Steel Rule Die Explained

December 7, 2018

Every now and then, we decide to do a single equipment section a singular honour. Putting that assembly under the spotlight, we describe its functions in more detail. Today, that honour goes to the leading edge assembly, the steel rule die. This intricately profiled cutting surface, made of hardened steel, requires an equally accurately designed base, so let's start there, at what's technically known as the die board.

Fabricating the Die Board

Imagine this board as a panel of wood. Maple is good for this purpose. The wooden panel, cut to size, is worked on by tools so that it gains the rough shape of the steel strips. Then those strips are artfully bent to shape and mounted into place. In newer machine setups, it's all very different. Instead of wood, plates of polycarbonate and similar engineering plastics are used as the die board. From here, the steel rule die is bent by machine and slotted into a laser-cut pattern. Of course, even with those tough plastics seeping into the mix, wooden die boards are still popular. It's hard to beat the established materials, although plastics and other composites will eventually take over, given time enough.

Examining Steel Rule Dies

Starting with the drawing, the shape of a custom-made steel rule die, the pattern is loaded into a CAD program. Again, older technology didn't have access to computers, so the job was left in the hands of an expert craftsman. Back with the Computer Aided Design suite, the software precision-controls a CNC Router or laser, which works upon the die board, just as we described in the above passage of text. Meanwhile, over at an automatic bender, more CNC instructions shape the steel strips. Almost finished, there's still a post-processing stage, where a skilled fabrication technician can take time to grind the rough edges off the cutting rule. After all, some jobs still need the services of a skilled hand.

There are registration pins and transfer locking parts to incorporate. It's those parts that assure equipment accuracy. Then there are rubber inserts to add to the rule. They push the paper sheets away after the cuts are added. Last of all, though, this section of the process is more art form than machine process. Sure, there's brawn, with a hydraulic ram and geared assemblies processing hundreds of blanks, but steel rule dies are the exception to this "rule," for they're imbued with sophisticated outlines. If it helps, think of the equipment as the stubby part of a fountain pen, so the steel rule die would be the elegant nib of that pen.

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