Introduction: Spray Paint Stencil

About: Freelance mechanical engineer from the Bay Area.

Ever since I discovered spray paint at the age of 7 or 8, making stencils has always been a hobby of mine. After years of developing my stencils from paper, to cardboard, card stock, sticky-back printer paper, and styrene plastic, I’ve finally figured out a fool proof way to transfer just about any design to any surface you want. The trick involves a cutting board, an XActo knife, spray paint, and the magic ingredient: blue masking tap (painter’s tape).

I'll be using a couple stencils that I did of some company logos as examples. I made these stencils for the fuselage of the Viper Flight Simulator (they were sponsors).

Step 1: Choosing a Design

The first step in making a great stencil is finding a design that will stencil well. Usually images with two tones and hard lines work the best, but it is possible to do things like gradients, faded edges, and multiple colors. For your first stencil though, choose a design that only has two colors (the design is one color and the background is another), hard edges (no feathering), and also make sure it is relatively “simple”. For instance, the Mandelbrot set satisfies the first two criteria because it only has hard edges and two colors, but it would literally take you forever to cut it out, so don’t choose something like this.

The logos I chose were fairly simple for the same reasons. Not to many colors, hard edges, pretty simple to cut out. 

Step 2: Making the Stencil

Once you have your design, print it out at several different sizes so you can choose which one is best. You should print on regular white paper. Once you have the size you like, grab your cutting board and the masking tape. Put layers of overlapping tape down on the cutting board so that there is at least an inch of tape around the edge of the design. Now cut our your printed out design and tape it down onto the layers of masking tape so that it is centered and you have that 1 inch boarder of tape around the design.

Grab your Xacto knife and go to town! It may take a little practice to get used to the pressure required, because you need to go all the way through the paper and masking tape layers, and ideally you shouldn’t cut all the way through the cutting board. Having a really sharp knife will make this a piece of cake. Don’t be afraid to switch out the blade once or twice during the cutting, because it really does make a difference.


I’ve actually switched from the Xacto brand to medical scalpels, mainly because the blades are incredibly sharp, and they are super cheap because doctors / surgeons switch them out so frequently. I’ve found that the #11 blade is most alike to the x-acto blades.

Make sure to double check that you have actually cut out the whole design.

When you are done, peal up the paper from the top. Find all the places in the masking tape that should be positive, meaning should get hit with spray paint in the design. If your design is black on a white background, then the positive areas are all the black parts. So, find these areas, and using the tip of your knife or a fingernail, peal these off of the cutting board. When you are done, you should have a negative stencil of your design (meaning the tape is the background of your design: the white part from our previous example).

Step 3: Using the Stencil

Now it’s time to actually use your awesome stencil.

Before you peal up your stencil from the cutting board, prep the surface you plan to paint on. Basically just wipe of dust, make sure it is dry, and check if spray paint actually sticks to it.

Gently peal up the masking tape from the cutting board, using your hands and the knife to lift up parts that stick. Make sure not to rip anything! Now transfer the tape stencil to your work surface. If there are ‘islands’ of stencil that didn’t get pealed up with the rest of the stencil, like the part in the middle of a ‘P’ or ‘O’, lift these off the cutting board with your knife and place them in the correct spot on the work surface.

Firmly press all parts of the tape stencil to the work surface with your hands to make sure it is really sticking.

Depending on the size of the work surface and stencil, you may want to mask off the areas around the stencil so you don’t accidentally get overspray on them from the spray paint. Use news paper and more masking tape for this.

Now it’s time to paint! Grab your favorite color spray paint, shake it up, and do nice even passes over the stencil until you are happy with the color. Don’t over do it though, you don’t want puddles or drips! If it doesn’t look saturated enough and you can still see the background though it, wait about 30 mins to an hour for it to cure a bit, then put on another coat. One of the hardest things for me when I paint things is waiting during the drying and curing periods, but seriously it’s important to let it dry properly!

Step 4: Admire Your Work!

Once the paint has dried, carefully remove all masking paper or news paper, and gently peal the tape off. Drying times vary depending on the type of paint, but usually an hour or two is fine, especially if it's hot outside.

Take a step back and admire your work!