Stencils are as common place in art as drawing or painting. We're often acquainted with them when we're young. For kids, stencils offer an easy way to be creative without having to draw—just place the pattern over a surface and dab with paint. Stencil tools shouldn’t be underestimated, though. For adults, they still have a lot of creative potential—you just have to know how to use them.
If you’re looking for another art technique to try, stencils are perfect. They can be simple or complex, and you can integrate them into your other artwork or use them for DIY projects. To get you started on a stenciling journey, we've found a way to make your own, as well as places to find free printable stencils to download. Once you’re ready to start creating, check out some inspiring artists who’ll show you just how far you can take the humble stencil.
How to Make Your Own Stencil by Hand
Stencils are typically cut from a thin material that can hold its form—cardboard, plastic sheets, and metal are popular options. You could use paper, but it might rip or tear after repeated use. Plastic sheets, such as mylar, are the best option for making stencils by hand. Mylar is easy to find online or in craft stores, and it can be cut with scissors or an X-ACTO knife. Most importantly, mylar sheets can be used over and over again.
This short supply list is everything you need to make your own stencil.
Before you begin the DIY process, find or create an image or pattern that you love.
There are many online resources to find free printable stencils. Here are a few to try:
Free Stencil Gallery has a large variety of stencils to browse and download. From animals to games to music to people, they are all free to save and use.
Free Printable Stencils is like the Free Stencil Gallery and includes border stencils to download.
Free Stencil Maker is a tool that generates your own custom stencil. Simply type in the word you want to stencil, pick the font, and download it. They also have a tool that generates a stencil from a photograph!
Pinterest also has an entire page dedicated to stencils that are free to print. This is great for finding project-specific stencils.
Once you’ve decided on your design, draw or print it on a sheet of paper at the scale in which you want the stencil. Then, place your stencil pattern on top of your cutting mat and put the mylar sheet on top of that. Secure both sheets with tape.
After you’ve set up your stencil station, you’ll notice that you can see the mylar sheet below to your pattern. Use your marker to carefully and slowly trace the stencil design on the mylar. (If you make a mistake, use a q-tip with rubbing alcohol to remove.) Once you’ve finished that step, remove the sheet of paper below the mylar. With an X-ACTO knife, begin to cut out your stencil design from the plastic. When complete, you’ve got a stencil that’s ready to use!
Online classes can take the stenciling technique further.
Skillshare has a class called How To Create a Simple Stencil that demonstrates how to apply the technique on a variety of materials—like textile, wood, or wall.
Designing Stencil Art: From Photo to Painting is a Skillshare course that brings one of your designs to life via Adobe Illustrator.
Julie Fei-Fan Balzer of Balzer Design also offers a class called Stencil 101. In it, she focuses on acrylic paint and building complex images with stencils for use in a scrapbook or art journal.