This month’s Cricut tutorial is one I’ve been wanting to write for a while. After years of hating stencil projects because of the mess and sloppy results, I was amazed at what a game-changer Cricut’s Stencil Vinyl was. With this thicker, sturdier, tougher vinyl-like material, I was able to cut custom adhesive-backed stencils that could be used over and over again with great results every time! Today, I want to show you how to cut stencils with a Cricut, and share my best practices, tips, and tricks so your projects turn out great too!

how to cut stencils with a Cricut

What are Stencils and Why Use Them?

Stencils are essentially designs (shapes, patterns, words, phrases, etc) cut into a plastic material that is then overlaid onto paintable/stainable surfaces such as wood, walls, etc. Paint or stain is then applied over the stencil; and when the stencil is pulled away, the relief of the design (the cut-out part) is revealed on the surface. In the picture below, my hands are holding a small stencil of an abstract design. When placed on the wood, painted over and then removed, the blue design (shown to the right) is revealed….

how to cut stencils with a Cricut

Stencils are a really fun way to get crisp, clean, precise designs onto walls, trays, art, fabric, and so much more! But with so many adhesive-like products on the market today (most of which can be removed), why use a stencil to decorate an object?

For one, adding designs to an object with vinyl is certainly easy and looks great…but it’s also very temporary, meaning it can be easily peeled off. Additionally, vinyl designs will have a raised surface, and it can be difficult to seal or waterproof your designs to protect them from elements or wear-and-tear.

On the other hand, by stenciling a design onto a surface with either paint or stain, your design becomes permanent and will be harder to remove (you’ll either need to sand it off or paint over it). Your surface will remain more flat and smooth (since paint and stain tend to soak into wood), and your surfaces can be sealed to protect them. Stenciled designs also have a more polished/professional appearance (especially when it comes to home decor) compared to decorations made from plastic-like vinyl.

A Stencil Project From Start-to-Finish

Before I dive into some nitty-gritty nuances related to cutting stencils and working with Stencil Vinyl, I first want to show you how to do a stencil project from start-to-finish. Let me show you how I dressed up this simple IKEA FROSTA stool (discontinued in the U.S.) with a custom stencil I made myself!

how to cut stencils with a Cricut

To do this (or any) stencil project, you will need:

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

  • A surface to stencil – walls or unfinished wooden objects work best. This project uses the IKEA FROSTA stool (discontinued in the U.S.).
  • Stencil Vinyl – you can certainly cut stencils from “traditional” plastic sheets designed for stenciling, but Cricut’s Stencil Vinyl is not only sturdy and easy to work with, but its adhesive backing prevents a lot of the mess and paint bleeding associated with stencils.
  • Paint or stain of your choice – I find that simple acrylic paint works awesome on unfinished wood surfaces, is budget-friendly, and easy to use!
  • Brushes or sponges
  • Cricut machine such as an Explore or Maker

The first step is to design your stencil in Cricut Design Space. I will share a bunch of design tips and tricks at the end of this post; but for this project, I chose Floral Inlay Tile Square (#M23D2FB0). Since my stool measured about 14″ and the widest I can cut with the Cricut is 11.5,” I used the Slice Tool to cut my design into 2 parts. Once cut and placed together side-by-side, the pattern continues perfectly.

NOTE: I could have just used the left-sided/bigger stencil over and over again across the surface of my stool since the pattern repeats, but I wanted to be able to paint my entire stool at once.

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

Once you have your stencil design finalized, your next step is to cut it out of Stencil Vinyl. Load the Stencil Vinyl onto either a blue (light grip) or green (standard grip) mat, and then cut out your design with your machine set to Stencil Vinyl.

NOTE: If you are using an Explore, set your dial to “Custom” and then choose Stencil Vinyl from the drop-down menu.

how to cut stencils with a Cricut

With your design cut out, it’s time to remove the Stencil Vinyl design from the white paper backing.

