Die Cutting 101: An Ultimate Guide to Dies and Die Cutting

13 minute read

Are you in the market for the best die cutting machine that money can buy? Have you been doing lots of research to find “the one” but still make up your mind? Would you like to learn more about the different types of dies and die cutting tips and tricks?

Buckle up! This ultimate guide to dies will not just help you find a die cutting machine that will suit your crafting needs but will also give you a crash course on everything related to craft dies.

Manual die cutting machine from Altenew

In this article, you will find the following:

  1. What Is a Die Cutting Machine?
    1. What is a die?
    2. What is die cutting?
    3. What is a die cutting machine?
  2. Types of Die Cutting Machines
    1. Manual die cutting machines
    2. Digital or electronic die cutting machines
    3. Pros and cons
  3. Must-know Tips for Buying a Die-Cutting Machine
  4. What’s the Best Die-Cutting Machine for Beginners
  5. Die Cutting Accessories
    1. Types of Dies
  6. Die Cutting Tips and Tricks

Altenew mini blossom manual die cutting machine

What Is a Die-Cutting Machine?

Die cutting machines are truly revolutionary in the world of arts and crafts. If you are new to the paper crafting world, you wouldn’t believe the incredible results that you can create with a machine and a seemingly ordinary piece of metal. It is a life-changing tool and is a staple in every crafter’s room. That’s why it’s crucial to figure out which machine fits your crafting needs and wants. First, let’s get some definitions out of the way. Before we jump into defining this handy machine, it’s important to understand the concept of die cutting.

What is a die?

A craft die is basically a shaped metal used to instantly cut out shapes with the use of a machine. Since the die has a cutting edge, it can easily make cutouts when pressed into a surface (such as paper, fabric, cork, foam, etc.) and run through a die cutting machine. The beauty of dies is that it’s extremely easy to create cutouts of the same shape, pattern, or design in bulk, with the exact dimensions, therefore saving time and effort. It also provides a cleaner, neater, and more professional look.

What is die cutting?

In this process, a machine is used to cut out intricate shapes and patterns. These shapes or patterns are often too delicate; that’s why scissors won’t achieve the same effects that a machine can. The alternative to this process is called fussy cutting, also known as just using a pair of scissors. While it is possible to fussy cut images, die cuts are more convenient and give a much cleaner cut.

What is a die cutting machine?

This nifty crafting machine is a must-have in a paper crafters’ tool kit. It allows crafters to quickly and easily cut delicate and intricate designs with the craft dies in their collections. The different types and brands of machines available in the market allow crafters to use different types of crafting dies, paper crafting techniques, and specific crafting styles.

Did You Know?

Die cutting started as a way “to cut leather for the shoe industry more efficiently.” Back then, making shoes was very labor-intensive and time-consuming since the holes in the leather were individually punched by hand. The manual process yielded many inconsistencies between the shoes, hence the introduction of cutting dies. Since then, cobblers were able to “create sole patterns that could be reliably replicated through the cutting process.” With the advent of the mallet-handle machine came the mass production of soles and standardized sizes for the masses.

You can find more about die cutting in this comprehensive guide!

Altenew craft dies and die cutting machine

Types of Die-Cutting Machines

Finding the best die cutting machine that will fit your budget and your paper crafting needs shouldn’t be that hard. It could be overwhelming at first, yes, especially with the wide variety of brands available in the market today, but it’s not impossible to find “the one.” 

The most vital question that you have to ask yourself is: manual die cutting machine or digital die cutting machine? What is the difference? Which one is better? How do you know which machine suits your needs? As you can see, the answer to this question can be very subjective. In this day and age, with modern technology making our lives easier, the obvious choice for most paper crafters is the digital or electronic one. However, there is beauty in the simplicity of manual, hand-cranked machines.

Manual Die Cutting Machine

Most experienced paper crafters will tell you about their first-ever manual die cutting machine. These die cutters contain heavy-duty rollers and are sold with a collection of plates. The plates are unique to the machine and cannot be swapped out with plates from another manufacturer. The thickness of the plates allows the precise amount of pressure needed to cut out the desired material.

Digital Die Cutting Machine

As the name suggests, digital die cutting machines are controlled using digital tools, such as a cartridge or computer program. These machines differ greatly from hand-cranked machines. One key difference is that this machine uses a sharp blade instead of pressure to cut the desired material. To use it, the user selects or creates a design using special software, and the design is then sent to the machine wirelessly or through a cable. The desired cutting material is then passed through the machine, often adhered to a carrier provided by the manufacturer. Once the cutting is complete, it can be ejected from the machine.

Travel-friendly manual die cutting machine

To give you a better understanding of the difference between manual and digital, here are some of the pros and cons of each machine.

