The Best Material for Stenciling on Canvas

Written by trevor talley
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The Best Material for Stenciling on Canvas
A simple one-layer stencil in the street art style (Scorpion noir graffiti sur un mur. image by Bruno Bernier from

With many creators now turning to stencils for their ability to be reused and the high level of detail they provide, the question of what material is best to use for stencil projects on canvas has become a common query. Various materials can be used in stencilling projects, each with its own drawbacks and benefits.

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Perhaps the most readily accessible stencilling material is plain paper. Paper is cheap, easy to cut and does the job of simple, one-off stencil projects well. However, paper is easily damaged during the process of stencilling an image. Paper can rip, easily slips when cutting and will eventually be destroyed by any type of paint you use on it. Additionally, paper can become soaked through when painting, and paint can often soak straight through the paper onto the canvas behind it, ruining the image. One way of combating this is by using thicker papers such as manila folders.

The Best Material for Stenciling on Canvas
Construction paper (paper image by AGphotographer from

Box Cardboard

Another easily acquired stencil material is cardboard, such as that most boxes are made of. Because of its wide availability and low cost, this is where most stencil artists begin when looking for materials. The affordability of this material allows the artist to make mistakes without feeling he is wasting valuable supplies. However, cardboard does have some drawbacks that might keep a more advanced artist away. Cardboard is usually much thicker than other stencilling materials, and this can lead to less accurate cuts and applications. Cardboard is also easily damaged by everything from water and motion to the paint you use. Because of these features, cardboard is typically used by beginner stencilists.

The Best Material for Stenciling on Canvas
Stacked cardboard (the cardboard goffered image by Alexander Ivanov from


Chipboard is considered both paper and cardboard, and has the benefits of both without some of the drawbacks. Chipboard is cheap, easy to get from an art store, is thinner than box cardboard, stronger than paper and most types will not easily soak through. Some chipboard is too thick to get a knife through easily, so when purchasing make sure the board tears and bends easily. The drawback to chipboard is that despite being stronger than paper and box cardboard, it is still easily ripped or frayed during and after cutting, and so the stencil is not as durable as some other materials.

Thin Plastic Materials

The highest quality material to use for stencilling is also the most expensive: thin plastic sheets. This generic term refers to any durable, thin material made from plastic or a plastic-like substance. This includes contact paper, report holders, transparencies, X-ray film or other durable films, and acetate. Materials such as contact paper have an added feature of being slightly adhesive, allowing for very crisp image transfers, but the adhesive typically does not last more than a couple of uses. Acetate is perhaps the most desirable, as it can be purchased in bulk in very large, clear sheets, which lend themselves readily to stencils of any kind. The drawback to these materials is that they are more expensive. However, if you're painting on an already fairly expensive canvas, the quality of image when using plastics may be worth the cost.

The Best Material for Stenciling on Canvas
X-ray film is a great stencilling material. (x - ray image by Sandor Kacso from

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