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One way to get yourself a cheap Cricut machine is to buy a busted one off eBay. Try searching for both "broken cricut" and "defective cricut". Often you can win one for as low as $0.99 plus shipping for a Personal or Create model, or somewhat more for an Expression.
Where to get one
The main dealer of these machines, "websbestdeals," must have some exclusive arrangement with ProvoCraft, because they seem to have a pretty inexhaustible supply of them.
Read the seller's description carefully to see what is included. Often they won't even come with a power supply, but sometimes they'll come with everything, cutting mat, blade holder, power adapter, and a cartridge.
Sometimes the seller's description will tell you exactly the issue, as in the case with a dragging blade. I'm not quite sure yet what it means when "the blade makes a lot of noise", but the broken limit-switch wires definitely cause a horrible noise on startup. Many times they simply say "it has no power," which so far often (but not always) indicates a power supply or broken trace problem.
Mine didn't come with a cartridge!
If you don't have a real cartridge, you can make yourself a "Fake George" to at least get a machine with the stock firmware to start up fully. more info. Basically, you just need to make something that will short together pins 2,3 & 5 on the cartridge port, and it will fool the machine into using its own built-in font.
Problems and Solutions
Here are some of the things I have discovered so far while fixing a bunch of these machines:
It seems the dials are pretty easy to break if the machine falls onto its front side. The size dial is expendable if you use Make-the-Cut or other cutting software on your PC, but if you cut with cartridges or the pressure dial is broken you may not have much choice but to try and find a replacement dial.
Bad Power Supply
An Expression I got with a bad power supply would constantly turn on and off, like a turn signal on a car. On, off, on, off. Replacing the power brick with a known-good one from another machine solved the problem.
Broken Inner-layer PCB traces
So far, two Create machines have been suffering from broken traces in the middle layer of the circuit board. Fixing these can be challenging since you can't see the inner layer to know where it was supposed to connect to.
Fortunately, I have a working older revision of both Personal and Create motherboards that are only 2-layers, and there were virtually no changes to the parts connections or positions when PC switched to the 3-layer boards. This means you can visually trace the connections on the older board, and verify those connections on the newer (broken 3-layer) one.
I will be adding specifics here to help with this process for anyone who doesn't have the benefit of a 2-layer board for reference.
1) One machine's power button would light up when you turned it on, but nothing else would happen. This was isolated to two broken inner-layer traces leading from the 5V regulator to two nearby parts. (specifics TBA)
2) Another Create model would power up and boot fully, but the display would be either blank or show only a single line of pixels. Swapping out the display for another known-good one did not have any effect. This turned out to be a broken +5V power supply line to the OLED display connector. (pin 2, counting from the end with the red stripe). I repaired this one by adding a jumper over to the +5V power supply line on the keyboard connector an inch away.
One expression, when you pushed the power button, would light up, but instead of booting would just beep three times and halt. This turned out to be simply a disconnected keyboard cable. The fix was simply to plug the cable back in to the motherboard.
Broken Limit Switch wires
Two different machines had this problem - they would start up okay, but when the carriage would slide all the way to right, it would crash at the end and make a horrible grinding noise. This indicates a problem with the button located in the right-side hidey-hole or the wires leading to it.
Upon removing the right-side cover, I discovered in one case that the pair of wires from the limit switch had been severed by the sharp edge of the metal motor bracket inside. Repairing the wires solved the problem. In another case, one of the wires had simply fallen off the switch, and I was able to just plug it back in.
Broken Solenoid wire
One Create would operate normally, except the cutting blade would not go up and down at all. Removing the carriage cover revealed the problem to be a broken solder joint at the top of the cutter solenoid. Space is pretty tight, but I was able to solder a short length of wire between the broken lead and the stub on the solenoid to fix this problem.
This problem seems to be one of the most common, and the easiest to fix as well. The machine seems to operate normally, except that the blade drags in some places, cutting where it shouldn't, and hangs up in some places, not cutting where it should. Normally, the blade holder should move smoothly up and down. You should be able to push it down with no friction detected, and when released, it should move smoothly and freely back upwards.
In some cases, the lower of the two leaf springs in the cutter solenoid mechanism can get bent, causing a slight misalignment, which creates friction that causes the observed "dragging" behavior.
The fix for this is about the simplest of all: remove 3 screws covering the cutter carriage, and simply pinch with your fingers the upper and lower leaf springs together at the right hinge point. (Where the red circles are in the photo below). This should straighten the bent lower leaf spring and free up the movement.