Learn how you can get vinyl for Cricut projects for FREE or nearly free!
Now that you own a craft machine such as a Cricut (or are considering buying one) and are falling in love with all the things you can do just with vinyl, how do you acquire vinyl for Cricut projects without breaking your crafting budget?
Plus, where do you get the more unusual vinyl and other adhesive films more affordably?
And, finally, I give you information about the types of vinyls that are available including the pros and cons of each.
If you are a regular reader of my blog then you know that I own a Cricut. Specifically, I own a Cricut Maker because I want to make ALL THE THINGS with all the materials. But, if you are interested in only things that can be cut from vinyl on any of the Cricut machines or other branded craft machines, and want to learn how to acquire affordable vinyl, this blog post is for you!
My Secret to Free or Nearly Free Vinyl for Cricut Crafts
I love Cricut. I love their materials. The fans of other craft machines love their branded materials, as well. But, let’s face it, the craft-machine-branded materials are a little pricey. For the one-off projects, the price point isn’t so bad. And when you find them on sale or clearance, if you are like me, you dip a little deeper into the crafting budget to buy what you find on those sales tables because you know you will use it… someday.
Unfortunately, you do not always have the luxury of a sale and sometimes you need vinyl in volume. Sometimes you want something expendable for a test cut instead of the possible ruin of an expensive product. Maybe you want to use a cheap piece of vinyl for a single-use stencil.
I do buy Cricut-branded products the first time I try something new but, for long term or high-volume projects, I look for something more affordable.
When it comes to vinyl for Cricut projects, I rarely buy vinyl at the craft stores unless I need something specific or need it NOW.
Seriously, you can save money, lots of money, on vinyl for Cricut crafts.
How Does She Do It?
How can YOU make your cut vinyl Cricut crafting projects without spending a lot of money on the vinyl for Cricut crafts?
Make a New Friend
It is really that simple. I will walk you through the 5 Ws + H of how to make this work for you.
What are the 5 Ws + H?
- Where can I get FREE or nearly free vinyl for Cricut?
- Why should I do this?
- When should I do this?
- Who should I talk to?
- What can I expect?
- How do I do this?
Where can I get FREE or nearly free vinyl for Cricut
Go to your local sign shop. Wait! Don’t close this yet. Later in this post I will tell you all the steps to making this happen.
The people who work in sign shops work with vinyl every business day and their scraps are often bigger than the 12″ x 12″ size of your cutting mat. These scraps often end up in landfills. :: GASP! ::
Sign shops are often found in “strip-malls” or small commercial parks. You are likely to have the best response from an independently owned sign shop but you may also find a good relationship with your local large-chain franchise.
The common national retail chain franchises are listed below. Each of these websites has a store locator to help you find one in your area.
To find a local independent sign shop, go to Google and search for sign shop near me then allow Google to know your location. Visit their websites. If it looks like they are making very large signs or billboards that you might find on the tops of buildings, these are NOT the businesses you want. Avoid the ones that show you pictures of their extensive warehouse. You want the independent shops that are making signs for the local businesses. They make smaller signs, banners, and especially, vehicle graphics. These are the shops that are using the vinyls you want on a day-to-day basis.
Why should I do this?
The primary reason you are reading this blog post is because you want to save money on vinyl for Cricut crafts and projects.
There are some other reasons you should make friends with a sign shop:
- They have access to so many possible types of adhesive films including Mylar and translucent films plus substrates (things to put vinyl on).
- You are helping to keep some vinyl scraps out of landfills.
- You may be able to acquire (buy) large volumes of vinyl and transfer tape through them.
- They may be able to put you on to new tools and techniques as you develop your relationship with them.
When should I do this?
Once you have found a few local sign shops, you need to make a plan to go visit them — in person.
Yes, this is hard for those of us who are introverts (I am in the introvert camp). You need to weigh the benefits of this new potential relationship against your comfort level (and your budget). For you extroverts out there, this is yet another cool friend to drop into your back pocket.
Date and Time to Visit
The best time to visit these businesses is Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. Fridays are usually bad because of their customers (other business owners) who have realized a need at the last-minute, including signs they need in their stores for the weekend. Mondays are usually bad because of the last-minute jobs that came into their shops on a Friday that they need to get out on Monday.
Not every shop is the same and I cannot speak for every sign shop out there. Some sign shops have a morning production meeting to go over the day’s workload, some have their meetings once per week. Some have no meetings at all. No matter when (or if) they have production meetings, they will talk with whoever walks in. Your best bet is a mid-morning time-slot. In other words, shoot for around 10:00-11:00 am to walk in their front door.
Who should I talk to?
