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Making a Die Cut Shape in InDesign

Jane wrote:

I’m setting up a cover with a simple die-cut hole, and I need to know how to set it up for the printer (and unfortunately, I cannot contact the printer directly).

A die-cut, for readers who haven’t tried this, is literally a cut in the finished, printed piece. For example, if you want a hole in the middle of the cover of a brochure, or a non-rectangular finished piece, you need to have the printer create a die with which they will cut your printed document, like a giant hole puncher.

The key to making a die-cut is exactly the same as making a spot varnish or an emboss: It all comes down to a spot color. The point is that your printer is going to need a plate, all by itself, that shows exactly where the cut (or varnish or emboss) is going to be. For example, in this document, we want to cut a big “Q” out of the cover, so we can see the red color behind it:

[Historical note: Some folks will wonder why I’m using this particular cover. It’s because I want to give a shout out to the book I wrote that sold the fewest copies ever. I’m pretty sure more copies were returned from bookstores than were actually even printed. I told the publisher multiple times not to give me a contract and money to write this book because it would never sell, but they refused to listen. And, just in case you were wondering, no, the publisher did not actually die-cut a Q out of the cover. Though I bet the book would have sold far better if they did. Not.]

Anyway, okay, so how to make that Q? Select it and fill it with a spot color! I’ve made a spot color here called “die cut spot color” but you can call it whatever you want, as long as it’s obvious to the printer that it’s not supposed to actually print! You can also color it whatever you want, as long as you don’t tint the color — in this case, I made it orange so it would really stand out against the cover. I’ve heard some people recommend using the Registration color, which makes no sense at all to me, as it will actually print on all the plates!

I put the object on its own layer just for the sake of file organization. And I have also ensured that it will overprint. If I didn’t overprint the object, then InDesign may knock out the colors behind the Q. Of course, in a perfect world, where the die is cut exactly in the right place, it wouldn’t matter. But here on Earth, sometimes the cut is a little off. You don’t want a halo of white to peek out around the cut! Overprinting ensures that if there’s misregistration, it won’t look too ugly.

Don’t forget you can always check your work with the Separations panel (in Window > Output > Separations). This lets you turn on and off each plate to see what the final output will look like. Here, we can see the die cut plate all by itself:

Of course, the most important thing of all is to communicate clearly with your printer from as early on as possible. In your case, Jane, you have an organization between you and the printer. So it behooves you to write clear instructions and explanations to go along to the printer!

I’m curious to hear from printers and InDesign users who have tackled this problem in any other clever ways!

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at
David Blatner

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22 Comments on “Making a Die Cut Shape in InDesign

  1. Always good to see this explained clearly, key thing to remember for me was that the cutter spot colour needs to to be set to overprint via attributes and that the colour itself can’t be made to do this.

    I usually save the settings as an object style if I am creating multiple cuts, ie: a page of decals.

  2. I do it the same way for varnish and for this it works great. But i think you missed something: Q is not a good example, because the inner circle will not stay on your book cover until you glue it to page 3 ;-)

    You can only cut out the outer shape of the Q and therefore i would convert it to a path, delete the inner shape and make one solid Q. But i think it´s hard to recognize it as a Q then.

  3. @Thomas: LOL! You’re so right. The “Q” is a terrible example! I did those screen captures in the middle of the night and was pretty blurry. Oh well. Thanks for pointing it out.

  4. As the designated die-order guy at my shop, I can say this is exactly how dies should be set up. If this job were sent to me, I’d make a PDF of the affected page, make an AI or PDF file of the Q, and send it to the company that makes our dies. Rarely do I get a file set up correctly, so thank you for posting this.

  5. Yay finally a post to direct people to when they ask this question. Hours of retyping this have been saved, thanks guys.

    I had a file a while back that require a spot uv, a die cut and an embossing on it.

    No way could you set that up all on the same artwork and hope the prepress get it right and the diecutting guy pulls their hair out.

    What I do for something like that is I finalise the design and have it signed off.

    Then I drag the Pages in the Pages Panel into the New Page Icon at the bottom of the Panel. This duplicates the Pages.

    I then remove all the artwork bar what I need.

    I set the Die Cut, the Embossing, and the Spot UV up on 3 separate pages within the same document.

