Saturday, 5 November 2016

ScanNCut Basics 4a: Test Cutting - BLADES - how not to break blades and cut through mats!

Test Cutting. Seems a bit like a faff, but actually it's what ensures that you'll get perfect cuts every time, without having to shell out constantly for new consumables (blades & mats). So here's what I know (so far) about Test Cutting, Blades and Mats.

First, let's have a look at the blade & the mat themselves. Brother really have put a lot of thought into the design and operation of these, I'm rather impressed myself! I'm assuming you've either read or got in front of you Chapter 1 Getting Started in the Manual (either on CD-Rom that came with your machine or online via the Brother Support Website) and also the Appendix about looking after your machine, when we go through this.

  • Brother ONLY has 2 sorts of blades - STANDARD and DEEP CUT
  • The Standard Blade has it's own holder which is BLUE
  • The Deep Cut Blade has it's own holder which is PURPLE
  • I've not tried, but anecdotal evidence says that ONLY Brother Blades work. This might change in the future if someone comes up with a generic one that works but until they do, best to save some pennies by being kind to your blade! 
  • You open the Blade Holder by unscrewing the Bottom Half of the Blade Holder. This is different to the Pen Holder, where you use the little press down catch on the back.
  • The Brother Manual tells you how to change blades at Chapter 5 APPENDIX Consumables: Replacing the Blade.
  • I don't know about you, but I'm not entirely happy about handling sharp things I can barely see!  It's one reason I don't really like using Scalpels, I hate changing the blades!  Brother have had the marvellous idea of putting a piece of thick spongy material in the BACK of the official SPATULA HANDLE to stick the blade it to take it out of the holder. Which makes it painless and blood free!
  • Some people keep 2 Standard Blades - one for fine work for vinyl and tissue & other paper under 80gsm (copier paper) and one for heavier paper. This makes sense if you do a lot of cutting of fine things where you need to know your Blade has a decent edge and point on it. But unless you are going to buy yourself an extra Blade Holder as well, you do have to be disciplined about and practise changing blades and have some way of marking them (nail varnish?) and some sort of container they can't escape from for storage. Obviously it's up to you, the Blade is designed to last a reasonable amount of time with care (the machine's only been out a few years and some people are still on their first blade who bought their machines early on) so it's not necessary, just letting you know you can!
  • If you have bought a second hand machine, or you really really messed up a cut, ALWAYS check your blade tip under a magnifying glass before cutting again. You can do this by winding it out to the deepest it will go beyond 12 and being careful not to stab yourself.
  • ALWAYS keep the little lid that comes with the holder. It stops the blade from breaking and also from you stabbing yourself when the Holder's not in the machine. 
  • You can leave the Blade Holder locked in the machine permanently, however, I've found that I use the Brother Pen Holder, and if I'm not in the habit of taking the Holder out of the machine, I either forget the pen and then it sits there open (impressively they don't dry up even after 24 hours sitting in the machine forgotten), or I forget to check my settings and mess up the cut depth! So. For me, I am trying to be disciplined and tidy and remember to check settings, so I don't leave mine in.  I wouldn't leave it in when travelling either.
How do I know which Blade to use for what?
I'm a bit surprised that Brother don't include more information about which Blade to use with what sort of material with the machines. They give a very small table called Cutting Settings in the Manual Chapter 1 GETTING STARTED: FIRST STEPS Adjusting the Blade Extension.

However, the internet is a wonderful thing! This PDF by The Gentleman Crafter, a guy who used to work for and is still linked with Create & Craft TV in the UK (sole distributor of Scan n Cut machines) tells you at what stage you should swop from Standard to Deep Blades depending on the thickness of the material you are cutting HERE

He covers virtually every material you might want to use, far more detailed and far more useful than Brother's own offering! Me, I'm interested in paper right now, so that's what I'll concentrate on when I give examples.

