Materials and Tools to Cut Your Own Stencils
These are the basic materials and tools needed to cut your own stencils. I go into some detail about the first three. In this tutorial, for the design you will use my Cut Your Own Stencils Practice Sheets from my free Resource Library.
- Stencil Film
- Cutting Tool
- Cutting Surface
The material from which you cut your own stencils may depend on what you are stenciling. Below are my preferred films for stenciling. There are many things you can use as a stencil. Once, in a pinch when I needed to do an impromptu demo for a friend, I cut a stencil out of the clear plastic packaging for some product she had just bought.
For single-use stenciling projects, you can cut your own stencils from vinyl on a craft machine such as the Cricut. Vinyl stencils are single-use because, when you peel them off your project, they will distort and likely tear. If do not have a craft machine and do not know anyone who has one, you can take a design file in vector format (such as .SVG) to a sign shop. It won’t be cheap but they will scale it to the size you need and cut it. They can easily cut multiples, too. One of the benefits of using vinyl is that it adheres to the project which keeps it from shifting around and reduces bleed-under for those who overload their brushes or use paint rollers. Additional benefits of vinyl stencils is the ability to use them on curved surfaces and there is no need to clean them after the project.
The best thickness for Mylar stencils is 3 to 5 mil Mylar. A “mil” is one one-thousandths of an inch. The 5 mil is thicker than 3 mil. Any thicker than 5 mil and it gets much harder to cut. Any thinner than 3 mil and the stencil is too fragile. Mylar is fairly durable and cleans well enough. The thin material is great for any stenciling technique. The film is glossy on one side (the side you stencil on) and matte on the back side (the side facing your project). It is sort of milky-white and translucent enough that you can easily see your project. The image below shows a sheet of Mylar over one of my practice sheets.
I just looked on Amazon and found 4 mil Mylar in sheets and rolls:
- 4 mil Blank Mylar 8 x 10.5 sheet – 25 pack
- 4 mil Stencil Mylar Blanks 12 x 17.5 sheet – 18 Pack
- Blank Mylar-Stencil Material-Blank Mylar-4 mil-41 inch roll stock-priced per foot-Plastic
Transparency film is the 8-1/2″ x 11″ sheets of clear film used with overhead projectors. The film is completely clear which makes positioning very easy. The film is not as durable as Mylar and easier to tear. It is also inexpensive and easy to find at your local office supply stores. It cleans about the same as Mylar.
The cut your own stencils, the best tool I have used is an X-Acto Knife with a new #11 blade. They make the knives with easy-to-grip handles. The one at this link is the one I find the most comfortable for me to hold. I also keep a package of new blades handy. Dull blades do not cut well.
I do not use a swivel knife. It never seems to offer the kind of control that the standard knife gives. When working with a sharp knife, you want control, which means better safety. Change the blade when the cutting isn’t going as smoothly as it was when you started with a new blade. It is cheaper to change out the blade than to throw away a whole stencil because you botched it.
NOTE: Please use safety measures when working with these knives. They are very sharp. If you have little ones around, don’t cut your stencils when they are running around or peering over the edge of the table to get a closer look. Slips can happen and you don’t want to accidentally cut anyone.
I have cut on many surfaces and my preference is tempered glass. If you use glass, make sure that it is 1/4″ thick and that the edges are smooth (or cover them with tape so you don’t get cut by the glass). If you have a shop in your area that sells glass panes, they likely also sell tempered glass. You don’t need a big piece. The glass I have is 10″ x 12″ and I have never felt the need for something larger.
Other surfaces you can use to cut your own stencils include:
- Self-healing mats
- Old magazines
- Thick un-corrugated cardboard
Magazines and cardboard will dull your blade much faster. I use them in a pinch when I do not have access to my own tools.
Do not use wood or plastic cutting boards. As you cut, your blade gets caught either in the wood grain or in a previous cut on the board and your blade will follow that grain or cut instead of the design. It is very frustrating. Do not use the glass kitchen cutting boards. They are bumpy which forces the blade to a different path than the design.
For this tutorial, you will work with the practice designs, available in my free Resource Library.
For your own stencil cutting projects, you can use your own design. I will have another tutorial about basic stencil design.
Time for Some Practice Work!
Download my Cut Your Own Stencils Practice Sheets from my free Resource Library and print sheets 2 and 3 for starters. The pictures in this tutorial show how to cut your own stencils from transparency film. The technique is the same for Mylar but requires a bit more effort.
