A cutting mat should only be used to cut on and not as a general work-surface for all sorts of other things such as gluing and painting. I try to say this to everyone I’m teaching .. and I try to remind myself of it whenever I’m working. Even the slightest spots of paint can contribute to diminishing the purpose of the cutting mat, because it’s not just table surfaces that cutting mats are supposed to protect .. it’s also us! The surface of the cutting mat is designed to grip, so that when for example one’s pressing down firmly on something while cutting it, it’s less likely to slip around. If that happens it not only makes it difficult to cut cleanly .. it also makes it dangerous!
But the practical fact is that it’s often a real bother to take the cutting mat away every time one’s finished cutting something. Few of us have the luxury of large workspaces where separate ‘stations’ can be reserved for separate tasks. Usually everything gets done in the same tight table space, the one where the light is best .. and the cutting mat gradually becomes a playing-field for just about everything involved. If we accept that the cutting mat needs to stay put, a better way of cleaning needs to be found.
I’ve tried various ways of cleaning cutting mats in the past .. scrubbing with detergent, scraping with paint scrapers or razor blades .. but none have been that effective. There is certainly no way of removing superglue from the rubber with a knife-blade without damaging the surface. But recently I tried a different approach, and it worked surprisingly well!
Above is a portion of a cutting mat with a dribbling of superglue .. very common! Unless it is wiped immediately from the surface superglue will set to a rock-hard mass. But superglue is brittle .. one reason why it never lasts if it has to fill even the slightest gap .. and although near impossible to carve into, the surface can be easily broken down by abrasion. It only takes a couple of minutes .. below is the same portion of cutting mat sanded, using first a coarse (60 grit) sandpaper to break down the raised parts and then a finer (120 grit) one to finish the surface.
This will only work properly if the sandpaper is mounted on blocks, such as the ones I make shown below, which will give the abrasive surface maximum strength and also ensure that sanding remains flat and even. If careful, even most of the printed grid can be preserved and the slightly roughened surface actually enhances the cutting mat’s grip.
Another thing that can very easily happen to a cutting mat is that it can warp .. but only with heat! I can remember, when we used to get a consistent run of hot days, if a cutting mat had been left on a studio window-sill it would end up permanently warped .. no amount of bending or leaving flattened down under heavy books would alter this. Unfortunately this is the end of the story! I’ve tried laying cutting mats in hot water, or laying newspaper on top and ironing them .. they can’t be flattened again. I’m assuming this is because cutting mats are composed of bonded layers, with a tougher interior layer. Heat causes the top layer to expand but the interior layer is less affected, and the top layer does not contract properly again on cooling. On the other hand cutting mats can take a lot of physical bending without any permanent harm i.e. if bending them makes transportation easier I’ve always found that they’ll lie completely flat after about half an hour.
But here’s an alternative idea for making the working situation easier! When I first started out I remember that I invested in the largest cutting mat I could find .. A1 size .. thinking that I would then be prepared for any eventuality. On the diagonal the maximum cutting length is a little over a metre. But I rarely had the free space to use this without a time-consuming clearup! Over the years I’ve acquired at least one of every size of cutting mat, starting with A5, and by default now I use the smallest one I can get away with for the job I’m doing. If I’m suddenly faced with having to cut a much longer line I’ve found it more practical just to place two A3 cutting mats on end, giving a maximum reach of up to 940mm on the diagonal with a little margin. I also keep one very small, A5, cutting mat purely for fine or intricate cutting. Even after a lot of use the surface looks hardly touched, because it’s not subjected to much pressure, so I can rely on it to remain the best support for delicate work.