Introduction: Faking Die Cut Stickers on a Laser Cutter - I Made It at TechShop!
As part of a project, I needed die cut labels to apply to a point of purchase display – when I investigated the cost of die cut stickers, they seemed reasonable until I was told I would also have to pay for a specialty die to cut the stickers out, which doubled the cost of the project, My first intend was to build the stickers on a vinyl cutter system, but because of the number of colors, the layering and labor was going to be more involved than necessary. Then it dawned on me – why not print in full color on Avery labels, and use the laser cutter to cut them out? Luckily, I have a TechShop practically in my backyard. If you have one and haven't been there yet - get going! If you are unfamiliar with Techshop, you can read about them here: Techshop.Com Techshop offers access to state of the art design and manufacturing equipment, software and tools. They also offer classes and training to help you get up to speed
Step 1: Preparing Your Art
If you are unfamiliar with the idea of die cut stickers, the idea is that the outlining shape of the sticker is the same as your art or logo – rather than your logo printed in the middle of a big white square – the die cutting follows the outline of your artwork, and either cuts right up to the edge or leaves a small contrasting border around the outside shape. Laser cutters can cut many things, including paper (with some experimentation) so if you lay out your art work, print it on sticky labels, then run the artwork through the laser cutter with a matching art file that only contains the final outline of the art, with proper alignment you should be able to stamp out many stickers at an excellent price.This tutorial assumes that your artwork is vector based, and not a photo or rastered image. While your art work can contain rasters and photos, there must be some sort of outside edge or border item that is a vector – we will be using a software command that expands the outside vector to create the cut path for the laser printer. To prepare my art, I simply opened the existing file I had in adobe illustrator – you can also perform these same functions in other vector based art programs, like Corel draw. Begin by selecting the outside edge most vector or your art – In my case, the dark blue drop shadow. Make sure this vector is the only one selected, and then use the path- offset path (or equivalent command for your specific software) to add a wider boarder that traces the outline shape of your original artwork. In my case, I’d like empty space between the original art and the cut line, so I’m going to turn the fill color to none and set the stroke color to black. Doing so now shows the “path” that the laser cutter will take when burning out your sticker.
Step 2: Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck Per Label
Almost any office supply store sells a variety of Avery or store branded peel and stick printer labels. For this project I purchased Avery brand #5265 full sheet labels. My intention is to put as many labels as I can on a sheet, not only to minimize the cost, but I will be putting sheet after sheet of labels into the laser cutter and frankly would like to minimize the number of times I have to do so. In this step, we will nest as many stickers as we can on the master sheet, add some alignment registration marks (more on the reason for this later) and create the necessary “print sticker” master and the necessary “cut sticker” master art work files.
Step 1: Group your artwork. Use the select all tool in your software to grab every item that now makes up your master sticker – all of the original artwork vectors, plus the outline created by the path offset command that will be your cut line.
Step 3: Group Your Artwork
Step 2: Copy the grouped artwork with the copy command, then open a new document in your software that is the same size as the sticker sheets you purchased. Once the new document is opened, past the grouped sticker into the document and move it as close to the printable edge of the page as your PRINTER will allow..
Step 4: Nest Your Artwork
Step 3: paste multiple copies of the individual sticker to the page, move them around so they aren’t touching each other - this is referred to as nesting.
Step 5: Create Registration Marks
Step 4: Create alignment registration marks – what are these you ask? Well, there are minor variations in the way different printers align objects on the page. You may have even noticed at some point if your home printer doesn’t pull the paper correctly you can get two copies off the same printer that are in different spots on the page. We will create some marks on the master art that we will include on both the “print sticker” file for your printer, and the “cut sticker” file for the laser cutter, that we can use to bump either the artwork, or the home location of the laser to line up the artwork and overcome these differences – we will print just this section of the artwork before committing to cut the entire pager to make sure that we get the expected results before the final cut. Best choices for this sort of registration mark are either squares, or crosses – we will be adjusting either the x axis or the y axis on the laser or the art, so alignment marks that fun in these directions are best. It’s best if you can actually set each one of these up on a separate layer of the artwork – later, we will want to use them one at a time and you can simply tell the printer/cutter to just print or cut, that layer (more on this later.)
Step 6: Save Your Master Files
Step 5: Once everything is set, save your master document as master file. Print a copy of this document to your printer to make sure the printers margins do not clip any of the artwork. When the test print looks good, save two copies of the master document, one called “print sticker” and one called “cut sticker.”
