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A Cut Above

(September 2010) posted on Mon Aug 30, 2010

How five shops have benefited by investing in cutters and routers

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By Jake Widman

Many wide-format jobs aren’t finished when the ink is on the substrate. Applications from point-of-purchase displays to signage to window stickers often call for cutting out custom shapes. To meet those demands, many print providers now include routers or cutters among their finishing tools.

Both routers and cutters carve shapes out of the printed material, but they work in different ways. Routers use a spinning bit, like a drill bit, to whittle away at the substrate, while cutters use knives to slice it away. Which tool is required really depends on the type of material—you can’t cut vinyl with a router, and you can’t trim plywood with a knife. Some machines have the ability to handle both kinds of jobs, with the operator simply swapping in the correct tool.

Routers and cutters are generally guided by a “cut file,” or an outline of the desired path, sent to their controlling software. The cut file contains index marks, as does the printed artwork. A camera or sensing device on the machine looks for the index marks and uses those to follow the cutting path in the proper place.

To find out why print providers invest in cutters and what they use them for, we spoke with five shops that finish jobs with custom shapes.

Store Décor: Bottoms Up
Store Décor ( founder Robert Potts began his career in retail design as a remodeling specialist for a pharmaceutical company, charged with selling fixtures to drugstores. He eventually began his own fixture and store-design firm, and in the early 1980s he added his first computerized vinyl-cutting machine for making signs and basic wayfinding materials for his customers. Potts is still the president, and Store Décor, based in Rowlett, Texas, now has about 70 employees.

“We’ve had UV digital printers for about eight or nine years,” says general manager Ron Freeman. “We print on just about anything—vinyls, wall coverings, rigid sheets, card stock, cardboard, coated metals, GatorBoard, PVC sheets, polystyrene, acrylics, polycarbonates, even raw plywood. If it can be printed on, we’ll do it.”