade cuts the material.
  • Industrial: For large-scale manufacturing, industrial die cutters are used. These machines automate the cutting process to speed up the production of shapes.
Digital cutting machine

Die Cutting Tools: Rotary/Semi-Rotary Cutter vs. Flatbed Cutter

Rotary/Semi-Rotary Cutter

Rotary and semi-rotary machines use rollers to move webs—long, flexible sheets of material—through the device. A rolling die, attached to a magnetic cylinder, creates cuts.

  • Semi-rotary cutters are superior for label cutting due to their enhanced capacity for shearing unique labels.
  • The semi-rotary method involves a cylindrical die that rolls in one direction while the web moves back and forth to create incisions.
  • This method reduces the frequency of web passing through a die-cutting mechanism, speeding up the production process and allowing for more intricate cuts.
  • After cutting, all excess material is removed, leaving only your labels.
  • Both fully and partially rotary die-cutting machines can use rigid or flexible cutting dies. Solid dies are steel cylinders with the design etched into the metal, while flexible dies are thin steel sheets that bend around a magnetic cylinder. Flexible dies are more affordable, benefiting companies needing unique dies for their labels.

Flatbed Cutter

Flatbed die cutters press a sheet of material down onto a die using hydraulics or another lifting mechanism.

  • Typically used for low-volume projects and larger-than-average goods.
  • Most label stocks are too thin for use on a flatbed die press; these machines are best suited for materials like felt, fiber, textiles, and metals.

Types of Die-Cutting Methods

  1. Blanking: This technique trims the outer edges of already flat material, further slicing it.
  2. Drawing: The material is drawn through the machine to the desired length. This method is typically used for thin and long items.
  3. Forming: The raw material is shaped on a curved surface. This method can be used to create custom cylindrical packaging components.
  4. Coining: A pressurized force creates circular holes in the material, resulting in intricate packaging designs.
  5. Broaching: This method uses a steel die with multiple rows of "teeth" to cut through the material.
digital flatbed cutting

Die Cutting Procedure: Step-by-Step Guide

  1. A steel cutting die is placed on a wood instead of a printing plate of the same height.
  2. A metal sheet is placed on the press bed in place of tympan paper and packing, providing a solid base for the die to cut into.
  3. The initial procedures are similar to those used in letterpress printing, but since no ink is used, the rollers are removed before printing begins to prevent damage to the rubber rollers.
  4. The die is locked into the chase, and the chase is inserted into the press to attach the metal plate/backing to the press bed.
  5. The press is started, and cutting begins.
  6. After cutting, the carved form is ejected. The proof mockup is placed underneath, aligned with the cut sample.
  7. Any necessary tweaks are made, and the cutting process continues.
Die Cutting Procedure

Die cutting can add a unique touch to any print job, serving as a decorative accent or a practical addition to a design. However, it's important to consider the limitations of die-cutting. Constraints may arise when using intricate shapes or patterns, and there's a minimum required size for die cuts. The choice of paper and die-cutting options can also impact the final product. For instance, thinner paper cuts more smoothly, while heavier stock can result in less precise edges. Cotton paper, in particular, tends to fray.

Die Production Process

Die cutting heavily relies on steel rule dies. While dies were manually carved and set into wooden blocks over 150 years ago, modern die production has benefited from automation and increased efficiency.

  1. Design: Computer-aided design (CAD) software creates the die's layout. Accurate proportions are achieved by meticulously examining relevant dimensions and parameters.
  2. Foundation: Steel rule dies have a flat base made of wood or metal. The base of rotary dies is a curved metal or wooden piece that rests on or is itself a metal cylinder.
  3. Plasma Cutter: The pattern for placing the steel blades in a flatbed die cutter is laser cut into the base material. Kerf cuts, also known as precision cuts, are necessary before the blades can be installed.
  4. Blade Forming: CNC machines can be programmed to create the precise kerf shapes needed to finish shaping the blades. The die is engraved into the cylinder surface of a rotating die.
  5. Slotting: The steel rule is firmly fastened to the base to make cutting tools for flatbed dies.
  6. Ejection Rubber: The die is equipped with an ejection rubber strip that facilitates the removal of the cut piece without causing any damage or causing the material to tear, fray, or stick to the steel rule during the cutting process.
Die Production Process

Applications of Die-Cutting in Stationery Items

Die-cutting, a versatile process, is instrumental in creating a wide array of uniquely shaped and designed stationery items. These include:

  • Greeting Cards
  • Stickers and Labels
  • Bookmarks
  • Envelopes
  • Notebooks and Journals
  • Business Cards
  • Letterheads
  • Folders
  • Invitations
  • Scrapbooking Elements
  • Paper Crafts
  • Tags

Die Cutting Tips

  1. Avoid sharp corners and angles to prevent ripping the matrix when it's removed after die cutting.
  2. If you want a hole in your label, ensure room between the hole and the label's edge to avoid tearing.
  3. Ensure that the artwork used in the label's design bleeds past the label's edges by at least 1/16". This prevents the inclusion of blank spaces by mistake.
  4. Add a line of your shape correctly to your Adobe Illustrator document. Create a new layer for the die line and color it a different shade than the rest of the background.

Frequently Asked Questions About Die Cutting

Q: What materials can be die-cut?

A: A wide range of materials can be die-cut, including paper, cardboard, plastic, metal, and fabric.

Q: Can I die cut at home?

A: Yes, with a manual or digital die cutter, you can perform die cutting at home. These machines are compact and relatively easy to use, making them suitable for hobbyists and DIY enthusiasts.

Q: How do I choose the right die-cutting machine?

A: The right die-cutting machine depends on your specific needs. Consider factors such as the type of material you'll be cutting, the complexity of your designs, and the volume of items you'll be producing.

Q: Can I create my own die-cutting designs?

A: Yes, with digital die-cutting machines, you can create and cut your own custom designs. However, creating a design for a manual die-cutting machine typically requires professional manufacturing.

Su - Interwell Founder
Hi, I'm Su, the author of this post. I founded Interwell Stationery and have served over 1000+ clients since 2003. Feel free to contact us for custom stationery supplies, manufacturing support, and the latest trends in the industry.

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