A new Cutting Tool for the Workshop

So, in response to my bemoaning how much cutting I am doing, I made a decision, to look to add a tool to my arsenal. In a perfect world, I’d have all the space in the world for a big permanent workshop and buy a laser cutter, but I don’t have that kind of space (nor do I have a space in the house where I could set up a 3D printer with proper ventilation for working with the resin for them which is nastier than the casting resin). So I have gone for the next best thing, a Cricut Maker 3 cutting machine. I have seen people call them a “Poor Man’s” laser cutter online, which I think is derogatory to what they can do based on what I’ve seen online and others I know with them, and they certainly aren’t cheap either to be perfectly honest! After spending most of my Friday humming and hawing, I placed an order around 4pm for curbside pickup of a Maker 3, the Knife Tool, and the material mat 3 pack (the light, standard and heavy grip cutting pads so I can experiment). Amazingly, it was ready within about an hour, so off to the store I went to collect it and get it home. New Toys still make me giddy, even when I’d spend the past 8 hours mulling if I wanted to spend the money or not!

Unboxing my Cricut Maker 3 and running a first test cut of my design on regular paper. Nice and quick to see what the machine thinks of my CAD work… not a lot it turned out, the export from my 3D modelling software read as each cut was a double line cut.

The machine does so much more than just cut styrene for model railroaders. I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what we can do, and how we will find ways to use it. In our circle of friends and family, we have schoolteachers who make decorations for their classrooms, a friend who runs a card making business, and someone who manufactures fishing lures and uses a Cricut machine. Once I figure out how to best optimize the settings for different thicknesses of styrene and levels of detail, we will be able to do so much more than just cut plastic! My initial tests were with the art for a building I have not started to build yet, might as well work with moving forward while I learn how to use the machine. I was drawing it as I do so I have cutting templates, but also to figure out what windows I can use so I can order them. Thanks to having this, I was able to export from my 3D modelling software to the Cricut Design Space software. I was reading from others experiences online, so I included a 1″ square to give me something to use as a scale in the Cricut software to get the sizing right. This worked, and I quickly had my art sized to HO scale. I duly made my first attempt at cutting, on plain white paper, as it would be quick, as this was a good way to test with a cheap material.

The first cut was, a qualified success. It was to scale, and it cut all the parts, but, because of how dated my 3D modelling CAD package is, the only file type I could get it to export that the Cricut software would open properly was a JPG. While this image file worked, it read the line work as double line, so it made two cuts for each opening. Clearly not what I was wanted and this would not be useful when it comes to cutting styrene given the thickness of it and the need for the machine to make many passes to cut a thicker materials. So, after a bit of playing around, the Cricut software is, to be kind, best described as clunky. I was however, able to quickly re-create the simple shapes of a wall core by taking dimensions and measurements from my 3D modelling package and creating the shapes in the Cricut to the dimensions needed. This works fine where it is large rectangular openings to add windows to and brick sheet over top of, I will probably need to find something better if I need to cut complex shapes. The second run on paper, was much better, so I moved on to the next intermediate material I had. I for some reason have a stack of 110lb cardstock for the printer. No idea why, but I do, so it was something thicker to cut. This too worked well. With that, no guts, no glory, I loaded up a sheet of 0.040″ Styrene, and the Knife Blade, and gave it a go.

Loading up styrene sheet for the first time and watching the cuts slowly appear. It made 18 passes and took nearly an hour to cut out three walls.

The Cricut does not have Styrene plastic as a material setting within it. I had to look for something close. It does have Basswood and Balsa Wood at multiple thicknesses. So based on what I’d read of others experiences, I chose Basswood and 1/32″ thickness. My other potential was Basswood and 1/16″, but that runs the risk of it cutting all the way through and into the mat. That may be an OK outcome eventually as I learn the device and how it cuts, but that seemed like a bad idea on the first pass cutting Styrene on the first day with the machine.

My first cuts did not go all the way through, but the software allows you to keep making additional passes. The default for the material is 18 passes with the knife. I did one extra. It did not get all the way through 0.040″ styrene, but it was more than enough that edges could be snapped as if I was scoring sheet styrene, and a few passes with an xacto in the nice deep cut that was made, and the window openings popped right out. It took about an hour to cut out three wall sections from a 7″ x 12″ piece of sheet. The Cricut will do sheets up to 12″ x 24″ with the right mat. I bought the 12″x12″ mats to start as I am treating this as a test, to see if I like the machine and can make it do what I want. I still want my buildings to have the charm and imperfection that comes from my hands, or else I would have looked at sending things out to be laser cut or manufactured, but, with this tool, I can maybe hopefully improve one of the aspects where my hands are letting me down, getting good consistent clean cuts on the core of buildings, as everything else flows from this. If I am not getting frustrated with hours of cutting and nibbling leading to little mistakes, I can spend the time happily building and detailing and focusing on the quality of the of the finish being done, rather than the time in the seemingly endless cutting. While this will inevitably speed aspects of construction if it works out, that isn’t the only reason for this, as having nice consistent starting point will hopefully make the buildings look better when finished.

The first “Building Core” cut with my Cricut Maker 3. It’s not perfect, but that is more in the CAD work than the machine. What it did in under an hour is better than I could have done free hand by far.

I chose this building as the dimensions of the windows I want to use are online on the manufacturers website, I just need to order them! There are several other buildings that I am able to do with commercial windows, which means with the Cricut I can now get them drawn and the cores cut, and let me move on with them in the coming months. I’ll need to get some windows and brick patterned styrene ordered, but the initial returns from a couple of hours on a Friday night after getting it home from the store are that its feeling like a good investment. Now I just need to make more tests and see if I continue to feel that way.

4 thoughts on “A new Cutting Tool for the Workshop

  1. Wow, when you go, you really go! Offloading the tedious error prone operations onto a machine sounds like a great plan. I look forward to seeing all those buildings come into existence.

  2. Congrats. I bought a Cricut last year and make a lot of use out of it. I design in 2D drawing program (Illustrator or Inkscape) and export the files as SVG as the Cricut does much better with vector graphic file formats. I’ve actually found the fine point blade to be the best option for scoring styrene. I use it mostly to cut structure shapes, but have also used it for cutting paint masks, window mullions, print and cut street signs.

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