Tattoo Stencils: Tips, Tricks, and Techniques from the Pros | Painful Pleasures Community

Tattoo Stencils: Tips, Tricks, and Techniques from the Pros

Satisfy clients every time with perfect tattoo stencils. Here are a few tips and techniques on how to make a tattoo stencil.
by Painful Pleasures Last Updated: October 21, 2022

Almost every great tattoo began with a great stencil – and an artist who knew how to properly place and transfer that stencil. For seasoned pros and rookies alike, stencils are how artists ensure their client gets exactly what they want out of their ink. Knowing how to create and transfer stencils is critical to your success as an artist. Whether you’re a newbie figuring out the basics or an experienced artist looking to perfect your stencil method, we’ve got you covered. So, here’s everything you need to know to create professional-grade tattoo stencils.

The Purpose of Using a Tattoo Stencil

First off, stencils give the client a chance to make sure they love the design and placement of the tattoo before they commit. More importantly, stencils help artists avoid mistakes and ensure the final product comes out perfectly. No matter how great of an artist you are, very few clients are open to the risk of freehanded tattoos.

How to Use Tattoo Stencil Paper

Tattoo stencil papers are specifically designed for the tattoo industry. Additionally, they make it possible for tattoo artists to apply an exact outline of the tattoo design to the client’s skin before they begin tattooing. They usually have multiple layers that allow artists to draw or print the image onto the top layer, and the image is then transferred to a lower layer that can transfer carbon stencil ink to the skin.

The exact process of using stencil paper varies slightly by the type of paper and stencil you’re using. Nevertheless, all kinds of stencil paper require the same basic steps. First, you’ll create the design and print or draw it on the first layer of stencil paper. Most artists these days design their stencils digitally and print them, but you can hand-draw your stencils as well if you have the right types of stencil paper. From there, you’re ready to clean and prep your client’s skin and transfer the stencil. (More details below!)

The Types of Tattoo Stencil Paper

There are three main types of tattoo stencil paper: tracing paper, thermal paper, and hectograph paper. The kind you use depends mostly on whether you prefer to draw stencils by hand or digitally.

Hectograph Paper

Hectograph or freehand paper is preferred when an artist draws a stencil by hand (though thermal paper can be used for hand-drawn stencils as well). It typically has three layers: 

  1. A top layer to draw on
  2. A middle layer to prevent the sheets from sticking together
  3. A bottom layer that becomes the stencil.

Thermal Paper

These days, most stencils are made from thermal paper. Unlike hectograph paper, thermal paper is compatible with thermal printers and digitally-created images, the method-of-choice for most tattoo artists. Thermal paper comes in four layers – a top layer where the design is printed or drawn, a middle brown layer that is removed before printing (often called the onion layer), a sheet of carbon ink, and a bottom protective layer.

Tracing Paper

Unlike hectograph and thermal paper, tracing paper consists of a single translucent layer with no added backing, onion, or ink sheets. They’re typically used to freehand drafts of a design so that you can later trace the final design onto a carbon sheet or hectograph paper.

Can You Make a Tattoo Stencil Without Transfer Paper?

Virtually every tattoo stencil made by a professional artist will be done with tracing or transfer paper of some kind. While it’s technically possible to create a stencil with regular paper, we don’t recommend it. Online tutorials for making stencils with regular paper usually involve drawing a design and then rubbing a pencil on another sheet of paper until it leaves a thick layer of graphite. You then press the design into the graphite and trace over it firmly so that the graphite transfers onto the other side of the paper. The graphite side is then transferred to the skin using deodorant or a stencil lotion. 

We advise against this method for several reasons. For one thing, the graphite doesn’t transfer cleanly or easily onto the paper, making it difficult to achieve a crisp, accurate stencil. For another, regular paper doesn’t mold to the skin as well as transfer paper. If it crumples, your stencil will be distorted. Finally, the graphite doesn’t always transfer well onto skin, and it’s easily smudged. For professional tattoo stencils, always use a tracing or transfer paper.

How to Make a Tattoo Stencil

Now that we’ve covered what not to do, let’s dive into what you should do when making your tattoo stencils. First, we’ll cover hectograph paper to create hand-drawn stencils.

Using Hectograph Paper

Before you begin drawing, remove the middle layer of paper known as the onion sheet. For best results, you may want to use a hectograph pencil: a pencil that’s specifically designed to create clean, crisp lines through all the layers of hectograph paper.

If you’re freehanding, you can simply begin drawing, making sure to use just enough pressure that the image transfers through cleanly. Many artists prefer to draw the image on tracing paper first and then trace it onto the top layer of hectograph paper. As you draw, the pressure of your pencil transfers the image from the top sheet to the bottom, which will become the stencil.

Using Thermal Paper

Thermal paper is the most common method for creating tattoo stencils today, and it works for hand-drawn designs as well as digitally-drawn ones. You’ll need a tablet and software that lets you digitally create your image. Once you’ve perfected it, it’s time to print it. You can opt to print it on regular paper and then transfer the design onto your thermal paper using a thermal copier. However, most artists prefer to cut out the extra step with a thermal printer. Check out our step-by-step instructions for both below.

