Introduction: Make a Bridged Stencil From Any Image

Picture of Make a Bridged Stencil From Any Image

When I first tried stenciling, I worked from drawings and traced the images onto marking paper. I could make black and white stencils this way, but it was difficult to produce color stencils or stencils with more than one tone. With this method I can make a multi-color, multi-layer stencil from any image. And you can, too.

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials

You'll need, at minimum:

  • translucent mylar sheet (or, optionally, card stock) to cut your stencil from
  • X-acto knife with fresh blade(s)
  • masking tape and tacks to hold the image down
  • assortment of spray paint
  • a cutting surface of some kind, perhaps a cutting mat

It's nice to have:

  • a printer to print out an image
  • gloves to keep the paint off your hands

I used my kitchen table (butcher block) to cut on, but you will have better results with a nice cutting mat. I used 7 mil thick mylar for the stencils, but 3 mil or 5 mil might be a better choice, depending how many times you want to use it. This type of stenciling material is available from Grafix. Card stock is super easy to cut, and is a great choice for spraying once or twice. Card stock gets slightly more durable with each spray, but also warps if it is not stored completely flat. If you use card stock, you'll need to tack your tracing image over the top of the card stock (since you can't see through the card stock). This is slightly more difficult, but totally doable.

Step 2: Select an Image

Picture of Select an Image

Stenciling is an art: with stencils, you distill an image to its essential characteristics. Details go away, and you're left with something that's clean and simple. Pick an image that stencilizes well. If understanding your image depends on seeing a small detail, it probably won't go over well as a stencil. Here are some subjects that I like to use:

  • Faces
  • Single simple images (car or object isolated from background)
  • Logos
  • Icons
  • Simple slogans
  • Combinations of the above

Professional images are the best, because they are well divided into light, shadow and midtone. I found this one (and paid for it) on Shutterstock.

Crop the image to include a single central element; background detail won't be reproduced very well, and so it's best to crop the image down as far as you can. You can use any image manipulation tool to crop the image. I use EasyCrop for Mac.

Step 3: Break the Image Into Colors With Bridges on Each Layer

Picture of Break the Image Into Colors With Bridges on Each Layer

There are lots of different ways to do this, including Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw and Inkscape. Each gives different results. I use a web service designed for just this purpose:

Bay Stencil (aka the Stencilizer)

The way it works is this:

  1. Upload the cropped image you just made
  2. Get email back in a couple minutes with nine stencil options
  3. Pick the best option
  4. On the next page, request the stencil layers for that (best) option
  5. Get email back (again, it takes a couple of minutes)
  6. Collect the *bridged* stencil images in the result (there may be higher resolution images available on the website than in the email, so click through to the website)

We'll use the bridged stencil images in the next step.

The thing I love about the stenciling service is that it not only separates the colors for you, but also bridges the islands it finds in the stencils. (None of the desktop tools will do that for you!) You don't have to use all the bridges, but if you do use all the bridges then your stencil will be quite durable (if a little meshy-looking).

Step 4: Print the Image

Picture of Print the Image

Print the bridged stencil images. You want to print them at the same size you want the stencil to be. You have to print all the layers at the same size. I wanted to make a stencil that was a little bigger than 8.5" x 11", so I printed the left half of the image and the right half of the image and taped them together in the next step. There are some online services where you can divide an image into multiple components. I've been using Picasa's desktop application.

If you don't have a printer available, you can trace them from the screen of your computer or laptop, and use the tracing in the next step.

Step 5: Lay Out Print for Cutting

Picture of Lay Out Print for Cutting

Line up the prints from the last step on a cutting surface, and tape them down. You'll be at the cutting part for at least a half-hour or so, so make sure the stencils are positioned so that you can move around them. I like to tape them to a small butcher block table (a cutting mat would work better) that I can walk around on three sides. That makes it easier to get the right angle for applying consistent pressure to cut the stencil (without cutting through the bridges).

Step 6: Cut Out Stencil

Picture of Cut Out Stencil

Tack the stencil material to the cutting surface, making sure to catch the edges of the paper underneath. You don't want the stencil to move relative to the printed image underneath while you're cutting.

The mylar is translucent, so you can see what you're cutting underneath. If you're using card stock instead of translucent or transparent mylar, you'll tack your image to the top of the card stock rather than having it sit below.

As you work through the cuts, start with the most important, central details first. For this stencil of a face, I start with the eyes and spend the most time getting those important features right. The details in the hair are less important, but it's still best if everything lines up. As you work your way out, you'll find that there are some details and bridges that you can leave out. More than once, I've test-sprayed an incompletely cut stencil and liked it fine without adding the details at the edges. The simplest line that communicates the image is the best! If you're wondering whether a detail is important, you can keep the original image close by so you can check it against the stencil.

Take your time and don't rush at the end. If you have a very delicate pattern, as you cut, it becomes more likely that the stencil will tear.

If you don't have a lot of time, or if this part frustrates you, you can always order the perfectly detailed laser cut stencil from Bay Stencil.

Step 7: Test Spray the Stencil

Picture of Test Spray the Stencil

In a well-ventilated area, position the stencil on your test surface. You can tack it down with a temporary adhesive, or in some cases you can just hold the stencil down with your (gloved) hand. You can use a single color to test-spray, as shown. For the lighter tones, just apply a lighter layer of paint from a greater distance.

I like to position the stencil surface nearly vertically when I spray it (as if it were mounted on a wall), because the spray cans work best when held vertically (too much spraying in a downward direction tends to clog the jets).

You can vary the weight of the paint from point to point on a stencil. In this example you keep the paint thick around the eyes in the center of the stencil, and allow it to be thinner near the edges.