Now…when working with traditional vinyl, I always recommend weeding first (the process by which you remove all the unwanted parts of your design) and then using transfer paper to move your vinyl design to your project. Here is the wonderful thing about Stencil Vinyl: you don’t necessarily need to weed (more on that in a minute) and you most-often don’t need to use transfer paper (as long as your design isn’t too flimsy)! The Cricut Stencil Vinyl is sturdy enough that you can (carefully) peel it right off the paper backing…

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

…and place it right down onto your project (sticky side down). In fact, if you place down your stencil and you don’t like the placement…you can peel it up and place it down again…and your design won’t warp or tear (seriously!!!!)

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

Although the adhesive on the back of the Stencil Vinyl is pretty tacky, I do recommend taking the time to reeeeaaally secure it to your surface to minimize any paint or stain seeping below the edges of your design. My trusty craft brayer worked perfectly for this, but you can also use your fingers. Just do your best to make sure the Stencil Vinyl is laying flat and there are no puckers or bubbles.

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

Next, it’s time to paint or stain your design! Here, you want to keep basic stenciling techniques in mind:

  • Use as little paint as possible – it’s better to do 3 light coats than 1 thick coat.
  • Sponges work better than brushes – do as I say not as I do…since I clearly used a brush on this project!
  • Adding paint in a straight-down motion (like dabbing with a sponge) is better than sweeping it side to side (as it will be more likely to seep under edges).

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

When you are satisfied with your paint/stain coverage, go ahead and remove the stencil (this is the most exciting part!) to reveal your design! A few things to keep in mind here:

  • Be sure you have everything painted/coated to your satisfaction BEFORE you remove the stencil because you will never be able to re-place the stencil in the exact same spot once you remove it.
  • Whether you remove the stencil while the paint is wet or dry is really up to you. However, if you’re going to use the stencil again (either on a new surface or to continue a pattern), I recommend letting the stencil fully dry before using it again so you don’t risk carrying wet paint over to the fresh surface.
  • If your stencil rips and you need to keep using it, no worries. You can simply cut another one from more Stencil Vinyl!
  • It’s pretty difficult to “fix” stenciled designs; once the paint is on, you’re mostly stuck with it, which is the main reason stenciling can be a bit stressful! Although you may be able to remove small amounts of paint with paint thinner or even chipping it off once it’s dry, the only way to fix big mistakes or really bad bleeding is to sand off the design and start over. This is why it’s REALLY important to use as little paint as possible when stenciling!

how to cut stencils with a Cricut

With your design complete, you can apply a clear coat as desired or call your project done!

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

Now that you understand the basic process of stenciling a project, let me dive into some nitty-gritty questions you might have!

Do You Have to Weed Stencil Vinyl?

The short answer to this question is: it depends.

But here’s the long answer:

As I mentioned before, Stencil Vinyl is stronger and thicker than your typical crafting vinyl. As such, it tends to pull up really, really nicely from the paper backing without warping or ripping. I have found that really simple patterns and designs (no curvy edges, no teeny, tiny details, etc) can be pulled right up without any weeding. In the example below, I was able to pull off my grid stencil, perfectly, without any weeding!

how to cut stencils with a Cricut

In fact, I was able to remove the entire stencil without disrupting the negative (unwanted) parts of the image at all! This is not only a huge time-saver, but it also means you can save/use the negative parts of the design as well, but you’ll need to use transfer paper (more on that below!)

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

On the other hand, when I first tried to simply lift up this (below) really complex, intricate design without weeding, all those little petal pieces came right up with the outline. Additionally, the pattern was so irregular and “loose,” that I noticed it was ripping and warping as I tried to wiggle it all free. As such, weeding this complex design first was worth the time in order to keep my design perfectly intact.

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

Do You Have to Use Transfer Paper with Stencil Vinyl?

The short answer? In most cases, no, you do not need to use transfer paper with Stencil Vinyl. It is strong enough, as I’ve shown, to transfer nicely from the paper backing to your project without much warping or tearing. This is especially true with simple, sturdy designs where there are no loose, flowing, or tiny details.

Even in the case when you need to add back in non-connected elements (like the middle of letters), you can simply place these by hand. Just use those printed gridlines to help you line them up just right.

