Hello! Dry embossing with dies is not a new technique but it can be one of the most frustrating. Getting that perfect impression can be awkward. Today, I want to discuss the basic technique, as well as addressing some of the issues that can arise when aiming for that perfect impression.

The Basics

Dry embossing with a die is when you create an impression in sheet of card, similar to what you would achieve when using an embossing folder. You want the die to push itself into the cardstock but not perforate it in any way. This is done by incorporating an embossing mat into your die sandwich. The mat absorbs the pressure that would normally cut through the cardstock and the die leaves just it’s impression instead.

Once the impression is made, like an embossing folder, either the positive or the negative side can be then used in your project. There are two distinct types of embossing mat, a black and a tan. Both are made of silicone and are surprisingly resilient when used.

Two types of silicone embossing mats available

I have both types and have noticed quite a bit of difference between them. The black mat (made by Sizzix) is both thinner, by about half a millimetre, and softer than the tan mat (sold by Spellbinders and a Chinese generic). I have found both useful, depending on the die and cardstock used. I will discuss how you can vary using the different embossing mats in more detail below.

Sizzix also recommend an additional impression pad be used with their black silicone mat but when using a die to emboss, it can be substituted out for an old cutting plate. I have found just a little adjustment to a typical die cutting sandwich can give great embossing results.

Usually, to cut with dies, we place a sheet of paper and a die between two clear cutting plates and make sure there is enough additional pressure supplied by adding or subtracting spacers supplied with the machine. In the case of the Big Shot, the correct pressure is obtained by using the multipurpose platform with both tabs (plastic sheets of different thickness) placed beneath the die sandwich. When embossing with the die, we don’t need quite as much pressure to create the image, so therefore, the sandwich doesn’t need to be as thick. To use as much pressure as usually needed to cut would tear the cardstock and damage the silicone embossing mat when it’s run through the machine. So here’s the sandwich I have found works well, most of the time. I will also discuss ways to vary stack pressure later.

Embossing sandwich for the Big Shot

To emboss I make this sandwich in my Big Shot:

  • Cutting plate
  • Dies, facing up
  • Cardstock
  • Embossing mat (either black or tan)
  • Cutting plate

Die used: Sue Wilson Swiss Background CED9102

The sandwich for the Cuttlebug is:

  • A Plate
  • B Plate
  • Embossing Mat
  • shims (if using them)
  • cardstock
  • dies face down
  • B Plate

The Big Shot sandwich can also be reversed, or flipped over, so the die is in the other direction, but let me now explain why I think that isn’t the best idea.

Things I’ve learned along the way…

Cutting Plates

I always keep one plate as a “no cut plate” that it will eventually become a cutting plate as it ages. I find, while working, it useful to always have a plate that doesn’t have scratches on it. I use my roughest, scratched surface cutting plate on the same side as my embossing pad, rather than next to my cardstock. This stops any of the cutting plate’s scratch marks getting embossed into the cardstock’s surface. This is particularly important if you’re planning to use the negative side of the embossed image. I also keep the rough cutting plate away from the multipurpose platform, preferring to use it on the roller side of the sandwich. This stops any of the scratch marks from being embossed into platform surface (I made this mistake) and this is one reason why I use the sandwich in the above order.

It’s also a good idea to save any old cutting plates and to use them as the plate you put next to the mat. Over time, the plate next to the mat will bend and using an older plate saves your cutting plates from that dreaded buckle that inhibits cutting precision. This is another reason why I use my sandwich in the above order. My “no cut plate”, placed directly on the platform, doesn’t get buckled and will last much longer as a result.

Die placement

Tape the dies in place to stop them moving while working. Dies used here: MFT Inside and Out Stitched Ovals, Memory Box Stitched Rectangle Trimmings 30082

I usually tape the dies onto the cardstock so they don’t move, using any low tack tape. To make sure the tape will come away from the paper, I stick it to my skin a few times to lessen the stickiness further. Many low tack tapes are still too sticky and will tear the cardstock when trying to remove it after its been run through the machine. The embossing process also pushes the tape onto the cardstock more and if it’s too sticky, tape removal could ruin your piece.

I’ve read that magnetic platforms cannot be used in this embossing process, as it can cause damage to the platform. I don’t have one, so my advice would be to err on the side of caution and not attempt to use one. It makes sense to me that the embossing mat would be too thick for a magnetic platform to be of any use anyway.

Sandwich Pressure

When attempting to run the sandwich through the machine, you don’t need the same pressure as you need for cutting. This is where everyone needs to experiment with their own machine a little, as each individual machine has different pressure. My machine is still quite new and the sandwich needed for embossing will be different to a well loved, much used machine. The older machine will give less pressure to a sandwich. A difference of 1mm can be the difference between a great emboss and torn cardstock. It’s much better to have less impression than to have buckling and tearing.

When adjusting pressure of a sandwich, things like a metal shim or cereal box cardboard, or even layers of both may be enough to get the impression you’re after. Don’t try to use corrugated cardboard, the run through the machine will flatten the two layers together and will leave an uneven surface to emboss on. Adding cereal box cardboard (or similar) should be considered for any plate sandwich that isn’t quite thick enough, regardless of whether you’re cutting or embossing. When running the embossing sandwich through your machine, it should almost feel like there’s not enough pressure on the sandwich to make any dent. We are all accustom to working fairly hard to turn our handles. In the case of embossing, I noticed myself thinking that the pressure was too little. To describe this is not easy; there was just enough pressure to need the handle to run the sandwich through but barely enough to make a dent if I were trying to cut. These runs gave me my best results!

