Adobe Illustrator guide for Vinyl cutting

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This little blurb is specifically to help out those who are struggling with AI specific to vinyl cutting type applications. It is by no means exhaustive or all inclusive but hopefully covers some basics for the frustrated newbie or old hat who is more used to printed graphics. 


I am anti-monthly payment so I still use version CS5. Some of these tips may be different within your own version although CS6 is almost identical. I use a mac and the quick key shortcuts are slightly different between mac and pc so I will refrain from listing them out. There are a LOT of handy quick keys that are worth remembering if you find yourself using a certain function often. AI is designed for a lot of keyboard to mouse interaction. 


Preferences Settings

Here are a few simple changes that you can make that will probably help. In Illustrator Preferences you have several panels that rotate through.


In the General panel change the Keyboard increments to 0.2px. and check the box beside Scale Strokes and Effects. UnCheck the Append [converted] Upon Opening Legacy Files. The 0.2 px will give you finer control, scaling strokes and effects will maintain your outline appearance etc and when you send cut files they are often older versions and you don't necessarily want them updated to a newer version every time you open them up because it will then save them as newer versions and cause you trouble.


In the Selection panel be sure the Object Selection by Path Only is checked. This will make it so you don't accidentally select objects you didn't intend to. You simply click at the edge of the part your wanting to select.  You may want to adjust your anchor points and handle preferences while your there and I have the Show handles when multiple anchors are selected as well. 


In the Units panel set General, Strokes and Type all to Points. 


Finally in the Appearance of Black panel I run On Screen to display all blacks accurately and Print/Export to output all blacks as Rich Black. This isn't so much for vinyl but is a good setting


Another HUGE side note. AI is the only program I have found that can turn off the Bounding Box. Once you have your selection set to select by path. turn off the bounding box View>Hide Bounding Box and you won't have that annoying box around everything. Your selected object will be visible by the highlighted path. You can always click it back on if you want to use it to upsize or rotate something but I just use the Object>Scale or Object>Rotate to do those functions and rarely have the box showing. I don't know if anyone else dislikes the bounding box but it irritates me to no end and I appreciate being able to turn it off.


Live Effects

AI has a lot of what are termed Live Effects. These include Stroke and all the warp options etc... These are handy and in some cases necessary for design but you have to at some point expand them in order for the final art to match the cut paths. A simple trip to View>Outlines will show you want the cutter will see. As for strokes, I use no stroke when designing cut files with the exception of applications where I want to do multi-layered work and have the bottom layer overlapped by the outlines such as HTV outlines around lettering. When using strokes and expanding them it will leave the original object centered in the stroke area. The rest of the time I use Object>Path>Offset Path to create these. 


Text is basically the same thing but called Live Text until it is converted to outlines (which also needs to be done to cut it. Depending on the method used you may have to expand text and then expand the appearance if it is warped etc... Some workflows will do this in one step. 



When working with multiple objects and performing functions such "welding" (to be discussed next) you will find that most operations perform better when the Group is changed into a Compound Path. A compound path is commonly known as something with a hole in it like a letter A but can also be a group of objects. Illustrator looks at Groups differently than single Objects. Changing a string of text for instance into a Compound Path by Object>Compound Path>Make  will let AI consider the whole string of letters as ONE object which lets special functions perform properly. 


You may stumble across Compound Shapes as well which are similar to a live effect and need to be expanded. 



Although not an Adobe term, welding is an easy to grasp description that is widely used in graphic discussions. AI has several forms of this function thus finds the term lacking. For basic welding/joining the usual choice for beginners is the Merge function from the Pathfinder menu. Unfortunately this tool will create issues for vinyl cutters. A better choice is the Unite tool. (I think some of the older versions may have a different name for this) Unite will weld various objects together usually without filling in any existing "holes" within compound paths. Merge appears the same and in some cases is the only option if Unite decides to mess something up. However, Merge will also leave unfilled objects inside all the "holes" of an object. Failure to notice these has caused a lot of cutters grief as the cutter will cut that object out as well as the main cut meaning a double cut often messing up the project.