Machine Type



Manual Die Cutter

  1. Portable and travel-friendly
  2. Easy to use
  3. Beginner-friendly
  4. No need to connect to Wi-Fi
  5. No power source, computer software, or electricity needed
  6. More kid-friendly
  7. More budget-friendly
  8. More environment-friendly since it doesn’t require a power source or an Internet connection
  1. Some can only cut paper
  2. Needs a bit of arm strength
  3. Some plates are sold separately
  4. You need to invest in die sets
  5. Less creative control when it comes to choosing your dies

Digital Die Cutter

  1. Multi-purpose
  2. Cuts, writes, scores, scans, embosses, etc.
  3. Can cut a wide variety of materials
  4. Ease of use
  5. More choices when it comes to designs
  6. Smooth and precise
  7. More creativity with the selection of craft dies for card making
  1. Not environment-friendly
  2. Needs electricity
  3. Needs an Internet connection
  4. Some machines require a computer software 
  5. Some needs accessories or tools that are exclusive to the brand
  6. Pricey

Must-know Tips for Buying a Die-Cutting Machine

You’re probably wondering what’s the big deal with these die cutting tools? Why is it a must-have in every crafter’s stash? Two words: convenience and efficiency. This multipurpose machine does not only create die cuts, it also scores, embosses, writes, scans, and debosses. It is a super handy and useful all-around machine not just for experienced paper crafters, but even for beginners who are still dipping their toes into the crafting world.

If you are still trying to figure out the best die cutting tool out there, here are a few must-know tips for you!

  1. Find out if it is beginner-friendly. Even if you’re not technically a “beginner” in crafting, if you haven’t used any of these tools before, you might get frustrated if it’s too complicated.
  2. Check that it is user-friendly. Not all beginner-friendly machines are user-friendly. Keep that in mind.
  3. Make sure it is within your budget. You want the best of the best, and you’re ready to invest. But don’t get fooled by the fancy features of most machines. You want something high-quality, but with a decent and fair price point.
  4. Read customer reviews. Most people will tell you that customer reviews are to be taken with a grain of salt. However, hearing what other crafters think about their purchase can actually help you decide whether or not a tool or machine is right for you. It’s important to check both good and bad comments, though, so you can make a proper decision when it’s time to buy your own machine. 
  5. Is it portable or travel-friendly? If you’re just crafting at home, then this probably won’t matter to you. However, it’s also something to consider if you have sudden out-of-town trips or vacations and you decided you want to do a bit of crafting on the go.
  6. Size matters! Yes, it does. It’s essential to determine whether or not you’ll be making large DIY crafts or just small ones. Keep in mind that most large machines will, of course, cost way more than smaller ones.

Different types of dies from Altenew

To put it simply, you should know what kind of projects you’ll be working on, what features and specifications you’ll require, your budget, the size of your projects, types of dies, and your personal preferences. 

Did You Know? Interestingly enough, die cutting is not limited to paper crafting. In fact, it is used widely in the manufacturing world to cut elements such as sheet metal, rubber, plastic, cloth, and many other substances for mass production.

What’s the Best Die Cutting Machine for Beginners?

When choosing the best die cutting machine for beginners, one of the things you need to consider is the machine’s functionality. For instance, is it strictly for creating die cuts? Do you want something that can also dry emboss? Or would you prefer an all-around machine that can cut, emboss, score, and even scan? Although most paper crafters would stick to “paper” as their material (hence the term “paper crafting”), others try to get creative and use a few unique materials in their crafts. If you are feeling adventurous and want to try other mediums, you also need to consider the ability of the die cutting tools that you’re using.

Die cutting plates and manual die cutting machine

As you may already have figured out, choosing the best die cutting machine for beginners isn’t as simple as finding out whether you need a manual or a digital one. There’s a lot of thought and consideration that goes into it. Try to weigh the pros and cons of each machine and check that it fits your ‘checklist.’ If you have the budget and space for it, go for a digital die cutter. If you want something hassle-free, compact, and travel-friendly, try a manual one first. While these machines serve the same purpose, you also need to focus on the individual features and functions that they offer. At the end of the day, it’s still a personal preference.

Die cutting accessories and machine from Altenew

Die Cutting Accessories

Figuring out the best die cutting tool for your paper crafting needs is only half the battle. Your chosen machine won’t do all the work for you. There are a few die cutting accessories to help you create your DIY arts and crafts seamlessly. 

1. Craft dies

Before the advent of wafer-thin dies, the most common ones used to be steel rule dies. This die includes a sturdy base, typically made of wood, and a shaped line of steel embedded within a layer of foam rubber. The rubber helps to eject the cut material from the die itself. However, steel rule dies are too thick and cumbersome so it’s harder to work with them.

Different types of dies for die cutting

This is where wafer-thin craft dies came into the picture. Paper crafters prefer using these thin, small, and lightweight dies. These are also more affordable than steel rule ones. The cutting edge of the die is not sharp which makes them very safe to use. The pressure of the die against the paper as it passes through a machine is what cuts out the desired shape.

