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.
  • Multiple ways to create tattoo stencils (pen and transfer paper, Procreate, thermal printer, etc.).
  • How to prepare a client’s skin for stencil application.
  • 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 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
    Bottom yellow layer protects carbon paper and provides stability. (This bottom sheet will not be present on 3-layer hand tattoo stencil paper, but will be there on 4-layer thermal printing paper.)

Method 1: How To Make A Tattoo Stencil by Hand

Hand Tattoo Stencil Tutorial:

rose tattoo on quality paper


Either print or draw your image onto a regular sheet of white paper. (If you draw the image, photocopy it so you can keep the original unharmed.) 

rose tattoo on tattoo transfer paper


Remove the brown protective paper (which is sometimes called the “onion” paper). Place the image above the carbon paper.

traced image on tattoo transfer paper


Trace your image with a pencil or pen. Make sure you are pressing down hard enough so that the ink will stick to the back of the white paper.

image on tattoo stencil paper


Carefully peel the tattoo transfer paper off the original design. Don’t touch it with your hands, or the carbon will get on you. You’ll see the transferred design reflected clearly on the back of your paper in the carbon ink.

completed tattoo transfer


The back of the paper will have the carbon paper's ink.

stencil placed on skin using tattoo transfer paper


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

Pro Tip

When stencilling portraits (or with realism in general), you don’t want to outline the image. The stencil is just there to guide where to put your shading, not where to put your lines. Typically, a solid line on a stencil shows where you will tattoo a hard line. Dotted lines on a stencil mark where your shading is going to go. To keep the portrait from getting too dark on the skin, you can use dots or “stippling” where the shading or darker lines would be. This keeps the image softer and prevents it from looking like a cartoon outline.

Creating Tattoo Stencils Digitally

Some artists prefer to work digitally to create their designs. It’s much faster and more efficient than drawing by hand. Procreate on the iPad is one of the top tools for this process, as it allows you to “draw” lines without using the multiple layers of tracing paper and physically drawing the image over and over. This is great to make sure the lines on your stencil are absolutely perfect and have no wobbles.

What You Will Need:

  • iPad
  • Procreate app 
  • Tattoo transfer paper

Below you’ll find a quick Procreate Tutorial (you will need an Apple pen as you cannot “draw” with your fingers accurately in this app). This process can be easily applied for artists that prefer to use Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator on a PC; the apps have very similar user interfaces.

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
    Open Procreate, click the “+” button, and select “screen size.” This will make your drawing space the size of your tablet, as if it were a piece of paper.
  2. 2
    Click the “Actions” button (the wrench) and choose “Insert Flat Image.” You can then select a reference photo from your camera roll. Resize as needed.
  3. 3
    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. (Lock Layer One so you don’t accidentally draw on it.)
  4. 4
    Select the “Brush” button at the top and choose your size brush (this will determine how thin/thick the lines you draw are). It’s best to use a bright colour like bright red as your brush colour, as that will help you see where your lines are on top of the image. 
  5. 5
    Zoom into where you want to start and begin drawing your lines, zooming and moving the image as needed. Periodically, turn off the visibility of Layer One (where your original image is) to see how your stencil is looking. You can also drop the opacity of the image to see your stencil lines more clearly.
  6. 6
    Select a thinner brush size and section off where you will be shading when it comes time to tattoo. (This can be with a dotted line, hashing or crosshatching, etc.) Make sure your brush is not too thin, or else the thermal printer will not pick it up. Take your time to pay attention to the shadows of the image and the small details.
  7. 7
    When you are done, recolour your red lines back to black before sending the image to your computer for printing.
  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, whichever works for you. 
  9. 9
    Print the stencil and run it through the thermal heater with the thermal transfer paper (see Printing section)
  10. 10
    Cut out your stencil. It is now ready to be laid on the skin!

Using a Thermal Printer

tattoo artist using tattoo stencil transfer paper in a tattoo shop

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 can greatly increase the speed with which you create stencils and allows you to 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
    Get your image (whether you printed it off the computer or have made a photocopy of your original drawing). You can either print on a full sheet or cut around the edges of the design. If you cut it out, leave an extra two inches or so on one of the edges.
  4. 4
    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. Do your best to line up the paper with the printer. If it goes in crooked, it will crinkle the stencil and jam the machine. 


Occasionally, the paper won’t be loaded just right and the paper will begin to crinkle on its way out. If the stencil is usable, then you can simply cut it out and proceed. However, you might need to reprint the image onto a new sheet of thermal paper to get the stencil you need to complete the job.

  1. 5
    Close the machine over the paper. You can leave just a little bit sticking out at the other end of the machine. For example, you can let the place where the papers are attached together hang out the end.
  2. 6
    Feed the image into the machine with the actual image facing away from you/facing away from the buttons on the machine (as it will need to face the carbon paper). Put the extra two inches or so in first, as the machine needs a little piece of the paper to grab onto. Additionally, if you have your image cut out, then make sure to place the partial piece of paper into the center of the machine, not along one of the edges.
  3. 7
    Once the machine has grabbed a bit of the paper, select “Mirror” on the machine. 
  4. 8
    Press “Copy.”
  5. 9
    Don’t pull too hard on the transfer paper, but you can help gently guide the transfer paper through the machine.
  6. 10
    When finished, peel off the carbon paper and cut out your stencil; it’s ready to be applied to the skin!