- Sheet 2 is all straight lines and corners
- Sheet 3 is simple curves
The practice sheets are the same size as the transparency film so you need to cut some notches out of the paper practice sheets.
Lay practice sheet 2, print side down, onto the transparency film and tape to the transparency film at the notches.
Turn this over and place onto your cutting surface.
How to Hold the Knife
To cut your own stencils, you need good control of the knife. Not everyone will hold the X-Acto knife in exactly the same way. In the years I have taught stencil cutting, most have found this to work best for them. But, you know your body, your strength and your dexterity better than anyone. This is just a guide.
When I cut, I don’t hold the handle with my fingers, I hold the blade with my fingers. I know, weird, right? This gives me the power and control to do very fine cutting. I had a woman tell me once that she had never been able to cut her own stencils because of her arthritis but was able to do so (for short periods) with my technique.
Below is a stencil I cut years ago. The ruler is provided for scale so you can see how finely you can cut a stencil.
Starting the Cut
I should preface this section that I am right-handed and will use terms for right-handedness. You can reverse the hands/directions if you are left-handed.
To cut your own stencils, it is easiest to start at a corner. Position the design so that your first cut is along a line that is at a 45 degree angle to edge of the table.
Push the tip of the blade into a corner and through the transparency film. Don’t start “near” the corner. Get right into the corner. You don’t need to start exactly perpendicular to the plane of the work surface but a straight-down push will get you very close to the exact corner.
Angle the blade down so that the handle of the blade is no longer perpendicular to the work surface. This angle should be close to 45 degrees to the work surface. Draw the blade to the right and toward you along that approximately 45 degree angle. Try not to draw directly toward you. If you slip, you can hurt yourself. Do not draw the blade away from you. You will not have the power and control in that direction. That 45 degree angle gives you some of the power and control of pulling toward you plus the safety of not hurting yourself.
Draw the blade toward next corner while pushing firmly down into the material. Stop when you get to the corner but do not lift the blade out of the transparency file. Angle it back up to nearly perpendicular to the work surface. The tip of the blade will be like a pin in the material.
Continuing the Cut
Rotate the design so that the next cutting motion will be in the same direction. You want to always be cutting a little toward you and a little away from you. Repeat the cutting going from one corner to the next until you end up where you started.
It’s not easy trying to explain all this in words so I also have a video below that shows the cutting of a square.
First cut is Complete!
You have now cut a square out of transparency film. Lift the square out of the film. If you didn’t push hard enough as you were cutting, it may not pop out easily. If that’s the case, carefully set the blade down in the cut and gently cut where it seems to be attached. It’s okay if you cut through the paper.
Cut the rest of the shapes on Page 2 of the practice sheets. Print more sheets if you want more practice (or draw your own shapes!).
Don’t worry if you need to rest your hand periodically. It’s a good idea to set the blade down every few minutes and stretch your fingers, hands, and shoulders.
Sometimes when I cut straight lines, I use a metal ruler as a guide. I DON’T use the ones with a cork backing because that leaves a gap under which the blade could wander (unless I use it upside down). If you use a ruler or some other straight edge, don’t use plastic or wood because your knife will cut into it.
Cutting on a curve is a little different. The way you hold the knife is the same. What is different is that your motion as you cut is an arc instead of a straight line. And, this is what takes some practice, depending on how much the curved line curves, you can move the stencil as you cut.
I utilize rotation from my fingers, from my wrist, from my elbow and from my shoulder (depending on the size of the curve). I also rotate the stencil film counter-clockwise with my left hand while cutting clockwise with my right hand.
The best way for me to explain this is to show you in this video.
And then, the challenge of cutting a full circle!
Cutting your own stencils takes practice to get good at it. If you need to, practice on paper first to get used to this type of cutting and learn to keep your blade smoothly on the line. Work up to it too. If you overdo the cutting, you can strain your hand – from personal experience. The very best piece of advice I have for stencil cutting is Practice, Practice, Practice. The more you practice, the better you will get. Continue to use my practice sheets until you feel comfortable cutting sheets 2 and 3. Then move on to the more complex shapes on pages 4 and the smaller shapes on page 5.
When you are cutting your stencils, start with the smallest elements first and work up to the biggest elements. Cutting the big elements reduces the structural integrity of the stencil film to a much greater degree than the smaller elements. You want to maintain as much of the strength of the film for as long as possible.