How to Use a Thermal Copier or Thermal Printer to Print Tattoo Stencils


Using a Thermal Copier

What You’ll Need:

Precision Tattoo Thermal Copier Instructions:

  1. Pull out a thermal copier paper packet from the package. It will contain a yellow sheet, a brown sheet sometimes referred to as the “onion,”, and a carbon sheet all connected together.
  2. Open the lid of the tattoo thermal copier.
  3. Remove the brown “onion” sheet from between the carbon and yellow sheet.
  4. Grab just the yellow sheet from the remaining 2 sheets in the thermal paper packet. Then, and feed it through the opening in the bottom of the copier’s lid from the back of the machine forward until it’s laying over top of the core of the copier.
  5. From behind the machine, look to make sure the purple carbon is facing down. If it isn’t, remove the yellow sheet, flip the packet over, and reinsert it into the copier lid’s opening.
  6. Pull the yellow sheet through the rest of the way until the crease of the paper (where it attaches to the carbon sheet) lines up with the edge of the lid as you close it.
  7. Lock the lid closed, and then fold back the yellow sheet, so that it lays over top of the thermal copier lid.
  8. Take a printout of your tattoo design, and feed it face-down into the slot in front of the copier’s lid.
  9. Press the “Copy” button on the machine.
  10. Peel back the carbon layer from the thermal copier paper packet… and voila! You now have a reverse copy of your tattoo design that you can apply to your client’s skin (once you’ve put on gloves). Be sure to use a tattoo stencil transfer product like Stencil Stuff when applying the stencil.
  11. Using a Thermal Printer

What You’ll Need:

ReproFX Spirit Pocketjet Burner Thermal Tattoo Printer Instructions:

  1. Connect your ReproFX Spirit Pocketjet Burner into a power outlet and connect it to your PC via the USB cable included in the kit.
  2. Pull up your graphic image file on your PC. Reverse the image horizontally so that it prints backwards and displays properly once applied to your client’s skin.
  3. Fold the yellow sheet of the thermal paper backwards along the perforated line, crease it, and then carefully tear off the yellow sheet.
  4. Remove the protective cover from the purple sheet of carbon paper and throw it away. You should be left with a carbon sheet attached to a blank white sheet of paper.
  5. Feed the carbon paper sheet into the thermal tattoo printer face-down, so you see the white sheet attached to it from the top. The edge of the paper printed with “Made in the USA” is the preferred side to feed into the printer.
  6. Send your reversed tattoo design to the printer from your PC by selecting the “Print” option like you would with any other printer.
  7. Once the image has printed, remove the carbon sheet from the white sheet containing your tattoo design. You now have a reverse copy of your tattoo design that you can apply to your client’s skin.

What’s the Best Way to Make a Tattoo Stencil?

Ultimately, it’s up to you. Many artists prefer digitally-drawn stencils printed onto the thermal paper because they can easily adjust the image and reprint it if it isn’t quite what the client was expecting. With hand-drawn images, you’ll be forced to redraw the entire design even if the client just wants you to make a few adjustments. Still, some artists will always prefer the control of hand-drawing. You may even find that you prefer different methods for different tattoos. As long as you and the client are happy, there’s no universal “right answer.”

How to Apply a Tattoo Stencil to the Skin

Peel back the carbon layer from the thermal copier paper packet… and voila! You now have a reverse copy of your tattoo design that you can apply to your client’s skin (once you’ve put on gloves). Be sure to use a tattoo stencil transfer product like Stencil Stuff when applying the stencil.

Creating a perfect stencil is only the beginning of expert stencil use. A clean, crisp transfer to the client’s skin is just as essential to ensuring a professional-grade final product. Here’s how you can ensure you get the perfect outline every time. 

Determine Where to Put the Stencil

Of course, your client has an idea of where they want their tattoo to be. But it’s up to you as the artist to ensure it’s perfectly placed. For tattoos on some areas, it’s best to have a client stand while applying the stencil, as the tattoo could end up looking stretched, compressed, or off-center if the stencil is applied while the client is sitting.

Prep the Skin

Properly preparing the client’s skin is essential both for sanitary reasons and to achieve the best results. Stencils transfer and stay in place best when skin is clean and smooth. You’ll want to wash the skin with Green Soap, shave the area, and disinfect it before applying the stencil.

Apply Transfer Solution

Transfer solutions help speed up stencil drying time, prevent smudging, and help the stencil lines stay crisp and clear as you begin tattooing. Apply a thin layer to the entire area where the stencil will be placed. (And despite what do-it-yourself articles on the internet may tell you, deodorant isn’t the ideal stencil transfer solution. You’ll get better results with a solution designed specifically for stencil transfers like Recovery Stencil Lock, Stencil Stuff, or Spirit Stencil Transfer Cream.)

Place the Stencil

With the skin and transfer solution ready to go, you’re ready to place the stencil. Leave it in place until it’s completely dry; some artists like to run a towel over the stencil to help speed up drying and ensure a thorough transfer. Once it’s dry, you’ll carefully peel it off and wait for the ink to dry one more time, usually about 15-20 minutes. Use this time to make sure both you and the client are confident in the placement.


If you want a reputation for creating great tattoos, knowing how to create and transfer a stencil is essential – as is having the right tattoo stencil supplies. If you’re still new to creating and using tattoo stencils, don’t be discouraged if you don’t draw or transfer stencil perfectly at first. Keep learning from experienced pros and soon, stencils will be second nature to you too. Whether you’ve perfected your favorite stencil-making method or you’re still experimenting, PainfulPleasures has you covered with all the tattoo stencil supplies you need at wholesale prices.

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