The Stencil: What is Stencil Paper?

April 28, 2016 603 Comments

On Tuesday, we introduced our the first part of our educational series, which we are calling "Stencil Science." Its time now to get into the substance. So, without further ado, here is your impossibly long introduction to tattoo stencil paper.

Tattooing stencils are ultimately an art material- a tool- necessary for executing one’s artistic vision. And there are two things that we learned about tools in 9th grade shop class: 1) use the right tool for the right job and 2) GET YOUR HAND AWAY FROM THE BANDSAW. 

From a purely material perspective, tattoo stencil paper is fairly simple. S8’s version is composed of 4 sheets of thin paper or film, one of which is coated with a patented wax and colorant blend. This wax and colorant blend is the most important functional element in tattoo stencil paper, and so let's talk about this blend in detail. 

When we blend waxes and colorants, we do so in large heated mixing containers. The waxes are melted and homogenized first- it is extremely important that the wax is uniformly mixed, as each wax that we use has a slightly different melt point and consistency. Once the wax is thoroughly integrated, we add our colorants.

S8 uses a combination of FD&C and D&C colorants to give our tattoo stencil paper its unique red coloration; FD&C colors are approved safe for use on the skin and in the body. As the only manufacturer of a red tattoo stencil paper, we spent months perfecting this color profile- this particular color combination is ideal for stencils because it provides the greatest level of visual separation when compared to black lining inks on lighter skin types. The reason S8 is the only manufacturer of red colored tattoo stencil paper is due to the difficultly of optically tuning the colorants so that they are compatible with thermographic printers. Frankly we are the only ones who could figure this shit out.

It is extremely important to note that we use high quality colorants and lots of it. Tattoo artists who have trouble with their stencil paper often discover they are using a cheap, foreign-made product; artists who rely on long lasting stencils for large, ambitious, or finely detailed tattoos should first ensure they are purchasing stencil paper developed and intended for tattooing. S8 is the only company that has received protection for stencil products intended for tattoo artists.

So, how does tattoo stencil paper work?

A stencil is created when the wax and colorant blend is transferred from the film sheet to the transfer paper when heat and/or pressure is applied. Broadly speaking, there are two different ways to create a stencil using tattoo stencil paper. The first is manually- that is, by tracing over the original image or flash with the stencil paper underneath the flash. The other is through the use of machines- namely a thermographic or dot-matrix printer.

Manually tracing a stencil is an involved process that requires large amounts of time, patience, and precision. Additionally, everyone’s tracing practice is going to be different, with specific elements that pertain to an artist’s style and training. However, lets briefly explore the tools that many artists rely upon when manually creating stencils.

Tracing out a stencil requires the original artwork, some sort of stylus or marking implement, and a drawing surface. We are going to assume that you already have original artwork or flash that you have permission to use, so we’re going to turn our attention to styluses and drawing surfaces.

The tool an artist uses to trace over the flash or draw the artwork has a tremendous bearing on the quality of the stencil. Most veteran artists know that tracing with an extremely sharp pencil is one of the worst things they can do, this has everything to do with the amount of pressure concentrated at the tip of the pencil. When it comes to stencils, some pressure is good- artists have to be heavy handed enough to actually cause the wax to transfer.

But as the surface area of the tip of the stylus decreases, the same amount of pressure that normally would have been spread over a broader area is now concentrated in one spot, like standing in high heels. Concentrating ever-increasing amounts of pressure on a single point doesn’t make better stencils. Instead, there’s a point at artists start seeing diminishing returns.

One of the most visible detriments that artists see with extremely small surface areas styluses is that their transfer papers start ripping. This sucks under the best circumstances, and can ruin hours of work. But high pressure, small surface area tracing can also negatively impact the quality of the stencil as it compresses the wax at the point of contact. This will result in poor quality transfers, as compressed waxes more thoroughly encapsulate the colorant. 

If not razor-sharp pencils, then what is the ideal stylus? Dull pencils with a more "bulleted" tip are great for tracing. So are ballpoint pens, colored pencils, even crayons. Artists should try a variety of different tracing and drawing tools to find which most closely fits their artistic style and their particular handweight.

