3D Printing Stencils

3D Printing Stencils

Stencils are useful for all kinds of art projects, from drawing to printmaking and beyond. There are already so many cool stencil designs out there, but if you have access to a 3D printer you have access to an almost unlimited scope of designs. You can find existing 3D models, or design stencils yourself. And if you don’t have a 3D printer, don’t worry! You can send your files to the IRL’s remote printing services to be printed and sent to you.

There are lots of file sharing websites where people upload stencil designs. You can use models like this one from Thingiverse or this one from GrabCad. But if you’d rather create your own stencil from an image, keep reading!

Creating a 3D stencil from an image

This project can be split into three main steps: (1) Creating a 2D vector design from an image (2) Converting the 2D design to 3D and (3) 3D printing the stencil. To accomplish this you’ll need two types of software: One that can draw or trace vector files on top of images, and one that can edit 3D files. 

I recommend using Inkscape and Tinkercad. Both are free applications, and Tinkercad is completely online so you won’t need to download anything (just make an account).

1. Creating a 2D vector design

First, find an image you want to make a stencil with. Then open Inkscape and import the image using File → Open or Ctrl+O.

You’ll need to create an .SVG file, and there are two different ways to do so in Inkscape. You can either convert the image by using the “Trace Bitmap” tool or you can manually trace a new image on top of the original.

To convert, select the image and then select Path → Trace Bitmap. This generates an outline, which you can adjust using the by adjusting the brightness and cutoff settings. You can also edit the shape with the node editor tool.

If the image is more complex, and the Trace Bitmap tool doesn’t pick up all the lines you wanted it to, manually tracing may be a better option. Use Ctrl+Shift+L to open the layers toolbar and select the “+” to add a new layer. Make sure the new layer is on top of the original image. Draw lines using the freehand draw tool or the Bezier curve tool (recommended). 

Once you have a good image, separate the two images and delete the original. Save the new image as an .SVG file (File → Save As → select .SVG from the dropdown menu). 

2. Converting the 2D design to 3D

Next, log into Tinkercad or create an account. Select “Create New Design” and import the .SVG file using the “Import” button in the top right corner. Resize the shape appropriately. 

On your stencil, you’ll want the shape to be the negative space when you can draw or print. Turn your shape into a hole by selecting it and then selecting “Hole” on the shape toolbar. Add another shape from the shapes on the right. This will be the outline of your stencil. Position your hole within the shape and make sure it is taller so the hole goes all the way through the outline shape. Select both objects and group them together using Ctrl+G or the Group tool in the top right.

If your shape has “islands”, you can use connectors to make sure every part of the stencil stays in place. See the example below. I created the connector by cutting a tube shape in half with a hole.

If you want to create a repeating pattern, you can make copies of the stencil and attach them to each other. See the example below.

3. 3D printing the stencil

Once you have everything in place for your stencil, export it as an .STL and open it in the slicing software you use. I’m using Dremel DigiLab 3D Slicer here. Resize the stencil appropriately. Keep in mind it doesn’t have to be very tall.

Print the stencil!

Looking for stencil project inspiration? Check out this blog post for project ideas or this blog post for materials suggestions. Your stencils can also be used for creating designs on the DIY rubber stamp project (LINK).

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Declan Cavanaugh
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