Mat cutting could very well be considered the backbone of a framing department. Good quality, well executed mats can set you apart from the competition as a professional just as a ragged edge or hooked corner can set you up for failure. There are many styles and levels of mat cutter on the market from small hand held craft and hobby versions to large stationary heavy based professional cutters. Regardless of the brand or type of mat cutter you are currently working with, it is imperative you demand precision and predictability from your equipment. Good quality, clean cut corners may be achieved by both the hand held AND the professional level cutter, for very often the lack of repetitive precision can be traced back to something as simple as not changing your blade often enough.
We never want to admit operator error when there is an inconsistency in our mat cutting, which is human nature. It would be nice to always be able to trace the problems of ragged edges or hooked corners back to the equipment, but unfortunately the bad news is...you can't always blame the tools. The good news is...there are a simple set of standards that will enable you to work more readily towards the perfection you should be requiring in all of your work.
Before cutting your first mat there are two things that should have been done to set the stage for the best possible product to be achieved. First, make certain your cutter base is level and well supported at all corners. A poorly supported unit can twist the base putting uneven pressure on the bar and often not allow the head to glide smoothly along it.
Second, by initiating a non-slip surface for the cutter you will limit your struggling to keep the cutter on the work table and can better concentrate on pressure consistency and arm position. A carpet or rubber covered table works well as a base for the cutter. Small rubber bumpers at various balanced points beneath the cutter will also stabilize it and prevent slipping.
Supporting the entire mat board being cut is also extremely high on the list of preparatory considerations, for it eliminates unnecessary stresses on the board and cutter assembly. By recessing the cutter itself into the actual work table (so the cutter surface is flush to the table) it not only supports the boards being cut but is yet another solution to stabilizing the cutter itself from slipping. A flush cutting surface eliminates the mat board (especially oversized boards) from twisting or falling away from the bar and head during cutting. This solution however often remains a luxury that many of us haven't achieved as yet.
Using the correct blade for the board being cut is also extremely important. I'm not actually referring to manufacturers blade suggestions as much as I am the proper thickness and type designed specifically for the board being cut. Regular two-sided 1200 blades are generally best for most basic mat cutting of a standard 4ply mat board whether paper core, white core, black core or solid color core. I do however, prefer to use two-sided 1500 blades for certain dense 4-ply color and museum rag boards and single-sided 1500 blades for cutting 6 and 8-ply museum rag and creatively mounted tiered mats, because of the increased control over the torque or blade twist of the thinner two-sided blades.
It is also vitally important to routinely change your blades whether using both ends on a two-sided or just one. Most double-edged blades will cut 3-5 mats per side or 6-10 per blade. All blades should be strapped prior to insertion into the cutter head, which is a simple process of deburring by stroking the full edge of the blade lightly on both sides (on the back of the mat blank) the way a barber used to sharpen his shaving razor. A new blade should penetrate a board like a hot knife cuts through butter and if it doesn't feel that smooth discard the new blade and begin again...it most likely has a burr on the edge or a broken tip. The blade is the cheapest part of the equation yet most able to cause trouble by overuse. Adjust the blade depth according to the individual mats being cut. It should only extend into the mat the necessary length to cut through the mat plus slightly score into the slip sheet below it.
Many manufacturers suggest using a slip sheet which is a piece of 6-8" wide mat board the length of the cutter bar to help stabilize the tip of the blade since blades are very thin and prone to twisting. As it cuts through the actual mat they only need to barely score into the base slip sheet about 1/4 the board thickness. Sheets need to be changed regularly to prevent the blade from inadvertently slipping into the same track as a previous cut. Overly scored slip sheets are yet another culprit of problem mat cutting equally as bad as a dull blade!
One all of the proper preparation has been achieved and verified you are ready to cut. Your stance at the cutter is extremely important too. Assuming a heavy professional-type cutter (complete with attached head and bar assembly) is the one used in production, they are designed to be used from the bottom end and not the side of the cutter. Your table should be high enough to allow a fairly straight back, not one too low where you are hunched over or you will be doomed to back problems. Obviously using a 60" cutter does not often allow the full reach of the bar and walking down the side of the cutter will be required.
Your forearm should remain parallel to the bar of the cutter from the time you depress the blade, through the draw of the cut to the removal of the blade at the end of the cut. The hand and finger pressure exerted to depress the blade into the board MUST remain constant from the first blade penetration to blade removal. Meaning, if you press on the upper left corner of the head assembly at the beginning of the cut as you depress the blade you must be pressing equally on the same upper left corner at the end of the cut. Your index and middle fingers should be placed directly over the line of cut and your hand, wrist and arm remain in alignment as though locked into position. Even if walking down the side of an over-sized cutter, even pressure on the cutter head must remain consistent and not vary from blade entry to cut completion.
The movement of blade depression is pushing the blade tip down into the mat, NOT pulling up with your thumb from the back of the head to depress the blade, or rocking the head forward pushing the blade into the mat. I recently noticed that along with locking my wrist and arm for the draw down the bar, I also hold my breath as I cut, but the jury is still out on that one.
Establishing a daily routine of basic equipment maintenance and exacting execution steps will help you create predictable mats and reinforce your quality control. In fact, by regularly referring to this list you can often troubleshoot mat cutting errors and therefore correct recurring problems.
If all of the list items are consciously paid attention to, eventually they will become the natural way of achieving repetitive perfection. If a problem should arise, go back to your basics and verify you are doing everything right...clean cutter, unscored slip sheet, new strapped blade with proper depth adjustment. If everything appears correct, including proper stance, better check the calibrations on your cutter itself. If the head is wobbly or the alignment is out of square even doing everything right can produce something very wrong! Good polished technique with a clean, calibrated cutter will allow you perfection, and you really don't need to hold your breath either. Now go conquer those mats!
You may want to use the masthead photo as an into to me. The bio has been expanded to reflect my involvement in the craft market.
Copyright © 1993 Chris A Paschke
For more articles on mounting basics look under the mounting section in Articles by Subject.
Additional information on all types of mounting is found in:
The Mounting and Laminating Handbook, Second Edition, 2002,
The Mounting And Laminating Handbook, Third Edition, 2008 and
Creative Mounting, Wrapping, And Laminating, 2000 will teach you everything you need to know about getting the most from your dry mount equipment and materials as an innovative frame designer.
All books are available from Designs Ink Publishing through this website.
Chris A Paschke, CPF GCF
Designs Ink Publishing
785 Tucker Road, Suite G-183
Tehachapi, CA 93561