CraftHacking: Tools for ProvoCraft’s Cricut Explore Air

I’m a pretty creative person. I always have been, and my maternal family history includes a lot of creative-minded people. One of my cousins is a bona fide professional artist, my mom is musically talented as well as a great seamstress, my grandmother was an accomplished seamstress, quilter, and needlepointer…and the list just goes on.

I’ve found that I’m not particularly skilled at creating imagery and designs out of thin air (or my imagination), but I really enjoy creating. I first found out about the existence of computerized craft cutters several years ago and didn’t really know much about them – all I read was that ProvoCraft had this line of Cricut-branded craft cutters that used very expensive cartridges, and when a company reverse-engineered the software used to control the machine in order to release a product that allowed using any images or fonts you wanted, ProvoCraft sued the pants off of them and won. Thank Bill Clinton and the DMCA for that one.

In 2015, I happened upon a blog post talking about an all-new Cricut machine that was supposed to address users’ number-one complaint: the inability to create your own designs, separate from expensive cartridges, to be cut on a Cricut machine. The more research I did, the more I wanted one of these new machines. Lo and behold, Santa bought me a Cricut Explore Air for Christmas that same year!

Santa looks an awful lot like my fiance Jay, by the way. Imagine that!

I got right to work as soon as I opened the box. True to my nature, I had to find ways to make this machine do more than what your average crafter would do. Sharing is caring, so I decided other people might be interested what I’ve learned through my Cricut adventures.

Tools You Might (Not) Want

Cricut offers a line of branded tools, of course. Some of them are pretty good, and some of them are pretty terrible. I subscribed to Cricut’s promotional emails and picked up their basic tool kit when they were having a 40% off sale on accessories. For the price it’s okay, but at full price it’s not worth it.

Here’s why – and I’ve given you some ideas on alternatives to the Cricut tools.

scissorsMicro-tipped scissors

These scissors have a very sharp, very small blade, which does make them useful for trimming tiny bits of cardstock and fabric. However. a good pair of embroidery scissors can accomplish the same thing, and for trimming paper, nothing beats a good set of hobby knives. I have a set that Jay had laying around from working on model train stuff, and I love them – the handles are ergonomic and very easy to control, and the set comes with a variety of blades in a secure plastic case. You can find the set I bought on Amazon for a bit under $18, but any quality hobby knife set will be your best friend.

spatulaSpatula

This is one of two tools from the kit that I use regularly. The spatula has a very thin metal blade, which makes it indispensable when trying to remove cardstock and paper from your cutting mats. Cricut makes a set that includes just the spatula and scraper (and sometimes bundles these two tools with the machine depending on what specific product and SKU you’re buying), so that’s probably a better bet overall than the more expensive kit I purchased.

scraperScraper

Like the spatula, the scraper is pretty indispensable. You can use it to knock bits of cardstock off your cutting mat quickly and easily. Cricut also makes an extra large scraper which might be better bang for your buck.

That being said, there are lot of other scraper options you can get for a bit cheaper – a small plastic pan and pot scraper will do the same as the Cricut scraper.

pickWeeder

The weeder tool is an oversized dental pick – and it turns out that, at least with the work I’ve done with vinyl, window clings, and cardstock, the Cricut-branded weeder is way, way too big. I started using a DenTek-branded dental pick that came with our electric toothbrush and WaterPik set, and it’s worked much better than the Cricut weeder. I’d highly recommend picking up a dental tartar pick (there are a ton on Amazon) over this Cricut tool.

One really handy tip – you can use a weeder and a puddle of glue to piece together tiny cardstock bits. Dip the tip of the weeder in the glue to apply tiny drops of glue to your pieces.

tweezersTweezers

These tweezers are so freaking terrible. They are 100% useless. They’re very imprecise, and the squeeze-to-open design is hard to use with my (somewhat abnormal) tiny hands. I suspect they’re downright unusable if you have arthritis or any other fine motor skill or mobility problems. There are a wide variety of precision tweezer options available that are much better – look in craft and pharmacy departments at your local big box store. I also recommend Harbor Freight, if there is one in your area – they’re basically the Aldi of hardware stores and sell a lot of inexpensive, private-label stuff, and they have a lot of hobbyist tools and gear. You can also find options on Amazon.

Scoring Tool

The Explore and Explore Air can cut and score in one pass (in other words, without having to stop and change tools – the Explore One requires switching tools between cutting and scoring). This is fantastic for making envelopes, boxes, and pop-up cards. The scoring tool is definitely worth the money.

Additional Tools and Supplies

cutting matCutting Mat

When I first started creating stuff with my Cricut, I was working with my hobby knives directly on my desktop. My craft area is set up with an old IKEA Jerker desk I’ve had since college, and the desktop surface is well-worn, so adding little cuts to it didn’t bother me. I decided to pick up a cutting mat anyhow, because it makes for a better work surface. I ended up getting this Alvin mat on Amazon, because I have Amazon Prime and pretty much always pick stuff with same-day delivery whenever possible. Any cutting mat will work, but I definitely recommend getting a cutting mat if you’re going to do a lot of fine, detailed work.

brayerBrayer Roller

A brayer roller is really just a roller. I don’t know why it’s called “brayer”, but that’s what you want to look for. I got this Speedball set on Amazon and have been really happy with it. I use the hard rubber and acrylic rollers to flatten out cardstock and smooth bubbles in vinyl sheets. These rollers are also great for applying materials smoothly onto your cutting mats.

