Manual vs Digital Die Cutting

Manual And Digital Cutting Machines

“Give ordinary people the right tools, and they will design and build the most extraordinary things.” – Neil Gershenfeld, physics and computer science professor at MIT

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Before I go any further, I think a quick discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of manual and electronic die cutting machines is warranted. All dies are patterns. Physical dies are made out of metal and require a manual die cutting machine to press the sharp edges of the die into whichever material you are cutting. Digital patterns require an electronic cutting machine which controls the knife that cuts your material. If you are like me, you will soon develop a love-hate relationship with both. I’ve never actually pitched either of my machines across the room, but I have certainly thought about it.

The Original Tim Holtz Village dies are physical and thus require a manual die cutting machine like my Sizzix BIGKick, while any SVG, Studio or DXF file you buy or download off of websites (including this one) are digital and require an electronic cutting machine like the Cricut Maker.

Manual Machines

There are multiple different companies that make extended bed manual die cutting machines and I doubt you could go wrong with any of them. I bought mine because it was on sale. When I said I become frustrated with it, mostly that is due to using it with aluminum cans. I rather doubt the designers had soda cans in mind when they designed the machines. While both steel rule and the thinner metal dies can cut aluminum cans, there are several tricks to it and far too often I don’t pay enough attention and mess it up royally.

Electronic Machines

There are also several companies that make electronic cutting machines. Here, you need to do a lot more research to determine which machine is right for you. As of this writing, it seems most people tend to buy a Cricut or Silhouette machine, but there are other companies who also make electronic machines. Both Cricut and Silhouette make several different models. All use the digital files you can buy or download from the internet, but the design software that you use to manipulate your files and control the machine can be quite different. New machines are constantly being designed, and older ones upgraded. Find a couple of recent comparison reviews and that will help you decide which is right for you.

I am not going to link to any such review as I expect it to be outdated by the time you read it. However, has a great article explaining many of the differences between manual and digital cutting machines which I expect to always hold true.

The main pros and cons listed in the article can be found below:

Cutting machine advantages table
Cutting machine advantages


The initial investment for the manual cutting machine can be a lot cheaper, but the cost of the steel rule and even thin metal cutting dies add up fast, and the cutting pads wear out and have to be replaced. Plus, it is so frustrating to find the perfect die, just to find it is the wrong size and doesn’t fit in with the rest of your project. Electronic cutting machines like the Cricut Maker have a much higher initial investment, but the ability to resize a digital file is priceless.


Due to aluminum cans rarely being perfectly smooth after they have been used, I texture them by running them through my manual cutting machine with an embossing folder. If you need to emboss your paper or aluminum can it is helpful to have a manual machine. The Cricut Maker now has both a debossing and an engraving tip that are great for small details like writing a name, but can’t give you quite the same 3D embossed effect you get with an embossing folder.

Intricate Details

Very fine details can also be difficult to cut out with a digital cutting machine, particularly out of aluminum cans. When I cut a pattern out of a can on my Cricut Maker, I don’t cut all the way through the aluminum can. Instead, the blade scores the can deeply, then I wiggle the can back and forth a bit and the can snaps on that line. Even using cardstock, I have sometimes had trouble cutting very intricate items on my Maker, with the blade either tearing my cardstock, or not cutting all the way through. I would never be able to cut a very detailed pattern, like the gate I used below, out of an aluminum can on my Maker. As it is, I have to run the can and the Thinlit die multiple times though my BIGKick to get it to cut the can. The die I used is Sizzix 661586 Thinlits Die, Gothic Gate by Tim Holtz.

Halloween Manor #7 aluminum can house
Halloween Manor #7

Copyright Permissions

Another advantage of the manual cutting machine over the digital arises if you want to sell items you make with the dies (patterns) of each. After a lot of reading of fine print, I have not found a company that makes steel rule or thin metal dies that doesn’t allow you to sell items made from their dies. There are multiple people on Etsy that sell decorate-it-yourself cardboard or cardstock kits for Tim Holz Village houses that they have cut out using the Sizzix steel rule dies.

Permission regarding use can be very different when it comes to digital files. Remember, digital media is protected by copyright. If you are using a file for personal use only there are no problems. It is when you want to use a file to make an item to sell than you need to read through the terms and conditions on each site carefully. More often than not, free files are marked for personal use only, as they are used to attract subscribers. If you only want to use a file to make one or two items a year you may still be able to reach out to the designer and get permission to make a limited number of items for sale. I’d recommend keeping the email where they grant permission and being prepared to show that you have met their terms.

Commercial Use of Digital Files

On other websites, you will find permissions vary wildly. Many designers who sell their files marked for personal use only are willing to sell a separate, and usually much more costly, commercial license. Some grant permission for commercial use, but limit how many you can sell in a year, or allow only local, off-internet sales. Others may grant permission to make completed projects, but not DIY or decorate-it-yourself kits from their designs.

In no case should you ever share or resell their file. I feel like I should repeat that 20 times over. I offer most of my patterns for free on this website not only to help you build a village, but to attract subscribers. Neither because the file is free or because you purchased it do you have permission to share it. Instead, share the link to the website where you found or purchased the file. And when you make and sell an item, always give credit in your listing to the original designer.

All these different permissions can be very confusing, and as you acquire more files, hard to remember the permissions of each site. I suggest you store your files in separate folders marked personal use, limited commercial use, etc. If the digital file doesn’t come with any text naming the designer or the website where you acquired it, make a quick text file and store it with the pattern. Before I sell a cottage based on someone else’s file, I always check and re-check to make sure I have the permissions right. And I still panic, hoping I got it right.

So Which Should You Buy?

I have both a manual and an electronic cutting machine and couldn’t make my Putz-style houses without using both. If you can only afford to buy one or the other to start, only you know your own situation and what you will need. Whichever you buy, I would suggest spending the money to buy the model that can do the most, even if the extra features are not ones that you think you will use immediately. I started out with the smaller manual Cuttlebug machine and had to buy the bigger BIGKick to use the extended size Tim Holtz Village Dies. I also originally had a Cricut Explore Air, but quickly moved to the Cricut Maker for the increase in cutting pressure that allows it to cut many more materials (including aluminum cans), as well as the adaptive tool system which added new tools like the embossing tip. Whichever machine you buy, you will soon find many more uses for it than Just making a Putz-style village.

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