Last year we tested the Cricut Joy, an interesting little craft machine that can draw and cut any pattern you want on card stock, paper, or vinyl. Not quite a 3D printer, it’s a handy device for anyone looking to experiment with computer-driven crafting, but its small size and low power limit what it can do. If you’re serious about crafting and want a machine that can keep up with you, the Cricut Maker 3 is a more powerful option. It can accept a far wider range of both tools and materials than the Joy, with heads that can work with fabric, leather, wood, and even aluminum sheets. It can also accept much wider material, with a 12-inch feeding slot compared with the Joy’s 5.5-inch feeder. At $399.99, the Maker 3 costs over twice as much as the Joy, and you’ll need to buy additional tool heads if you want to do anything more than cut thin material, but the power and flexibility represent endless potential for aspiring artisans with eyes on their own Etsy stores, earning it our Editors’ Choice award.
Make Room on Your Workbench
The Maker 3 looks a bit like a wide-format printer, stretching out 22 inches across with more modest 5.5-inch height and 6.5-inch depth measurements. The cutter’s slightly rounded body is mostly glossy white plastic, with a silvery metallic lid. Lifting the lid causes the front panel of the Maker 3 to fold forward, revealing the feeder. A small, two-compartment accessory tray sits to the left of the lid, accessible when it’s open or closed, and provides a useful space to hold pens or machine tips. Another tool tray can be found by lifting the door built into the feeder tray. A shallow slot above the main cavity can hold a phone or tablet.
Under the lid, a small control panel sits to the right of the main cavity, with Power, Pause, Start, and Load/Unload buttons. Inside the main cavity is the crafting head, mounted on a metal bar with a belt-drive system. The head has two tool slots with clamping levers. The left slot can hold pens for drawing with the machine, while the right slot has a gear system for driving mechanical tool heads. A second metal bar sits in front of the machine head’s bar, and features toothed wheels for feeding different materials into the Maker 3.
The back of the Maker 3 holds the only significant design change over the previous Maker: a wide slot. The rear slot can eject already cut or drawn material out the back of the machine. The last model could only handle materials up to 12 inches long or wide; the Maker 3 can handle Smart Materials (Cricut’s own crafting materials) up to 12 feet long per cut. Other materials still need to be set on Cricut’s mats to be fed into the Maker 3, so they can’t be larger than the 12-by-24-inch dimensions of the bigger mats.
The Extras You’ll Need
The Cricut Maker 3 includes only a fine-point blade to start cutting with the machine, but Cricut sells dozens of add-ons. The numerous available pens include metallic and fabric-safe options. There are also various tools for cutting, debossing, engraving, scoring, and even transferring foil onto materials. Pen sets start at $10 per pack, non-motorized machine heads start at $35, and motorized machine heads with drive housings start at $45. Many of the tools have replaceable or interchangeable parts as well, letting you easily swap in a new blade if the current one gets dull, or switch from a scoring wheel to a perforating wheel.
Besides the pens and tool heads, the Cricut Maker 3 also requires materials to work on. If you want to use your own cardstock, fabric, paper, or anything else not from Cricut, you need to put it on a grippy Machine Mat that holds it in place while it’s fed into the machine. These mats start around $15 each, and are reusable for as long as the mild adhesive lasts. Multiple mats are available for different materials and with different grip strengths, and measure 12 inches wide and 12 or 24 inches long.
The Cricut-brand materials intended for use with the company’s machines include cardstock, coasters, iron-ons, shirts, and vinyl. Rolled materials, such as iron-ons and vinyl, can be fed directly into the Maker 3 (make sure you get the material intended for that machine, and not the narrower rolls for other Cricut machines) without a Machine Mat, as can certain flat sheets classified as Smart Materials. Other flat materials, as well as fabric, require a Machine Mat. Unless you can keep an empty space several feet behind the Maker 3, if you want to take advantage of its ability to work on very long materials you’ll probably want to stick with rolled Smart Materials.
If you really want to explore the Maker 3’s versatility, Cricut also sells packs of aluminum sheets, felt, leather, and wood, among many other materials.
Connecting With Cricut Design Space
You can connect Windows PCs, Macs, and Android and iOS devices to the Maker 3 over USB or Bluetooth. The device includes a USB-A–to–USB-B cable, and pairing over Bluetooth is as simple as plugging the cable in. No matter what you decide to connect to the Maker 3, the Cricut Design Space software walks you through the steps.
