I had a great question recently from a Silhouette user. She was wondering how to make a regular image into a stencil. This is a common question, and it’s easier than you might think. Let’s look at a few different ways to do stencils, from easiest to hardest. I’m going to talk about this as if you’re painting inside something like a cardstock or plastic stencil, but the principles apply to any medium and material.
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Single, solid piece stencil
The easiest way to make a stencil is to avoid any internal or multiple pieces. In other words, to use a solid shape.
Here’s a solid heart. I’ve filled it with a color. It’s extremely important to do that when making stencils so that you can tell what’s what.
If I’m cutting this on a full-size sheet, all I have to do it cut it out, remove the heart, and keep the background as my stencil. But since it’s rarely the case that we use the exact size of the mat, there’s 1 simple trick. Just add a rectangle around the outside, like this:
That gives me a simple, rectangular stencil with a heart-shaped hole in it.
It’s not necessary to do this next step, but I find it helpful because I can more easily visualize the cut before I send the job. On such a simple design as this, it’s easy to know that I need to remove the heart. But on more complex designs it can get confusing. So I like to take both the design and the rectangle and make them a single compound path.
I remove whatever is white and keep whatever is red. You’ll see as we progress to harder stencils how it helps.
You could also select both and choose Subtract in the Modify panel. It will do the same thing in this case.
Multi-color stencil with no internal pieces
The next easiest stencil to make is one where you have multiple pieces that don’t have internal pieces. Here’s an example of a rose like that. I’ve filled the whole thing with a single color for now:
If I want to paint it just 1 color, I can treat it just like the heart. But if I want a mix of reds a greens, I can separate the pieces and make multiple stencils. When you do this, you want a way to make sure everything lines up. For that, we can use alignment marks.
What are alignment marks?
Alignment marks are called registration marks by some folks. But since Print and Cut projects use printed registration marks, that can be a confusing term. I’m going to call then alignment marks instead.
I start by drawing 2 small circles above the design. I like to fill them with a color I’m not using in the design. I’ll tell you why in a bit.
Now I begin filling my parts with the various colors I’m going to use. Add the outer rectangle again as needed. When I’m done, I like to group it all together so that nothing moves.
Cutting the stencils
I cut a different stencil for each color, cutting the alignment marks with each one. It’s important that the alignment marks not move. The easiest way to do that is to cut by fill color. By cutting that way, here are the stencils I would get.
For the ones with the petals, I could raise the bottom a bit so I don’t waste material. The main thing is to have the alignment marks in the same spot each time.
Aligning when painting
When it’s time to use the stencil, I would tape the first one to my surface. I use a pencil to lightly mark inside the hole of the alignment marks and then paint. For each succeeding color, I put the alignment mark holes over the pencil marks I drew before I tape the stencil down. That keeps everything lined up.
When pieces touch
Notice that on my rose the colors aren’t touching. That’s pretty easy to work with. If you have a design where the colors do touch, you can follow the same process. You just need to be extra careful when aligning each new color. Here’s an example of a design like that:
You can paint each piece separately, or use one color as a base. For example, I could use the outermost red as a base.
It might be harder to get the white done well over a dark base, but by using one I can ensure there are no gaps between the painted colors. Another way you can do it is to create a small offset on some of your pieces, probably on the darker colors. That helps minimize any possible gaps. It all just depends on your design.
Stencil with internal pieces
Now that you know the basics, let’s talk about the biggest issue with using a stencil — designs with internal pieces. Think about the letter “O”. Here’s how it would look if you just cut it out, even with the outer rectangle added:
The middle is not connected to the background. If you’re working with vinyl as a stencil and using transfer tape, it’s not a problem. But what if you are using plastic or cardstock for your stencil? You need to have a way to connect the inner pieces.
When I put it on my Design area and fill it with color, it looks like this:
See how the hearts in the middle are filled with color? That’s telling me this is either separate pieces or a set of pieces grouped together. I need to make it a compound path before making it into a stencil. If you don’t, the next steps work right and it’ll drive you batty. Now you see them as holes.
For a full explanation of the difference between a grouping and a compound path, see this post.
Here I added my rectangle. (You could add the rectangle before making the compound path — 6 one way, half a dozen the other).
If you cut this, you’d just get the butterfly you could stencil. The hearts would cut, but they wouldn’t be attached to the background. You’d have to secure them individually to your project before painting.
I’m going to show you how to connect those hearts with or without the rectangle background. It’s just a small difference.
Add some thin rectangles
The first thing I’m going to do is to add some thin rectangles to bridge the gap between the hearts and the background. There’s no hard and fast rule of where to put them, except that each internal piece should connect in at least 2 places. I’ve filled my thin bridges with a difference color but also raised the transparency a bit to see through them.
With the background rectangle — Weld
With that background rectangle, I need to add the bridges into the overall design. The Modify option to use there is Weld. Here’s mine:
See how all the greenish pieces are now connected? That’s what we need.
Without the background rectangle — Subtract
Now let’s pretend that I’m cutting the full size of the mat so I didn’t add that background rectangle. Here’s what I’ve got:
This time, it’s the white we need to have connected. We’ll need to take away part of the green to make that happen. Subtract is the Modify option that will do that. Here’s mine:
Just be aware that you’ll need to either group the pieces after you Subtract, or make them into a compound path. Because they aren’t touching any longer, they become separated.
This time, I’d keep what’s white and remove (weed away) the green when I’ve cut.
Paint, then fill in
Now the stencil works just like any other. You tape it to your project, fill in with paint, then remove the stencil. You then touch up any areas that were covered by the bridges. If you prefer, you can make a second stencil that has bridges in different places, so that you have a guide for all the painting. Paint with the first stencil, remove it, apply the second stencil, fill in the blank areas.
You’re almost always going to need to do this with text, as many letters have internal pieces. I’ve done it with the background rectangle, but you can follow the same principles discussed above without one. Here’s an example:
Look for an upcoming series on using all the options in the Modify panel.