Introduction: Stencil Making on a Vinyl Cutter at Techshop SF

About: Based in San Francisco I strive to incorporate custom lettering in the art that I design, print, and make.
In this instructable I share my tips and tricks for making a stencil or a sign using the following materials:

tube of cardboard from blick 15' (30" wide) for ~$2.00
vinyl cutter at Techshop SF
stencil cutting knife

The process that I am developing is to make it easier to create a lower cost stencil that gets better with use. Some stencils fall apart after a few uses and some get better with use as they harden up from the extra paint. 

Created in October 2013 by SFlettering
I made it at Techshop

Step 1: Test Cuts and Scoring the Cardboard for Manual Cutting

For the first round  of experimental stencil making I used the vinyl cutter to "score" the cardboard and provide lines for later cutting manually. Although this technique worked I found that it duplicated the total effort and did not produce the crisp lines desired for a stencil. 

I also learned from this step that when cutting out the letters by hand they look better when they are spaced farther apart. 

Step 2: Experimental Sign Making on the Vinyl Cutter (Sign 1)

After using the vinyl cutter at Techshop SF to score the cardboard for the entire 6 foot stencil I cut out each letter manually attempting to follow the score lines on the cardboard. The process made a stencil that has a few issues

1) the edges of the letters are very close together
2) the cardboard is curling away from the application surface

Step 3: Vinyl Cutter Issues Encountered

For my second iteration to make a better sign in a little bit less time I chose to use the vinyl cutter to not only score the cardboard lightly but to actually cut through the cardboard. On the vinyl cutter I spaced the rollers toward the edges of the ~24" of material while I cut the center. 

What you see in the image is the vinyl cutter has successfully cut out a few letter before getting jammed with material that began to rip because the letters were cut too close together. Not one to give up I came up with another method to get better results.

Step 4: File Simplification and Letter Smoothing

In this step you can see an image of the file that I designed.

First, I wrote the lettering with a pilot parallel calligraphy pen.
Then I took a photo of the calligraphy and used Sure Cuts a Lot pro to live trace the image and make the image into a graphic that can be cut on the vinyl cutter.

In this image you can see my 3rd iteration of the digitized letters where I have already reduced the letter overlap locations and simplified the edges of the letters by manually smoothing the design. When manually smoothing the design I removed some of the extra points on the letters edges and adjusted the spacing. 

Step 5: New Method for Cutting Rolled Cardboard

While thinking about the best way to build the stencil I was concerned with my first 2 design styles because the stencil was rolling up and away from the surface where it will be sprayed with paint. I also learned through testing on the vinyl cutter that the letters were jamming the vinyl cutter when cut "right side up"

In both images you can see that I turned the roll of cardboard over and used the "back" side to heavily score the letters so that they remained in place while cutting and could be pulled apart by hand with minimal use of a knife to cut the edges that were heavily scored by the vinyl cutter. 

TIP: This basis change made a huge difference and the stencil printed well without jamming the vinyl cutter

Step 6: Stencil Making Results When Printing on the Reverse Side

In this image you can see the final stencil (right side up) and my previous stencil design (upside down)

My testing resulted in a good final print as you can see in step 1 that provided me with a stencil that I can use both as a sign by itself and as a traditional stencil. The price difference on this is basically a roll of cardboard for ~$2.00 or a roll of stencil material for $16.99 if you are shopping at blick. 

TIP: Always consider safety first when using the vinyl cutter in a non-traditional way.

In this image you can see the writing under the letters which shows the settings I used for the cut. A good setting to use is a cut pressure of 320 and a cut speed of 50 (320/50) as a good starting point. (These settings are relative to how the blade is positioned in the blade holder)