Laser cutting your own stencils can be a very handy skill to add to your crafting repertoire. Sure, you could purchase them but this can get expensive and will require a trip to the store or patience while you wait on shipping.
Wouldn’t it be a whole lot more convenient if you could make a stencil right when you need it or make several to have on hand? Well, that’s what I thought so I did some research on laser cutting stencils, and here is what I found.
What Are the Advantages of Using Stencils?
Some advantages of using stencils include:
- Quickly repeat artwork.
- Replicate artwork on various surfaces.
- Reduces the required artistic ability level.
- Easily apply color variations to the same design.
- Reduces the cost of adding appeal to a design.
- Does not require a lot of experience.
- Improves the appearance of crafts, packaging, and decor by adding artwork.
- Increases artistic effects by adding textures such as tree bark, freckles, wall cracks, animal skins, etc.
What Are the Disadvantages of Using Stencils?
Some disadvantages of using stencils include:
- If creating a stencil, closed designs require modification to prevent the inner stencil pieces from falling out during the cutting process.
- Layered artwork requires multiple stencils.
- Color variation within a stenciled design can be limited if producing artwork by stencils only.
- Must be secured to the surface properly to prevent pigment or dye media from coloring outside the intended area.
- Purchasing stencils can get expensive.
- Designing stencils can be tricky.
Best Material for Laser Cutting Stencils
There are a few different materials that can be used for laser cutting stencils. The obvious choices are cardstock and cardboard. These can be easily cut but you may find issues with their ability to consistently provide clean artwork. They also have durability problems making them poor choices for longevity.
One of the best and most widely used materials for laser cutting stencils is Mylar. Mylar is a polyester film known for its durability and flexibility. It comes in many different sizes and thicknesses at a very reasonable price.
Mylar can be easily cleaned without causing damage to the stencil which makes it ideal for reuse. It is also transparent to semi-transparent so lining up the stencil is fairly simple.
Mylar Thickness Chart
Mylar comes in a variety of different thicknesses. Its thickness is conveyed in mils. One mil is equal to one-thousandth of an inch (0.001 in). In order to find the thickness of the Mylar in inches, multiply the number of mils by 0.001 or you can just look at the chart below.
Thickness Recommendations for Laser Cutting Mylar
In regards to thickness, I have found good results laser cutting 4 mil and 7.5 mil sheets. Different thicknesses do have various recommended purposes which can be found on several websites that sell plastic sheeting or stencils if you are interested, but I found 4 mil and 7.5 mil Mylar sheets can be used with a variety of different paint and ink applicators.
Resources For Purchasing Mylar
Creating Designs for Laser Cutting Stencils
As previously stated, creating stencil designs can be a little tricky. For the purpose of this next tutorial, we will focus on single layer letter stencils with some fairly basic art so the process can be understood.
Some letters contain closed shapes such as an “O”, “R”, or “P”.
Closed shapes require bridges to connect the inner part of the shape so that it doesn’t fall out during the cutting process.
Check out these examples below demonstrating what happens when you cut stencils without adding bridges.
As you can see, it is very important to think about the cutting process while designing your stencils; otherwise, important parts of the stencil will be removed.
How to Create Bridges When Designing Stencils in Adobe Illustrator
There are many different ways to create bridges in any software design program. The basic idea is to use any method or tool to remove a section of the closed shape. These steps below will get you started in Illustrator.
Select the text tool and your font preference. Type your desired text and adjust the font size.
Using the selection tool, select the text. Then select Object>Expand>Expand Object/Fill>OK.
Now the letters are shapes that can be modified like any other vector.
Select all the letters. Then select Object>Ungroup.
This will allow you to edit each individual letter. Note that you may have to ungroup more than once until all the shapes stand alone in the layers panel.
Identify the letters that have closed shapes.
In the example above, Bridge contains four letters with closed shapes: “B”, “d”, “g” and “e”.
Select the line tool. Select a different stroke color than the fill color of the letters for better visibility. Draw a line across the letter where you would like the bridge to be placed.
It is important to ensure the line completely crosses the path of the letter as seen in the picture.
