Learn to make stencils digitally and by hand, operate a thermal printer, prepare the skin and apply a stencil, as well as how to avoid smudging the stencil while you work. We’re taking you through the whole process from start to finish. We recommend CNC’s thermal stencil paper.

Complete Guide On Tattoo Stencil Paper

Tattoo transfer paper (also called stencil paper) lets you put your tattoo design on the skin temporarily. You can then use the stencil as a roadmap while you’re tattooing instead of “freehanding” it. 

When you stencil a tattoo properly, your linework becomes 10 times easier.

By the end of this article, you'll know:

  • How to use tattoo transfer paper and thermal printer
  • How to prepare a client’s skin for a stencil.
  • How to avoid smudging the stencil while tattooing.

Creating Tattoo Stencils By Hand

Hand-drawing tattoo stencils is an “old-school” method in the tattooing world. However, many tattoo artists will choose this option because it builds muscle memory of the design before you attempt to tattoo it on skin.

Hand-drawing tattoo stencils is an “old-school” method in the tattooing world. However, many artists will choose this option because it builds muscle memory of the design before you attempt to tattoo it on skin.

What You Will Need:

  • Your design printed out on white paper
  • Pen
  • Pencil
  • Thermographic Tattoo Transfer Paper

Each piece of a transfer paper packet has a purpose:

printable tattoo paper diagram
  1. 1
    White master sheet - this where the design will be applied
  2. 2
    Brown protective sheet stops the master sheet from getting carbon on it.
  3. 3
    Purple carbon paper (the “ink”) layer.
  4. 4
    Yellow or white back paper protects carbon paper and provides stability. 

Method 1: How To Make A Tattoo Stencil by Hand

Hand Tattoo Stencil Tutorial:

rose tattoo on quality paper


Either print or draw your tattoo design onto a regular sheet of white paper. 

rose tattoo on tattoo stencil paper


Remove the brown protective paper (sometimes called the “onion” paper). Place the image face-up above the carbon paper.

traced image on thermographic transfer paper


Trace your tattoo design with a pencil or pen. 

transfer tattoo images


Carefully peel the tattoo transfer paper off the original design. 

completed tattoo transfer


Clean the skin with green soap and shave the area before applying.

stencil placed on skin using tattoo transfer paper


Cut the image out to prepare it for transfer onto the client.

Creating Tattoo Stencils Digitally

Some artists prefer to make stencils digitally with Procreate to work faster and create perfect lines.

What You Will Need:

  • iPad
  • Procreate app 
  • Tattoo transfer paper

Method 2: Creating Digital Stencils

rose reference photo for tattoo images


Choose your reference image.

shading labeled on a rose tattoo


Digitally draw on LAYER 2.

rose stencil printed onto tattoo transfer paper


Print your design on thermal tattoo transfer paper.

Quick Procreate Tutorial for Creating a Stencil:

  1. 1
    Click the “+” button, and select “screen size” to make your drawing space the size of your tablet.
  2. 2
    Click the “Actions” button (wrench) and choose “Insert Flat Image.” Select a reference photo from your camera roll. Resize as needed.
  3. 3
    “Lock” Layer One. Select “New Layer.” The button looks like two overlapping pieces of paper. Select the new Layer Two. You must always be “drawing” on Layer Two.
  4. 4
    Select the “Brush” button at the top. Use a bright red as your brush color to see where your lines are on top of the image.
  5. 5
    Zoom into where you want to start and begin drawing your lines.
  6. 6
    Select a thinner brush size and section off where you will be shading with a dotted line.
  7. 7
    When you are done, recolour your red lines back to black.
  8. 8
    Click the “Actions” button and then the “Share” button. Send your image as a jpg file and either airdrop it to your computer or email it to yourself.
  9. 9
    Print the stencil (see Printing section).
  10. 10
    Cut out your stencil. 

Using a Thermal Printer

carbon copy paper and thermographic transfer maker

What is thermal printing?

Thermal printing is a method of perfectly transferring a drawn or printed image onto a stencil through the use of heat. After your thermal paper transfer paper and image run through a thermal printer, you’ll have an exact replica of your image on a new piece of paper, except its lines will be made of carbon printer ink instead of computer ink. It is then ready to be applied to skin.