Here are the different types of dies under the wafer-thin category:

  1. Stand-Alone Dies - These can be used and enjoyed on their own. You can choose from a wide variety of shapes and sizes and can be used for various paper crafting projects. Some examples of stand-alone dies are delicate word dies, 3D dies, cover dies, shape dies, and layering dies.
  2. Nesting Dies - These dies take advantage of an open center. Here, multiple sizes of the same shape are nested within each other. This cuts down the cost of the die set and provides the crafter with many size options for their projects!
  3. Matching or Coordinating Dies - Gone are the days of tediously fussy-cutting around stamped images. As the name suggests, this kind of die helps paper crafters cut out coordinating stamped images. It makes cutting very detailed images super quick and easy. Coordinated die cutting is especially useful for paper crafters who suffer from arthritis or other disabilities, as it is often less stressful on the hand to use dies than to use scissors.

2. Die Cut Paper

To create beautiful and detailed die cuts, it is necessary to use a high-quality die cut paper or cardstock. This isn’t just regular paper. It is highly recommended to get a set of 80lb to 110lb cardstock paper. This will ensure that whatever dies you use will cut out the shape cleanly and precisely. Altenew offers different types of dies that are designed to work well with most of the machines in the market today.

Die cut paper and cardstock from Altenew

3. Craft Pick

When cutting out intricate shapes and patterns, it is inevitable that the teeny tiny pieces will get stuck in place. Don’t panic! A craft pick can help you gently push out these tiny pieces without ruining your cutout.

4. Die Brush Tool and Foam Pad

Cutting out dainty and delicate craft dies is fun and all that until you realize your gorgeous piece is stuck against the die. Similar to a craft pick, a die brush tool and foam pad can also help loosen any delicate die cut pieces.

5. Metal Shim

A metal shim is designed to help you cut intricate dies in your machine. Simply add this to the cutting sandwich (die cutting plates) between the top of the die (non-cutting edge) and the top plate to gain a little extra pressure for those finely detailed dies.

6. Die Cutting Plates

These plates are made out of acrylic and can be used to quickly and easily cut various materials, including cardstock and specialty papers. These acrylic plates are used to “sandwich” the dies and the die cut paper in between. The plates will then be inserted into the machine, which will cut the die’s intricate design into the paper. The "A" plate is used as the cutting plate. The "B" plate should be placed on the top of the die, and the "A" plate should be facing the blade of the die.

7. Purple Tape or Washi Tape

Although die-cutting plates and metal shims will do an excellent job of keeping the die and paper in place, it is still advisable to use some kind of tape to keep them from moving. The most popular choice among paper crafters is Therm O Web’s Purple Tape. Slim washi tapes are another option that you can try. However, you can also use any adhesive you have on hand, as long as they’re removable and won’t leave any residue.

8. Adhesive

Any liquid adhesive or foam tape can be used to put cutouts together. Depending on the paper crafting technique, die cuts are usually stacked to achieve height and dimension. For intricate and tiny pieces, liquid adhesives are recommended. If you want to achieve a 3D look without stacking too many pieces, you can always use foam tapes.

9. Embossing Mat

Embossing mats and metal shims are additional die cutting accessories that you can choose to invest in or do without. If you want to try dry embossing but don’t own any embossing folders, you can simply use your craft dies and an embossing mat. How it works is that instead of the die cut paper getting cut by the dies, the embossing mat will absorb the pressure and create an impression.

If you are ready to give die cutting a try, check out Altenew's products!

Die cutting tips and tricks

There’s a reason why card makers and paper crafters love using die cuts on their handmade creations. Not only are they handy and convenient, but they can also add beauty and interest to any DIY project instantly. Before you start shopping for different types of dies, here are some must-know die cutting tips and tricks!

Handmade card with coordinating stamp and die cuts

  • Use leftover cardstock or paper. You don’t need to use new cardstock or die cut paper every time since you’re only going to cut a shape out of the paper. 
  • Use a lint roller to pick up tiny little pieces. A small, handheld vacuum cleaner will also do.
  • When layering your dies, use an acrylic block or a paperweight on top of the die cuts while you wait for the adhesive to dry. This will ensure that the pieces are properly bonded.
  • Create die-cut windows!
  • Use embellishments like jewels, sequins, and beads to make your craft dies stand out.

  • Dry emboss with dies. Simply run it through the machine with an embossing mat and you’ll end up with a stunning raised effect on your die cut paper
  • Cover your dies with sparkle and shine using shimmer pens, gel pens, or glitter pens.
  • Experiment with some specialty paper such as wood grain paper, glitter paper, or foil sheets.
  • Use little leftover bits and pieces from intricate die cuts instead of throwing them away.
  • Use the negative cutouts instead of the positive ones. The result will surprise you!
  • Use double-adhesives to create a “sticker sheet” with your dies.
  • Cover cutouts with clear embossing powder for an added shine.

Craft dies and die cuts from Altenew

Find the best die cutting machine for your crafting needs!

Using dies on your paper crafting projects, whether it’s a handmade card, a scrapbook page, an art journal, or a mixed media artwork, is one of the best and quickest ways to add interest and dimension. These tools are definitely game-changers in the crafting world. The die cutting process has been continuously evolving - thanks to the innovation of crafting companies and the creativity of paper crafters. Dies aren’t just for cutting dies anymore - you can create unique, incredible, and breathtaking designs and projects with the help of these nifty little tools. We hope this guide helped you make a decision on which die cutting machine fits your needs.

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