If you are going to use scrap pieces for smaller images, simply line up the tracing paper and carbon paper and place in the machine as usual, leaving that little bit hanging out at the top. Then, when you feed your smaller image, make sure it is lined up with the carbon paper (so you don’t end up with a clipped or partial image).

Pro Tip

Almost all tattoo shops will have a thermal printer that you can use. If you are learning to tattoo on fake skin at home and don’t have a thermal printer, you can free hand transfer paper, as seen in the hand-drawn method above. If you freehand transfer paper, it’s harder to make perfect lines, even if you have perfect lines on your original design. We recommend getting a tattoo industry-standard thermal printer when possible.

Are Hand-Drawn or Thermal-Printed Stencils Better?




Hand-Drawn Stencils

  • Have the benefit of having drawn the design multiple times before picking up the tattoo machine.
  • Complete control over the design in a way you can’t have digitally.
  • If the stencil is somehow ruined, making a backup is a difficult process.
  • If the client wants it resized, you have to redraw the entire design at a larger scale.

Thermal Printer Stencils

  • Resize as needed without redrawing the entire piece.
  • Print as many as needed until the client is happy with placement.
  • Saves lots of time
  •  Go into the design “cold” without much practice         beforehand.

Preparing the Client’s Skin

tattoo artist showing how to use tattoo transfer paper

Just like with any other aspect of tattooing, you want to ensure that you’re applying the stencil and preparing to tattoo 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 to be tattooed 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 to prevent the hair from messing up the stencil. (Shave lightly to avoid breaking the skin.) 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, clean any leftover hair and make the stencil stick better.
  4. 4
    Lightly hold stencil over the skin and mark with a sterile surgical skin marker where the edges of your stencil will be so you can realign it easily after the stencil primer is dried.
  5. 5
    Apply a stencil solution/primer and work it into the skin. Wait for it to dry until it has achieved a tacky consistency on the skin (it will feel sticky if you quickly touch it with the palm of your glove). Make sure to dry your glove after applying. Note: Some people use deodorant for this step, but only a few certain types of deodorant are effective in keeping a stencil in place. Remember that deodorant can occasionally dry and flake. Make sure to rub the deodorant on your glove first and then apply it to the skin. Applying it directly to the skin contaminates the deodorant stick. 
  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 centre 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. Pull off, not out to keep it from smudging. If the stencil peels, take that section off and then start again at another edge of the stencil. 
  11. 11
    Pat with a paper towel to take off any excess stencil ink.
  12. 12
    Wait 10-15 minutes to allow the stencil to dry. This will help prevent the stencil from smudging while you work.

Working with a Stencil… Without Smudging

artist working in a tattoo shop

While you’ve hopefully applied the tattoo well enough that it’s resistant to smudging, no tattoo stencil is smudge-proof. Particularly when working with larger or more intricate pieces, ensuring 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 is responsive to thermal transfer. If you rest your hand on the stencil while working, it will rub off of the client and onto you.
  3. 3
    Make a protective barrier. Apply a thin layer of vaseline to the whole tattoo after it has dried. This will prevent the excess ink from your machine from being absorbed by the skin, making it easy to wipe off without taking off the stencil. 
  4. 4
    Rub off excess ink with distilled water. Instead of putting just green soap on your paper towel, use simple distilled water or heavily-diluted green soap. This will remove ink and blood easily, and do less damage to the stencil. Do not use anything with alcohol in it at this stage, as that is one of the quickest ways to smudge the stencil and cause skin irritation.

After you finish tattooing, any lingering stencil should come off when you clean everything with green soap.

Learn from the Pros

Knowing how to use tattoo transfer paper is only a small part of becoming a successful tattoo artist. Behind every stunning tattoo design is a vast knowledge of the craft from sanitation practices to proper needle depth.

Piecing together information from different corners of the internet can give you outdated or unhelpful information, and taking on a solo-DIY approach can add years to the learning curve and even be dangerous. If the standard 2-4 year unpaid tattoo apprenticeship is not an option for your life or finances, check out Tattooing 101’s Artist Accelerator Program.

We created the Tattooing 101 Online Course to help artists from all walks of life pursue their passion for tattooing safely, while still fostering creativity and exploration. Our online course provides you with the information you need from professionals in the industry so you learn at your own pace at home. Join our students and go from beginner to professional tattoo artist in as little as 90 days.

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.

write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}



Tattoo Apprenticeships – Long Beach

November 17, 2021

Long Beach, CaliforniaLong Beach has an estimated 111 tattoo studios and we've ...

Tattoo Apprenticeships – Long Beach

How to Tattoo for Beginners

January 10, 2023

If you’re new to tattooing, the amount of information about becoming a ...

How to Tattoo for Beginners

A Complete Guide to Synthetic Skins for Tattooing

August 4, 2023

For novice tattoo artists, the world of tattooing might be intimidating and ...

A Complete Guide to Synthetic Skins for Tattooing

Our Community

Join the Tattooing 101 Community today and get free, instant access to tools and resources that take you behind the curtain of all things tattooing. From apprentice to shop owner, we've got you covered.