How to Use Tattoo Stencil Paper

Getting a tattoo is an incredibly exciting process…and a huge commitment to make. It’s especially stressful knowing that once the tattoo is there, it’s there for life—there’s no moving it!

This isn’t a decision one wants to go into without double-checking how it will look. Sometimes, no matter how sure we are of the vision in our heads, it just doesn’t look the same on our skin.

This is where tattoo stencil paper comes in!

Artists use tattoo stencil paper as a way to “test” the tattoo before actually starting up the tattoo machine. Here’s how to use tattoo stencil paper!

A tattoo design on tattoo stencil paper. How to use tattoo stencil paper.

What is Tattoo Stencil Paper?

Tattoo stencil paper is a type of transfer paper meant to provide you with a visual of tattoo placement, size, and detail prior to the actual tattooing.

After all, once you put needle to skin, you’re committed! There’s no shifting your placement once you get started. You always want to test it out first.

The nice thing about tattoo stencil paper is that it allows for multiple attempts.

If you put the stencil in place and don’t love the placement, your tattoo artist (or you, if you’re doing the stencil yourself!) can simply wash away the stencil and try again.

A tattoo transferred onto skin from tattoo stencil paper.

Tattoo stencil paper is also sometimes called tattoo transfer paper.

Tattoo artists will occasionally draw the stencil on freehand, but this is not typical. Most use tattoo stencil paper every time.

The tattoo stencil paper’s ink is not permanent in any way, so don’t be alarmed if it doesn’t wash off completely the first time! It will come off, and if there are streaks left behind, your artist will not be thrown off by it.

The details of your art will not be affected by any lingering traces of ink left behind by a washed-off stencil.

Types of Tattoo Stencil Paper

There are two common types of tattoo stencil paper: hectograph tattoo transfer paper, and thermal tattoo stencil paper.

A tattoo artist creating a stencil on tattoo transfer paper.

Hectograph Transfer Paper

This paper is meant for artists who prefer to draw their stencil designs freehand while still making use of hectograph tattoo transfer paper, though it can also be used with a type of printer called a “dot matrix printer.”

These printers have long since gone defunct in most common industries, but some tattoo artists still use them!

Thermal paper, however, is meant for use with a special type of printer called a thermal printer. This way, the artist can print an exact copy of their design onto the paper without losing any details. This eliminates some of the margin for error.

The artist can use thermal paper to draw their design on their own as well, but most choose to print using this medium.

This is not to say one product is better than the other; it’s up to the artist’s preference!

Hectograph paper is made up of three separate layers, each layer playing a different part in the transfer process!

The first layer is what the artist actually draws the design on.

The second layer keeps the first and third layers separated until the time is right. Without it, the paper might stick before you want it to!

The third layer of this tattoo stencil paper is where the actual stencil takes shape. The design from the top layer copies onto the bottom layer.

Thermal Paper

Thermal paper is thicker, consisting of four layers rather than three.

Thermal paper is made up of a drawing layer at the top, just like hectograph paper.

The second layer plays a similar part as the second layer of the hectograph paper, and is meant to be discarded before use.

Next is the layer infused with ink, which is necessary for the printer to pull out the design.

Lastly, the base layer of thermal paper is designed to keep the paper from slipping out of place during the printing process. If it moves at the wrong time, it could royally mess up the design’s overall composition!

Other Necessary Supplies

Hectograph Pencil

This depends on the way you learn how to use tattoo stencil paper. If you’re drawing your design freehand, you will absolutely need to get your hands on a transfer pencil.

A transfer pencil—also called a hectograph pencil—is a special type of pencil that is made specifically to transfer onto tattoo stencil paper.

If you try to use an ordinary pencil or other drawing medium while learning how to use tattoo stencil paper, you’ll find the stencil design considerably lower quality. You can also potentially lose some detail in the transfer process.

Thermal or Dot Matrix Printer

As mentioned earlier, if you learn how to use tattoo stencil paper with the intention of printing your design, you will need a particular kind of printer.

