Adobe Illustrator: Cut Paths & Print Bleeds

Preparing Vector Art for Print & Cut Projects

Adobe Illustrator: Cut Paths & Print Bleeds

Every few months I go on a print & cut project spree. I almost always start with Adobe Illustrator and vector art. Each time I have to remember the best way to set up cut paths and print bleeds all over again. So I never waste this time again, here are some notes-to-self – I hope you find them helpful.

Workflow & Goals

It helps to understand how I use Illustrator in the bigger scheme of things. At the end of it all, print & cut software like Silhouette Studio and Cricut Design Space need 2 things – a JPG or PNG image to print, and an SVG path to cut.

Whether I start with an image file or draw the art myself, I use Illustrator to create source files that can be exported into the components and formats needed by the print & cut software. So a workflow for me might look like:

  1. Use AI to create art, print bleeds, and cut paths.
  2. Use AI to export art – with and without bleeds – to high-resolution PNG files.
  3. Use AI to export cut paths to SVG.
  4. Import PNG and SVG files into print & cut software.

The key point is, whether you use Illustrator, Inkscape, or another program, always maintain a fully editable source file and leverage its export features.

I create source files to address 3 scenarios. First is the art with no bleeds or cut paths for normal printing:

Art with no cut paths or print bleeds.
Art with no cut paths or print bleeds.

Second is a normal cut path with 2mm print bleed – here the cut path is flush with the art.

Art with normal cut path & bleed.
Art with normal cut path & bleed.

Third is a padded cut path with 2mm print bleed – I call this a ‘sticker’ path because it’s set away from the art the way you might for cutting stickers:

Art with padded cut path & print bleeds.
Art with padded cut path & print bleeds.

Set Stroke to Inside for Art

A path has no thickness or weight, whereas a stroke does. By default, when you apply a stroke to a path, the stroke’s thickness is centered along the path.

If you cut along this path, the stroke would be cut in half and could significantly change the look of art.

Default stroke is centered along path.
Default stroke is centered along path.

To avoid this, use the Stroke panel to set all of the art’s edge strokes to the Inside:

Stroke set to inside of path.
Stroke set to inside of path.

Like many things in Illustrator, there are several ways to get to the Stroke panel.

  • Window > Stroke
  • Ctrl+F10 / Command+F10
  • Appearance panel > Stroke
  • Properties panel > Stroke
Stroke panel - Align stroke to inside of path.
Stroke panel - Align stroke to inside of path.

Normal Cut Path

To create a normal cut path that’s flush with art, first make a copy of the objects that will become the path.

Objects to become the cut path.
Objects to become the cut path.

Next, remove the fills, change the strokes to 0.25 pt, and align the strokes to Center. The stroke weight and alignment have no real relevance for cut paths – these settings just let you see where the paths are.

Objects to become the cut path.
Objects to become the cut path.

Last, use the Pathfinder tool to Unite the paths. Rename the object for easy reference.

Use Pathfinder > Unite to make final path.
Use Pathfinder > Unite to make final path.

Normal Print Bleed

While most cutting machines are accurate to the millimeter, there will always be some variance – meaning the cut path and art don’t exactly meet. This leaves small, un-printed areas along the edges.

Each cutter will have its own tolerances – 2mm is fairly common and the upper limit of acceptable variance.

Print bleeds account for this variance by extending the printed area past the cut path.

To create print bleeds, make a copy of the relevant objects. Next, set the strokes to 2mm / 6pt, and align them to the Outside. This works especially well when the stroke has a gradient or other effect applied.

As a final step, group the bleed objects and rename for easy reference.

To make print bleeds, align a 2mm stroke to the outside of objects.
To make print bleeds, align a 2mm stroke to the outside of objects.

The final art, print bleeds, and cut path will look something like this:

ai-print-cut_07
ai-print-cut_07

Padded Cut Path

To create a padded cut path – like what you might use for stickers – start by making a copy of the original cut path.

With the copy selected, go to Effect > Path > Offset Path.  Check the Preview box, adjust the Offset as needed, and click OK.

Once you’re happy with the offset, select Object > Expand Appearance – this replaces the original path & effect with the new, offset path. Rename the object for easy reference.

Effect > Path > Offset Path
Effect > Path > Offset Path

Padded Print Bleed

If you’re using a padded cut path for something like stickers, you may want to add a fill color to the padding. If so, you also need a print bleed.

First, make a copy of the padded cut path. Next, use Effect > Path > Offset Path to increase the size by 2mm / 6pt. Then select Object > Expand Appearance to replace the effect with the new path. Rename the object for easy reference.

From here you can add a background fill. The final art, cut path and print bleed will look something like this:

Padded cut path with color fill & print bleed.
Padded cut path with color fill & print bleed.

Wrap

One of the best parts about programs like Adobe Illustrator is that they provide a number of ways to accomplish any given task. It’s also why I tend to forget which methods work best for me when I go a few months between projects. Like all of my notes-to-self, I wrote this hoping to save my future self some time. If you’ve made it this far, I hope this helps you in some way 🙂

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