Vinyl Cutting With Dye Sublimation Printing

by: Terry Morris - Feb. 2005

This article will show you how to use a vinyl cutter to cut and print stickers from self adhesive sublimation material. I use Mates on a roll and cut custom shapes then print with sublimation inks. Please note that I use the Mac version of Corel Draw 11, so the menus and windows shown below may look different from yours if you use Windows, however the steps and menus should all be the same, just the appearance is different. Also note that you should already be familiar with using Corel Draw for sublimation printing and you should be familiar with using your vinyl cutter. It is beyond the scope of this tutorial of teaching the basics of each.

Also note that I give the menu commands below, if you are familiar with the keystroke shortcuts please feel free to use them, I have done this to make it simple for those with limited knowledge of the software, these people may or may not know the shortcuts.

I use Corel Draw to setup both the printing and cutting templates. You can use other software but the instructions here will be for Corel Draw.

First we need to start a new page in Corel Draw (referred to as CD from hereon). If you have a large format printer you can make the page size for whatever size you want to print, I will be using an 8.5” X 11” for this example for use with small format printers. I use an Epson 900 for this purpose and I leave 1/2” inch all the way round to be sure I won’t print outside the printers limited margins. I would highly suggest you turn on snap to grid and set the grid size to a division of your sticker size, for instance I am making a shape that is 1.25” wide, I like having a little more control so I will make the grid .125” or 1/8”.

Now using vectored drawing make the size and shape that you want your decals, I have chosen a slightly odd shape (Figure 1) just to show you are not limited in your design. At this point you need to decide if your stickers will be full bleed (edge to edge color) or if the design will not go to the edge of the sticker.

Figure 1

For a full bleed image we will have to do an extra step. To assure you do not see white around the edge in case the alignment of the print is slightly off we will make the printed area slightly larger than our cut design. To do this, select the shape for your sticker and select “contour” from the effects menu. Now make sure the “outside” button is selected and set the “offset” to a small amount, the larger the sticker the larger you want to set the offset. For my sticker that is 1.25” wide I will use an offset of 0.02” and set the step to 1 as in Figure 2 below and hit “apply”. As you can see in Figure 3 below there are now 2 outlines one inside the other, I have changed the new larger one to blue so you can see which is which, the black outline is the original and will be used to cut the sticker. When you use the contour function the end objects are joined you need to select them and use the “Arrange / Break Contour Group Apart” function (Figure 4) to separate them. Now select the outer outline and make the outline blue as I have done Figure 3, this will help us later on.

Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4

Now for the design you want to print, you can either use CD to create it or import a photo or picture created in another program. In our example I made a very simple design in Photoshop. You will use the “File / Import” to import your image (Figure 5). Shown below (Figure 6) is the image I imported.

Figure 5
Figure 6

Now select the imported image and use the “Effects / Powerclip / Place Inside Container" command (Figure 7) to add the image to the outline. When you use the command you then point to the outer shape (blue in my example). This will place the image inside the drawn shape (figure 8). If needed you can edit the size and move the image by using the “Effects / Powerclip / Edit Contents” command, be sure to use the “Effects / Powerclip / Finish Editing This Level” when you are done. Now you should have something like shown in Figure 8

Figure 7
Figure 8

Now we have a single design set up we need to make in into multiples. This is where the fun starts. Using the "pick" tool (arrow) draw a box around the entire shape, this will select all 3 components of the sticker (inner outline, outer outline & picture). Now using the ruler and grid place it in the upper left corner of the page but be sure to stay 1/2" away from the top to the bottom. The reason for the 1/2" space is because the printer cannot print to the edge of the page and 1/2" is a safe print area on most ink-jet printers (check your printers specifications). Now with the objects still selected use the "Arrange / Transform / Position" menu option (Figure 9). In the "Transform" window (Figure 10) you need to set the horizontal offset, this should be the width of the sticker plus a small amount. In my case the stickers are going to be 1.25" wide so I am using a horizontal offset of 1.5". When you get comfortable with making stickers you can get the stickers even closer together so you can save material.

You want the Vertical offset set to zero at this time. Now you need to hit the clone button (highlighted in red in Figure 10). Each time you press this button it will make another clone perfectly aligned and spaced apart, you can clone as many times as you want but you must stop before the image is within our 1/2" print safe area on the other side of the page. In my example image I was able to make 4 clones for a total of 5 stickers across (Figure 11).

