What is a cutting machine?
A cutting machine is a computer-controlled craft tool that is told where to be drag around a page. The most common tool is a little cutting blade that is used for both cutting and perforating. Other tools include scoring/embossing tools and pens.
The machines are driven by special software that lets you define the path to drag the tool around. Different machines use different software, but in general, the instructions you send to the machine through the software are called cutfiles. I'll talk about cutfiles later.
Cutting machines have a carrier sheet or some sort of tray that holds the material being cut in place. It's pulled into and back out of the machine while the tool is pulled from side to side.
Paper minis and paper terrain are a little more complicated than basic scrapbooking shapes. Scrapbookers might just want to cut a frame or fancy scroll work out of some colored stock, but they don't need to trace a specific printed piece of art. Even if a specific piece of art needs to be traced to cut out, most machines can scan the page, find the art, and trace it out without any additional instructions.
Paper minis and terrain, however, need to make sure the cuts are very precisely tracing the art that is printed. Especially for terrain, score and cut lines needs to very precisely follow what was printed. For minis, tracing out the thick black outline of a mini may be OK but you can achieve much more detailed cuts. This is accomplished with registration marks. Some machines have optical scanners that look for the registration marks and align the cutfiles to what is printed on the page. It results in really accurate calibration for every cut.
So, what machine should you choose?
I'm not an authority on all cutting machines. Full disclosure here - I've used a Silhouette SD cutter for about 5 years I think, and a Silhouette CAMEO (version 1) for another 5. I know a lot about those machines, and a little about others. Assume everything I say about a machine might be faulty, and it's worth checking out the vendor's pages or YouTube reviews or something if you have questions. I don't work for, or with, any company, and I get nothing for the recommendations I make. If I'm wrong about any of this, please let me know!
Brother makes consumer cutting machines, though everything I've read and watched about the machines leads me to believe they do not support registration marks. They operate by simply cutting a pattern without any alignment, or through scan-and-cut technology. While I'm sure for some type of crafters (the folks I tend to lump together as "scrapbookers" for lack of a better term), I don't think these machines would work for print-and-cut patterns like papercraft terrain or minis.
Cricut is a well known maker of crafting machines, and they too offer a cutting machine. They have software to send their own cutfiles to their machines, in addition to supporting scan-and-cut and unaligned cutting. However, I've chatted with some Cricut machine owners and have watched some reviews that lead me to understand that when using registration marks to align cuts, the size of the cutting area is seriously diminished, to the point of making print-and-cut impractical with the machines.
Silhouette has been in the print-and-cut business for a long time, and they offer a number of machines that support print-and-cut, as well as scan-and-cut and unaligned cutting. Their machines offer a variety of tools and support for different materials, but even their base model is totally adequate for papercrafting.
Based on that information, the only machines I would recommend are the Silhouette brand machines. If you have an old Silhouette SD or even an older RoboCraft model, they are still supported and should work well enough. Newer machines include the Portrait, CAMEO and Curio. I'll try to compare them now.
Which Silhouette machine should I get?
Check out the Silhouette America website for the latest information about what machines they offer. The three machines available at the time this was written are the Portrait, the CAMEO and the Curio. Here's a summary of what you can expect with each machine.
The Portrait is the entry-level model. It comes with what they call an "8-inch cutting mat" though the mat itself is a little wider than 8.5", so Letter or A4 pages work fine. The machine has a single tool holder, and is compatible with their "AutoBlade". The Silhouette blades are designed so they can adjust the depth of the cut, and some blades can automatically adjust the depth based on what the cutfiles request. As I typically work with photo paper or card stock exclusively, I have a single blade set to a specific depth, and it never changes. I have never used an AutoBlade. The machine connects via bluetooth or USB. Note that "scoring" on this machine means perforating the paper using the razor. It's possible to use the blade at a low setting to make a scoreline rather than cut the page, but the perforations work quite well as a universal score or reverse score.
