How To Make Stencils

I get this question a few times a week, and I always feel bad at my replies. It’s a loaded question and I never have time to put together a good answer. Even if I do find the time, I often lack depth and real insight. To that end I would like to talk about making stencils, different methods, and how I do it.

First off, it’s important to realize that there is no wrong way to do this, only ways that might be wrong for you in particular. There are so many ways that things occur naturally to us to do them. If you try something that doesn’t seem right, don’t feel like you can’t manipulate that process to make it work for you, or even scrap it all together.

I’m going to talk about how I make my stencils, but it is a process that might be unnecessarily complicated or overkill for someone who is just coming into stenciling, so let me talk about some common ways of doing this first.

Go to Kinko’s

Seriously guys, you gotta check out this place Kinko’s. It’s a one stop shop for all your stencil needs. If you want one copy of a stencil or 100, these guys will run to help you like a raceway pit crew.

You can get your image printed in any size, on any thickness of paper, in color or no, they will laminate it, and it’s all about the price of a coffee. These guys will help you experiment and find the right materials for your project. You should consider letting them do the heavy lifting for you.

A pro-tip on choosing paper. You need to cut this, which can be hard on your wrist and your blades. Don’t pick the biggest thickest piece of paper they have by default, instead look for something that is just good enough.

Every part of this is an exercise in ‘less is more’. From glue to paint to how heavy your paper is, you want ‘just enough’. If you use too much paint, it will flow under your stencil. If you use too much glue, it will leave residue or pull up paint. If you use too strong a tape, it will damage your canvas. If you use too heavy a paper, you will not get the clean lines you want, and your stencil might fall off as it is too heavy for the glue to hold up.

When I started out I would buy packs of scrap-booking paper from the craft store, and those worked great. Nowadays I buy paper in bulk from a framing shop that will cut it to whatever size I want.

Cutting Stencils

Most of these methods require you to cut out your stencil with an exacto-knife or other by-hand cutting tool. This process takes time and can be tedious. I try to get Zen about it, become the knife or some such, but usually I just end up watching Frasier reruns. Here are some general tips about cutting.

Make sure you have a self healing mat. You can find them in fabric stores and the like in multiple sizes. This mat will allow you a surface to cut on that is smooth, and shouldn’t catch the edges of your stencil as you manipulate it. A decent one will last you years, even with frequent cutting.

There’s only so much detail you can cut. Even if you’re handy with the steel you can’t knock out 0.5 mm thick lines, and if you could the paint wouldn’t go through them. On the other hand, if you remove too much material when you cut your stencil will be brittle and flimsy, and more prone to overspray. This isn’t necessarily bad, but be aware of it.

Don’t skimp on razors. Change out the blade on your cutting tool whenever the tip breaks off. Razors are expensive to buy in small packs, but actually very cheap to buy in bulk. Look for hobby blades on ebay, you should be able to find 100 packs for about $15. One very common mistake that stencil artists make is using dull blades. My rule of thumb is that I change the blade for each new layer I cut, or whenever the tip breaks, whichever happens first. If it starts to feel dull, change it. A dull blade will lead to mistakes every time because you need to push it through the work, meaning you’ll eventually slip and cut something you didn’t mean to. I typically go through about three to five blades per stencil plate. It seems wasteful, but the right tools make all the difference.

When making long cuts, hold hold your knife at a lower angle and your hand further away from your blade. When cutting sharp corners, start at the corner and cut away from it.

Put your wrist on a book, don’t rest your hand on the stencil. You are likely to catch the edge of your stencil with your hand and bend it while cutting on another part. I find that having a book raising my hand off the paper helps my wrist stamina, and that it is much more effective to press down to cut a stencil than it is to try and pull along the edge while holding everything in place with my other hand. Aside from all this, keeping oils from your hands off your stencils, and therefor off your artwork, is important.

When cutting I always try to cut the most detailed areas first, for two reasons. The more material you remove, the flimsier your stencil gets. This means that the first cuts you make will be the easiest, as the material is at it’s stiffest. Secondly it’s best to handle the hardest parts when your blade is sharpest, and before the claw sets in.

Take lots of breaks and be patient. You seriously need to do this. No part of the process of painting a painting from stencils can be rushed. You will only make mistakes and they will haunt you. Make sure to get up and walk around every hour and get your blood moving. It’s easy to put your hands in stress positions for extended periods of time without really realizing it and end up with ‘the claw’.

Printing Stencils at Home

When I first started doing this I made my stencils in a different manner than I do now.

If you have a printer that has the ability to print your image on photo paper, you can consider this to be good stencil materiel. While photo paper doesn’t hold up great to repetitive use, you can still get at least one good layer out of it.

Remember to reverse the image. It usually doesn’t matter as stencils can usually be flipped over, but keep this in mind with multi-layer stencils. Often you have to consider registration marks, or guidelines, which are cuts you make across all your stencils in order to line them up. Accidentally flipping one stencil but not another can cause you issues. Some simply can’t be flipped and still work with the design you want.

If you need to print your design onto regular white printer paper, we can work with that. I have a middle of the road laminator, which you can find for around $40. Laminated paper is my personal preference if I am hand cutting. It will stand up to multiple sprays, it cuts cleanly, meaning no little “hairs” or paper fibers, and best of all it cuts smoothly and easily. If you are planning on a single use stencil, plain paper works just as well.

If all this seems like a lot of work, you can try just gluing your printed image to a heartier piece of paper. This works decently to fortify your stencil, though I have found this method leaves an imperfect edge. I always get little paper slivers that look like hairs, and they sometimes transfer to the surface.

