Is cutting stickers like printing money?
May 5, 2009 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Can I get rich by making custom-cut vinyl stickers?

I see a lot of people on eBay selling vinyl decals--the carefully-cut monochromatic kind, where the sticker is sandwiched between two sheets of paper before application. Generally, a wide variety of custom colors and sizes and designs and whatnot are available, so I figure they're either making the stickers themselves, or working closely with a print shop or something. And people sometimes specify 'vector artwork,' making me think it's computer-controlled. But what about the rest of it? What tools do these folks use, and how much do they cost? What about materials? Can you actually make a profit selling the stickers? What's the economy of the eBay sellers? Do these guys ever get shut down for copyright stuff?
posted by box to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've bought vinyl decals for a group by on a forum site. From what I can gather from speaking to the guy who did the decals, it's a decent second income but takes a long time to turn into something that actually makes money.
posted by Doohickie at 6:03 PM on May 5, 2009

Vinyl Cutters are available for $200 - $2000, depending on the width of the material that fits in it. Rolls look like they start around $25, depending on width and length.

Looks like the same sort of business as running a small press- lots of customer service and promotion. Seems like a lot of work would need to be spent on marketing your services to get well known and provide some differentiation from the folks who do this on ebay. Probably best to do this as an adjunct to an existing business.

Unless you can offer a compelling advantage somewhere, I'd stay away from competing with businesses on ebay- they are already established, invested, experienced, and operating at the lowest possible rate. Can you offer some special sauce? Some design skills that others can't?
posted by jenkinsEar at 6:07 PM on May 5, 2009

It's all in the design. If you make radical designs that are fresh and innovative then the sky is the limit. If you are churning out bootleg Good Charlotte stickers then the limit is how long you can go undetected by someone operating on behalf of a major record company. Focus on the idea before the production of the sticker, I would put all practical considerations on hold until you have an idea because making merchandise based on poplar artists or shady imitation is not the basis for a personal fortune. Mainly because there are a lot people doing it better than you already.

A good idea has almost unlimited power, especially in fashion - trends and viral-y stuff like stickers, patches and t-shirts.
posted by fire&wings at 6:10 PM on May 5, 2009

I have a friend who used to work in a label/sticker shop, and I'm pretty sure it's the same basic tech.

The sticker material comes in a roll of varying lengths. I'm not sure of the lengths that the sticker stock comes in, but it's usually quite large, like the size of an an average auto tire. The stickers are printed on a web press from digital files (this is where the "vector art"comes in, it refers, generally to the kind of graphics created by Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw) and the press will most likely have an in-line die-cutter. Some shops will use a cutting service, but in order to be cost-effective it's best to keep everything in-house. A lot of sticker shops have pre-made dies, and if the customer is looking to save money they can format their artwork to that template. That's one of the reasons you see so many oval or ribbon stickers on cars; it's cheaper to fit the art to the template than doing the opposite.

A quick googling tells me that there's a big push towards digital, which is hardly surprising; the whole printing industry is headed towards short-run digital these days, whether it's web or offset. I can't really point you to a specific device.

Your question doesn't state (or if it does my comprehension is impaired) but are you talking about the profitability of vendors offering printing services on eBay, or pre-printed bulk stickers? I don't know about the eBay angle, but a label/sticker shop can be pretty profitable if it's run correctly.
posted by lekvar at 7:30 PM on May 5, 2009

Whoops, I'm wrong. Not a web press, but flexography. Though I believe flexo is a subtype of web printing.
posted by lekvar at 7:32 PM on May 5, 2009

Actually, my sister and her husband are one of the accounts selling a lot of vinyl stickers on ebay and places elsewhere. Her model is a little different though, they don't sell custom made stickers, instead they purchase stickers wholesale from vendors who have licenses from the artists to produce the stickers and then they resell. You can make money at it, but the volume has to be very high. As in you're selling 10,000 stickers a month or more, which requires enormous inventory and lots of money passing through.