Step 8: Try Out Variations to Find the Best Spray Pattern

Picture of Try Out Variations to Find the Best Spray Pattern

Experiment with different shades and colors, and see what works best. With this stencil, I found that it worked best to paint the midtone layer with a light layer of yellow or pink, then selectively darken parts of it (especially around the eyes). The dark layer took more paint around the eyes, and a nice diffuse spray in the regions of the hair and lips.

Step 9: Make Your Artistic Statement

Picture of Make Your Artistic Statement

You can use the stencil over and over again--the world is your oyster!

Comments

Darwinfish (author)2015-01-12

Nice work! A few of my friends and I have done a bit of this with old cardboard. You'd be surprised how long cheap spray paint lasts on a T-shirt. Probably the best one so far was a devil head done in a sort of Andy Warhol grid. I might have to look into getting some mylar, cutting details in corrugated cardboard is a pain!

borogoves (author)Darwinfish2015-01-12

Word. Fabric paint is nice but spray paint goes a long way on the jersey fabric that most t-shirts are made of. I really like the idea of matching the stencil almost all the way to the t-shirt seams, so that the image almost wraps around. I've seen some neat Polynesian prints made this way, although I can't find any photos of them.

seamster (author)2015-01-05

Is that Stencilizer service free? It looks interesting!

If not, I'm curious about the process of breaking down images for stenciling using common editing software. Any advice on that?

borogoves (author)seamster2015-01-09

It *is* free!

jonmwilson (author)borogoves2015-01-11

Unless I'm missing a step, high quality vector versions of the layers are US$1.99 . Not quite free, but cheap enough that they may as well be!

borogoves (author)jonmwilson2015-01-11

I cut mine from the free version, which was high-res enough to print and cut manually. If you want to use a laser cutter or a craft cutter, the vector version (at $1.99) is clearly the way to go.

borogoves (author)seamster2015-01-09

If you want still more control, you can also re-crop and re-balance the image before uploading it to Bay Stencil.

And if that's still not enough for you, you can try Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw or Inkscape. These programs all have different ways of converting bitmaps to vector images, and Inkscape works as well for me as the other expensive options. In Inkscape:

1. File -> Import your image (it helps if it's already cropped when you import it)

2. Select the image

3. Path -> Trace Bitmap

4. In the dialog, choose 'Colors' and change the number of scans to 6 and then 'OK'

5. This gives you a grouped set of 6 layers. Because you probably don't really want 6 colors in your stencil, you can combine the lightest layers, the midtone layers and the darkest layers. You combine two layers by selecting both layer shapes and choosing Path -> Union.

Once you have three (light, mid and dark) layers you still have to bridge and simplify each layer yourself before printing it and cutting it out; this will take some time. You can use the eraser tool to make bridges in Inkscape.

seamster (author)borogoves2015-01-09

Awesome! This is great stuff to know, thank you!

Lima79 (author)2017-03-11

not into arts"i can't even draw an apple(:" but this one is cool... VERY COOL...

alpal (author)2015-01-19

Cheers!

sandrone75 (author)2015-01-14

Cool tutorial but you can also use GIMP for free I Made this

alpal (author)sandrone752015-01-17

I'm a gimp fan too! 5 layer Eddie.

sandrone75 (author)alpal2015-01-19

COOL!

borogoves (author)sandrone752015-01-14

Neat!

aboswell (author)2015-01-15

awesome

stevemoss (author)2015-01-13

Well done! Thanks for sharing. This is going on the bucket list.

wlshafor (author)2015-01-12

thanks for this detailed tutorial

maniacse (author)2015-01-11

Perfect, thanks for inspiration!

kylegilbert (author)2015-01-11

I've been interested in doing something like this for a while. Thanks for the helpful steps and suggestions here!

Satin pun intentended (author)2015-01-11

Very cool, gotta try this.

(sigh) *God, I'm such a 40 year old Nerd.*

firestorm888 (author)2015-01-11

Good stuff, Boro! You should be proud!

boot-cheese-3000 (author)2015-01-11

I have my own method where I use Photoshop and Illustrator respectively but this definitely could work if you can't afford either software, esp since it's free. Awesome tutorial and work sir.

I would recommend that it doesn't hurt to use different types of paint besides Krylon, although I do use it and Love it. Liquitex has a water-based aerosol spraypaint product that's widely available now in case you haven't heard about it. It's easy to use and mixes will with any type of paint.

Thanks for the tutorial! I'm always searching for new tips, tricks and even software for my Stencil endeavors. ;)

Hey, thanks--Krylon is accessible to most folks (any hardware store will have it), but I've also been using chalk-based paint too (washes off with soap and water). The Molotow Spray Pigments are a good alternative to permanent paints. I use a dirty-concrete canvas as midtone and then go white for the highlights and black for the darks. You could also use chalk black for the darks and bleach for the highlights.

http://www.molotow.com/products/tech-line/pigmentspray/

Mielameri (author)2015-01-11

Awesome tutorial, thanks. And the cover photo looks fabulous! Makes me want to try this right away :)!

hardlydavidson (author)2015-01-10

this is a good and a very detailed ible, mate. thanks for sharing.

sue.reeves.566 (author)2015-01-10

Nice tutorial! Thanks!

annakrov (author)2015-01-09

nice!

woman on the template is very similar to Violette Szabo of computer game Velvet Assassin!

teganles (author)annakrov2015-01-10

Yes, cool game ;)

Mr AbAk (author)2015-01-10

Nice ible...

borogoves made it! (author)2015-01-09

Here's what happens when you mix up the mid-tone and light layers. Interesting effect though...

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