    I put in the slug area of each page information, like SPOT UV, EMBOSSING and DIE CUT.

    I use a 100% spot colour set to overprint – as posted in the original.

    I then PDF the entire document, which is now 4 pages with the slug information.

    I can now be confident that only the elements for embossing are embossed, only the elements for spot uving are done, and that the die cut is done too.

    I find that when I set up files like this and send them to press I have a big “THANK YOU” in my email box the next morning, for breaking down the different elements onto separate pages.

  6. A filled object is correct for varnishes, however, dies should always be designated as stroked outlines. A solid line indicates a cut, and a dotted line indicates a score. The overprint status in the file is a non-issue, as dies don’t get printed; someone actually has to cast the die lines from metal. A die, essentially, is a cookie cutter.

  7. I tend to do the same as Eugene: separating the “special treatments” from the rest just to make sure some sleepy pre-press guy doesn’t miss something and just prints it all.
    I then also make a file with a mock-up (usually with arrows and text) pointing out what should happen where just to be on the safe side.

  8. @Marc
    The overprint status is not a non issue as I don’t want a white line on the artwork, as DB states in an ideal world it won’t move but ?

  9. I’m with Tim on this, if you leave the strokes of the die cut to be knockout you will have thin white lines in your artwork at print, that’s why you set it to overprint.

  10. @Marc: I think the difference may be in how the die is built. I have seen dies cut as as “cookie cutters” (just the thin outline which slices through a single sheet of paper) and some that are solid in the middle (like a hole punch).

    I hate to keep going back to “talk to your printer,” but this is just another example of where you need to know what they’re going to want. Worse case, you could give the printer both plates.

    As for Eugene’s method of creating the plates as separate pages: Sure that would work, too. You’re just “preseparating.”

  11. Yes, pre-separating, I like that word.

    I only do this for things that have more than one special print finish, like a die cut, embossing and spot UV all on the same job.

    If it was just one thing being done I’d be inclined to do as described in the original post.

  12. Having done some research on this, it was suggested, and I teach my students to name the spot color Die–DO NOT PRINT. Same with emboss color. That way you don’t accidentally get a 5th color that your weren’t expecting. Since there is a color indicator on the plates, if they do manage to get to the point where a plate was created, the pressman who mounts the plates will see that the die should not be printed.

    Now if I could convince my students that its not Varnish–Do Not Print . . . but we take it one step at a time.

  13. I have a psd image with a clipping path on it that I would like to apply a spot varnish to. I duplicated the image box to a varnish layer but can’t seem to be able to apply the spot varnish to it with ID CS4. Any suggestions?

  14. i think there needs to be an expanded post on this under “embellishments” to encompass spot varnishes, foils, embosses, dieformes, glues, and metallic inks.

    as one of the posters has already said, dieformes are better off as lines rather than fills, but dies can include scores, perforations (not just the cutting forme itself), and IMO these need to be separate spot colours.

    when setting up artwork when there are embellishments i will typically make a second layer and put them there. i will also make the embellishments their own spot colour and give them an overprinting attribute. this is so i can see them in the artwork but upon output to plate or making the forme, i can toggle the ink only layer for the press and output that, and i can then toggle the embellishment only layer for the dieforme and pdf that.

    its another thing though to have experience in making formes and prototyping designs. if there’s any doubt, speak to an expert first.

    my bigger issue is with metallic inks though. many people tend to treat them like any other spot colour without realising that they are an opaque ink and can cause prepress staff all sorts of trapping issues.

  15. Hi everybody! I don’t know where to start but hope this site will be useful for me.
    In first steps it’s very good if someone supports you, so hope to meet friendly and helpful people here. Let me know if I can help you.
    Thanks and good luck everyone! ;)

    • Good information all around. As someone who grew up in the business before computers, I can say with confidence that there’s no need to over-complicate die cutting set-up. It’s exactly the same concept as setting up a screen print design using all spot colors. The cut shape needs to be represented by a solid black shape on it’s own page in the file, and each page needs registration marks to ensure proper positioning. That’s it. I guess my main point is that no matter how you set it up, communicating with the printer is an absolute must for die-cut jobs, and they should never be entrusted to online printing sources that leave little room for anomalies, and no room for explanation.

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