The full-featured software provides access to Cricut’s massive library of both Cricut’s own and user-created projects and pictures. Some can be purchased piecemeal, but the software really nudges you into subscribing to Cricut Access, a $9.99/month service that houses over 150,000 pictures and patterns. Subscribers get a 10% discount on purchases from Cricut and some other bonuses.
The prefab projects available through Cricut Design Space are incredibly easy to make, with step-by-step instructions, lists of the exact materials and tools you’ll need, and preconfigured drawing, cutting, and other crafting instructions automatically set for the Maker 3. Once you have everything lined up, just click the Continue button and the software walks you through each stage of the project.
Putting together your own projects from scratch is a much more complicated process. Cricut Design Space provides a few dozen very simple but oddly specific templates (I’m not sure why you would want a simple outline of a camping chair), along with a library of thousands of pictures. A good number are available for free, but most pictures require Cricut Access or can be bought individually for $1.99. There are also nine different geometric shapes, a text tool, and some functions like Weld and Slice that let you play with overlapping shapes to different effects. That’s all enough to get started with a basic project.
If you really want to get creative, click on the Upload tab and upload your own pictures for drawing, cutting, or otherwise crafting. The software accepts BMP, DXF, GIF, JPG, PNG, and SVG files, though you’ll have the best luck with SVG vector art when you can find or make it. Cricut Design Space is designed to work strictly with lines, whether drawing with a pen or cutting with a knife, so you can’t easily use color or grayscale art. You need clear, distinct edges for the software to convert into instructions for the Maker 3, and black-and-white line art is your best bet. The software provides some very simple tools for converting more complex art into patterns the Maker 3 can work with, but it will balk at anything resembling a photograph and generate indistinct blobs.
Test Projects: How and What
I made a few projects with the Maker 3, using different materials and tools and with varying amounts of content from Cricut Access. I started with a completely prefab project on the service: a birdhouse decoration made of heavy chipboard. I selected it in the software and a window popped up detailing every step I needed to take to build it. It then fed a multi-step drawing and cutting pattern into the Maker 3 and prompted me to start loading heavy chipboard into the machine one piece at a time. Cricut provided multiple materials and tools for testing the Maker 3, including a pack of 2.0mm heavy chipboard, so I mounted a sheet on a StandardGrip Machine Mat. I then noticed that it didn’t cover the entire mat, because the material is 11 by 11 inches, and the software defaults to the mat size of 12 by 12 inches. It wasn’t difficult to adjust the size, but if you’re not paying attention you could easily waste some material on a wrong-sized cut.
When prompted, I loaded a pen and the standard blade into the machine’s tool clamps, then inserted the mat and pressed the Load button. I pressed the Go button to start the cut.
Heavy chipboard is thick and takes the Maker 3 quite some time to cut. While the machine can very quickly move over any material with a blade, chipboard requires around 24 passes to fully get through. Each sheet took 30 to 60 minutes to complete, and there were four sheets. I lost my patience and stopped one cut halfway through because I thought it looked like it was cut enough, and though I could pop a few pieces out of the board, there was some ugly paper peeling. This is my fault, not the machine’s; if the software says it will take some time, give it some time.
When the first sheet was finished, the software prompted me to repeat the process for the second, third, and fourth. After everything was done, I had two dozen precisely cut pieces that were easily removed from their sheets. A bit of glue and glancing at the project page’s photos for reference, and the birdhouse was done. It’s a nice little decoration, easy to cut and put together, and it looks very good even without any paint and with the roof slightly misaligned (again, my fault and not the machine’s).
I then made a craft project completely from scratch. Kirigami is the Japanese art of papercrafting using precise cuts as well as folds (unlike origami, which is just folds). Think of those pop-up paper greeting cards with elaborate designs. It seems like the perfect project for the Maker 3.