Multiple nesting dies can also be used to emboss, but when using nesting dies it’s best to tape them together before placing them onto the cardstock. I’ve found arranging them can be problematic because they tend to slip while trying to get their placement right. I find that using a magnetic sheet (from my die storage) on my work surface helps keep them in place, while I’m arranging and sticking them together.

Magnetic sheet under dies to hold them in place while working. Dies used: generic stitched stars stack.

Die Shapes

Some die shapes will be harder to emboss than others. I have found that a star can be embossed quite easily while a heart shape requires much less pressure to avoid buckling the cardstock.

Dies used: generic stitched stars stack

If your die repeatedly buckles the card, try lessening the pressure on the sandwich. Alternatively, a thicker or more stiff cardstock can make a big difference to the results you get. In the heart die example, I had to use both a lighter pressure and a stiffer cardstock.

Die used: Hero Arts Nesting Hearts Infinity Dies

In the above picture, you can see the same die used on the same card. The difference is the card on the right has had the die pushed into the card further and a buckle has appeared at the bottom of the hearts. The card on the left has less depth to its impression but has not buckled, giving a clean, crisp result. You really shouldn’t expect to always get the die embossed image to press into the cardstock as far as an embossing folder would, it could damage your cardstock. The metal die, after all, is much less flexible than a plastic embossing folder.

Dies used: MFT Inside and Out Stitched Ovals, Memory Box Stitched Rectangle Trimmings 30082

Strengthening Cardstock

If you find your cardstock constantly buckles or tears, it may be a problems other than pressure contributing to that. Some types of cardstock seem to have less cohesion in its fibres and is prone to getting damaged in an embossing process. I’ve found this usually occurs in uncoated paper surfaces, like some stamping cardstocks. Placing a piece (or even several pieces) of copy paper under the cardstock, between the card and the embossing mat can strengthen the cardstock just enough to get your impression. Just remember, the more layers you add to your stack, the more pressure will be applied to your stack when it’s run through your machine. Usually, a few pieces of copy paper won’t make too much of a difference to the stack but may have a big difference to the finished piece.

Tan or Black Mat?

If, like me, you have both the black and the tan embossing mats, you may be faced with one further issue of which mat, when? I’ve found the tan mat better to use with the stronger built dies and the black mat better when using the thinner, more flimsy or intricate dies. The more flimsy dies get that little more flexibility when combined with a softer mat and there’s less bend in them as they move through the machine.

At no point do I think it’s necessary to own both types of mat. Owning just one should be enough. I bought the black mat, and the matching impressions pad, with my machine. I nearly cut through the black silicone mat when teaching myself this technique. I found it just too soft for some applications and had to purchase the stronger tan mat for the tougher jobs.

Other Embossing Mat Uses

Embossing mats can also be used to emboss cardstock using a stencil or older, coloured texture plates.

Sandwich for stencil embossing

  • Multipurpose Platform opened to Tab 1
  • “No cut” cutting plate
  • Plastic stencil
  • Card, front facing down onto the stencil
  • Embossing mat
  • Rough cutting plate

Stencil used: Simon Says Stamp Falling Snow SSST121324

Sandwich for Texture Plates

  • Multipurpose Platform opened to Tab 1
  • Texture plate, facing up
  • Card, front facing down onto the texture plate
  • Embossing mat
  • Rough cutting plate

Again, add cereal box cardboard as shim, if necessary. My machine also required a metal shim below the texture plate and a piece of cardboard on top to be able to get a deeper impression, as the above image shows.

Texture plate by Fiskars

And there’s one final use for an embossing mat, either black or tan. When using a small, border embossing folder, I have read you can add a piece of a mat, the same size as the folder, to the sandwich (above the embossing folder). Evidently, it will help eliminate the edges marks the folder leaves on your cardstock. I don’t have border embossing folders to be able to test this, but there are tutorials, with more detail, available online.

One final thing that I discovered while working with the embossing mats for this post. I was able to straighten my warped cutting plate by using it as the top plate in my sandwich. I placed it with the bend “up” on the stack and used it normally. The embossing mat bent the cutting plate in the opposite direction and after a few passes, it had straightened the plate nicely. Much easier than heating it in the oven!

I hope this post encourages you to try various dry embossing techniques and that my tips, from my own experience, help you get a great result. And thanks for reading this far, in such a long post. Happy embossing!

11 thoughts on “Dry Embossing, Using Dies + Tips to Help Along The Way.

  1. Hi Anne,

    Still having trouble. Maybe I am using the wrong tools for what I’m trying to accomplish.
    I have an Impression Pad and a Silicone Rubber. I tried your suggestions by not using and the impressions pad. Layering it accordingly: Cutting pad, Die-facing up, Cardstock, my Silcone Mat (I don’t have an Embossing Mat), Cutting pad. And it still cut through.

    Then I tried adding just some regular paper to to the sandwich. Doing this helped it so that it did not cut through but the impression was very light and hardly noticeable.

    I bought the Impressions Pad and the Silicone Rubber together as a set. I noticed that Stampinup has “Big Shot Embossing Mats” which includes the Impressions Pad, Thin Silicone Rubber Mat, and a Thick Silicone Rubber Mat.

    I think I have the thick Silicone Rubber Mat but it is a navy blue. Should I buy what Stampin up has instead? But then that would mean I would have two Impressions Pads that I don’t need. I would love to work with this technique but I don’t want to waste my money on something that I don’t need.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you I found your ‘Post’ to be extremly informative and very helpful. I have some of Spellbinders ‘Enhancer’ dies but never used them. Today that has changed. X

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Be patient with the plate straightening, it may take a number of passes, but I guess you’ll have plenty of spare embossed card lying around.😊


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