Ordinary printers will not function correctly on tattoo stencil paper. In fact, if you try to use them for this purpose while learning how to use tattoo stencil paper, you could potentially break your printer entirely.

Dot matrix printers are difficult to track down, but there are some out there. Thermal printers are considerably easier to find!


When preparing the section of skin for stencil application, the first step is to ensure the skin is clean.

You don’t want to use any old soap for this; a reaction to the soap could interfere with the tattooing process.

It’s recommended that you use green soap, which contains alcohol that assists with proper sterilization.


Before you start a tattoo—or a tattoo stencil—you want to make sure you shave any hair present!

Hair can cause all kinds of issues with a tattoo. If the area isn’t shaved, the ink may not absorb properly into the skin. It can even cause issues with infection, which is the last thing you want to deal with.

Infected tattoos often require prescription antibiotics in order to clear up properly, and even then, there’s a chance the infected tattoo will end up warped somehow.

For the best results, always get a fresh razor to shave the area prior to getting your tattoo. Old razors run the risk of nicking your skin.

They can also carry bacteria that could, again, up your risk of infection.


Always use latex-free gloves (for those with latex allergies) while going through the tattooing process, even when you’re learning how to use tattoo stencil paper! Safety first!


In addition to your green soap, you’ll want to rub another sanitizer over the area prior to stencil application, such as rubbing alcohol.

You should also use hand sanitizer yourself after washing your hands thoroughly and before putting on gloves.


In order to ensure your stencil transfers properly, you’ll want to apply a tattoo transfer primer before application.

This primer is similar to makeup primer; it preps the skin to receive the stencil and helps the ink stick to the surface!

This helps prevent streaking and other issues with your stencil.

Paper Towels

Have plenty of paper towels on hand in case of stencil mishaps! If you need to remove the stencil and try again, you’ll need paper towels to wipe it away.

You’ll also need paper towels throughout the sanitizing and shaving process.

How to Use Hectograph Tattoo Stencil Paper

A tattoo artist applying a tattoo stencil.

1. First, remove the middle layer of your hectograph paper.

2. Next, draw your design on the top of your paper. Check it carefully to ensure it looks exactly the way you want it.

3. The design will copy onto the bottom layer of your paper.

4. Prep the area where you’ll be placing the stencil with soap, sanitizer, and primer.

5. Cut around your drawing; you don’t need to place the whole sheet on the area! This can get cumbersome and cause more problems than necessary.

6. Place the cutout on your chosen area.

7. If you’ve ever applied a temporary tattoo, this next step will be familiar to you! Dampen the back of your transfer paper (do NOT soak!) then peel it off.

8. If you’ve applied it properly, your stencil should be in place! If not, wipe it away and try again.

How to Use Thermal Tattoo Stencil Paper

1. Remove the tissue-like layer of your thermal paper.

2. Either print or draw your design on the top layer of paper (you can use ordinary cardstock and a regular printer for this step)

3. Once you have your design ready, slip your white drawing layer between the ink layer and the bottom layer.

4. Place the bundle of paper (yes, all three sheets!) into the thermal printer.

5. Remove the top layer and voila! You have your stencil!

6. Place on prepared skin. Peel away and check that stencil has transferred completely.

A tattoo stencil design transferred onto skin.

Tattoo Stencil Paper Troubleshooting

If your stencil isn’t transferring properly, try adding more primer solution. If this doesn’t work, try smoothing out the paper carefully and making sure every bit is making contact with the skin.

If transferring using hectograph paper, try pressing your pencil down harder when drawing your design, and try using less or more water when attempting the transfer to try and find the sweet spot.

Get the Perfect Stencil!

A tattoo artist placing a design on tattoo stencil paper.

Now that you know how to use tattoo stencil paper, you’re all set to start the process of perfecting your tattoo!

Not sure what ink you’re looking for next? Check out our Tattoo Ideas section to get some inspiration!

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