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What is Steel Rule Die Cutting?

By D. Grosz
Updated May 17, 2024
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Steel rule die cutting is a common process used to cut a range of sheet materials, including paper, cardboard, rubber and plastic. Most standard cardboard boxes and packages are made using this relatively straightforward technique. In addition to cutting out shapes, it can be used to create creases, perforations and slits.

The die is constructed out of a flat base or substrate that is usually made out of high-grade and high-density plywood; the plywood is usually composed of hardwoods, such as maple, and is free from voids or other imperfections. Some special dies may require aluminum or steel substrates. The die-maker uses a special bandsaw or laser cutter to cut precisely positioned slits into the substrate. The steel rule itself is essentially an elongated razor blade made out of hardened steel. The die-maker cuts and bends the steel rule and positions it into the slits in the substrate.

The final step in creating the die involves the addition of ejection rubber. Rubber pads are adhered to the substrate to help eject the material after it is cut. Without the inclusion of ejection rubber, the material may tend to get stuck amongst the steel rules.

There are all sorts of steel rule. The rule itself comes in a variety of thicknesses that are chosen based on the particular application. There are also several options regarding the cutting edge of the steel rule:

  • A center bevel
  • A facet bevel rule also has a centered cutting edge, but it is shaped more like a diamond and this tends to provide cleaner cuts.
  • The flush bevel uses a cutting edge that is in line with one of the faces of the rule. The cuts are very clean, but the longevity of this type of rule is poor.
  • A side bevel rule has the cutting edge slightly off center. It has good cut quality as well as good longevity.

Once the die maker has completed the steel rule die, it is immediately ready for production. The die is attached to the top platen of a die cutting press that will provide the force required for the job. Smaller presses may provide 20 tons (18,000 kg) of force, whereas larger ones give over 150 tons (135,000 kg).

The material to be cut is positioned below the die and then the press is actuated. If registration is an issue, the material is positioned against a stop or in a locating nest. The cutting edges of the steel rule penetrate through the material until they come into contact with the bottom platen; the press then reverses and the cut part is exposed. In some applications, a softer material is placed below the material to accept the cutting surfaces of the steel rule. When cutting paper, however, the cutting is performed against special steels designed for the purpose.

Perforations and creases are made with special rule that is positioned on the same die as the cutting rule. Creases sometimes require a secondary die called a matrix, which is positioned on the opposite side of the press and is aligned with the creasing rule; when configured properly, very crisp creases can be created in all sorts of materials. Sometimes, heated platens are used when plastic parts are being fabricated to improve the quality of the creases and cuts.

In high-volume die cutting operations, fully automatic machines are used. In these machines, the material to be cut is automatically fed into the press and located in the proper position. The steel rule die is pressed through the material and the pressure is released. The cut piece is removed along with any scrap material, and the next piece is indexed to repeat the process.

Steel rule die cutting can also be used for cutting more exotic materials. Thick foams, carpet and rubber can also be cut with this method. This is a relatively inexpensive and effective way of cutting soft sheet goods.

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Discussion Comments

By anon321191 — On Feb 21, 2013

One can easily imagine the hazard of hand-feeding a die cutting machine set to automatically open and close would be very great indeed. The operator has to remove the just-cut item and feed in the next one to be cut within the short time the press is open. The open time has to be short enough to be industry competitive. The external safety buttons remedy, one for each hand, which assures that the press doesn't close until both hands are on the buttons and out of danger, is probably considered too slow production to be competitive for shops that can't afford fully automatic equipment. Will someone in the industry tell me if I'm right or wrong about this?

By arpaahmet — On Jan 31, 2011

Please inform me about any handbook for a steel rule die making corrugated board boxes.

By anon129826 — On Nov 25, 2010

what are the hazards in die cutting?

By anon71296 — On Mar 18, 2010

anon24961: Ruled die stock comes in about four different forms. Dead soft material can be bent over on itself if necessary, then hardened to give longevity. Soft can take radii of 1/8", Medium hard will accept radii of perhaps 3/8", and hard will take even larger radii. The advantage of using pre-hardened die stock is that you don't have to heat and quench it to make it hard.

By anon69650 — On Mar 09, 2010

i am looking for dies that individually cut out the letters of the alphabet from duct tape.

By anon60336 — On Jan 13, 2010

Can a steel rule die be used to cut more complicated shapes than circles? Can it be used to cut a dogbone shaped sample?

By anon42271 — On Aug 20, 2009

I want to cut small penny sized circles out of 1.5 mm cardboard in order to make play money for board games. Does anything like this exist on the market?

By anon24961 — On Jan 21, 2009

what typically is the type of steel used for the dies? Thank you.

By anon20705 — On Nov 05, 2008

I use a steel rule die system (Sizzix BigKick) that easily cuts upholstery weight leather of approximately 3mm thickness.

By anon18921 — On Oct 01, 2008

What is the longevity of a steel die used for cutting 3mm leather? i.e. approximately how many cuts will it make before having to replace the die?

By stare31 — On Aug 04, 2008

Anon16371 -- Yes, steel die would cut 3mm of leather.

JRDiTullio -- The steel rule is attached to the base by being press fitted into a groove in the base.

By anon16371 — On Aug 04, 2008

Would a steel die cut 3mm leather?

By JRDiTullio — On Mar 17, 2008

Does anyone know how the steel rule attaches to the base. Is it a press fit into the groove created or is there a bonding process involved?

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