The person you want to talk with is either the owner or general manager. In the smaller shops, the owner is probably the general manager. He or she probably also does sales, design, and some production work. It is possible that the owner may be out at an installation location or on a sales call. If this is the case, ask if you can come back tomorrow morning (or another morning you know you can get there).
Do not call ahead. Show up. Yes, you are cold-calling on them. Don’t panic. We have more to discuss about HOW to do this later.
What can I expect?
For the most part, if (or when) you establish this relationship, you can expect vinyl scraps. A piece of vinyl that is 12″ x 18″ or smaller is considered scrap to most sign shops. Seriously! It often gets tossed onto a shelf or into a bin for “someday” that they might need something small. Those piles eventually get so large they just throw them out and start over. They THROW THEM AWAY! I know you are cringing right now!
The day I visited to take these pictures, this was their pile of scraps of vinyl and pretty typical.
Look at all those vinyl Cricut crafts just waiting to happen!
You are not likely to find a wide selection of colors in their scrap bin. Mostly, they work in primary colors. For example, it is possible that they worked on a huge job all week and all their scraps are white that week. But, they will have scraps of all sorts of vinyls and other adhesive films over the course of time.
Today’s Vinyl Haul for Cricut Projects
Today, this is what they gave me.
- Orange (in two shades)
- Gun metal gray
- Navy (Oracal 970)
- Translucent Blue (can’t wait to do something “stained glass” with this!)
- Red (3M ControlTac)
- Dark Red
- Prussian Blue
I mentioned the brand and model where it was indicated on the back of the carrier paper. As you can see from the list, many of them are unidentified. I will tell you later how to identify these when I explain more about types of vinyl.
Variety of Vinyl
The sign shop will have a LOT of vinyl. This is the WALL of vinyls and other adhesive films they had in their stock today. The machine in the foreground of the picture is their vinyl cutting machine.
Do not go into this expecting this to be free. Free is great and I am fortunate to have developed this relationship that I get scraps for free. Nearly free is also great. If you get scraps for free, be generous with your gratitude and appreciation. NEVER be picky unless you are specifically invited to do so.
Of note, I found it interesting that, for this particular wall of vinyl, they use shelf brackets to store their rolls of vinyl. You can consider something similar for storing your rolls for vinyl for Cricut crafts.
In almost all of my pictures where I am working with vinyl in my Cricut crafts, you will see me using a transfer paper that looks more like masking tape. It is not clear. Sign shops order this stuff in 100 yard rolls. I acquired my 12″ x 100 yard roll from a sign shop for almost nothing. I doubt I will have to buy transfer paper any time in the foreseeable future. This is a picture of the transfer papers a sign shop uses:
Anything you put vinyl on is your substrate. A sign shop will have access to so many flat substrates (flat because they’re used for signs) and will often end up with scraps of those, too. The common ones are Coroplast (corrugated plastic) and PVC board. But, you may also find they have aluminum sheets in various thicknesses and aluminum composite panels (plastic sandwiched between aluminum) — both of which are great for outdoor use. In the next section I show some examples of substrates you may find they have in their scrap bin.
You can use these for small signs that you can put into frames or make them a component of some other project. If they offer you scraps of substrates, then there is no reason to turn those down. You are a crafter! You can turn that into anything!
Coroplast is a corrugated plastic. It is very inexpensive but it will break down faster than other materials (will withstand being out in the weather for about 1 to 3 years). Very often you will see this used for political signs, large community yard sale signs, etc. It comes in several thicknesses and colors. The most common color is white and likely to be the color your local sign shop has readily available. They may have some scraps of another color left over from a custom job. This is easily cut with a knife or scissors.
PVC (PolyvinylChloride) is a very durable plastic. It is one of the world’s most widely produced synthetic material. If you want to make a craft project with something that will stand up well to weather, PVC will work well for several years but not indefinitely. A sign shop will have PVC in some pretty standard colors and a few different thicknesses. The common thicknesses are 3mm, 6mm, and 10mm. You can cut PVC with a knife (it is too thick for your Cricut).
The picture below shows several colors in the 3mm thickness that is commonly kept in sign shops.
Aluminum sheets are available as finished and unfinished. In the picture below, the pink/peach color is actually white coated aluminum protected by a pink/peach protective film. The green has a green baked-on colored coating (and protected by a clear protective film until ready to use). The blue and white that you see is the protective film over a white-coated aluminum sheet. And, the last sheet is a raw aluminum sheet. If you are given aluminum scraps, you will need to have a way to cut them before you can use them for your vinyl Cricut crafts.
Aluminum Composite Panels
Aluminum composite panels are a plastic panel sandwiched by two sheets of thin aluminum. This is a popular material with sign shops because of its durability and weather resistance. It will last longer than you. They buy these in 4′ x 8′ sheets and in pre-cut panels such as these.