Protip – on the set I purchased, the acrylic roller didn’t move at all in the handle. I applied a little mineral oil to the pins on the ends of the roller, and that fixed it right up. Don’t use petroleum-based lubricants like WD-40, since those will cause the acrylic to deteriorate.

tombow glueGlue and Adhesives

Glue is super important for pretty much any cardstock or paper Cricut project. So far, I’ve just been using Aileen’s Tacky Glue. As I mentioned earlier in this article, a dental tartar pick works really well for dabbing on tiny drops of glue for piecing together a project. It’s not optimal, though – I have to keep some scrap cardboard on hand to hold puddles of glue, and the glue starts drying out way too quickly. Not only that, but Tacky Glue has an annoying habit of wrinkling both paper and cardstock if even a tiny bit too much is used.

I’m still searching for the best adhesive options. I picked up several Tombow products from Amazon this week and am going to try them out – I’m particularly excited about this ballpoint glue pen! It looks like it will work great for putting permanent glue on tiny strips and bits of cardstock when piecing together a project – and it may be at least slightly less tedious.

rulerRulers and Straightedges

Another very useful tool is a quality ruler. I’ve tried different ones and found that I really like metal rulers available pretty much anywhere – as long as you protect them from getting bent! A right-angle ruler or triangle is also very, very useful if you’re cutting out smaller pieces of material for cutting out a project. I don’t have any recommendations on this one – whatever you prefer in terms of size and material will work just fine!

mini canTiny Trashcan

I’m dead serious about this one – you will have so many tiny pieces of cardstock, paper, vinyl, and fabric from working with a craft cutter! I got a tiny trashcan from my local Daiso store for $1.50 and added some vinyl to it to turn it into Jake the Dog from Adventure Time. Amazon doesn’t have many options on this front. I found one at The Container Store for $5, but I think you can probably find a cheaper one at your local dollar store. It sits on my desk, and I use it every time I work on a project.

Markers and Pens

Writing with the Cricut is pretty sweet. If you have the Cricut Explore or the Cricut Explore Air, it comes with an accessory holder that is used for the scoring tool as well as writing utensils. If you have the Cricut Explore One, you need a different accessory holder. You can also use this adapter in the blade holder on the Explore and Explore Air to do some hackier stuff (more on that later).

Cricut has designed its holder to work with its own pens, of course, but there are other options out there! I’m not going to go over everything, because this awesome blog post covers pretty much everything you might be wondering about using non-Cricut pens with the Cricut Explore and Explore Air. A couple notes, though…

Pilot Precise V5 Rollerball Pens

Pilot V5 fine-point pens click into the adapter nicely, but it appears that ProvoCraft added something to the firmware to prevent the pens from actually touching the paper if you try to use them. I found an easy workaround – for any shapes or lines you want drawn, set them to score instead in Design Space. This will lower the accessory adapter just far enough for the pen to write reliably on your material.

Crayola Fine-Point Markers

I’ve found that using a dime and a nickle stacked gives the perfect shim for these markers (and anything else that doesn’t snap into place) so that the height is just right.

Software

Okay, so this one is going to be a separate article. Cricut’s web-based Design Space tool is pretty terrible. It’s required for sending your projects to your Explore machine, but you definitely don’t have to use it for creating things. i use Adobe Illustrator CS6, but there are definitely cheaper options out there – and I’m going to research them for you so you don’t have to!

More to come…

About Claire

I've been running this site since 2008. I mostly use it to keep track of things I've learned in the IT world, like coding projects and server administration stuff.

7 thoughts on “CraftHacking: Tools for ProvoCraft’s Cricut Explore Air

  1. Lisa

    Have you found a way to use your cricut with your google chromebook? The chromebook is the only laptop I own so I am researching before purchasing the cricut…

    Reply
    1. Claire Post author

      As far as I know, no – the Cricut Explore line requires that a background service be running on the machine you’re using (if you’re not using an iOS device), and that’s Mac and Windows only.

      To be honest, the Chromebook concept is interesting but makes for a useless primary computer. There are too many limitations and not enough real benefits to justify it. I wrote about my own Chromebook experiences awhile back:

      http://www.abettergeek.com/hardware/a-month-with-chromeos-and-the-hp-chromebook-14/

      The moral of the story? I ended up putting Windows 10 on my Chromebook.

      Reply
    1. Claire Post author

      Unfortunately, no – you have to use Design Space to interface with the Explore line. I do all my design work in Illustrator and just use Design Space for the actual production of a project.

      Reply
  2. EagleLobes

    Thank you for this article. Very helpful information for someone completely new to electronic cutters, like me. Very happy to have found this before buying the Cricut hook.

    Reply
  3. Marie-Lyse

    Thank you !!! great comments, advice and i am really greatful. I do like the cricut explore air 2 i just perchanse but holly molly all the side dishes are a killer…No fun…I can play their game… So your article is extremly useful” thank’s again from Marie-Lyse, Quebec, Canada

    Reply
  4. Kat

    Thank you for the great tips. Especially the Pilot pen. Using the score setting has been the greatest hack thus far for me. Thanks again.

    Reply

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