Update: wow, bummer. Turns out ProvoCraft (the makers of the Cricut) sued "Make the Cut" and "Sure Cuts A Lot" so that they can no longer sell their products to work with the Cricut.
Here are some competing products which can be used with Make the Cut software though I have not tried these products specifically, they look like they do about the same thing
Klic-N-Kut computerized craft cutter
I just discovered that the cricut machine can be used to cut arbitrary shapes without having to purchase preloaded cartridges. This revelation came to me from another instructable: How to make custom scrabble tiles to whom I am grateful! A search turns up these other instructables with similar information using different software: create solder paste stencils with cricut, and cut out hearts with cricut.
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Step 1: Materials
1 craft cutting machine. I'm using a Cricut, but because of the lawsuit, you should probably use a different craft cutter, like the brands mentioned on the first page.
Windows computer. I'm using Windows Vista home edition. (Please no flack from the anti-windows peanut gallery. Yes Linux is cool and so is Mac. Let's all try to get along).
"Make the cut" software. $59.00 Windows only. This is what I'll be using for this instructable. There is a trial version that also works, but creates a big diagonal slash cut through the finished artwork.
There is a competing program called "Sure cuts a lot" that works on MacIntosh, though I have not tried it. There may be other competitors as well.
USB cable with standard type A and standard type B connectors (Not included with the cricut.)
USB serial driver which comes with the free trial download of Cricut Design Studio. You'll need to download this in order to get the appropriate USB driver to make this work. I'm not sure if the driver can be distributed separately.
Inkscape. A free vector drawing program that lets you work with SVG (scaled vector graphic) files. You can also use Adobe Illustrator or other programs that can export SVG format. Update: Actually the 'Make the Cut' software has it's own vector drawing ability which you can access through the File->Import->Pixel Trace which actually works even better than Inkscape.
Cardstock or bristol board.
Step 2: Connect the Cricut to Your Computer
Connect the cricut to your computer using the USB cable.
Windows will popup a window telling you that it will try to install drivers for the device. Let it do that. It actually tries to install two drivers, in my case.
The first driver is a USB to Serial converter which Windows can find for itself.
The second driver comes from the Cricut Design Studio trial which you will need to tell windows about specifically.
You'll also have to use the Cricut Design Studio trial to update the firmware on your cutting machine.
Step 3: Update the Cricut Firmware
All this information is available on line and is highly subject to change, the way that software usually is... but anyway...
Download and install the Cricut "Design Studio" trial
You'll need to download and install the free trial of Cricut Design Studio. This will allow you to do a firmware update and provides the USB driver you'll need in order to control the cricut with your computer.
Reboot and guide windows to the Cricut USB driver
Reboot your computer and windows will ask again about the driver it couldn't find.
Direct it to the install directory for the cricut trial: C:\Program Files (x86)\Cricut Software\Cricut DesignStudio
It should find the driver in there.
Update the Cricut firmware
This is all documented elsewhere online, but generally...
Power down the cricut but leave it connected to your computer via the usb cable..
Launch Cricut Design Studio.
Go to the Help menu and select "Update Cricut Firmware".
Follow the instructions: Hold the Stop button on the cricut down with one finger, then press its power button while continuing to hold down the Stop button for 5 seconds. A loud beep should resound indicating that cricut is ready to receive a firmware update
Select your cricut version and press "Begin Updating Firmware".
Let that finish uninterrupted. It takes a while, maybe about 10 minutes.
Step 4: Convert Your Art to SVG
Scan in your own drawing or find one online.
Update: Actually 'Make the Cut' has it's own vector drawing ability which you can access through File->Import->Pixel Trace which works even better than Inkscape. There are video tutorials on line if you need it.
Load it into Inkscape.
Select it and choose Path->Trace Bitmap
For this example, I selected "Brightness cutoff" and used the default settings (0.45). On the Options tab, I played around with the "Optimize Paths" values. Setting it to 0.20 seemed to work for this particular image.
Press update. This should create a little outline preview. If nothing happens, make sure you have the drawing selected. For me it would get unselected every time I pressed Update.
Press Okay, and you'll see the resulting vectorization applied to your image. If you don't like it, press Undo, adjust the settings and try again. (Be sure the drawing is selected).
Close the Trace Bitmap dialog box and drag the vector art aside so you can select your original artwork and delete it, leaving just the vector drawing. If you like it, save it. File->Save As. Give it a name and be sure to type out the ".svg" extension to the name explicitly.
Step 5: Prepare Some Cardstock for the Cutter
The mat that comes with the cricut has a tacky substance on it. Be careful not to drop it on the floor, it will get coated with whatevers on the floor, like cat hair, for instance.
Lay a sheet of cardstock or bristol board on the mat and line it up as shown in the photo. The cutter will cut your design starting from the right edge, so line the edge of the paper up over there.
For this particular sheet of bristol board, I adjusted the knife dial to the "2" setting. At the "1" setting, it did little more than score the cardstock.
Line up the mat alongside the plastic guide and press the "load paper" button.
Be sure to leave space behind and in front of the machine for the mat to slide back and forth as the cutter is working.
Step 6: Load the SVG Artwork Into MakeTheCut
Launch "Make the cut" and choose File->New and then File->Import->SVG. Browse to your file and click open.
Grab the little lower left corner red arrow and stretch the design to fit.
Step 7: Cut Out the Design
If the installation went smoothly, you ought to be able now to just select "Cut Project With..."->Provo Craft Cricut.
I chose the "optimal" speed rather than the default of "fastest".
Press start and it will begin cutting out your design....
when it's done cutting, press the "unload paper" button to release the finished piece.
Step 8: Remove the Cutout From the Mat Carefully
When the cutter has finished cutting out the design, remove the cardstock from the mat carefully. Go slow, especially if the design is intricate.
Step 9: All Done!
The finished cut out.
Incredible. This tool is so awesome I can hardly stand it. It's almost like having your own laser cutter - but it only works on paper. Maybe someone out there will hack a laser into it?
Participated in the