Digitally Designing a Stencil
What Will You Learn?
Unless you have a particularly skilled group of artists in your camp, you will need to make a stencil to add Makey to your shirts. There are two ways to do this: 1) a traditional hand-cut stencil or 2) a new-fangled digitally cut stencil. Personally, since I often need quite a few stencils, I like to cut them digitally. It’s surprisingly easy to do and takes considerably less time than cutting a stencil with an X-acto knife.
In this case I’ll be using a popular, low-cost digital cutter called the Silhouette Cameo and its free software, Silhouette Studio. There are many similar digital cutters on the market now, each with its own software, but most work in very similar ways. You may need to refer to your individual cutter’s User Manual for specifics.
From Pixels to Digital Design
If you don’t already have the image you want, start by using an Internet search engine to find one. Look for solid, crisp, clear, one-color images. Get the largest sized image you can find. Import your image into your digital cutting software. In Silhouette Studio, you simply have to open the graphic.
Resize your graphic. In most software you can click on the image, select a corner and drag the image to resize it. In Silhouette Studio, you can also select the image and directly adjust the scale using the toolbar or Scale window, found under Panels → Transform. I suggest setting the width to 8” for starters. (For more information on sizing your image, see “Cutting your design” below.)
Use the software’s Trace function to create a cutting outline. In Silhouette Studio, you can find this under Panels –> Trace. Click “Select Traceable Area” and drag the box over your image. Under “Trace Style,” select Trace. At this point you can remove the original graphic. The cut lines should be left behind.
If you are planning to use this stencil as a vinyl transfer for screen printing, you can skip this step. Otherwise you may need to add elements to connect all the pieces of your design so it can be lifted as one piece. In technical stencil terms, you want “bridges” to connect the “islands.”
To create bridges, use the drawing feature in your software. Simply make rectangular boxes, ⅛” to ¼” thick and place then between the pieces that need to connect. Then use the Subtract function (found under Panels → Modify). You can rotate your bridges by clicking on the green dot above the box, or selecting Object — > Rotate. When you are done, Group your pieces (found under Object → Group).
Check your stencil. Fill your grouped pieces by selecting the image, clicking on Panels → Fill Color. Then make a 10” x 12” rectangle and fill it with a contrasting color. Place this over your stencil image, then right-click and select “Send to back.” The contrast color of your box is what you will use as a stencil, so make sure it is all connected.
Cutting your design
Before you make your cut, you’ll want to check the size of your image. Most t-shirt printers recommend that designs range between 8 ½” square for Youth XS or S to 10 ½” wide for Youth M or L. A standard adult shirt can accommodate a design up to 11” square.
You can cut your design at different sizes depending on your shirt sizes, but that may add a level of organization and complexity that can become challenging at camp. Personally, I stick to a design that is 8-10” wide and let campers use the extra space around the design, if there is any, to customize their shirts. Adjust your design on the grid as needed to have it centered horizontally.
You’ll want to plan to have about 3” between the collar and the top of your design. Though you can place your design “on the fly” by using the width of an adult hand, fingers together, no thumb, I find it can be easier to plan this distance on my cut, so I just have to match the top of the media against the collar.
Attach your media to your cutting mat. For vinyl and stencil material, the paper backing should face the mat. For freezer paper, place the media shiny side down.
Set your cutter to the correct setting for your media. I find it helps to slow the cut a bit in the settings if you have sharp turns in your stencil. You may need to play with your settings to get a good cut, so don’t wait until the day before you need your stencils. I speak from experience here. Seriously.
Once you have cut the stencil, you need to weed it. Use a weeding hook (or an X-acto knife) to remove the unneeded parts of the media. Then carefully remove the stencil from your mat.
Continue on to the next project, Using Your Stencil for T-Shirts for ways to use your stencil. Or check out The Big Book of Maker Camp Projects by Maker Camp Coordinator, to create color-changing, spin art, bleached, or soil-painted Maker Camp t-shirts.