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

However, you may find yourself wanting to stencil a design that is just a bit too…ummm…whimsical…to transfer on its own. I will admit, I first tried to transfer this very loose flower design (with lots of non-connected elements) by hand. Although I was eventually able to get it up off the paper backing, getting each and every part of the design to lay back down nice and smooth proved impossible. As such, I resorted to cutting the design again, and transferring it to my project with transfer paper.

NOTE: Getting the transfer paper to “let go” of Stencil Vinyl is a little trickier compared to standard vinyl. Just work slowly and you’ll eventually be able to get your transfer paper off with your Stencil Vinyl design still on your project!

how to cut stencils with a Cricut

Can the Stencil Be Used Over and Over Again?

Yep! Even after you paint over your stencil and (carefully) pull it off, you will most likely be able to lay it down onto another surface and use it again. Now…eventually you might find that the adhesive backing isn’t as tight as it first was and is allowing too much paint to seep under the edges. At that point (or if your stencil rips), it’s time to cut a fresh stencil and keep going!

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

Cutting Good Stencil Designs

Okay, friends. This one is kind of a doozy and one I could probably write a whole separate post on, but I want to cover some nuances of stencil design here.

First, when looking for good designs to cut into stencils, I recommend searching “Pattern” in the Design Space Image Library search box. This will yield all sorts of patterns that will make awesome stencils! The Edge to Edge Cartridges are my favorite!

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

Next, let’s chat about the concept of the POSITIVE and NEGATIVE aspects of a design:

  • The POSITIVE aspect(s) of the design:
    • Are the line(s) that make up the design as you see it
    • This is usually the part of the design you keep/use for your project
  • The NEGATIVE aspect(s) of the design:
    • Are the white space(s) that exist between/inside the POSITIVE aspects of the design
    • These are usually the parts of the design that you want to remove (via weeding) or discard when assembling your projects.

NOTE: Whenever you cut ANY design from any material, there is always a POSITIVE and NEGATIVE part of the design and you can decide which to use for your project.

When it comes to selecting a “good” pattern to cut for a stenciling project, it is easiest if the POSITIVE aspect of the design is one, continuous piece. This not only means you will likely be able to apply your stencil in one step without transfer paper, but it also means it will be removable and reusable. If your stencil design is instead made up of non-continuous pieces, you will HAVE to use transfer paper to lay it down, and it will be a one-time use stencil since you will have to remove each element individually.

Although a continuous design is not absolutely necessary for a stencil, it’s always my preference since the entire design is one solid unit. Here are some other examples of continuous designs that would make for great stencils!

Learn everything you need to know about making custom stencil projects with your Cricut machine!

Finally, the last thing you need to think about when you are creating your stencils is how it will look once painted. Remember, the stencil design itself (the POSITIVE aspect of the design) serves as a mask, and it’s the NEGATIVE parts of the design that receive the paint. Therefore, you need to visualize how each pattern will look in reverse once painted.

TIP! The easiest way to do this is to use the Contour Tool to turn OFF the continuous design (the POSITIVE part of the design) to reveal all the NEGATIVE parts of the design. Just be sure to switch it back before you cut out your stencil!

In the example above, if you use the lefthand design as your stencil, your object will be mostly painted with green scallops (as shown on the right). Should you want the scallop outlines painted instead (as shown on the left), you will need to use the right-hand design as your stencil (via transfer paper).

I know…it will be a little bit of a mind game as you design your project, but it’s important to think this all through so your project turns out just the way you want it!

Almost any design you can come up with in Cricut Design Space can be made into a stencil. However, be sure to take into account the positive and negative aspects of the design, as well as if it’s continuous or not, to determine what your final project will look like as well as how much work it will be!

how to cut stencils with a Cricut

Phew! I know this tutorial was a doozy! Although cutting stencils with a Cricut machine is actually pretty easy (I promise!), there are lots of things to consider in order to make your projects turn out just right. I hope this comprehensive overview gives you the confidence to try a stencil project, and if there’s anything that is unclear or comes up while you’re working with Stencil Vinyl, don’t hesitate to let me know and I’ll help you out the best I can!

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