The CAMEO is like a bigger, better Portrait. It can use the same carrier sheet and same blades, though it sports the following upgrades. First, it can support a 12-inch cutting mat for wider material. Not a necessary feature if you're printing Letter or A4 sized paper, but if you print larger sheets or work with other materials for crafting, this can be important. Second, it has a dual-carriage to hold two separate tools at once. It has a touch screen instead of buttons for operation. The typical operations are "load" and "unload", so the need for a fancy touch-screen is minimal. Since I don't have one, I'm not sure what else you can do on the screen. "Scoring" on the CAMEO also means perforating.
The Curio is an interesting machine that operates a little differently than the other two. It has a rigid tray that holds your material rather than a sticky carrier sheet, and it's fed in on a gear-driven track rather than friction-fed by rollers. According to the website, the curio supports stippling, etching, debossing and embossing, stuff you can't do with the other machines because of the carrier sheet. It still cuts, too. This is an interesting option because, with the dual-carriage design, you can have a cutting blade and an embossing tool to get true cut and score lines. If you decide to get a Curio, I believe you will want to spring for the larger base and mats, as it comes (I am told) with a smaller size that won't hold a full Letter or A4 page.
What can the machines cut?
With respect to paper minis and paper terrain, I usually recommend printing on card stock or matte photo paper. Both are heavy enough to build with, and the machine cuts them quite well. The carrier sheets that come with the Portrait and CAMEO are VERY sticky when you first get them. You may do well to press on a page, pull it off, and repeat several times before using it to cut with. You'll find the pages may stick so hard as to tear, even. If this causes you problems, there are ways to deal with it and make the cutting mat more usable. Silhouette also sells low-tack carrier sheets that may be friendlier to our paper needs.
If a product you wish to cut comes with registration marks on the pages AND cutfiles that correspond to the pages, then you should be able to print the PDF (without scaling!) and then feed it into the cutter, using the cutfiles to cut it out. If you have cutfiles for a product that does not have registration marks, or if the registration marks don't work for your machine (see below), you cannot print the PDF and then cut it. Instead, you need to import the graphics into the Silhouette Studio software and print the graphics from there. There are several ways you can go about this, but here is one set of steps you can follow. It looks complicated, but they're just detailed steps. It's quite easy.
1) Open the PDF using Adobe Reader.
2) Edit > Preferences
3) Select the General category
4) Check "Use fixed resolution for Snapshot tool images" and set its pixels/inch value to 300. Click OK.
5) Edit > Take a Snapshot
6) Click and drag to draw a rectangle around all of the graphics.
7) Open a graphics program (Microsoft Paint, for example).
8) Paste the image that was copied from Adobe Reader. Save this (for example, as "image.png")
9) Open the cutfile associated with the page to print in Silhouette Studio.
10) File > Merge
11) Select the saved png image and click OK.
12) Right-click on the image and select Send to Back.
13) Move the image until it is lined up with the cutlines. You may need to zoom in to see how well it lines up.
14) If you need to change the registration marks for any reason (e.g. if you are using a very old Silhouette brand cutter that requires SD-style registration marks), do that now.
15) Print the page.
If a product has no cutfiles, you'll need to make some or find someone (like me!) to make them for you.
Be aware that the cutter cannot go past the area within the bounds of the registration marks. That means if a product puts graphics past where registration marks can go, or if the graphics overlap the registration marks, it may not be possible to make cutfiles without modifying the original sources. This is often not a problem for paper minis as they can be moved around the page. However, some paper buildings and models require large pieces, and may require creativity to allow cutter support. It's always possible to let the machine partially cut a page, and finish the rest by hand.
I've run out of time, so I will end this post here. If you have questions, please reach out to me and I'll try to answer any questions you may have. If I can think of it, I'll try to write up helpful hints on getting the most out of the machines, or any tips/tricks I can think of.