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NOTE THIS NOTE: this article first appeared in DT&G, the PDF edition in 1995. This is why the images are small and pixelated. At the time, such die-cuts were not available and had to be manufactured by hand, or custom ordered. Today, you can purchase these fans at most any stationery store or job printer, ready for imprint.

One DT&G reader gets help, and comes up with a winning...

Dieless Die-cut project

by Fred Showker

die-cut fanThis year's prize winner for the best project comes from Tom S. of Overland Park, Kansas. At the end of the article we'll tell you what he won!

Tom called DTG for ideas on his project -- the old-fashioned camp meeting fans, he was making for a church reunion. Over the next ten days or so, we discussed various techniques, tips and tricks to get his job done.

The trick I explained to Tom is one I've used over the years for specialty projects. Although usually used for signs and POP (point-of-purchase) show cards, it certainly worked for Tom's church project.

Tom was producing an old fashioned hand fan, which was to be shaped and eventually get glued onto a stick. The shape was what had him stumped, yet he had so nicely concepted the project, I couldn't help sharing the excitement of making it happen.

While Tom's wife (dubious of Tom's scheme) busily hacked away at press sheets with an X-Acto knife, I said "try this..."

Short-run, low-cost die-cuts... without dies!

This technique will work with any shaped piece, of any size and most all materials. It's wonderful for plastics and poster boards for counter cards, door signs, hanging mobiles and other display visuals. The plan is simple:

Design the shape and art to fit the finished piece. (In Tom's case, he designed a very nice layout to be printed in two colors on an antique finish cover stock. Pop up the finished piece for reference.)

Don't print the shape, but do leave some 'slop' around the edges in case something messes up somewhere along the way. (A bleed could be incorporated to help soften the lack of edge-parallel graphics.)
NOTE THIS Print the job
NOTE THIS Clamp the stack securely between two rigid sheets of material, and
NOTE THIS Cut out the whole stack at one time.

Still with me?

die cutting plan

Once all the printing is complete, you'll want two sheets of sturdy rigid material to form a stack-wide clamp. I suggested quarter-inch plywood, or similar. Tom settled for Masonite.

Pack, stack'n'drill...

Now, drill holes through the entire stack in strategic locations on the outside of the live image area. These are our clamp holes. Use ordinary hardware store bolts and nuts, to clamp the stack. Some might prefer to use wing-nuts, however a counter-sink screw and T-nuts worked fine for Tom. The key is having no bolt or screw heads exposed on the bottom the surface of the stack.

Now, complete the cutting...

This is performed by a careful band-saw operator. Tom didn't have a band saw, (neither do I) so a trip to the friendly carpenter's shop is the solution.

I have a friend who is quite handy in woodworking and is always agreeable to letting me use the band-saw. A saber saw could be used for this, but not only would be a tedious and difficult process, it would not yield quite as nice of a job. If you do use outside help, you'll need to know the maximum height that can be accommodated under the throat of the saw.

Cut around the shape with a band saw

Next, we start up the band-saw, and carefully cut around the shape. Be careful not to remove the areas holding the clamp bolts -- these will be the very last thing we'll trim off. If the project is large enough to hang off the edge of the band-saw table, you can re-clamp the stack with C-clamps as you remove the clamp wings.

Keeping the stack tightly clamped is imperative for a nice smooth edge. Insist that a thin, fine veneer or finishing blade be used on the saw for the best cut. If you get some ragged spots, sanding will smooth those out. DO NOT remove the clamps until you're sure the everything is complete.

As a final touch, you'll want to vacuum the edges of the stack and get rid of any dust or cuttings before releasing the clamps. Once the cutting was done, all Tom had to do to complete his project was glue the holders on the backs of his fans. These were tongue depressors (purchased from the pharmacy) which had been dip-stained to match the burgundy ink in the printed graphics. Tom's final results is impressive. Nice job!

The actual cutting of the project, although it sounds like a lot to do, will probably take less time then it takes to read this article. I'll guarantee that the whole cutting project will take less time that it took me to write the article!

Tom writes a note along with the finished piece...

"I'm here to report that your suggested bandsaw cutting technique worked very well. I made up one stack, about 2 1/2" high (that's about 225 sheets of stock) with bolts, t-nuts on the bottom (for a smooth surface) and some old Masonite board.

I took it to a nearby wood refinishing center. The owner thought it was rather strange, all right, but agreed to give it a try. How much? $45, he said, just for the cost of changing the band saw blade to a more narrow blade, and then changing it back. The next day, he called and said they were done. And 90% of them came out just as cleanly cut as we could have done with an X-acto knife.

My wife had already cut out 100 by hand (skeptical of her husband and this wild-sounding suggestion from Virginia), and if this technique hadn't worked, Fred, I would have been lunch meat in this household!"

Whew! I'm glad it worked! Tom thought $45 was a bit steep, but it was a lot cheaper (and faster) than getting a real die cut. Tom continues...

"Now that we know the principle works, I keep pondering ways to make the process work better and easier, such as making some kind of specialty clamps that are easy to put on around the edges of the stack (tightenable with thumbscrews, perhaps) and can be moved easily as the cutting progresses. I'm also semi-obsessed with the quest to invent some kind of table-top cutting machine that hooks to a Mac and can whip out small batches of cut sheets from an Illustrator path."

Way to go, Tom.

I'm hoping he fulfills his quest because that would be a great machine indeed. There are routers, lasers and even water-jet machines available to cut shapes out of thick stocks, but the price is too prohibitive for 'the rest of us' and companies that offer those services require huge quantities to get the unit-cost into a realistic range. Tom could never have paid several dollars each for a laser job.

As I said before, Tom wins the DT&G project of the year award and to go along with his other quest, we're sending him "Beyond The Wall of Stars: Quest One of the Taran Trilogy" interactive CD game from Wayzata, as well as a selection of books from the Design & Publishing book store!

Fred Showker

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