You can see from this picture how it is a piece of plastic that is sandwiched between two thin sheets of aluminum. Again, you will need a way to cut aluminum before you can use scraps of these for your vinyl Cricut crafts.
It comes in several colors. Mostly, they will have white but may have other colors if they had some special jobs come in.
While We are Here…
I thought you would find it interesting to see a professional vinyl cutting machine. Look familiar?
It looks a LOT like my Cricut but significantly wider. I’m a little envious of their tools. Can you imagine being able to cut vinyl for your Cricut crafts on something this wide!?
This is what else you may expect to see in a local sign shop. This is my local shop’s wall of tools. I really do have tool-envy!
The sign shops will have customers who come in wanting something specific. It may be a specific color that is not kept in stock, it may be a paticular type of vinyl that is not normally kept in their stock, or it could be some other type of adhesive film that was used for a special order.
These materials do not often end up in their scrap bin but they do tend to sit on the shelves taking up space. As you develop your relationship with your local sign shop, this is something about which you can inquire (later). You might approach the subject by asking if they have any aging materials on which you could make an offer. Some vinyls have a “short” shelf-life (1-2 years).
Depending on how much of a relationship you develop with the sign shop, you may be able to order some bulk materials from them in the future. This is a conversation you can have with them well after you have an ongoing relationship. For example: your cousin asked you to make decals for the back of all the rented folding chairs for her daughter’s wedding and knows you have a craft machine. But she wants it to be a specific color and you will need a LOT of vinyl. Explain this to the shop owner and ask if they have a recommendation. Give them the opportunity to be the expert for you and the opportunity to be generous with you.
How do I do this?
Now we will get into the details about how you are going to make this new friend so you can get vinyl for Cricut crafts for free (or nearly free).
When you walk in the door, you will likely find yourself in some sort of lobby with a counter. Have a polite and friendly smile on your face then walk up to the counter and ask if you can speak with the owner.
If you have business cards, leave them at home. You want to present yourself as a hobbyist, not a business owner.
When the owner comes out to greet you – or if it was the owner at the counter – offer your hand and tell them your name. No limp-fish handshakes but don’t try to out-squeeze the owner either. Remember, you are trying to make a new friend!
But what do I say?
This is an example of how you can start this introduction, “Hi, my name is [your first name]. I am an amateur crafter and I sometimes work with vinyl on my Cricut [or other home craft machine brand].”
Your friendly demeanor should elicit a polite response from the owner asking how he or she can help you.
How to Ask
The owner is likely busy so you want to get to the point pretty quickly.
Ask like this, “Do you have a build-up of vinyl scraps or substrate scraps you’d like to get rid of that I could cart away for you?”
Note: If you are a teacher, you can ask in terms of a donation for use by your classroom students.
How to Sweeten the Deal
Who doesn’t like a treat? Especially mid-morning when lunch time is still an hour or more away. Walk in with a plate of cookies (or box of doughnuts) and present them after introducing yourself. “I brought these cookies to thank you for taking time to talk with me.”
At this point, the owner will either turn you down (hopefully politely) or will consider what you have asked. If you are turned down, then thank the owner politely, shake hands again, and make sure they know they can keep the cookies as your thank you for talking with you. Then, try again at another shop.
If the owner invites further discussion, you may well be on your way to having a new friend!
There is no standard way this is going to go.
The owner may ask if you’re looking for something specific. Don’t be specific. Explain that you love experimenting with different materials. You’re a crafter, right? If you ask for something specific, that is all you will get (if you get it at all). You have to make this easy for the sign shop owner.
The owner may go to a different room and come back with a handful of scraps or a whole box full of scraps. The owner may ask what you will offer for what he is presenting to you or he may just hand them to you without asking for anything. Hopefully you get the latter.
If the owner presents you with scraps and asks if these will do, then this is your opportunity to ask the owner what you can offer in return for these scraps. You want this exchange because it gives the owner the opportunity to be generous and just give them to you, especially if you are doing him a favor by taking them off his hands (and he likes cookies).
What if I have to make an offer?
This is the scary part, right?
If the owner asks you what you will offer then you need to be able to quickly eyeball the square-footage of the pile and offer a price that makes all this worthwhile to both of you. Think about the vinyl you can buy at the craft stores. At full retail craft store pricing, you pay around $1.25 to $2.00 per square foot. What price will make this worthwhile to you? Is it half that price, a third, a quarter? That’s going to be up to you. Keep in mind, the owner probably paid somewhere between $0.40 and $0.60 per square foot for their most-used vinyl.
Something else to consider, the vinyl in that scrap bin came off of projects they did for other customers. Those customers had to pay for all the vinyl in their project, including the scrap, because a shop has no guarantee they will ever use that scrap. Throwing out those scraps (or giving them away) is no financial loss to the shop owner. This is why you are likely to get them for free.