The unfilled object problem can also surface when using certain presets in the live trace feature. I set my presets to ignore white but older versions do not have this option. Should you have unfilled objects within a compound path there is a simple remedy. Select one of the unfilled objects, I prefer to find them in the little preview pics over in the Layers panel. Use the little button beside it to select it and then go to elect same button and elect all the objects with the same fill. This will select all within the document and you can just delete them. You will notice that nothing in the appearance changed thus affirming the need to remove them prior to cutting. (As an aside, many cutting programs have a Cut-by-Color options that can also separate these out if you forget to do so.)


Live Trace

Most newbies see the Live Trace feature when placing an object into the art board and expect it to work miracles. Well, it won't. IF you get a really clean black and white image you can sometimes get a passable result but those are rare. There are some who have fantastic PS skills and can clean up an image and turn it into a traceable design but it takes practice and skill. I usually just trace it out using the Pen tool. Slower but yields great results once you get familiar with the keyboard keys used in combination to the mouse. 


Another side note. The Pencil tool is probably the least known jewel in the toolbox. If you have something that isn't looking good. Select the object in question and then use the pencil tool to draw over the part of the object that is looking bad and it will append the line to match your pencil path and also apply the auto line smoothing to that area and can help clean up a bad spot in a live trace. 



I don't pretend to be an authority on the program but these techniques have helped me over the years and hopefully they will help you. I was originally going to post this in the Instructional Contribution area but decided it was better suited to the AI section. There are lots of other tips and tricks but these is the basics. 

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Awesome write up Wildgoose. Thank You......Big help to those who already use it and may forget simple things and those who dont know as much...P.S. !!!!!   If anyone has helpful info for making setting changes in Find My Font , That would be awesome as well

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A forum member asked about creating outlines and I ended up getting lengthy in my response so decided to include it here for future reference.

If you want a layer behind the original (as in two layer stacked) you would do a path offset. Select the object you want to outline and go Object>Path>Offset Path and a pop up control box will open up and let you decide if you want rounded, mitered or beveled offset and some controls over those options as well as the distance you want to offset. In all the newer versions of AI you can preview the look and see if you like it before performing the action. When done this will place the offset path right behind the object you are working on. It is helpful to note that if you have multiple objects such as a string of text you might want to make the entire string one object by selecting them all and going Object>compound path>make. There are quick keys for almost all actions in Illustrator and if you look along the side in the pull down panels you will soon learn them (Comm+8 on mac) Working with a compound path all of your offset paths will already be welded to together. If you are not working in an offset path then any touching paths will need to be welded (called Unite in AI) 

If you want to create an outline look but not necessarily a full layered product such as a tee shirt graphic that might benefit from a lighter feel you can go a different route which is SUPER helpful and speedy for this application. Take your object and just give it some stroke then align the stroke to the outside rather than centered on the line. This gives the appearance exactly as the other method did and you can choose the same miter, rounded or beveled look as you did in the other way. Once you have adjusted the stroke to look like you want it then go Object>Expand Appearance and it will expand the outline and also do a very odd thing (that is the SUPER helpful and speedy part), it creates a new size of the original object and places it exactly centered within the outline which happens to work out rather nifty for HTV vinyl so that you can easily layer the outline over the lower color creating a two color look with less actual HTV on the shirt. I do this as often as is practicable because with HTV work it's nearly impossible to layer the other way and get consistent reveal (registration) all the way around due to the reaction of both the shirt and the HTV when the first pass of the heat press hit it. Using the outline method allows things to move around and still fits within the area of error created by the overlap. This is one of those little tips form the pro's that makes my life easier and I'm happy to pass it along. Of note: the outline option does not work as well with live text due to not being able to align the stroke to the outside except on converted text. AND if you mess this up you have a mess on your hands due to the changes AI made to your original object so it's a good idea to work on a copy of the original if this is something that is hard to re-build. You CAN work back through and save your old original but you have to actually delete the lower layer and release the compound path and delete the outline leaving the original inner parts and then all the insides of the letters are not punched out so you have to do all that again, it's bad so just make a copy and if it goes awry you haven't ruined your original. 

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