Creating Vector Cut Paths

The process of cutting vinyl or substrates varies between vendors and products. Talk to your vendor before setting up your cut files, there will likely be a preferred file type and formatting convention for this kind of project. Invariable, you will want to make sure layers and paths are clearly named.

When ordering flat cut letters, logos or shapes, you’re cutting your artwork from an adhesive backed media that is ready made to the color you desire, in these instances just leave your cut paths filled with a close approximation of the vinyl color you’re ordering, it’ll give your vendor an additional visual cue on what color each item should be. If you need to print a custom color or image see instructions below for setting up files for a Print and Cut.

Tip: For these kinds of projects Adobe Illustrator is the superior program to work within, graphic vendors will have this program and will likely output your project from this program regardless of where you originally built it. More traditional sign shops may use proprietary software designed for their equipment, but Illustrator will be able to supply the proper format for them.

Note: Some of the instructions below can only be done within Illustrator, CorelDraw and InkScape with success, be aware that you may need to switch programs to do all of the work yourself.

Text built in Illustrator, Indesign, Corel Draw and QuarkXpress are automatically built as vector objects, and creating outlines or converting the fonts to curves will give you a file that can be cut by your vendor.
If the kerning or leading of your fonts causes the letters or words to overlap, you’ll need to merge the parts into one path to avoid holes or knockouts where the letters or words are overlapping. See below for instructions on merging, uniting or welding the paths. Unfortunately, some programs such as Indesign and QuarkXpress will not handle merging paths well, you can ask your vendor for help in this process, or save a PDF and work in Illustrator, CorelDraw or InkScape for this process.
Note: If you have used a stroke or outline to make a font look more bold and wish to cut around the outside of the stroke, you’ll need to convert the stroke to paths or objects and merge it with the the font’s letters, see below for more information. Remember that every outline translates into a cut.

Here’s how you can convert your fonts to outlines, curves or paths in some popular layout programs:

  • Adobe Illustrator or InDesign under the Type menu click “Create Outlines”
  • CorelDraw under the Arrange menu click “Convert to Curves” Click here for more help.
  • QuarkXpress depending on your version, “Convert Text to Box” or “Text to Box” can be found under the Item or Style menu Click here for more help.
  • Inkscape under the Path menu click “Object to Path”

Note: Canva also leaves fonts as vector objects, make sure you send your vendor a PDF so they can convert your files. Here’s a link for Canva Support to Download the Right File Type.

A stroke or outline will be seen as part of a cut path and will cut on the vector lines (typ. the center of a stroke) rather than on the outside edge of a strokes thickness, so you must convert it to a shape in order to have a graphic you can then make into a proper cut path. Once this is done you can merge it with the rest of the objects as explained below.

  • Adobe Illustrator under the Window menu click “Pathfinder” and choose the “Unite” option
  • CorelDraw under Arrange menu click “Convert Outline to Object”
  • Inkscape under the Path menu click “Stroke to Path”

Note: DO NOT convert your cut path it should remain a single vector path.

Leaving Art with a Stroke,
Your Vendor Will Cut on this Vector Line
Converting your Stroke Creates New Paths that Need to be Merged with the Object
After Merging the New Paths with the Object Your Vendor Will Cut on this Line

If you have an object made up of many small vector objects or you have a few words you need as cut vinyl, it’s best to create a cut path that has been merged or welded and cleaned up so there aren’t any overlapping cut paths or stray objects that will create a hole. See below how the two arcs and a few of the letters overlap, if this is cut as is, it will result in a hole or knockout in the graphic where they overlap. See the example below, note where the yellow and green overlap, the xt and the th also have a tiny overlap that is corrected by merging.

Artwork Before Cut Path
Cut Path as is
Cut Path After Merging

Selecting all objects to be part of the cut path, here is how you merge them all in these popular programs:

  • Adobe Illustrator under the Window menu click “Pathfinder” and choose the “unite” option
  • CorelDraw click the Weld option in the Properties menu or under Arrange menu click “Shaping” then click “Weld” Click here for more help.
  • Inkscape under the Path menu click “Union” Click here for more help.
Illustrator’s Unite Tool
Corel Draw’s Weld Tool
InkScape’s Union Option

Using a layout program such as Illustrator, Indesign, Corel Draw and QuarkXpress you can draw a path using the pen tool around any raster object to be used as a cut path, make it a colored stroke using a color that’s either vendor specified or obviously wrong to the layout and alert your vendor to pick it out as your cut path. It’s also helpful to put that path on another layer named Cut Path or Through Cut. For critical fit on photographic images, create your path in Photoshop in fine detail.

In Photoshop, enlarge the image so you can clearly see the edge of the desired cut. Following just inside the edge of the images, use the pen tool to create a path. Name your path in the Paths panel, then click the options menu in the upper right of that panel to make your path a Clipping Path, otherwise the path will not save with your file unless you save a PSD. Your vendor will be able to export your path to set up proper print and cut files.

Raster Image with Clipping Path
Photoshop’s Paths Panel
Assigning Your Path as a Clipping Path

Tip: Don’t drop out the background outside the cut path. Give your vendor bleed all the way around your cut path, if your path is slightly off or your vendor’s registration is not be perfect it may result in seeing a sliver of unprinted media around the edge of your cut project. See the bottom of this post for an example.

If you need to create a cut file out of a layout made up of several text, vector and raster objects you’ll need to do some extra work to create your cut path. Some vendors may have requirements for layer names, and included registration marks, talk to your vendor for best practices.

  1. Duplicate all artwork to a new layer that will become your cut paths, name it Cut Paths or Through Cut or any vendor specified name
  2. Lock your artwork layers so you don’t manipulate them unintentionally
  3. Convert all text to outlines, curves or paths
  4. Convert all strokes or outlines to shapes and merge the stroke to the object it was surrounding.
  5. Use the shapes or pen tools to draw a path around every raster image, then delete the raster image from the cut path layer.
  6. Select all of the objects and remove fill colors, make it a colored stroke using a color that’s either vendor specified or obviously wrong to the layout, we like to use 100% magenta
  7. Check for any objects that don’t have a proper cut path and delete any paths that you don’t need, you’ll fix any overlapping paths next.
  8. Once all of the paths appear to be correct, select them all and merge them so you lose any holes and knockouts you don’t want where objects overlap.
  9. Create a new layer below all of your current layers and add color bleeds to everything you can, it’s good to have a minimum of 1/8″ and preferably a 1/4″ bleed around all cut paths as it’s not guaranteed that a cutter or plotter will register perfectly.
  10. Clean up your file. This is complicated work, so deleting unused colors from your swatches menu and unnecessary layers is helpful when the file goes into production.

Tip: Avoid outlines of contrasting colors around your artwork that are too small, your vendor’s registration has limitations and it may result in art being noticeably off center within the cut path. Below are examples of the same small misalignment of registration. With the correct amount of outline and bleed provided, the misalignment is far more acceptable.

Registration Misaligned with
No Bleeds Provided
Registration Misaligned with
a Thin Outline Stroke
Registration Misaligned with
a Proper Bleed and Outline Stroke