The downsides to making stencils in this manner are your restrictions on size. You are limited by the output of your printer. You can however piece stencils together to make bigger ones. Here’s a site that will help you break your image up into a poster that you can print in pieces. I will try and update this article with a video about piecing together stencils.

Transparent Materials

I know a lot of people who create their stencils out of see-through materials, such as mylar, acetate, transparency paper, or even freezer paper. This is a very effective way to go about your stencil making.

Simply glue down the image you wish to transfer with some spray adhesive, then tape your mylar on top of it with painters tape trace the image with a permanent marker. Use a ruler for the straight lines. Permanent marker wipes off of Mylar very easily with a Q-Tip and rubbing alcohol. Some people put a clear hard plastic between the two. I can’t actually say how well this works as I’ve never made my stencils this way, but I would love to hear in the comments if you have an opinion. I have heard of people having trouble using the classic exacto to cut plastic and instead using an electric cutting tool. I don’t have one but it might be worth looking into if you are going to use mylar or some other thin plastic.

If you want to use this method to transfer to paper you will need a drawing lightbox or tracing table, which is a very affordable tool for artists that projects a light behind your given image allowing you to trace it. A lightbox is cheap to build if you are a little bit crafty, and I’ve even seen people just use a monitor. You might feel like this would be an ineffective way of doing your layers and design work when you could just go to the computer, Photoshop, and print everything, but it isn’t always. It’s very often a lot easier to visualize your stencil and layers if you do them in this manner. I do my stencils like this when I’m working on a portrait, because I like the look of my own organic layers a lot better than the ‘threshold’ setting in Photoshop or Gimp.

Sticky Stencils

I know a couple people who make their stencils from tape, vinyl, frisket film, or other sticker materiel. Making your stencils in this manner gives you a unique perk, as you can build your islands (The spaces that don’t into the first layer of your stencil painting are known as islands) right into your designs, and not have to paint them back in later layers.

For example, If I were painting a letter ‘A’ using the traditional method of layering, I would start by painting the whole thing as solid. I would then come back with another stencil and fill in the little triangle in the middle with the background color. If I were using sticker materiel, I would be able to do it all in one go, saving me time and effort.

A drawback to making your stencils from a sticky materiel is that they are almost never reusable.

If you have access to a vinyl cutter, or feel like making the investment, it is a versatile tool that you can use to make detailed and precise stencils. Once you cut your stencil out, you use transfer tape to move it to the surface you want to work on. A vinyl cutter can also be used for projects other than stenciling, like making decals.

While I have never used tape to make stencils, I know some people who do. They cover the surface in scotch or painters tape, and the cut away the excess right from there. Here is a video from Slew with him doing this. If you are doing a large area such as a wall, you can make cool patterns with painters tape.

Frisket film is a material widely used for stenciling by airbrush artists, especially in the automotive industry. It is a plastic film that is a bit stretchy and is adhesive on one side. It cuts very easily with an exacto and can be bent around curves. If you’re working on a very smooth surface (i.e. finished metal, fiberglass or plastic) frisket film is second to none. It can work well on wood and painted walls, too. It won’t really stick to anything rough, like brick, stone, or canvas. The major problem with frisket film is that it is very flexible and tends to stick to itself , and is virtually worthless for more intricate stencils. It’s also difficult to get multiple uses out of it. The adhesive will work more then once, but peeling anything but the simplest design off without stretching it or sticking it to itself is a challenge.

Other Random Ways

If you have access to an overhead projector you can use that to transfer your image to the surface you are working on. This is especially helpful if you are working on a large vertical surface like a wall. You can use a projector along with the tape method, tracing your image onto the tape and them cutting away the excess.

If you have a printer that uses toner, you can use acetone to transfer the image from the paper to whatever surface you are working with. Print the image reversed, then use cotton balls and the acetone to rub the toner out of the paper. This is actually a classic way of making stencils, and a lot of people I know use this method. It works very well.

Hectograph and thermal paper can be a good for making stencils, this is the preferred method for tattoo artists. Tracing a design with this materiel behind it will leave an imprint of it on your stencil materiel which you can then cut out.

You can cut robust stencils from the thin clear cutting boards you get from the dollar store. Trace your image through the board with a permanent marker, cut, and you are good to go.

Cutting Machines

While it’s not quite as punk rock, if you are serious about making stencils and want the ability to reproduce your artwork, a cutting machine is the way to go. You can use a machine to cut vinyl or paper stencils for you. I have gone to mostly using a cutting machine to produce my stencils, but it is a non-traditional setup that I will go into in more depth in my next blog entry.

I think it’s really important to mention that a cutting machine doesn’t rid you of work, it just moves it to another medium. I spend more time doing a design on my computer and breaking it into layers than I would if I just hand cut a stencil. The main advantage of doing things this way is that once it’s done you can cut as many as you need. I can reproduce my artwork or redo layers I mess up on without worrying too much about preserving the stencil. I get to use all my stencils only once, and every painting can have its own fresh set. My registration marks always line up.

I’m not going to give recommendations on different kinds of cutting machines, as I only have experience with a few, but I would like to recommend the software Sure-Cuts-a-Lot. It is built specifically for building stencil sets and works better than any program I have ever used. It paste’s in place across multiple layers and exports to many cutters and even to other proprietary cutting programs. Their Facebook page is very active if you have questions about whether it will work with your setup.

In Conclusion

I’ve mentioned a lot of ways people make stencils, but I’ve been careful not to say any of them is the right way. There is only the right way for you in particular. Over the years I have done this I have thought I had everything figured out many times, but being creative doesn’t stop at the edges of the canvas. Being fluid with your process and learning other ways of going about it only helps you create more concise and diverse artwork. Don’t ever stop learning.


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