It used to be far more profitable, but now my sister mainly sees eBay as more of a marketing tool and a way to offload older stock of stickers. Ebay has been raising fees to the point that their margins are starting to get very thin on these sales. They make more money from direct sales off their websites (multiple), selling directly to retailers, and occasionally doing tattoo/car/motorsport hobby shows.

Regarding your question about getting shut down for copyright, it happens all the time. There are a TON of knockoff stickers on eBay, and the other sticker vendors are very much all about reporting these and getting the auctions shut down. The sticker vendors there are very competitive and even throw in complaints against people who do have the correct clearance on the copyrights every so often, which is a pain in the ass for my sister as from time to time some of her auctions will get delisted until she contacts eBay and basically says WTF?! Between that and the above mentioned thinning margins on eBay my sister has on more than one occasion nearly packed in the towel on eBay as being too much work for too little money compared to the other avenues for moving stickers.

They also have toyed with the idea of getting their own artists to do artwork and then custom making the stickers but the numbers simply didn't support it with current costs.
posted by barc0001 at 7:36 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are several decal shops on Etsy, some of which do really well.
posted by iconomy at 7:55 PM on May 5, 2009

I've made a bunch of monochromatic vinyl stickers using my school's vinyl cutter. It's way too labor-intensive to make into a business, but I figure that professionals have a fancier kind of machine. Here's the process for that machine:

You take a vector art file (I made most of my files from public-domain images), you open it in the software application that came with the vinyl cutter, you load the right color roll of vinyl into the machine, and you press the "go" button in the application. The machine traces your lines in the vinyl with a tiny automatic needle.

Then you tear off your rectangular section of finished vinyl, and you grab your X-ACTO knife. You spend a long time sitting at a table and peeling out all of the negative space with your knife. (Here is a picture I took midway through. I hadn't finished peeling out the background vinyl from the mostly-black section.)

Then you find the roll of sticky paper-like backing material, you tear off the appropriate amount, and you place it smoothly on top of your stickers. Finally you cut your sheet of stickers apart for individual use.
posted by dreamyshade at 9:54 PM on May 5, 2009

Short answer: yes, but it isn't easy money. You're looking at $300 startup cost and probably 3-4 hours of setup and learning time before you can do it correctly. Probably more, if you don't know much about graphics or drawing on a computer.

Long answer: I own a vinyl cutting plotter and it's pretty fabulous. Yes, you can make a fair-to-good amount of income on the side if you work hard and dedicate yourself to it. You need to buy the machine and the transfer media (low-tack sticky paper), various colors of vinyl (black, white, red, green, blue, yellow, to start - and everything else, like shiny or holographic film when you get going or for specialty projects), and learn how to use the machinery and software.

I only use three pieces of software: Inkscape (for converting raster graphics to vector, drawing/modifying vector graphics and exporting to EPS) and Scribus (to load EPS files from and translate them to SVG), which are both free, and the software that came bundled with the machine for the actual cutting process. Most of my business has come from work and friends - the internet is packed to the gills with experienced sign shops who do this stuff for ridiculously low prices you won't want to compete with.

The technology is typically just a few motors, a suction/friction feed mechanism and an offset razor blade ("drag knife") on a solenoid (to go up and down) and a bearing (to rotate). You feed in a roll of vinyl, your Y-axis is the suction/friction feed and the X axis is the thing that looks like a print head. You can adjust the print head to cut shallower or deeper depending on your film (so that you go through the first layer, but not the second backing layer). The computer tells is where to go, based on the vector artwork you fed it, and it zips around making perforations in the vinyl. Then you cut away the small sheet from the roll you just cut and prepare to remove the excess.

The process of peeling away the background vinyl is called 'weeding' and I use an X-Acto knife and dental picks. That's what most of the work is, by the way, and it seems simple enough but takes a lot of practice. I've been in situations where I've done 20 minutes of weeding on a large sign and screwed something up, then had go re-cut that part of the vinyl. After you finish weeding, you lay down a strip of transfer paper and cut away the edges, and it's ready to apply.

