Automotive/Motorcycle Airbrush Stenciling Choices
By Donn Shanteau
Fashioning stencils is a good way for anyone who already knows the basics of airbrush painting to create professional looking artwork. The stencil affords the painter more control over the paint and eliminates much of the variables of freehand airbrushing. I must reiterate that one must first know the correct way to spray with an airbrush! If the painter uses the airbrush in a fashion similar to spraying a can of Krylon or Rustoleum, you can forget about getting predictable results. Without the ability to feather the paint at the stencil edges and modify the paint flow through the airbrush as you are painting, a stencil will only aid the painter in making a bigger puddle of paint. With that said, stencils are your friend when it comes to rendering painstaking details.
You have a plethora of materials available to stencil with; I will address the most commonly used in automotive applications. The first is regular copy paper. I prefer the coated versions since they are less absorbent. Multiple copies can be printed and windows cut out with an x-acto knife to expose each separate area to be airbrushed. By registering each window accurately with the previously sprayed details, a very respectable image can be built with limited artistic ability. Low air pressure (15-18 psi) should be used to deter under-spray. One drawback to this method is that copy paper will absorb paint, so spraying the paint in light coats to build it up slowly is imperative.
Another popular method that is seen all too often in magazines and television is the use of vinyl transfer tape. This sticky material comes in rolls of various widths and was designed to lift computer cut letters from their backing and transfer them onto the sign or vehicle surface. At some point someone figured out that if it was applied to a painted vehicle’s surface, a design could be cut out of it and PRESTO, you have a masked area that is ready to paint once any residual adhesive is cleaned from the exposed areas. This is the fastest and simplest way to mask and stencil for sure, but it has some drawbacks. First, it doesn’t cut very cleanly; the cut edge is ragged when compared to some other stenciling agents. Secondly, it requires you to cut on the paint. Cut too deeply, and your knife mark will be apparent after the clear coat is sprayed (the sign of a true amateur). You see this done all the time on TV, but the camera doesn’t focus close enough to expose the shoddy knife work of the painter. The good part is that it is fast; the bad part is that the work will not pass close scrutiny by anyone who can recognize quality.
I prefer using drafting film to fashion custom stencils. (Photo 1) It will accept repositionable adhesive to hold it firmly in place to guard against under-spray, and it is stable enough to be lifted and repositioned if necessary. It is non-absorbent, cuts cleanly and comes with one side that is smooth and one side that is matte finished. The matte side holds graphite, so I can draw on it, cut it on a cutting mat, apply adhesive to it and place it on the surface as many times as needed. It might be slower than the other methods, but I like it the best, since I am all about quality, not quantity.
Lastly, you can purchase precut stencils/templates from a number of manufacturers and some are better than others. I would recommend the Artool brand. (Photo 2) You hold them up to the surface and spray through the holes. These are super for the novice or pro who wants it done right now or can’t draw a lick. (Photo 3) When I find that I must use them, I combine freehand airbrushing with the hand-held shields to modify the look of the art and make the artwork more custom. And no matter which method of stenciling you choose, remember that you still have to know how to use the airbrush properly to get good results.
Reprinted with permission of ARTtalk.com