Pre-feeding Vinyl

pre-feeding vinyl enhances tracking.
You can enhance tracking and prolong the life of your cutter with the push of a button

SIGNWarehouse sells all types of vinyl cutters. We offer everything from hobby cutters for crafters to large pro series workhorses for commercial sign shops. No matter how large or small, all vinyl cutters have some things in common, and they all need to be used properly in order to provide the service you expect. With proper care, your vinyl cutter should provide years of productive use. If you take care of your cutter, it will take care of you and your business.

One of the simplest ways to take care of your vinyl cutter is to make sure you’re managing the vinyl properly. Fifty-yard rolls of vinyl can weigh up to 27 lbs.  That is a lot of weight working against the cutter’s drive motors. Cutting vinyl at full speed with that much weigh pulling against the drive motors can cause errors, severe tracking problems and damage to major electrical components.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to prevent these problems. All it takes is a little extra time and care in loading and pre-feeding the vinyl. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of pre-feeding vinyl, you may be risking damage to your equipment. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Pre-feeding and how does it help?

Pre-feeding vinyl is simply using the vinyl cutter’s drive motors to push vinyl from the front of the cutter and then retracting it before you send a cut job. There are two benefits to pre-feeding vinyl. The first is protection of your equipment. The seconds is enhanced tracking.

Pre-feeding Vinyl to Protect your Cutter:

As the cutter works through a vinyl graphic, it moves the vinyl forwards and backward as the blade travels left and right across the platen. If you don’t pre-feed the vinyl before you start cutting, each forward movement of the Y motor that pulls vinyl forward is working against the weight of the roll as it pulls vinyl off the roll.

The faster the cut speed, the more forceful this ‘pulling’ is. If it pulls hard enough with no slack in the vinyl, it can move the vinyl roll on the media bars and upset the tracking. If it’s a small roll, it can pull the vinyl completely off the media rollers, and interrupt production. If it’s a 50-yard roll, the weight of the vinyl exerts enough force against the motor to cause a job-ending error or a cutter-ending mechanical failure. This is why it’s very important to always, always, pre-feed enough vinyl before you begin a cut job. Then, as the Y motor pulls vinyl forward, it’s pulling from the slack right behind the platen and there’s no resistance to the drive motors. Cutting from slack enhances tracking and protects the drive motors. If your vinyl cutter could talk, it would probably say, “Cut me some slack!”

Pre-feeding Vinyl to enhance tracking:

When you feed vinyl forward through the cutter, it runs under the pinch rollers. If you haven’t loaded the vinyl straight, this will become pretty clear as you pre-feed it and send it backwards.  If the vinyl is walking out from under the pinch rollers during this process, raise the rollers, straighten it out and reseat the vinyl. Then pre-feed it again and roll it back to make sure it’s loaded straight.

In addition to showing you if the vinyl is loaded straight, pre-feeding enhances tracking in a more subtle way. Feeding vinyl forward and backwards before cutting makes small grooves in the face film that the cutter will follow as it’s cutting the job.

Pre-Feeding Vinyl Manually: Pre-feeding vinyl with most vinyl cutters is easy. Just use the position arrows on your cutter’s control panel to send vinyl forward, then backward. Depending on the model of cutter you’re using, you may need to press an ‘offline’ button so that the arrow keys move the media instead of increasing speed or cutting force.  This is true of entry-level cutters like the Vinyl Express R Series and mid-pro level cutters like the Rogue Series. Feed enough vinyl to complete the job you’re about to send. Remember to cut your cutter some slack. The slack in the back keeps the cutter from pulling against the weight of the vinyl.

You may wonder why it’s okay to feed vinyl forward using the arrow keys, but not okay to have this happen during cutting. The answer is speed. Pre-feeding with the arrow keys won’t feed the media as quickly, with as much force, as letting it happen during cutting. So there’s no risk of pulling vinyl off the media rollers, upsetting the tracking, or damaging the motors.

Pre-Feeding Vinyl Automatically: Some more advanced cutters also have an option that allows you to program the cutter to pre-feed some vinyl automatically before it begins cutting. When the feature is activated, the cutter will automatically pre-feed some vinyl, then return to the origin point, which produces the desired amount of slack. This process starts right after you send a job from your PC to the cutter. Of the cutters offered by SIGNWarehouse, the ones that have this feature are the Vinyl Express QE6000, Q Series, Graphtec CE series, FC Series, and the Roland Camm-1 and Camm-1 Pro cutters.

On most of these models, the function in the cutter’s control panel that allows you to turn on automatic pre-feeding also allows you to determine how much vinyl you want the cutter to feed forward and backwards. The language and details vary a little from one brand to another, but the outcome is the same: slack in the back for better tracking and safer cutting.

Roland GS-24

The Pre-Feed feature in the Roland Camm-1 GS-24 is fairly simple. The Roland “Unsetup” menu allows you to turn the feature on or off, and to determine the speed, up to 10cms (4 ips). There’s no option here to determine the amount.  The amount or length of the pre-feed is determined by the size of the job sent from the PC. So if you’re cutting a 3 foot graphic with Pre-Feed turned on, the GS-24 will automatically pre-feed and retract 3 feet of vinyl before it begins cutting the graphic.

It’s pretty easy to find and activate. From the control panel’s home screen, press MENU until you see UNSETUP. From there, either select the up or down arrow, until you find OTHERS. Once there, press the right arrow to find PRE-FEED OFF (The default setting is OFF). Press the right arrow to turn the Pre-Feed feature ON (Fig 1).

Pre-feeding vinyl with a Roland GS-24
Fig 1: Accessing the Auto Pre-Feed feature in a Roland GS-24 can be done in four easy steps.

Vinyl Expess Qe, Q Series, & Graphtec: Pre-Feed and Auto Pre-Feed

With the Graphtec and Vinyl Express Qe6000 and Q-Series, there are two settings in the control panel menu that can be used to cut your cutter some slack. There are menu options for Pre-Feed and Auto Pre-Feed. If you select and activate Pre-Feed, the cutter will feed and retract the vinyl as soon as you enter the command. Consider this on-demand pre-feed. If you opt for this feature, you’ll have to enter the menu and do this every time you want to pre-feed vinyl.

Unlike the Roland, the Q Series and Graphtec Pre-Feed menu takes you to the next step where you can determine how much vinyl to pre-feed. The minimum is 3 feet and you can precisely determine the pre-feed amount in tenths (3.5 feet, 4.7, 5.9, etc.), up to 164 feet. For the record, we do not recommend pre-feeding 164 feet of vinyl unless you have a lot of time and really, really big catch basket.

If you select the 2nd option, Auto Pre-Feed, the setup process is the same, but the outcome is different. With Auto Pre-Feed activated, the cutter will pre-feed and retract the vinyl right before starting a job sent from your PC. It will also pre-feed and retract the vinyl before performing a cross-cut.  To activate Auto-prefeed on a Q Series or FC8600, Select Page 4 of the control panel settings to access the Media menu (Fig 2). Navigate to the Auto-Pre-feed option, press 1 to enter the sub-menu to turn it on or off and 2 to enter the sub-menu to determine the amount of the pre-feed.

Whether you do it manually by toggling the arrow keys on a basic cutter or automatically by programming the menu on an advanced model, pre-feeding is a must. Cutting at full chat with a tightly wound roll of vinyl is just asking for trouble.  To avoid tracking errors, time-consuming recuts and damage to internal motors, take a little extra time and cut your cutter some slack. Do this as a habit and your vinyl cutter will enjoy years of productive use.