Basically, up to 400gsm Cardstock (200lb Watercolour Paper), which is classed as Super Heavy Cardstock, you use the Standard Blade, over that, go to the Deep Blade. For example HunkyDory's Adorable Scorable is 350gsm. Tissue paper is up to about 35gsm - both are cut using the Standard Blade and the difference in weights is why people tend to have 2 Standard Blades if they use extremes of weights regularly! (NB: the USA has a slightly different system than the UK for measuring the weight of paper & card, so if in doubt and you're in the USA google it!)

Don't be scared of setting the Blade a little less so that it cuts most areas but not quite all, where if you have it any deeper, it cuts right into the mat. As long as the material you are cutting is properly adhered to the mat, it won't move and you can tell the machine to repeat the cut and this time, it should cut through all the way in EXACTLY the same place. Try doing a repeat cut without changing any settings as often it'll work. You rarely have to go to a higher setting, it might be sensible to go to a lower one!

How do I set the Blade Depth?

Blade Depth is essentially 'how much of the blade sticks out of the holder at the bottom'. So to adjust that you turn the Bottom Half of the Holder between the numbers 1 to 12.

On your Blade Holder there's a sticker that runs from 1 to 12, 1 is the least sticking out and 12 is the most.

Everyone's blade turns beyond 12, because the ability to turn the screw on the bottom of the Holder has 2 functions, firstly it allows you to dictate the Blade Depth for cutting (Manual: chapter 1 Getting Started: First Steps: Adjusting the Blade Extension), and secondly it allows you to take the bottom of the Holder off, so that you can change blades, or clean out any debris from cutting. (Manual - Chapter 5 Appendix: Consumables, Changing the Blade, also, Care & Maintenance: Cleaning: Cleaning the Holder).

If the Blade Depth in the Settings Charts don't correspond with your Blade Holder's cuts:
One important thing to know is that sometimes it appears that the sticker on the bottom half of the Blade Holder isn't very well aligned so you set your blade where you think it should be according to the Settings Chart either in the Manual or the Gentleman Crafter one (Brother call them Scale Setting), but it doesn't even make a mark on the material you are cutting, or even worse, cuts through the material AND your mat. Which is a result that I suspect causes many people to put it back in the box and never use it again! Which is rather sad.

How can you tell? Well, if the recommended setting for cutting your material is say 3 (which mine works at for 80gsm paper, then I need it set between 3.5 - 4 for 130gsm cartridge paper) BUT your blade needs to be at 5, then it might be worth you considering carefully peeling off the 1-12 Sticker and carefully putting it back on where it needs to be. HERE is a video on how to do this by Margret Teta Singleton. (She runs a Facebook Group called Brother Scan'N'Cut Users HERE).

If your blade roughly corresponds to the Settings in the Charts above, I'd say don't move the sticker! Personally I wouldn't put the 12 of the sticker right to the end of how far the Bottom Half will twist to the most closed it could be. Brother put wriggle room there for the Holders that work properly from the start, I imagine there's a good reason for it!

How can I tell if the Blade Depth is set right as a starting point?

Is it set right for what you are cutting? Well, that's why we do TEST CUTTING.  But everyone needs to understand WHERE to start with the test cutting.

Whilst Brother do their best, there are slight differences in the lengths of blades. It's to do with manufacturing tolerances. So if it's the very first time you use your blade AND your blade holder, I'd start at 1 for test cutting on a piece of 80gsm copier/printer paper. I'd then go up to 2 then 3 with test cuts - because 2.5 to 3 is approximately where your blade should be for that sort of paper per the Settings Charts above. Being this careful the first time will mean you will be able to tell whether or not your Holder is one that's within the expected range, as discussed above for what Setting Point it will cut which materials.

Then, after reassuring myself that my Blade Holder can be trusted, until I got to know my machine and the different materials I was cutting, I'd ALWAYS start off test cutting 1/2 a setting below the recommended one in the Settings Charts detailed above. Then, as I did test cuts, I'd move the setting by a 1/4 a setting for each test cut until I felt I had the 'perfect cut'. This limits any damage to blade or mat! Yes this means doing lots of test cuts over and over. But. Once you know the setting for each type of material you are using, write it down and then you'll know a pretty good starting point for that material going forwards and won't have to do so many test cuts.

