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Electronic Die-Cutter - "Cricut Expressions" - the right tool for the right job?

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As you may or may not remember, I received a Cricut Expressions for Christmas (Oops, cat's outta the bag- getting a Cricut Expressions for Xmas). Well, I finally got a chance to try it out and would like to share with you all what I have found out about the machine so far, in case any of you have been thinking of purchasing one of these. If you don’t know what it is, this article will be really useful for you too.

The Cricut Expressions is a die-cutting machine made by a company called Provocraft (who I have no affiliation with). They are designed in large part for scrapbooking, card-making, and other such crafts, and as such are intended for cutting paper, in particular, shapes and letters (more on this later). I found that mine is only “good” at cutting paper. This is because the blade can tear the paper a little and also the paper is held in place on the cutting mat because it, the mat, is sticky. This sticky “glue” can also tear at the paper. I have not tried construction paper, card stock, or any such heavy thread count papers (not yet anyway). I did use a page out of an old calendar to do some test cuts on, and it did pretty well, but after peeling the paper off of the mat, the paper rolled up, making it difficult to reuse. I never wanted to acquire a Cricut machine for cutting paper though. I had another material in mind.

That material, of course, is styrene. When I went to cut .010” thick styrene, the Cricut was outstanding. It cuts fast; it cuts clean; it does curves WAAAAAY better than I ever could by hand and just plain out and out works. I was able to cut letters out smaller than ¼”. No way I could do that by hand with an Xacto. “Wow! Really?” you might be asking right now. Well, yeah, it works great with .010” styrene, however, my Cricut Expressions will not cut all the way through .020” styrene (although I have read about people that have had been able to cut materials that thick. Some can, but some can’t. Not all is lost though! It depends on what you want to do with the Cricut, and for model railroading, there is much potential there. Let’s say you need a wall that is .030” thick for rigidity. You could use the Cricut to score a styrene sheet that thick, then snap the part out, or you could cut three copies of the part out of .010” styrene and laminate them together to give you the thickness you are looking for (I have not tried these things yet, but I am confident that they will work). I’m also thinking that it would come in quite handy for scribing joints in styrene sheets (as in expansion joints for a sidewalk for example). You can get nice, clean lines from the Cricut that most of us could not obtain by hand, and a lot faster to boot. And you can cut out circles too! Roofs for silos, ends for cylindrical tanks, these things should be pretty easy to cut out with a Cricut. It should certainly be easier than cutting them by hand.

So, by now you may be thinking that all sounds great, and you might be considering getting yourself a Cricut. There are many different models, the only one of which I’ve used is the Cricut Expressions I received for Christmas. Not so fast though! Before you run out and buy one of these machines, you should know that straight out of the box, they will not do much for you as a model railroader.

Remember when I said, “They are designed in large part for scrapbooking, card-making, and other such crafts, and as such are intended for cutting paper, in particular, shapes and letters”? The Cricut machines use “cartridges” that have electronic stencils, fonts, and shapes programmed on them. If you need a particular font or stencil, you have to have the correct cartridge. These cartridges can be expensive, and they are like channels that come with cable TV subscriptions, you have to pay for 50 or so stencils that come with the cartridge, when you are only interested in one or two of them.

Well, SCAL to the rescue! There is a company called Craftedge that makes a program called Sure Cuts A Lot (SCAL – and it’s upgrade, SCAL 2) that allows you to make your own stencils. You connect your machine to a computer with this software installed on it, run the software, and you can draw your own shapes that you can cut out. I have not yet used this program to make the walls of a building, but I know I’m going to. There’s a catch, however. You knew there was going to be one, right? Well, here it is: Provocraft, remember they are the company that makes the Cricut machines, sued Craftedge over rights and won. Craftedge had to make a new version of SCAL that does not work with Cricut machines (SCAL 3).

