I wanted to make up some stencils for the rafting company I work for that we could use to spray paint our gear. Our logo has some floating islands in it so I created some paper tabs in Illustrator to hold the islands in place. Big islands can then be held in place with piano wire used as reinforcement along the paper tabs.
For best results, you can forgo the paper tabs entirely and bend the wire into a handle shape and float the island on wires that won't even appear when you go to spray paint your image. I did this for the islands where it mattered most, like in one of the logos where it would matter most that it look clean and professional.
I found the paper tabs to be acceptable and a time saver on the letters and numbers since the eye is more accustomed to seeing stencil tabs in fonts.
More info on making floating islands in stencils can be found in Fungus Amungus' classic Stencils with Islands - Pt. 2 Instructable.
Step 1: Start With an Image
Start with an image, in this case, a .jpg, that you want to create a stencil from.
Take a look at it, does it have floating islands? Like the white circle inside the "a's", "o" and "g"?
If it does, proceed.
Step 2: Draw Rectangles to Create Tabs
In the photo editing software of your choice (Illustrator is pictured below) draw narrow white rectangles that have no outline or stroke value across your islands. You can draw them vertically, horizontally, any which way you like, just make them line up in respect to each individual letter is all that matters now.
The width is up to you, pick a value that's both structural, but not so wide that you'd notice it at first. 3/32" is around what I used.
This creates tabs which will hold the island in place. Two tabs are sufficient for small islands, but if the island is really big, make more.
Step 3: Save .jpg
Save the file as a new .jpg.
Step 4: Live Trace in Illustrator
Open the new .jpg file with the tabs in Illustrator and perform a "Live Trace" function.
You'll have to mess the settings. For best results I find adjusting the blur a bit can help.
Additionally, set the max stroke width to 1 pixel and set the output to "no fills" but "yes strokes".
You want just the outlines as the tracing result.
Step 5: Save As Legacy .eps
Once the tracing is complete click "expand" in Live Trace menu and then save the resulting image as a legacy .eps.
I like to go all the way back to .eps 8,9 or 10 in the Illustrator save dialogue that comes up.
I find that the images and vectors are preserved perfectly and have the greatest chance of opening in Corel Draw (where we're going next) when saved as the legacy version. One day all versions and file formats will play nicely, but until then, the legacy has been a great workaround for me.
Step 6: Open Files in Corel Draw, Layout, and Laser Cut
I'll be cutting the files on a laser cutter so I imported the .eps' into Corel Draw and laid them out on a document that was the same size as my material.
Be sure to check all settings, making sure you've got no fills, and just strokes that are set to either "hairline" or "1 pixel".
Send the document to the lasercutter and cut into your material of choice.
Vector cut your outlines into your material.
I'm using a heavy oaktag like material that will hold up for at least a few sprayings.
Cardboard works, as well as other plastics, and of course, the classic manilla folder.
Step 7: Reinforce Island Tabs With Piano Wire
Piano wire is very thin steel rod that you can buy at the hardware store. It's cheap, easy to work with, and perfect for this application.
Place piano wire across your paper tabs to help reinforce the islands and hold them in place.
Tape the wire into place and repeat for all of your islands that need reinforcement.
Step 8: Without Tabs
For HQ floating island stencil work, you can forgo the paper tabs entirely and use the piano wire only to hold the islands in place. Bend the wire into a handle shape with two needle nosed pliers and tape it down to the island. Use multiple wires to hold larger islands in place.
The bend of the handle will allow the paint to be sprayed completely through the cut in your stencil while still holding the island in position.