What is a die cutting machine?

New to card making or papercraft and asking yourself how to use a die cutting machine? In this article, we explain what a die-cut machine is and how to make the most of yours.

gemini die cutting machine

A die cutting machine is used to cut different shapes of card or paper using a die.

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The die-cutting machine uses a combination of rollers and cutting plates to put pressure on a die and push it through the card or paper to create a shape with neat and precise outlines – this shape is called a die-cut.

die cut from a die-cut machine
The white card has been cut by the die we’re holding!

The way the cutting plates are put together depends on the different machine you are using, but you will always get guidelines on this from the machine’s manufacturers.

The cutting plates, combined with the paper you want to cut and the die you want to use is called the sandwich. If you see guidelines for the sandwich to use with your machine, it is nothing to do with lunch – these are the instructions for how to use your machine to cut dies.

Thinking about buying a new die-cut machine? Take a look at our best die-cutting machines review!

What is a die?

To make the most of your die cutting machine’s main function, you will need to build up a set of dies for the different shapes you want to cut with your die-cutting machine.

Modern dies are usually thin metal shapes, with a raised outline on one side. This is the cutting edge of the die, but it is not especially sharp – so you don’t need to worry about damaging your die-cut machine.

how to use a die cutting machine

Some dies come grouped together, with a small strip of metal between the individual shapes. You can separate out the dies by snipping through the thin metal strips with wire cutters or kitchen scissors before using in your die-cut machine.

How to use a die cutting machine

You put the die inside your die-cutting plate sandwich, with this raised edge facing towards the paper or card that you want to cut. You then put this sandwich through your die cutting machine rollers.

A lot of machines have a manual handle to turn, which turns the rollers to move the sandwich between the rollers. As the sandwich moves between the rollers, the pressure exerted by the rollers forces the cutting edge of the die through the paper or card to produce a nice, clean die-cut shape from your die-cut machine.

Older dies are much thicker than modern ones and have the metal cutting edge of the die hidden away inside a foam backing. These cutting edges can be very sharp so that care not to push on the foam too hard. As long as you have a die cutting machine designed to work with this thicker die, you can still use these dies, but they will not work with most papercraft die-cutting machines. The great thing about these old-school dies is that they can cut through much thicker materials, like cork, felt and fabric, not just paper and card.

What is an electric die cutting machine?

Some machines have a manual handle to turn, which turns the rollers to move the sandwich through between the rollers. You also get an electric die-cut machine that does this function for you. These are really useful if you have problems with your joints as the machine does all the hard work for you! But if your manual die cutting machine’s handle is really reluctant to turn, you’ve probably not got the die-cut machine sandwich right. If you force the handle round, you can damage the rollers, so check your sandwich guidelines before you force it through.

Gemini Junior Rose Gold
This is the Gemini Junior die-cut machine in Rose Gold from Crafter’s Companion

An electric die-cut machine won’t feed an incorrect sandwich through the rollers, so they are much harder to break through user error. A common electric die cutting machine is the Gemini die cutting machine from Crafter’s Companion.

You’ll find a very useful guide for the sandwiches you need to work with a Gemini die cutting machine here.

What if my die cutting machine does not cut?

Because there are many different brands of die-cutting machines, you do get dies in different thicknesses. If your die is too thin for your die-cut machine, putting it in a sandwich and running it through your die-cutting machine will not create enough pressure to make it cut – it might produce a partial cut, with wispy strands of paper and tears, or might just press a faint shape into the card.

Increase the thickness of your sandwich by adding a shim.  This can be just a sheet of cardboard from an old cardboard box, which can pass through the rollers at the same time as the sandwich. It is just there to add thickness to make sure the right pressure is added to the die so that it cuts the paper or card.

How to emboss using a die-cutting machine

As well as cutting dies, your die-cut machine can be used for other things too!

Embossing folders only really work if you have a die cutting machine. These are clear plastic folders which open up like a book and have a raised plastic motif inside. If you place paper or card inside the embossing folder, enclose it in your machine’s sandwich and run it through your die-cutting machine, the folder will emboss the design on to the paper.

Use your die cutting machine to emboss paper and card
This is an embossed image, made by running an embossing folder through your die-cutting machine

The embossing folder will not cut the paper, but instead, it will leave an imprint of the design pushed into the paper. The raised pattern that is left on the front of the paper is called an embossed image, and the sunken pattern on the reverse of the paper is called a debossed image.

Use your die cut machine to emboss kitchen foil
Stick some paper or card onto the back of some kitchen foil and run through your die-cutting machine. The paper will stop the foil from tearing and you’ll have made your own DIY craft metal!

Your die-cut machine will require a different sandwich when embossing with an embossing folder, rather than cutting with a die, but details will be given in your machines instruction book.

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How to ink and emboss using a die-cutting machine

Watch our handy tutorial below to learn how to combine inking and embossing folders to create a textured background!