An additional method is to get 2 sheets (or pieces) of the material you will be cutting. Set the Blade Depth to where you think it probably ought to be, then hold the Blade Holder yourself and gently press the Holder down into the Sheets - if it's set right it'll go through the first sheet and just 'kiss' the second. DON'T WIGGLE the Blade or move it around. You'll break it. Just straight down vertically then back up again. Not at an angle either!  This is NOT a good substitute for test cutting, it just gives you a ballpark idea of where to start.

There's a few other things you need to know about Blades as you use the Machine.

If your Blade Depth changes during cutting:
There's a known issue with some of the Blade Holders. If you are cutting say a whole 12x12" mat of shapes, and you set your Blade at say 5, but by the time it's finished, it's moved downwards to a different number say 3 or 2 - then what's happening is the Bottom Half of the Blade Holder is not holding onto the Top Half Properly. What is supposed to happen is that the Blade Setting you make stays where it is right through multiple cuts. It shouldn't move by itself.

The Quick Fix is to get some Plumber's Tape (this is narrow white tape that is waterproof and clings to itself, get it from Hardware Stores) - wrap a little of this around the thread of the Top Half until it stops moving when you cut, but not so much that you have to force it to set the Blade Depth and to screw it on.

The Permanent Fix is to complain to Brother (or your Retailer) and ask them to send you one that works properly! Your consumer rights are different in different countries.

Keeping your Blade Holder free of cutting debris:
As you use your machine to cut, little bits of debris will build up inside the Blade Holder. Get in the habit of unscrewing the Bottom Half of the Blade Holder, tapping it on your table and blowing on the blade to get rid of it after each cutting session (and possibly during each session if you're doing a lot). Some materials shed more than others, so how often you'll need to do this depends on what you are cutting. How to tell if you need to? the cut is messing up, not going where the blade should, especially with intricate cuts. (Manual Chapter 5 APPENDIX: Care & Maintenance: Cleaning: Cleaning the Blade)

Whoa!! The blade is making cutting marks up in the measurements bit of the mat before it starts cutting my material - is it going wrong?

No. It's working exactly as it should do!

Whenever you start a cut, the machine goes along the width of the mat a bit, and does a tiny cut in the measurements area of the top of the mat. What it's doing is checking that the blade is in the right place so it goes in the right direction when it starts cutting. It does a diagonal then vertical mark to make the blade turn to the right orientation then line up properly. This is because whilst the blade is securely held in the Blade Holder, it's the blade that rotates as the cut is made.

In Settings on your machine there's a Blade Adjustment Area setting. This was part of the version 1.7 update and details can be found in those Release Notes (see the blog post on Updating your ScanNCut for how to find these - Version 1.7 Release Notes: Blade Adjustment Area.  This setting allows you to restrict the portion of the measurements bit of the mat that the machine uses to do this. Personally I can't see why you would, and Brother warn against restricting it so it's not done in the same area every time. But I suppose if your mat is used a lot there may be areas where the adjustment doesn't work anymore cos it's so covered in these little cuts so you'd want it to avoid those areas.

It is however a fun way to see how many times you've used your mat to cut with - counting up the little marks!

Also, don't forget, your mat is double ended. Get in the habit of using BOTH ends of the mat so it gets equal wear! It also means those little marks have 2 lots of measurements bit of the mat to adjust itself in.

Finally, it's probably useful to know that the Manual contains a Troubleshooting Section (Manual Chapter 5 Appendix - Troubleshooting) which helpfully lists out issues you might be having and points you in the direction of the relevant sections of the Manual so you can try fixing it yourself.

Seriously, Brother ought to provide a printed book of the Manual when they ship the Machine. It would save a lot of angst, because people don't think to use it!

I think that's it for Blades. Please comment if you think I've missed anything, or not been clear! Next blog post, we talk about the Mats. HERE

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