The Materials

Another classic by Stencil Pirates author Josh MacPhee


Stenciling is the poor persons' printmaking. It is the easiest and cheapest way to print the same image over and over on different surfaces and in different places. To start off, the three most important things for making a stencil are an idea, something to cut with, and something to cut the stencil out of. I can't help with the idea part, but you shouldn't feel like you have to be an artist to do this. One of the great things about stencils is that since each print looks the same and consists of only a positive and negative, it makes almost all designs look really sharp and good.


Any kind of knife, or even scissors, can be used to cut stencils. Some people like big box cutting blades, but I find them heavy and unwieldy. I always cut everything with the simple exacto knife. Nothing fancy, just the regular size and the regular blades. They're really easy to find (most copy shops have them out on the counters for customers to use.) and replacement blades are pretty cheap and accessible. I also find them the easiest to use; I hold mine almost like I would a pencil, and they have a really nice tight cutting radius so it's pretty easy to cut small details with after practicing a little.


The material you cut a stencil out of completely depends on a number of factors, but the most important are use and size. The main use distinction is whether you are going to use a stencil inside our outside. Here is a site that has a lot of good examples of how cut stencils used outside can look (surf their galleries).


Stencils you plan on painting inside on paper or other materials, can be made out of just about anything (thick cardboard, thin paper, etc.). when cutting stencils to use inside, I usually use two different materials, either laser paper (the kind you can get out of the color copier at a copy shop), or manila file folders. If you are just going to use the stencil to make one or two prints (spray throughs) and throw it away, then the paper is perfect. It is really easy to cut, making intricate details easy to do. Since you're not using very much, it doesn't matter that for the most part, paper stencils won't last for more than a couple of uses. Because laser paper is light, it'll move on your painting surface. If this happens, spray a little glue (preferably repositionable spray mount) on the back and stick it to the surface. You should be able to peel it off.

If I want the stencil to last a little longer, I'll use the manila file folders. They are both strong and durable but also thin enough to make it fairly easy to cut out good detail. I use them for everything, because you can cut nice, crisp lines on them and cut amazingly tight details (and they still hold together). Plus, they are easily acquired in most office settings, as well as copy shops, office supply stores, etc. Other materials can be used, but these two have always worked best for me. You can buy stuff called 'stencil board' at art supply stores, but it is expensive and usually doesn’t work as well as file folders.


When painting outside, the most important question to answer is what size do you want to stencil? If you're going to paint something small, I'd use the manila file folders. Most people’s first idea is to use corrugated cardboard because it seems so strong. It isn’t that rigid (it folds easily, especially when it's wet), and is a pain the ass to cut, making detail almost impossible. It will last for a long time, but you have to deal with too many negative factors to make it worth it. File folders won't last forever (collected paint can make them crack) but are really durable and available for cheap/free. I have some that I've been using for tow or three years. They're easy to hide, such as being slipped into a folded newspaper or shopping bag, and light to carry.
When I want to make a stencil larger than 12x18, I use regular poster board. You can guy it anywhere and it has the same basic qualities as file folders. It isn't as durable since the size makes it harder to carry without folding, crushing, etc. It's really important that stencils stay flat so that you can get a clean print, so the bigger they are, the trickier it gets to carry and maneuver them.

If you can afford it, the stencil paper, usually precut at your local art store, is a sturdy paper that allows many uses and intricate cutting. It is soaked in oil, so it may smell bad at first. The smell goes away but the paper never soaks the paint. One friend‚'s stencil was brush-painted over 100 times and is still in great shape.

For stencils 2'x3' or larger, the best material I've found is the kind of board that Kinko's prints their in-store advertising and promotions on. It is similar to the material that some cities’ subways use for the ads that slide into frames on the inner walls of the subway cars. I used to work at Kinko's and take home all the old ads, and many are printed on this great really strong plasticized poster board that can be difficult to cut. It last forever and is really durable. I'd suggest striking up a friendship with your local Kinko's employee and ask them to save the posters for you. Once again, other materials, like corrugated cardboard, can always be used if you need to.

Some of my friends also use a rigid, clear, acetate material that seems to work for them, but can also crack or shatter when it gets old.


The most important thing I've learned about paint is that you get what you pay for, if you buy paint. $0.86 cans of paint are pretty appealing to the wallet, but in the long run they're a waste of money.

1. You won't get as much paint out of them.
2. The paint is low quality and doesn't survive the elements very well.
3. The caps on them usually suck.
4. The seal on them also sucks, leading to frequent clogs, which make a mess and sometimes even make the paint unusable.

I usually stick to the two spray paint heavies: Krylon and Rust-oleum.

Their subbrands are Color works and Painter's Touch (or American Accents). American Accents has a really wide range of colors in glossy or flat formats. These subbrands are usually half the price ($1.88 instead of $3.42) and are almost as good. Other than black (always use high-quality black it it's the foundation or outline of your images!), I often use the cheaper brands even though they are slightly inferior in coverage and lasting power.


Unlike traditional graf, caps aren't quite as important for stenciling. 'Fat caps‚' or anything that will widen your spray area, are a good idea because it means less time standing with a can in your hand.

Large industrial cans of paint, made for job sites or stripping ('upside-down cans') sometimes have caps on them that fit onto regular cans. These caps create a nice fan-like wide spray which is great for stencils. If you are primarily painting on the ground, it might be worth using the upside-down can. They carry a ton of paint which usually comes out fast and furious. The only downside is that the colors tend to be pretty limited: black, white, red, yellow, or various neons.

If you're really adventurous, you can order different kinds of caps from Europe through most graffiti magazines.


With some practice and experimentation, everyone finds the materials they like to use best. Go for what you're comfortable with.
Have fun, and don‚'t get caught!