If they are amenable to you taking scraps off their hands at this introductory visit, then you can ask, “Do you have scraps that build-up enough that I could drop by every week or two to cart them away for you? I can leave a bin for you to make it more convenient.”
Assuming you have met with success, it is YOUR responsibility to keep up your end of the deal. If the deal you come up with is for you to do a pickup every week, be there every week. The minute this becomes inconvenient to the sign shop, they will not be interested in helping you.
I cannot stress strongly enough that this has to be no trouble for the shop. YOU have to make this easy for them.
If it seemed like the sweet treats were well-received, take another batch with you every so often. You want them to smile when you walk in the door.
I hope you are able to get out there then establish this relationship with your local sign shop.
A Few Words About Vinyls
Sign shops have some standard vinyls they work with on a daily basis and they are of, primarily, two types, based on two manufacturing processes. Since you are going to receive scraps, you may not know exactly what you received. This section is going to teach you how to determine what kind of vinyl you have in this collection of scraps. I have a chart of these in my resource library that you can download and keep handy along with several tips on working with vinyl.
Most of the vinyl you are buying at the craft stores is calendered vinyl. Cricut’s standard vinyl is a calendered vinyl. Many crafters talk on the various social media about Oracal 651, 641, and 631. These are calendered vinyls of varying thicknesses.
Calendered vinyl starts with a mixture of ingredients (often plastic pellets) that are then extruded (through heated rollers) to force/press the ingredients into the plastic films.
Best used for:
- Flat surfaces
- Simple curved surfaces
- Can be used on a variety of types of surfaces
- More scratch-resistant
- Less expensive
- Excellent for flat surfaces
- Can be made in heavier/thicker sheets (3-6 mil) making them easier to handle
- Wide range of colors and gloss levels
- For some small projects you can get away with not using a transfer tape (such as the “locks” in my paper treasure chests)
- Less dimensionally stable (wants to return to its original pre-extruded shape)
- Does not conform to shapes as well as cast vinyl
- Not well suited to tightly curved surfaces
- Tends to shrink when exposed to heat
- Becomes brittle, cracks over time, especially in conditions with temperature changes
- Durability falls in the 1 to 5 years depending on the quality, usage, and environmental exposure
- Fewer metallic colors than cast vinyls
In the sign-making industry, this is the premium vinyl. Cricut’s Premium Vinyl is a cast vinyl. The vinyl that crafters talk about in terms of the Oracal brand, Oracal 751 and 951, are cast vinyls.
Cast vinyl starts as a liquid, poured onto a surface then baked. This makes a “relaxed” vinyl which can be made into thinner, and more flexible, sheets.
Best Used For:
- Complex curved surfaces
- Exterior/weather-affected applications
- Vehicle wraps
- High durability – usually 5 to 12 years
- Dimensionally stable – Least amount of shrinkage of all the vinyls (it doesn’t have a state to try to return back to like calendered vinyls)
- Retains color better than other vinyls, which is good for outdoor use
- Flexible – Can be made very thin, which allows it to cover complex curves
- Available in many metallic options
- Some may find the thinner material (1-2 mil) more difficult to work with (must use transfer paper)
- Fewer gloss level options
How to Tell the Difference between Calendered and Cast Vinyl
Since you will receive scraps, you may not know what you are receiving. Some vinyl manufacturers print their product information on the carrier paper. Oracal tends to do this. 3M sometimes does this. But, there are a few manufacturers of vinyl and there is an easy test to determine the type. I even have a short video that shows you how to determine the type of vinyl.
If you separate a corner of the vinyl from its carrier paper, press your thumbnail into the vinyl as you pull on it, calendered vinyl will snap/break and cast vinyl will stretch and deform before breaking. Here is a little video of me performing this test on a few pieces of vinyl. At the end, I show you the difference between metallic in calendered and cast.
Links to My Vinyl Projects
If you are new to cutting vinyl or just want to try some new projects, then you can click these links to try some of the things I have blogged about that use vinyl somewhere in the project.
- Love Your Home! …with These Easy to Make Stenciled HOME Panels
- Royally Etched and Painted Crown Bottles
- Stenciled Tudor Rose Box
- DIY “Create” Sign for Your Craft Room
- Stenciled NOEL Canvas Holiday Panels
- Kitchen Canister Labels
- Shadow Box Art – You Make My Heart Soar
- Clean and Dirty Dishwasher Magnet
You can get my free Vinyl Tips and Guide by signing up for my weekly newsletter. It includes three pages of tips for working with vinyl and a one-page chart that you can keep handy that explains the types of vinyls, their properties, suggested uses, etc.