Figure 9
Figure 10

Figure 11

Now you need to select all of the stickers by once again using the pick tool (arrow) and drawing a box around all of them. Now using the Transform window (Figure 10) set the Horizontal offset to zero and set the Vertical offset to a negative size (negative because we are going down and not up) just larger that your sticker's height. In our sample the stickers are about 0.72" high so I will use a vertical offset of -1.0" (Note the "-" sign). Now you may hit the clone key just like before to make more stickers down the page. For my sticker sample I was able to fit 9 clones for a total of 10 rows still leaving 1/2" at the bottom for our safe print area. This means I now have 5 across and 10 down for a total of 50 stickers. The page looks like Figure 12 below.
Figure 12

Now that we have 50 stickers laid out we need to make sure they are perfectly centered on the page. To do this, select all of them and then group them together using the "Arrange / Group" menu (Figure 13). Then use the "Arrange / Align and Distribute / Center to Page" option (Figure 14). This will place our selection of stickers so they are exactly centered on the page. Now go back and Ungroup them using the "Arrange / Ungroup" option (Figure 13).
Figure 13
Figure 14

Now we need to separate the print items from the cut items. Now select "Tools / Object Manager" (Figure 15). This will bring up the "Object Manager" window like in Figure 16. You will notice the list of "Objects" in the list. Since we created the cut outline first they are all at the top of the menu, notice below they all have the word "Black" in them. Remember towards the beginning we changed the outer outline to blue? Well this is where that comes in handy. You need to click on the first object in the list that has "Black" in it, then scroll down the list until you get to the where they change from "Black" to "Blue" then using the shift key select the last "Black" one in the list. This should have selected all of the black inner outline objects on the page, now group them as we did before.

Figure 15
Figure 16

Now we have the set of objects selected and grouped that we will use later to cut the outlines. We are going to now put these on a layer by themselves. To do this select "Edit / Cut". Now in the "Object Manager" window select "New Layer" from the pull out menu highlighted in red in Figure 16. Now I normally rename this layer "Don't Print" to remind me to turn it off before printing. Now if you select that layer (text will turn red) and select "Edit / Paste", you should now have a listing under the new layer that says something like "Group of 50 Objects" like in Figure 17. Do you see those little icons just to the left of the "Don't Print" layer name? The eye is visibility, the printer is for print and the pencil is for edit. You can turn any of these off and on by clicking them. Try it; click the eye next to "layer 1" and you will see that everything on the page disappears except the black outlines. Now you can click it back on. Now click the printer off on our "Don't Print" layer, this will assure that you don't accidentally print the black cut lines on your sublimation page.
Figure 17

We are getting close to being done. We have our stickers all laid out and we have our cut lines ready but we will need something to help us align the sublimation page to the cut sticker blanks page when we go to press them. I have tried several methods for this and have found the bull's eye to be the easiest. In the "Objects Manager" window be sure that "layer 1" is selected (Red letters = selected). This assures that we are "working" on layer 1. Now draw a circle 0.25" X 0.25" in any open area (even off the page is OK), now draw another circle of 0.125" X 0.125" and fill it with black. Place the filled circle in the center of the other circle. This is our bull's eye. We will end up cutting the outer circle and printing the inner circle. Now we need to place this in several spots on the page, I like to put at least 3 of them. Select both circles and move them so they are between a few of the stickers as shown in Figure 18, once in place use the "Edit / Copy" and "Edit / Paste" or "Edit / Duplicate" feature to make a few copies. Keeping the outer and inner circles together place a few around the page like in Figure 18.

Figure 18

Now you need to select just the outer circle of all of the bull's eyes and group them together. Now cut them out and using the "Objects Manager" window select the "Don't Print" layer and paste them back in. If done right you can now click on the "Eye" of the "Don't Print" layer and see the outer circle appear and disappear each time you click it. Below you can see part of each layer by itself. In Figure 19 you see the print layer and in Figure 20 you see the cut layer.

Figure 19
Figure 20

Now go to the "Object Manager" window, turn off the eye on "Layer 1" and be sure the "Don't Print" layer eye is on, you should have just outlines like in Figure 20. Select all and use the "File / Export" option to export the selected outlines to a format that your vinyl cutter software can read. If you use CD to cut then just cut this layer (don't reverse). I am not showing the export window here since it varies from platform to platform. Use the "Selected Only" option and then select a format that your sign software can import (most can import Adobe Illustrator format).

Now making sure that in the "Object Manager" window that the eye and printer are ON in the "Layer 1" layer and make sure the printer is OFF in the "Don't Print layer go ahead and print the page as you would normally.

Now if all went well you should have a piece of sticker material that has been cut and a sublimation transfer. On the sticker material weed out (remove) the bull's eye dots but leave the rest un-weeded. Now you can place the sublimation transfer face down on top of the sticker material and using the a light of some kind (a light box works best but you can use a window or lamp in a pinch) look at the bull's eyes on the sticker material, they should have light passing through the weeded hole, now line up the small printed circle on the transfer with that hole. When you have all of them line up perfectly tape the transfer down to the sticker material using heat tape.

Press as usual, be sure to use Teflon or blow out paper as the back of the sticker material will stick to your press. When done pressing remove and place on a flat smooth surface and let cool, after it has cooled then peel off the transfer. Then you can weed away the un-used sticker material and you should have a sheet of custom cut and printed labels ready to use. Below are some samples of some I have done over the years. Some of them have been epoxy domed to add a glass like bubble to the surface.

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