That leaves you with one of two options. Option number one - you can buy a die-cut machine from a different company. My internet research indicates that the Cameo Silhouette is excellent, and SCAL 3, the current available version, works with it (I have no affiliation with Cameo either by the way). Option number two - You can find an old version of SCAL (or SCAL 2). You may be able to find an old copy on eBay, or if that fails, there are other methods of acquiring said software that some of us may or may not be willing to pursue. Copies of SCAL or SCAL 2 can be expensive on eBay as there is a high demand and it is no longer being supported/produced, keeping supply low. It may be cheaper to buy a machine from another company (like the aforementioned Cameo Silhouette). However, as there are many people out there that are unhappy that they can no longer run their Cricut machines with 3rd party software, the machines themselves can be found fairly cheap if you are willing to buy a used one… just a thought.

I have had the opportunity to use SCAL and it does indeed work. I was able to make the following signage for my Tree Top plant building using both SCAL and one of the “stencils” from the cartridge that came with my Cricut Expressions.

If you pay particular attention to the branches in the tree, you can see how fine the Cricut is able to cut the styrene. Nice, huh? These letters and the tree will be painted a nice leafy green color before being glued to the side of the building. I think it’ll make a nice effect that cannot be obtained using decals.

All in all, I’m excited about this machine. I’ve already completed one of the projects I had in mind when I decided a while back that I wanted to try a Cricut die-cutter (the signage demonstrated above). It was pretty easy to learn to set up and use. I can see from this one project and the little bit of experimenting I’ve done that any of the die-cutters have a lot of potential in model railroading. It is also a tool that my wife will likely want to use, so it is a way of sharing a part of our respective hobbies with each other. You may want to keep that in mind if you need to do some persuading in order to obtain the appropriate funding for acquiring one of these tools. Or buy it for him/her with the caveat that you get to use it whenever you want! I still suspect that’s what my wife had in mind all along when she bought me mine.

I will try to post pictures from future projects and experiments but I will not make any promises, as it can be difficult to find the time to do so.
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  1. Bronman's Avatar
    Okay, so it's really been over two years since I posted this blog, but I ended up losing my train room when my family grew by one and we needed the space for my oldest son. I never got around to (or a square 2 for that matter) getting my cricut setup in the new train room because of time and other commitments and then we decided to have a new house built before we outgrew the one we were living in. Notice I used the past tense - were?

    The cricut, along with a bunch of other stuff, went into storage while the house was on the market. Our new house was finished in January and in March we moved everything from storage into our garage. We finished unpacking the garage over the summer and in July I injured my back and was inactive until a couple of weeks ago. During all this, my hard drive with Sure Cuts A lot died, leading to a lot of complication getting my cricut back up and running. After a whole lot of effort and frustration, I finally last night was able to do a custom cut on my cricut (and tore the paper I was cutting).

    So, by now most of us have seen the posts by members doing modeling work on their Cameo Silhouettes and I'm going to say right up front, if you are looking at purchasing a system, get the Cameo. Don't even think about getting a Cricut. The software on eBay to design your own cuts is reported to be pirated copies at a cost of $80 for something that might not even work... $80 you could put toward the purchase of a Cameo. Having said that, if you have access to an older Cricut (already have one in your home or are given one) and don't mind tinkering around on computers, you STILL can do custom work on a Cricut Expression.

    If you use Linux, there is a module for InkScape called InkCut that is completely legal that you should be able to use for custom cutting styrene on your Cricut. I wasn't able to get it to work for me and that may be the case for you too. Others have had success with InkCut, so if you have a Cricut you might give it a whirl. Or go buy a Cameo Silhouette, because it was a Colonel Pain (higher ranking than a Major Pain) to get it to work for me and I wouldn't want anyone else to go through that. I had a lot of knowledge to obtain along the way though as I was using alot of software packages that were new to me. As they say, "your mileage may vary."

    I have some cleanup to do in the train room and I have to figure out where I'm going to set up my Cricut and computer for it, but I'm looking forward to trying some projects with my cutter.