Dies and Die Cutting Machines

In this resource article, I talk about the myriad of synonyms out there for products in this arena - every company calls their lines of dies and embossing materials something a little different, and the machines are a minefield of their own, so I'm going to try and simplify things just a little bit for you! NB: I'm not covering the quilting-specific machines out there, or the Walmart-only machines.

I have included SEVEN PRO-TIPS to help you find your way with die-cutting and to hopefully make things easier, but hit me up with a comment if you have questions or want to share more tips with my readers!

Die-Cutting Machines
Ok, so in 2017, the machines do much more than just cut dies, but they're called die-cutting machines. I've tabulated the main ones on the market right now and you can see there is quite a price range. Some of the entry-level models like the Side Kick and the Baby Blue exist purely to tempt people into die-cutting and once they're hooked, they'll realise the orifice size of those models is too restrictive, and they'll buy a larger model.

PRO TIP 1: Don't buy a model with under 6" orifice size - you'll just end up needing to buy a larger one at a later date, since most dies and so on are wider than the tiny orifices on the smaller models.

PRO TIP 2: Don't go in the opposite direction and buy a 13" model unless you need it as there are very few dies on the market at that size anyway.

PRO TIP 3: Even the most prolific die-cutters on YouTube who do this for a living use a 6" manual model - the electronic ones are really good for teachers or those with joint issues.

Personally I recommend the Sizzix Big Shot as I've had mine for years, it's economical and hard wearing. BUY NOW: USA, UK. If you get this product, make sure you get the Tool Caddy (BUY NOW: USA, UK) as it really helps with plate and accessory storage - I love mine!

Market-leading die-cutting machines as of autumn 2017. Prices are rounded up. Not all are marketed in all regions. All are manual unless otherwise stated. If prices are missing, the product is not currently sold in that market.
Machine RRP (USD) RRP (GBP) Max. width Notes
Sizzix Big Shot $120 £55 6"
Sizzix Big Shot Foldaway  -£150 6" Foldaway
Sizzix Big Shot Plus $200 £150 8 1/2"
Sizzix Big Shot Pro $350 £28513"
Sizzix Big Shot Express  -£1706" Electronic
Sizzix Tim Holtz Vagabond 2 $200 £230 6"Electronic
Sizzix Side Kick $50 £502 1/2"
Cricut Cuttlebug $90 £906"
Tattered Lace Baby Blue $45 £353"

Dies - a glossary
Yes, there is a lot of confusion! "Infinity dies", "Thinlets", "Bigz" - what does it all mean? Here's a handy glossary!

Acid-etched Die - a die made by taking a sheet of metal, printing it with a resist and etching the remainder in acid. This creates a very thin die without a sharp cutting edge - they are often extremely intricate but can't be used on really more than one sheet of paper without causing issues. These dies benefit from use of a shim.

AllStar - a brand of steelrule die that is intended for classroom use and is being replaced by Bigz.

Bigz - a brand of steelrule die by Sizzix.

Embossing Pad - a silicone foam pad that can be used in lieu of one of the cutting plates when using dies and the image will not be cut from the substrate but embossed into it.

Framelits - a type of die from Sizzex that is made such that it is totally flat other than the cutting edge, which makes it easier to precisely align around a stamped image.

Infinity dies - a set of dies (10-15) that are identical in shape but different sizes - these are usually acid-edged and very economical. This is specifically a brand name by Hero Arts but it has become genericised very quickly!

Nesting dies - much like infinity dies, but fewer in the set.

Shim - either a sheet of metal specifically for the purpose or a few sheets of cardstock - either way, something you add behind the die when cutting to increase the pressure and get a sharper cut - useful when cutting thicker cardstocks or when using large, intricate dies as it will ensure the whole thing cuts properly.

Steelrule Die - a die formed of a hard plastic shell lined with a dense foam. Buried in the foam is a sharpened steel rule bent into the shape of the cutting line. When you run the product through the machine, the foam compresses and the sharp edge cuts the substrate. Note you can cut leather or thick layers of many sheets of card with these products. Great for teachers who need to cut large class sets, and for those working in mixed media. You can get very thin examples in the form of long border dies by Sizzix.

SureCut - a brand of large steel-rule dies from Sizzix, intended for classroom use.

Thinlits - a brand of acid-etched die by Sizzix.

Wafer thin die - another name for acid-etched die.

How to make die-cutting easier

PRO TIP 4: If you have a really intricate die, you may want to use a shim, which will help cutting, but getting all the pieces of paper out of it can be a pain - you can either use the die to cut grease-proof paper just before use or you can do what I do - I spray my dies with PTFE (Teflon) Dry Lubricant and let the solvent dry off for maybe 5 minutes and then use - they will release paper so easily! I like the WD-40 brand (BUY NOW: USA, UK) as it is very economical.

PRO TIP 5: A bottle-brush or other stuff brush can be used to brush over an intricate die to remove pieces from it really quickly.

Embossing - a glossary

Embossing folder - a plastic folder (which you CAN cut open to accommodate larger paper!) that will house a piece of substrate and will emboss one side and deboss the other. A 3D Embossing folder is simply the same thing, but with more depth and produces a range of levels of embossing.

Embossing plate - more or less the same as an embossing folder, but give shallower texture as a rule - more subtle. 

Texture fades - a brand name for embossing folders by Sissix for Tim Holtz.

Texture plate again, another name for embossing plates.

How to make embossing easier

PRO TIP 6: If you want to get a deeper impression with embossing plates, or you're finding your cardstock cracks during embossing, simply mist with water or rubbing alcohol beforehand (whichever won't smear any inks you have used already).

I am a beginner - which dies should I buy and not buy?

PRO TIP 7: If you want to save money, buy basic die shapes with curves as you can cut rectangles with a paper trimmer.

I recommend all new cardmakers or mixed-media artists need a good basic set of circles, hearts, mini shapes (like stars etc) and some useful borders. I have shortlisted the ones I find the most useful here:

Hero Arts Circle Infinity Dies - 18 dies from the size of a hole-punch up to 4.5" diameter. BUY NOW: USA, UK.

Hero Arts Nesting Heart Dies - 14 heart dies. BUY NOW: USA, UK.

Sizzix Tim Holtz Framelets Tag Dies - a MUST for art journalers and mixed media artists - 7 tags and eyelets. Think how much money you'll save instead of buying tags?! BUY NOW: USA, UK.

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