What makes a good stencil material?

Over the last couple of months various orders have come in requesting stencils. I thought I’d put this to the test and try a few of different materials to see which works best!

You may remember back at Christmas time I’d had a bit of fun using my MDF stars to spray on the floor of the workshop. This got me to thinking…

Laser cut MDF star stencil by nice-cuts a laser cutting service. Spray paint your design
Lasercut MDF stars make perfect stencils for spray painting!

What other designs could i re-use to make a suitable stencil for material testing?

You’ll recognise this fish from my previous post No Vector, No Problem. I’ve adapted him to work as a stencil and I’m pleased with the results. Once the file is created I can go ahead and start tinkering with some potential material options.

Vector design for laser cutting materials experiment
Vector design file for laser cutting materials experiment. From the top: Original image from previous project, artwork outline with some simple adjustments to turn the design into a stencil, filled in colour version to better show the intended finished project.

 


MDF

This is always our go-to first option for prototyping so it’s my first port of call today too!

Laser cut fish stencil cut from MDF for nice-cuts a laser cutting service in Leeds
Laser cut fish stencil cut from MDF

Benefits of MDF:

  • Cheap as chips! MDF is by far the cheapest material we stock.
  • It’s great for prototyping and test pieces.
  • It cuts very clean and evenly and has very few problems with consistency due to the uniform standard of the material (where occasionally you might find the odd tricky spot when using plywood for example).
  • The MDF itself takes paint well, I’ve used a roller and most spray paint colours with great results. For using as a stencil it’s similarly great!
  • It’s sturdy so sits flat easily, also no problems with blowing away if your using it outside!

Downsides to MDF:

  • The smoke/burn staining can often spoil the effect, though some people really like this! Can be overcome using masking tape. If your planning to use as a stencil this won’t be a problem at all.
  • Thickness. We mainly use 3mm MDF so beware of casting a shadow if using as a stencil. I found I didn’t get a crisply defined image without being quite thorough around the edges and spraying into the edges at different angles.
  • Bulky. If you’re after a nice large stencil this material can’t be rolled up for easy storage.
  • You can’t wipe the stencil clean after use.
  • Lighter spray paint colours needed two or more coats to cover some of the burn marks on the MDF itself – again, if using as a stencil this isn’t a problem.

Acetate

As we had some acetate nocking around the workshop from back in October when I was asked to I do a few tests using that. A customer had sent me some silhouette drawings of various plants and floral arrangements. She’d requested acetate because, with it being clear, it was great for layering up and seeing the emerging design beneath. Here again I’ve used my fish for easy comparison.

Acetate laser cut stencil test using nice-cuts fish example and spray paint

Acetate laser cutting test using fish example.

Results from using a laser cut acetate stencil with spray paint.
Results from using a laser cut acetate stencil with spray paint.
Laser cut acetate fish stencil created using vector artwork for Nice-Cuts Leeds laser cutting service for materials experiment blog
It’s tricky to see because acetate is so beautifully clear, but you can just make out the stencil shape pre-spraying. Notice some smoke staining on the reverse side – this can be easily wiped off after cutting.

Benefits of acetate:

  • Super lightweight and flexible.
  • Transparent so great for lining up the next print and being able to see clearly what’s going on.
  • Cheap! Another fantastically cheap option.
  • Wafer thin so fantastic for a crisp and clean print.
  • No notable burn marks on the material itself.

Downsides to acetate:

  • Not very durable. We found test pieces were delicate and teared easily.
  • Difficult to clean afterward because of it’s flimsy nature.
  • I used leftover acetate from a packet of inkjet compatible printable sheets. The smooth side wiped nicely when the paint was wet, but the rough printing side took the paint very quickly.
  • The material was so light that whilst cutting it needed weighting down in the laser bed to stop it lifting with the extractor on. Similarly the material needed holding in place with tape when spraying to stop it flying away. I was also conscious that the force from the spray can might make flappy bits lift up.
  • A very slight melting of material where the design was particularly intricate, but this didn’t seem to show up in the print after spraying.

Mylar

Mylar is quite a versatile material that we are occasionally asked for. It comes is various forms and thicknesses. You will have seen it many times as it’s often used for food packaging, book coverings, or even in the form of the shiny material used in helium balloons! It’s often used as an insulating material (like space blankets). The Mylar we’re most commonly asked about however, is a creamy white colour. It ranges in transparency depending on how thick it is, but we’ve found it’s a perfect candidate for stencil making.

Mylar fish laser cut stencil for materials test experiment for Nice-cuts a laser cutting service in Leeds
Fish stencil laser cut from Mylar.
Fish stencil laser cut from mylar for nice-cuts leeds a laser cutting service testing different materials
Laser cut mylar fish stencil stuck down and spray painted ready for unveiling. Doesn’t need sticking down quite as firmly as the acetate.
Finished results from mylar laser cut fish stencil laser cut by nice-cuts a laser cutting service in Leeds
Finished results!

 

Benefits of Mylar:

  • Useful thickness. Holds it’s shape very well, even after cutting an intricate design.
  • Rigid yet bendy. Easy to store and long lasting – can be rolled into a tube or flattened.
  • Easy to wipe clean if cleaned immediately, alternatively paint can be scraped off if left to dry for too long.
  • Comes in a range varying thicknesses.

Downsides of Mylar:

  • Slightly more expensive option (when comparing to acetate and MDF). Our cost estimator works out a text logo stencil with dimensions of 130 x 130 mm at between £1.50-£1.75
  • Very little transparency so harder to line up if you need to see through it.

So how did they all hold up to the fish test!?

Laser cutting stencils materials experiment
Three different materials (from top down:) Mylar, Acetate and MDF put to the test to find the perfect stencil material for your laser cutting projects.

 

All in all there’s some great options out there and we’re more than happy to give them a go so get in touch with your stencilling needs and we’ll see which is the best option for you!

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