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:
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
- Thermographic Tattoo Transfer Paper
Each piece of a transfer paper packet has a purpose:
- 1White master sheet - this where the design will be applied
- 2Brown protective sheet stops the master sheet from getting carbon on it.
- 3Purple carbon paper (the “ink”) layer.
- 4Bottom 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:
Remove the brown protective paper (which is sometimes called the “onion” paper). Place the image above the carbon 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.
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.
The back of the paper will have the carbon paper's ink.
Cut the image out to prepare it for transfer onto the client.
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:
- 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
Choose your reference image.
Digitally draw on LAYER 2.
Print your design on thermal tattoo transfer paper.
Quick Procreate Tutorial for Creating a Stencil:
- 1Open 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.
- 2Click the “Actions” button (the wrench) and choose “Insert Flat Image.” You can then select a reference photo from your camera roll. Resize as needed.
- 3Select “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.)
- 4Select 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.
- 5Zoom 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.
- 6Select 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.
- 7When you are done, recolour your red lines back to black before sending the image to your computer for printing.
- 8Click 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.
- 9Print the stencil and run it through the thermal heater with the thermal transfer paper (see Printing section)
- 10Cut out your stencil. It is now ready to be laid on the skin!
Using a Thermal Printer
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:
- 1Take out the brown onion layer.
- 2Set your thermal paper to the side.
- 3Get 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.
- 4Open 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.
- 5Close 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.
- 6Feed 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.
- 7Once the machine has grabbed a bit of the paper, select “Mirror” on the machine.
- 8Press “Copy.”
- 9Don’t pull too hard on the transfer paper, but you can help gently guide the transfer paper through the machine.
- 10When 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).
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?
Thermal Printer Stencils
Preparing the Client’s Skin
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:
- 1Wash 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.
- 2Shave 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.
- 3Apply hand sanitizer. The alcohol will strip the oil out of the skin, clean any leftover hair and make the stencil stick better.
- 4Lightly 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.
- 5Apply 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.
- 6Make sure your client is standing up in a neutral position so they won’t be flexing or twisting, as this will warp the stencil.
- 7Place your stencil, lining it up with the guiding lines you drew earlier.
- 8Press down starting from the centre and work your way out.
- 9Hold 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.
- 10Peel 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.
- 11Pat with a paper towel to take off any excess stencil ink.
- 12Wait 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
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:
- Distilled Water
- Paper Towels
Pro Tips to Prevent Smudging:
- 1Wipe 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.
- 2Keep 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.
- 3Make 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.
- 4Rub 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.