I found a free kirigami pattern online and tried to feed it into Cricut Design Space. This is where the process became difficult. The pattern was a PDF file with instructions for cutting and folding by hand, so I had to convert it to an image file with just the pattern on it. I took a screenshot of the pattern and turned it into a JPG, then tried to load it into the software. Because the picture had a little bit of artifacting and blur on the edges, the software analyzed the pattern and turned a few of the lines into slightly curved brush strokes with inconsistent lengths. Obviously this wouldn’t do, so I started massaging the pattern heavily in an image editing program. I resized, sharpened, global selected, painted over edges with a hard brush to remove any blur, and manually filled in gaps on the lines that appeared as I processed the pattern. I also realized that the colored dashed and spotted lines indicated folds, not cuts, so I isolated them and put them in another image file. After a lot of experimentation, I had two pictures I could feed into Cricut Design Space and get the cutting and drawing results I wanted.
Once I had the files ready, setting everything up was fairly easy. I uploaded them through the software and inserted them on the canvas. I then resized the pictures to match, and set the cut pattern to cut and the fold pattern to draw. I drew a rectangle around the patterns to produce a nice card that was smaller than the letter-sized card sheets I found. Finally—and this is the most important step if you want to arrange multiple objects on your material—I selected all of the elements and “Attached” them together. If they aren’t attached, the software will attempt to arrange each element separately for individual cuts or drawn lines.
I loaded a marker and a fine-point blade into the machine head, put some cardstock on a LightGrip mat, and started the cut. The knife only required one pass through the cardstock, but the pen dipping repeatedly for each dot on each line slowed down the process a bit. Still, it was much faster than the birdhouse cut, and was finished in about 10 minutes.
The cuts were precise, and the end result was pretty good! At least, it was pretty good for my big fingers and poor fine motor skills. Kirigami is almost as much about folding as it is about cutting, and considering that, I’d say I produced a nice-looking piece of geometric paper art.
Finally, I tested the Maker 3’s ability to work with very long materials by printing several cut-outs on a single banner of reusable vinyl to use as wall decorations. I found a bunch of outlines of dragons, coyotes, and rats on Cricut Access, which were were ready for cutting without any editing (Cricut Access categorizes pictures by whether they can be cut right away or are “print and cut,” in which case you print the design first and then cut it in the machine). I arranged them in a four-foot-long pattern in Cricut Design Space, then drew a long rectangle around them and attached all of the pictures together.
Loading rolls of Smart Materials into the Maker 3 is easy. I took a roll of reusable blue vinyl, inserted one end into the feeder, and set the rest of the roll in front of the machine. I then made sure there was about a foot of space behind the Maker 3. It was simple, and the material neatly rolled up as the cut continued.
While this was physically the largest project I made, it was also by far the fastest for the machine to do. The fine-point blade cut the vinyl precisely and carefully in minutes; it was done by the time I finished washing my hands (to remove some residual glue from the birdhouse). The cuts were too fine to see, and I had to test-peel a tiny corner of the banner to make sure the material had actually been cut. It had, so I cut the section that was done and left the rest of the roll for use later, and took the banner home.
Well, the banner survived the trip. Unfortunately, it didn’t survive my fingers, and I tore the material as I tried to place it on the wall. I really should have used transfer tape for that, so again, any failures of this project were due to my lack of skill and not the Maker 3. The individual shapes were cute precisely, and I could use them as wall decals and place them by hand with no problem.
Powerful Crafting for Pros
The Cricut Maker 3 is a powerful crafting tool, and its $400 cost is quite reasonable for everything it can do. That price can swell rapidly when you take tools and materials into account, but the flexibility of all of those different options is very appealing. If you know exactly what you want to make with the machine, you can keep the cost under control and still be equipped for all of your projects.
The software is a bit clunky and awkward, and you can expect loading your own patterns and pictures to take some time and effort. Still, all the necessary power and functionality is there to put together anything you might want to. I ran into a wall of my own skill rather than any of the machine’s capabilities when I was testing it. I’m not very good at extreme precision, and I don’t have much of an eye for design. In that regard, the Maker 3 was very helpful, since I could make kirigami and complicated cut-out decals with the machine, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do those things by hand.
If you’re very new to crafting, the Maker 3 could be a bit too large and expensive for you to get started on; the smaller Cricut Joy costs less than half as much, and though it’s limited to much thinner and narrower materials, it’s an excellent starting point for playing with cardstock, paper, and vinyl. If you’re experienced at making arts and crafts, though, the Maker 3 could be just the right tool for you. It’s ideal for anyone looking to start an Etsy store, for example, especially if you already have your own sketches and designs to work with. For all of that potential under the hood, and the vast array of options for tools and materials, the Cricut Maker 3 earns our Editors’ Choice award.