How to Make a Tattoo Stencil

Tattoo stencils act as your guide while you’re tattooing, and as a tattoo artist, you will use stencils for every tattoo you do

This is why it is so important to know how to make a quality stencil that holds up for the entire tattooing process.

In this article, we’ll break down:

  • What each layer of the stencil paper is used for
  • How to make a tattoo stencil with pen and paper
  • How to use a stencil machine

Picking the Right Stencil Paper

Whether you use a pen or printer, you will need high-quality stencil paper. We recommend Spirit stencil paper. There are some brands on Amazon, but in our opinion, they do not work as well.

Stencil Paper Layers

Stencil paper has four layers. The first (white) layer is what you'll be making the stencil on. 

The second (brown) layer protects the ink from getting exposed to the other sides. Some people call this onion paper. There's a couple different terms for it, but this sheet is pretty much pointless, and you can just set it aside.

The third (purple) layer is your actual stencil paper. This is what is going to put ink onto the actual paper, and it makes the stencil. 

The fourth (yellow) layer is the back layer. This is for protection, just so the stencil paper doesn't get crinkled up when it is in the box.

How to Make a Stencil With a Stencil Machine

The machine shown above is off Amazon, and most stencil machines will have the exact same settings.

What the Buttons Mean

Mirror: This will “flip” the design. 

Darkness/Deepness: The darkness or deepness setting is how dark the design is printed out, and you could go with Deepness I or Deepness II. The second one's super dark, we usually stick to the first one.

Copy: Starts the machine.

Stop: Stops the machine.

How to Set up the Stencil Machine

To prepare the stencil, you want to open the top part of the machine and slide the yellow sheet through the back slot. Slide it through until it’s far enough out that you can close the top piece of the machine down without catching any part of the yellow paper. The machine will lock down on itself. 

Make sure that the white and purple layers are perfectly straight so it doesn’t get jammed in the machine.

Flip the yellow paper away from you, and put the design into the front slot facing away from you. The machine will suck it in just a little bit. 

Hit the copy button, and then help guide the stencil paper through the machine so it doesn’t get jammed. Don’t pull up, just help lift it so it doesn’t get bunched up in the machine.

Once the tattoo design has gone all the way through, you can hit the stop button, unlock the top of your machine, and pull the white sheet away from the carbon. This is what you’ll use as your stencil.

How to Apply Your Stencil

First, you’ll want to cut out your stencil from the rest of the paper so it’s easier to work with.

Next, put some Stencil Stuff on the skin and let it dry. If you don’t want to use the actual brand, Stencil Stuff, you could use a couple different options like Anchored by Nico or Green Gold. For thinner paper (like the white sheet of the stencil paper), we recommend using Stencil Stuff or Anchored. If you’ve made a hand stencil and your design is on a thicker paper like printer paper, we recommend using Green Gold.


After you’re done running the design through the stencil machine, all the unused carbon is still good. If you don't do a big design, you could still use this, just make sure you're not going over the same part.

How to Make a Stencil With a Pen

For this method, you will need stencil paper and a pen. If you are doing hand stencils, one thing you need to think about is the different line weights of your tattoo. 

On this example design, you can see there's a couple different line weights to it - thicker and thinner lines - so you're going to want to have a thicker pen and a thinner pen. We like using a 1.4 pen because it’s super thick and it matches closely to using an 11 round liner or 14 round liner.

You can then switch to a smaller size pen for the fine lines. For this design, we’d use a five round liner or a seven round liner for the details. 

To make the stencil, put the stencil paper down with the carbon sheet facing up. Then, place the paper with your drawing or printed design on top. 

Press over all the lines with your pen and trace the design. When you're doing this, you want to try to stick with one motion to make a crisp and clean stencil. If you’re having a hard time seeing which lines you’ve already gone over, you can print the design off again at a lower opacity. This will make it easier to clearly see where your pen is going. 

When you flip the design over, you should see all your lines show up on the other side. If you hold the design up to the light, you’ll be able to clearly see if you got all the lines, or if you missed anything.


Sometimes, it helps to wear gloves if you’re making a larger hand stencil. If the purple carbon gets on you, it'll stay on for a couple days and stain everything it touches. The only thing you can really do to try and get it off is use Stencil Stuff, stencil remover, and alcohol - and it still might not come off.

Should You Use a Stencil Machine or Hand-Drawn Stencils?

Hand-Drawn Stencils: Pros

  1. 1
    Thicker paper holds up better.

Thicker printer paper holds up better than the thin top layer of stencil paper. Additionally, using thicker paper helps the design go onto fake skin a little bit easier. We also like using thicker paper for realism designs on clients.

  1. 2
    It lets you work directly off photographs.

If you're doing a realistic design and you're just printing off a piece of paper with a picture on it, you could just go over and make your little dots on the actual design with your pen over top of the actual picture. This makes it really easy to make a stencil from an actual photograph or a portrait.

  1. 3
    It lets you work directly off photographs.

When you are first starting out, we recommend using hand-drawn stencils. This means you get practice drawing the design and stenciling the design before you even get to tattooing. So, by the time you get to the tattoo, you're doing it three times already.

Hand-Drawn Stencils: Cons

You have to be a little bit more careful making sure you are precise and following all your lines exactly, so you don't accidentally mess up a line. If a line is messed up on the stencil, it’ll be messed up in the tattoo.

Stencil Machine: Pros

  1. 1
    Stencil Machines Save Time.

Stencil machines offer a really quick and easy way to make a stencil, which saves a lot of time. And if you have multiple clients, it saves a lot of headache as well.

  1. 2
    Stencil Machines make perfect stencils.

With a machine, your stencil will be perfect. As long as you follow the stencil exactly, you will have a perfect tattoo.

Stencil Machine: Cons

You don’t get the extra practice that you do when you hand-stencil your design.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning to make stencils is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
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Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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