Step 7: Complete Your Color Print File
Step 6: Open the “print sticker” file and remove the black outline that represent the cut line for the sticker – remember, the cut line is there for the benefit of the laser cutter, and right now, were running these to your regular paper printer. While in theory, you could leave the cut line, as the laser cutter should destroy it when the cutting happens, if your alignment is a little off, you’ll be left with some of the black line showing. Make sure only the cut path is highlighted and hit delete. Save the changes to your file. You should now have a file that has your original artwork (without the cut lines) and the registration crosses or boxes showing. Print one copy on normal paper on your printer.
Step 8: Complete the Cut Path File
Step 7: Open the “cut sticker” file and remove all of the original color artwork that makes up the sticker, leaving only the black outline that represent the cut line for the sticker and your registration marks – remember, this file is for the benefit of the laser cutter, so none of your color artwork should be present on this file. Once everything is removed except the cut line and the registration boxes, save the changes to your file. You should now have a file that has your cut lines and the registration crosses or boxes showing. Print one copy on normal paper on your printer... Why you ask? Because we are going to confirm that nothing moved in the process of jumping between files and moving things around.
Print a single copy of both your Color Artwork Printer file and Your Laser Cutter Cut file on normal white paper. Take both copies to a sunny window. Stack the two sheets of paper edge to edge and hold up to the window. When you look through the paper - does your artwork page and the cut line page show both parts to be centered with each other? If so, you're off to a great start.
If not, try check number two - look at your registration marks, are they aligned? if so, but your art isn't, you somehow moved your art on one file or the other and need to go back to the previous steps of setting up your files. If your registration marks aren't aligned, it probably just means your printer pulled each sheet of paper differently when it printed them. Line up your registration marks with each other, ignoring the edges of the paper - does your artwork and cut lines now center correctly? If so - hurrah! that's why we added these registration lines - so you can use them as guides later in the laser cutter to make up for the difference between printers.
Step 9: Print a Pile of Labels!
If you have a set number of labels to print, look at your stickers per page count and do the math. Load that many sheets of labels into your printer, be sure to set your printer to LABEL if you have the option (if you don’t, you may want to try thick paper or cardstock if they are options.) Lastly, be sure to load the sticker side into your printer correctly so it prints on the correct side of the page – some printers print on the up side of the page, other actually print on the bottom side. If you aren’t sure, look for an icon on your paper drawer or feeder that shows orientation. Worst case scenario, write the word “top” in big letters on the top of a sheet of paper and print a trial sheet. Did the sticker print on the side that says top? If so your labels go in the tray face up
Step 10: Off to the Laser Cutter!
With your cut file and your pile of labels in hand, head to the laser cutter. Follow all proper procedures for safety and operation, including homing the x and y axis of the laser cutter. Insert what may become a sacrificial sheet of the printed labels. On the computer connected to the laser cutter, load your file and open the editing software (adobe Illustrator in my case.) In your cut file, shut off all layers except the one containing the top registration mark – in a moment, we’re going to tell the system to actually cut, and if the alignment is bad, you’ve only damaged a small portion of the page. We can make some adjustments, turn on another registration layer and cut again – using this procedure, we have four opportunities to get our alignment right before we ever ruin a sticker. It’s important to remember, the cutter needs you to set its cut path line to the thinnest option your software offers (hairline on Corel Draw, 0.25 pt on Illustrator) Select your first registration box and set the line weight accordingly. When everything is set, select print to open the print settings dialogue box for your laser cutter.
Step 11: A Bit of Trial and Error
Most laser cutters will provide a table of appropriate settings to cut various materials – ours does not list stickers. It’s important to be familiar with your materials and make some best guess assumptions up front. I know my stickers are a paper face, a layer of adhesive, and a waxed paper backing. Any number of things could happen when I try to cut these, including fire, so I’ll have a fire extinguisher handy. I’m going to start with the basic paper cutting settings provided by my manufacturer. Since I’m not handing these stickers out and will be applying them all myself, I really don’t care if it cuts all the way through, releasing everything from the page, merely that I can peel the sticker off the backing, so as long as we cut through the top layer of paper, I’m good to go, the less power and faster speed will improve my chances of this project not going up in flames
Step 12: Throw Caution to the Wind and Let’s Go!
Again, remember this is merely and alignment test cut, looking to see if the laser matches the path of first registration box drawn by my printer. I could actually set the laser to just run in pointer mode (no heat, no cutting) but I won’t learn anything as far as my required settings go, so let’s kill two birds with one stone and try cutting this thing. Once all of your settings are correct (vector cutting style and the appropriate speed, power and cycles, send the print job to the cutter by hitting print, and if necessary, walk to the cutter and press start on the control panel.