Why is thermal printing important?

Thermal printing makes it easily create multiple stencils if one gets ruined, the client wants the image in a different area, etc.

How to use a thermal printer:

  1. 1
    Take out the brown onion layer. 
  2. 2
    Set your thermal paper to the side.
  3. 3
    Open up the back part of the machine and load the paper with the dark carbon paper facing down and the white master sheet facing up.
  4. 4
    Close the machine over the paper. Let the place where the papers are attached together hang out the end.
  1. 5
    Feed the design into the machine facing away from you.
  2. 6
    Select “Mirror” on the machine.
  3. 7
    Press “Copy.”
  4. 8
    Gently guide the transfer paper through the machine.
  5. 9
    When finished, peel off the carbon paper and cut out your stencil.

Are Hand-Drawn or Thermal-Printed Stencils Better?




Hand-Drawn Stencils

  • Practice drawing design multiple times before tattooing.
  • Complete control over the design.
  • If the stencil is ruined, making a backup is hard.
  • If the client wants it resized, you have to redraw the entire design.

Thermal Printer Stencils

  • Easily resize. (Printing on tattoo transfer paper solves any resizing issues in minutes instead of hours.)
  • Print as many as needed.
  • Time-saver
  •  Go into the design “cold” without much practice.

Preparing the Client’s Skin

You want to make sure you’re applying the stencil in a sanitary and safe way.

What You Will Need:

  • Green soap (with witch hazel)
  • Unused razor
  • Unscented hand sanitizer
  • Sterile surgical skin marker
  • Stencil solution/primer
  • Paper towels

Here’s our Step-By-Step Guide:

  1. 1
    Wash the area with Green Soap containing witch hazel to prevent redness from shaving. Leave the skin wet so it is easier to shave.
  2. 2
    Shave the area. Brush away any hair with a paper towel and dry the skin.
  3. 3
    Apply hand sanitizer. The alcohol will strip the oil out of the skin. 
  4. 4
    Lightly hold the stencil over the skin and mark with a sterile surgical skin marker where the edges of your stencil will be.
  5. 5
    Apply a stencil solution/primer and work it into the skin. Let it dry until it is tacky.
  6. 6
    Make sure your client is standing up in a neutral position so they won’t be flexing or twisting, as this will warp the stencil.
  7. 7
    Place your stencil, lining it up with the guiding lines you drew earlier.
  8. 8
    Press down starting from the center and work your way out.
  9. 9
    Hold the stencil onto the skin for a few moments to ensure the entire design has transferred. You’ll want to let the stencil stay on the skin for about 30 seconds. 
  10. 10
    Peel off, starting at one of the edges.
  11. 11
    Pat with a paper towel to remove excess stencil ink.
  12. 12
    Wait 15 minutes to allow the stencil to dry. 

Working with a Stencil… Without Smudging

No tattoo stencil is smudge-proof. Making sure your stencil stays on through the entire tattoo is essential. There are a few different ways to watch out for your stencil while working on the tattoo itself.

What You Will Need: 

  • Vaseline
  • Distilled Water
  • Paper Towels

Pro Tips to Prevent Smudging:

  1. 1
    Wipe away from the tattoo. Work from the bottom right of the design up to the top left (if you are right handed). When wiping the ink, wipe away from the untattooed stencil. You can’t smudge what you have already tattooed. If you wipe ink on your stencil and then try to clean it off, you will erase the stencil along with the ink. 
  2. 2
    Keep your hands off the stencil. The ink will rub off of the client and onto you.
  3. 3
    Apply a thin layer of vaseline to the whole tattoo after it has dried. This keeps excess ink from being absorbed by the skin, making it easy to wipe without taking off the stencil.
  4. 4
    Rub off excess ink with distilled water. Do not use anything with alcohol in it at this stage; it will smudge the stencil and cause skin irritation.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning how to use tattoo transfer paper 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
  • Professional tattoo artist coaches
  • Private mastermind community
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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