Pressure is important to consider when we talk about drawing surfaces as well. Generally speaking, artists trace on hard surfaces- tables, light boxes, tracing boards, all of these surfaces have very little “give.” This serves to amplify the amount of pressure when tracing. But pressure isn’t the only variable that artists need to consider when thinking about their drawing surface. Instead, let’s talk about heat.

Heat is without a doubt the most under-discussed element in tattoo stenciling. It has a bearing on every single aspect of the stencil process, and most artists don’t know just how much this effects the stencil. Lets start by reiterating that tattoo stencil paper has a wax component. As the temperature of the wax increases, it expands, softens, and becomes more plastic. The colder the wax, the more it contracts and the brittler it becomes. S8 RED tattoo stencil paper works best (it traces and transfer most easily) when it is right around 90-99 degrees Fahrenheit- approximately human body temperature. At this temperature, it is plastic enough for hand tracing.

But the actual drawing surface can dramatically complicate the heat equation. Believe it or not, light tables are perhaps the most frustrating surface, as they have demonstrable value for tracing, but they can also rapidly cool tattoo stencil paper if the lights aren’t throwing off a lot of heat. How? Well, most light boxes or light tables use sheets of plastics like Lexan for their drawing surfaces, under which lie the lights and electronics. Lexan is extremely thermally conductive, which means that it draws away any heat inside the tattoo stencil paper. And because there is a space between the Lexan and the back of the light table or box, that heat is dissipated into the air- another thermally conductive medium- behind the Lexan. Anyone who has ever slept on an inflatable mattress in a cold room knows this experience all too well.

Other thermally conductive drawing surfaces, like metal tables, can also result in weaker stencils. Wood tables and insulating plastics are better choices for a drawing surface, as they’ll slow heat loss from the stencil. The best choice is to use a pad of paper as your backing surface- the wood fibers present in paper pulp are fantastic insulators, and they also serve to more evenly disperse pressure during the tracing process, meaning stencils are more uniform.

And while heat is extremely important for softening and plasticizing waxes, it serves another extremely important role. All the colorants found in tattoo stencils exist in a crystal state. By adding heat to the tattoo stencil, these crystals polarize and align, dramatically boosting the optical attributes of the stencil. So the easiest way to better stenciling is to ensure that the stencil paper is warmed. Artists should consider pre-warming their stencils- turn the heat up in the studio or rest the stencil paper on your clients chest for a minute or two before you trace.

The other major stencil making process is through the use of machines. Thermographic machines use infrared light and heat to transfer stencils, while dot-matrix printers use pressure and heat to transfer stencils. We won’t go too deeply into the science behind thermographic or dot-matrix printers in this article, but because heat is a component in both printing technologies, stencils produced on either of these types of machines generally are of higher quality when transferred to the skin.

The final variable in the stencil making process that we should cover briefly is humidity- the amount of water vapor in the air. This factor is completely ignored by tattoo artists, but its relationship with heat during the stencil process does play a role in the quality of a stencil.

When we talked about light tables, we mentioned that air was extremely thermally conductive. But air is of course not "empty space;" it is made of infinitely many atoms of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and molecules like your buddy's cotton candy flavored vape fluid. One of the molecules, water vapor, is both a selective absorber of red light, as well as an insulator. Ultimately, this means that a more humid tattoo shop is less likely to experience the sorts of heat-based variability in stencil-making that would be experienced in a dry tattoo shop. A stencil traced in a shop in Honolulu will ultimately be slightly better than a stencil traced in a shop in Salt Lake City, if all other variables are controlled for. So you have our permission to move somewhere warm and wet, and could probably get a nice tax break from Uncle Sam for relocating for “work purposes.”

This dissection of the stencil is long- much longer than we would have liked- but doesn’t even scratch the surface of stencil making from a scientific perspective. As always, leave questions in the comments below or on our Facebook and we’ll try to address them next week, when we discuss the how’s and why’s of stencil application.


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