Learn How Dies Cut Shapes Out of Print Designs

Men using a die cutting machine at print shop
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In commercial printing, die cutting is a process that cuts slits or shapes out of a completed print project. The die cuts may be utilitarian small straight cut lines to hold an inserted business card or a circle and a slit for hanging a printed piece on a doorknob. A larger die cuts the shape of an entire pocket folder, preparing it for folding and gluing. Die cutting may also be solely decorative or attention-getting, cutting shapes into a print job to make it more attractive or noticeable.

What Die Cutting Entails

Die cutting is part of the finishing process after a print job has run through the printing press and is ready to be trimmed and finished in whatever manner the piece requires.

A die is a thin razor-sharp steel blade that is shaped, mounted on a base and attached to a press similar to an old-fashioned letterpress. The printed sheets are then run through the press and the die stamps each sheet individually to cut out the desired shape.

Die cuts on a piece can allow the text or part of an image to show through from the inside after it is folded. Die cutting can be used to create rounded corners, flaps, holes, windows or pop-ups. An entire piece may be die cut into a unique shape.

On a page of decorative labels, the die may cut shapes like a circle, rectangle, star or another standard shape in the label stock without piercing the backing—a process known as a kiss cut. Contour die cuts can loosely or closely follow the shape of an image.

Printers usually have standard dies for common cuts. Custom dies can be made, but they substantially increase the cost of the print project and delay the production process. Because all dies consists of metal that must be bent into the shape of the cut, complicated shapes may not work. 

Digital File Preparation for Die Cuts

If you are designing a custom die, check with your commercial printing company to establish how it wants a die cut to be designated in the digital file before you spend a lot of time creating a die design. Take a sketch of your design to the meeting to find out what may or may not work as planned.

For example, the company may request a solid 1-point bright-color line on a separate layer of the print file outlining the cut of the image and showing its position on the final piece. As for the artwork itself, any elements that lie along the cutline should bleed past the cut line the usual 1/8-inch bleed amount. 

You can use any drawing program that has a vector pen tool (or otherwise can create straight lines and curves) to draw the die. It's usually easiest to draw a die line in the same software that your print project is created in.

That way you can superimpose it on the print document for accurate positioning. Sophisticated page layout programs all have pen tools and layers, so if you use Adobe InDesign or another popular page layout program, you can draw the die line for your design in a layer right in the page layout file.