Using the selection tool, select both the letter and the line. Select the shape builder tool. Then left-click once on each side of the letter separated by the line.
If using the same stroke and fill colors as above, you will be left with what appears to be the overlapping parts of the line without a letter. The letter still remains but the fill color is changed to no fill which can be seen if you hover over the letters.
Using the selection tool, select the remaining parts of the line, and hit delete. Then change the letter stroke color to red.
Select one side of the letter and hit the arrow key in the opposite direction of the other letter piece. You should now have something like this:
Continue splitting all of your letters as above. If there are letters in which you only want to split a section and not the entire letter, a different approach is required.
Let’s use the “e” in Bridge as an example. Splitting it with a line means there will be two bridges when it may only require one.
To create one, select the rectangle tool with a fill color that is different from the letter fill. Draw a small rectangle that crosses the “e” where you would like the bridge.
Use the direct selection tool to adjust individual anchor points if necessary.
Select both the letter and the rectangle. Go to the pathfinder panel. This may be located under the window tab at the top of the screen. Select Window>Pathfinder>Minus Front.
The results should look like this:
After all the letters are split and adjusted. Change all of your fills to red strokes. Using the rectangle tool, draw a square with a red stroke around all of the letters if necessary.
The purpose of this square is to cut out the final stencil. This step is not needed if your stencil will take up the whole size of the Mylar sheet.
Your completed stencil design should look something like this:
Finally, save your design as an SVG and send it to your Glowforge or your laser for cutting.
Creating basic shape stencils is fairly easy. It is as simple as drawing the shape and a box around it for cutting out the stencil. For example, you could draw a star with a larger box around it in a red stroke and the stencil would be ready for cutting.
Shapes do get much more challenging as the complexity of the entire design increases. Designs that contain multiple closed shapes can take some time and thought because every closed shape must have a connecting bridge.
With some practice, the challenge of laying out a stencil design will get easier.
Here is a flower that I modified for laser cutting a stencil:
In the picture above, I exchanged the spaces without fill to spaces with fill which created most of the bridges automatically. However, if you wanted to laser cut the areas with black fill in the “before” picture, tiny bridges would be required to connect every space that is enclosed by the black lines. This is the same idea as creating letter stencils but on a much bigger scale.
Because there are multiple ways of creating single- and multi-layered stencils containing complex shapes, I considered the process to be outside the scope of this article. However, stay tuned for another tutorial on single-layered and multi-layered stencils.
Settings For Laser Cutting Stencils
After completing multiple test runs to find the best settings for cutting Mylar (4 mils and 7.5 mils), I found better results with slower cutting speeds. Of course, I had to reduce the power as well but slower speeds seem to result in less melting and cleaner stencil edges.
When laser cutting stencils, I use a backer board and a dash of repositionable spray adhesive. You can find the adhesive I use on Amazon by clicking here.
The adhesive will prevent the detached Mylar pieces from being blown around during the cutting process. It will also help with the weeding process since the unwanted pieces will remain attached to the backer board as you remove the stencil.
Here are the settings that provided me with the best results:
|Material||Speed||Power||Material Thickness||Focus Height|
|Mylar 4 mil||150||4||0.02 in||auto|
|Mylar 7.5 mil||150||6||0.025 in||auto|
Backer Board: Cardstock 110lb/300gsm
* If your laser does not have an automatic focus height, make the focus height and material thickness the same.
Note on engraving Mylar: I have read that you can achieve excellent stencil results engraving the Mylar with enough power to destroy the intended areas.
Some of the results I saw came out great, but my main issue is the length of time it would require to make a stencil; therefore, I chose to avoid this method.
Being able to laser cut your own stencils opens the door for many applications. You can use stencils for your artwork, wall decor, crafts, gifts, product packaging, and so much more.
Although designing stencils can be challenging, it will be worth it in the end. Plus you only have to design each stencil once and then it can be cut over and over again.
Hopefully, this guide will assist you with laser cutting some of your own stencils. If you would like to see any other articles on a specific topic or have any questions, shoot us an email at email@example.com. Happy laser crafting!