Introduction: How to Make Great Stencils for Spray Paint

Stencils? Aren't those for graffiti artists? Actually, this is a common misconception, but a misconception nonetheless. Spray paint stencils are a fun way to make easily-reproducible designs and graphics that you create. In just a few steps, I'll lay out the process; from choosing a design to spraying the finished piece.

Anyone can design and create a stencil, it's just a matter of patience and precision. After a few tries, the process will become second nature, and you'll be plastering your designs on any flat surface you can find!

So, without further ado... let's gather the materials.

P.S.: Here are a few places where you can see the extent of stenciling art today.

Google Images

Deviant Art

Step 1: Gather the Materials

There aren't many tools required for this project, so the ones required here are important.

1. Cutting Mat

($10 - $40 USD) Example

This is imperative if you want to protect the surface on which you'll be cutting. Cutting mats are just a plastic or rubber pad that protects the table surface below it. The mat is what your blade will hit after it cuts through the paper or plastic you're using for your stencil. Segue into...

2. Paper or Plastic?

($1 - $10 USD) Example

For the body of the stencil itself, you'll need to pick between either cardstock (paper that's rated between 50 and 110 lbs.; thicker than printer paper but thinner than cardboard), or acetate (Flexible plastic sheets that are a little thicker than cardstock). Acetate stencils are more durable, but less forgiving while cutting, and are more difficult to cut.

3. Craft Knife

($4 - $8 USD) Example

The knife you use can make or break your stencil. As you'll learn through experience, the process of cutting involves a high amount of precision. A dull blade can skip or slip and ruin your design. A sharp blade, on the other hand, will go where you push it, with accuracy. Most knives come with a set of extra blades, so sharpening isn't necessary.

4. Marker

(<$1 USD)

Having a dependable permanent maker makes your experience far smoother, as this is what transfers your design or drawing to the surface that will become the stencil. This marker can be fine-tip, regular, or any color of the rainbow.

5. Spray Paint

($5 - $10 USD) Example

Unsurprisingly, the paint is imperative for this project. Many types of spray paint exist, but it's not really important to have the highest quality. Hardware stores sell spray paint that will bond to pretty much anything, and art stores sell acrylic-based spray paint. It's really up to you which type and color you use; try different types to figure out what you like more.

Step 2: Pick a Design

At its heart, the stencil you make is only as good as what it depicts. You could accurately cut your image out of pristine acetate, with the sharpest knife you could find, then spray it perfectly, but it would still only be as good as what it's showing.

With this in mind, keep these thoughts in your head whilst searching for inspiration:

  1. Simple isn't always bad, there is such a thing as too complicated. On that note...
  2. If you can't draw it, you probably can't cut it easily.
  3. "What will this look like after it's been spray-painted?"

Eventually, you'll stumble across (or create) your perfect image, design, or symbol. Whether this idea is in the form of a sketch, a printout, or some form of clipping, you're ready for the next step.

P.S.: The images above are some stencils I've made, and some pre-stencil sketches, just to better show what the process looks like.

Step 3: Cut the Stencil

At last, you've arrived at the moment of truth, the point of no return. By now you have the materials and the idea, now it's time to put your design onto your stencil. This step will be broken into a few sub-steps for clarity.

Sub-Step 1:

Trace your design onto your stencil material, either acetate or cardstock. If you're using acetate, lay the plastic over your design, and trace it onto the surface of the acetate itself. Because it's translucent, this process is simple.

If you're using cardstock, it may be a little more difficult, but not too bad. You can place the cardstock over your design, and see if you can see through it, but this is hit-or-miss. If it's a miss, place both your design and the paper against a sunny window, trying again to see the design through the paper. If both of these methods don't work, use a light table (image above) and trace your image onto the cardstock that way.

Now, your design is on the material you'll be using for the stencil itself, you're almost there!

Sub-Step 2:

BEFORE YOU CUT, there's one more decision to make. You have to decide what parts of the stencil you actually want to cut out. Remember, whatever you cut out will show the paint you spray, and whatever you don't cut out will be blank.

So, if I cut along the outside of my entire bird design, it would just be a bird-shaped hole in the stencil. What I would probably do is cut along the inside of the line in each segment. Then, the line itself would be "blank" after the design is sprayed.

As the artist/designer, you have to decide where you want the paint to show through.

Sub-Step 3:

Cutting time. As shown in the picture, push the blade (at an angle) into the paper or acetate, then pull slowly towards you, with the straight side of the blade facing away.

Keep repeating this, tracing the shapes that you want paint to show through in your final stencil.

Sub-Step 4:

Congratulate yourself, it's paint time.

Step 4: Spray It!

At this point, you've designed your stencil and cut it out of your choice material. Now, it's time to paint.

First, pick an item you want to adorn with your design. This can be anything* really, so get creative.

Next, place your stencil on top of whatever surface you wish to paint. Unless your new stencil has a large margin around it, you'll want to "frame" it with newspaper or something similar (As seen in the first picture). This is because spray paint has spray in its name for a reason; the edges of the cloud of paint will hit your surface outside the edges of the stencil, making an extra line (or lines) you probably don't want. This effect can be noted above, especially in the last picture.

To spray, hold the can 6-8 inches away from your stencil and, at a slight angle, spray the whole stencil in one-or-two-second bursts.

Lastly, remove the paper around the edges (slowly), then pull the stencil straight away from the paper. All that's left now is waiting for it to dry.

Congratulations! You've designed, produced, and painted your own stencil! With practice, this process will become like second nature.

Let me know in the comments what other stencil/spray paint tutorials you want to see, or any other kind of tutorial!

*Examples include: Binders, planners, folders, etc. Also, coasters, tables, headboards, cabinets, computers?, plywood (make a mural!), walls/floors/ceilings (legally), and just regular paper are all up for grabs.

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