Stencils have been used for ages in art and design, for everything from painting simple signage to applying complex tattoos. Stencils can be made from metal, plastic, coated paper or vinyl. Whether to cut a vinyl stencil by hand or machine depends on your budget and production needs, but a good quality cutter is the most important tool in creating a stencil.
Determine your project needs. Are you planning on operating a large sign or T-shirt business that would require an expensive commercial vinyl-cutting machine, or are you mounting a small-scale project for which a low-cost cutter will do? If you have decided you want to go into production, whether it be a small- or high-volume project, choosing the right vinyl stencil cutter for your needs is the first step.
Understand that vinyl-stencil-cutting machines come in a variety of models and price ranges. They are ideal for T-shirt shops, hobbyists, schools or offices. The lower-cost models cut a smaller width stencil up to 17.5 cm (7 inches) wide and look much like desktop printers. Instead of printing, they cut out the designs and text. They usually come bundled with software packages for PC or Mac and can fit in most small offices or shops. The desktop machines cut lettering and graphics with an adhesive backed vinyl; they come in rolls from 20 to 37.5 cm (8 to 15 inches) wide, depending on the model, and vary in price, starting at about £325 (as of 2009). There are larger floor models with greater width capabilities for large-scale stencils starting at about £650 (as of 2009). The Roland brand is the best-selling and cost-effective stencil cutter on the market and there are several businesses that sell these machines. You can also get used machines at a more affordable price.
If your stencil-cutting needs are on a smaller scale, seek a good craft knife and self-healing mat, which will work for most projects. A sharp, small tipped blade with a good handle is all that you will need to create a good-quality stencil. Some cutting knives are made to rotate and are great for more detailed areas. Make sure there are plenty of spare blades, since a dull blade will ruin almost any cutting project. There are several companies that make good-quality cutting knives with an assortment of blades. Try out a few with the material used for the stencil. Vinyl is a little more pliable than Mylar, plastic or metal, so a good cutting surface is essential.
Vinyl is thinner than Mylar, a popular stencil material. There are stencil-cutting machines designed to cut through thicker material, and they are much more expensive than vinyl stencil-cutting machines.