You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
Buckminster Fuller

Every so often a technique comes along that so fundamentally changes my processes to such a degree that I end up exclaiming…

Where was that all my life?!?

I’m not the first to discover this process. In fact, I may be one of the last. But earlier this year I purchased a Cricut Explore cutting machine for use on The Hills Line, and I find myself wondering why I didn’t dive in sooner.

Others have long extolled the advantages of using such a device for model railroading. Sometimes referred to as a poor man’s laser cutter, this craft plotter has found a home in our basement, cutting styrene and basswood in such a precise manner that it has significantly improved how I’m constructing certain components of the layout.

In a nutshell, I use a vector-based drawing program to sketch out designs for anything from small detail parts to full structures… or even the lean-to loading dock on the north side of the Iowa Business Supply building in Iowa City. The sketch is then converted into a format that the Cricut can recognize.

These craft cutters are designed primarily for paper goods, so I’m not going to cut through anything but the thinnest styrene sheet. But the cuts are good enough to be able to score and snap the individual parts from a complete sheet, making repeatable and consistent shapes possible in a fraction of the time it would take for me to do by hand.

Some cleanup after the fact is still a fact of life. It’s the same as it would be when using any method for cutting styrene, so I have no plans to toss my X-ACTO knife or nibblers. Nor will I give up some of the more proven methods I’ve already adopted for the layout. But for some of the tasks I have left on the mile-long to-do list for The Hills Line, this will be a game changer.

7 thoughts on “Evolving

  1. Interesting post James. Thanks for sharing. Not only did it prompt me to once-and-for-all determine the correct pronunciation (cricket, like the bug, not cry-cut like I’ve always pronounced it in my head – apparently the manufacturer even has a cricket as part of their logo?) – but it helped me understand the usefulness of these devices that I’ve only read of in passing before now.

    A couple questions, if I may?

    * What’s the learning curve for the program you use to create the drawings? * How long did it take to draw your lean-to shown here? * What’s the ballpark cost to get started, all-in?

    Thanks again for the education.




    1. I was able to get my Cricut for around 250, which included a few accessories bundled together. I want to say that they occasionally run sales, especially during the holidays.

      The Cricut comes with its own design software. However I was already more comfortable with Illustrator. Any vector-based drawing package that can produce a SVG-formatted file should work with the plotter.

      I spent a few hours initially testing with this lean-to to get comfortable with how the Cricut worked and what adjustments I needed to make. It’s now at the point that I can knock out a simple structure in around 30 minutes or so, including cutting time.

      Feel free to drop me a line with any more questions.


  2. James, what thickness of styrene will the Cricut cut? I’ve wanted one for a long time for this exact purpose, but want to ensure it can cut .020 styrene.


    1. To be clear, it will not completely cut styrene. What it will do is score the styrene to where you can quickly and easily snap the parts free. However some work with an X-Acto knife or nibblers may be required. I’ve successfully used .030 without issue.


  3. My wife just gave me, er us, a Cricut Maker for our anniversary/Christmas. I should be able to use Microstation to draft and then convert to Cricut format. Thanks, honey!


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