Learn How Dies Cut Shapes Out of Print Designs

Make your printed piece stand out with interesting die cutting

Men using a die cutting machine at print shop
Juan Silva / Getty Images

In commercial printing, die cutting is a process that cuts slits or shapes out of a print project. The die cut is done after the project is printed but before it is folded, collated, or glued. Die cutting can be as simple as small diagonal lines to hold a business card or a circle and a slit to hang a printed piece on a doorknob. Larger dies cut out 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. Die cutting is done 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 metal blade that is shaped, mounted on a base, and attached to a printing press. The printed sheets are then run through the press, and the die stamps each sheet individually to cut out the desired shape.

Printers usually have standard dies for common cuts. Custom dies can be made, but they increase the cost of the print project and add extra time to the production process. Because dies consist of metal that must be bent into the shape of the cut, intricate shapes may not work well.

Common Uses for Die Cutting

Die cuts on a printed brochure make it possible for 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 elaborate pop-ups. An entire piece may be die cut into a unique shape.

On a sheet of decorative labels, a die is used to cut shapes such as circles, rectangles, stars, or other standard shapes in the label stock without piercing the backing — a process known as a kiss cut. Contour die cuts loosely or closely follow the shape of an image.

Pocket folder dies include a cut perimeter that includes the pockets that fold up and the tabs that are glued to hold the pockets in place. The pockets often include business card slits. Additionally, the die line, which is the graphic file that illustrates where the cut is positioned, may include dotted lines to indicate where the project folds. These dotted lines are not included in the metal die.

Digital die line file for standard 9 by 12 pocket folder

Digital File Preparation for Die Lines

Before you create a custom die design, check with your commercial printing company to find out how it wants the die cut to be designated in the digital file. Take a sketch of your design to the meeting to find out whether it will work as planned.

The commercial printing company may have a catalog of standard dies, in which case you won't need to produce a die line at all — just indicate it on a printout of the digital file.

For custom dies, printing companies usually request a solid 1-point brightly colored line on a separate layer of the digital print file that outlines the cut of the image and shows its position on the final printed 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. 

Use any drawing program that has a vector pen tool (or that creates straight lines and curves) to draw a die line. Draw the die line in the same software that holds the print project. This way, you can superimpose the die line on the print document to accurately position it. Sophisticated page layout programs have pen tools and layers. If you use Adobe InDesign or another popular page layout program, you draw the die line for your design in a layer of the page layout file.