The material is fairly cheap (typically I pay $7 for a 10 yard, 18" roll of solid glossy colored vinyl) - and you can charge $2-3 per sticker, and you can probably print a thousand or so stickers on one sheet, but you also have to take into account your time learning how to use the equipment and weeding all the unwanted vinyl, which is the main thing.

You'll also need a squeegee tool and a removal tool (both are just wedges of plastic), those cost about $0.50 each are are huge time-savers. Also, make sure your offset in the software matches the offset printed on the blade cartridge you get (typically 60 or 45 degree blades will have the correct offset printed on the container that contains the blade). Clean your blade with a Q-tip and rubbing alcohol after you use cut something. Now you're ready to print 700 copies of those idiotic Shepard Fairey stickers that people still seem to love, because I still see them all over the city when I go downtown. OBEY!

Note that sheet vinyl isn't the only thing you can cut with a vinyl cutting plotter. Get yourself a Cricut mat (or spray a cheap cutting mat with low-tack adhesive) and now you have a die cutter to cut scrapbooking notions. I chuckle every time I pass the Cricut aisle in the craft store--wow, $100 just for a cartridge with a few lousy designs? Seriously, people pay that?!--knowing just a little about sign creation. You can cut window tinting if you get a machine big enough. I just cut out a piece of vinyl for the pocketknife I wear on my belt because I didn't like displaying a company's logo everywhere I go. (I scanned the knife on a flatbed scanner, outlined it in Inkscape with bezier curves, cut it and applied it.)

You can cut special vinyl material for application on T-shirts. Get yourself a pressure/heat T-shirt press and now you're a T-shirt shop, putting on lettering and numbers on t-shirts with impunity. You can cut stencils and masks, stick them to the wall (or the 'whatever'), paint, and remove. You can make score-a-gami, which are vector graphics based on origami crease patterns with the knife set to the 'barely nick the surface' setting, which then 'automatically' fold together. Put a graphic on your mirror that looks like a fancy picture frame with the word 'Handsome Devil' underneath it. Put a sticker on the back window of your car, "b0x p0Wn$!!!1". The sky's the limit when you have a precision computer-controlled knife moving over a flat surface. (Yes, I've done variations of all of the things I listed.)

Now get out there and CUT!
posted by ostranenie at 11:54 AM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

> It's way too labor-intensive to make into a business

dreamyshade has it. I do it because it's fun, and I've made a little profit, but I wouldn't have gotten started if it weren't so damn cool, the machine was so cheap ($200, including the software, shipping, and it came with a stand!) and I wasn't already hopelessly obsessed with motion control and robotics and willing to go through all the headaches and hassles associated with learning how to use new systems. All those vectors lined up and I bought it, learned how to use it, and I love it. You might not.

Most normal people don't just up and buy a vinyl cutting plotter as a hobby, and if it doesn't fascinate you--if your only motive is money--honestly, I'd steer clear of this one. Especially if it involves selling copyrighted material that you need clearance from the copyright holder to resell. Expensive Hassle...
posted by ostranenie at 12:02 PM on May 6, 2009

ostranenie: Thanks for those details! As a totally amateur vinyl cutter I enjoy reading about it.

One funny thing is that some people have figured out how to sell vinyl cut into simple squares: Møzaikit. That was actually my first encounter with vinyl stickers — they looked cool, so I bought a pack! And I applied them and they are cool. Then I heard that the art department has a vinyl cutter and I could have easily made my own squares for $2.50 instead of $ I learned how.

In other words, it's all about the marketing, as mentioned before.
posted by dreamyshade at 1:14 PM on May 6, 2009

I've seen squares on eBay that purport to cover keyboards so you can blankify your computer keyboard (instead of paying $40 for a real blank keyboard). With rounded edges and everything. And they sell, too.

That site that sells Mozakits sells actual decals, too. Wow, $25 for some colored squares? It's the new pet rock.
posted by ostranenie at 4:04 PM on May 6, 2009

Thanks, everybody, for your helpful answers.

I have come away from this question thinking that cutting vinyl is both more cool and interesting and less profitable (for somebody like me) than I'd originally suspected.
posted by box at 9:50 AM on May 11, 2009

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