A Complete Guide to Using Stencils for Custom Shoes

Stencils are how you can get perfect lines, patterns, logos, and images onto your shoes.  The great thing about stencils is that you can replicate professional looking images without having any drawing skill.  We’re going to detail a few different ways you can make stencils: masking tape, plastic binder dividers, paper cutouts, and vinyl.  Each have their own purposes and benefits.  We will discuss each one in detail.  The most common ways to get stencils are either to buy them (D-Nice CustomsFeelgood ThreadsOverspray; ~$20 per shoe) or buy a cutting machine (such as Cricut Explore Air or Silhouette Cameo; ~$200).

Before even making your stencil, you will want to consider how you are going to apply the paint through that stencil.  There are 3 methods: brush painting, stippling, and airbrushing.  For all of these methods, it’s a good idea to put on thin coats so that you don’t get pools of paint anywhere.  If you have one, airbrushing is the best method for painting over stencils.  The downside is that you have to take the time to mask areas you don't want painted.  Be sure to spray from a good distance and use thin coats so it doesn’t create pools of paint.  Feelgood Threads with an awesome video on stenciling with an airbrush here.  Brush painting is the easiest method, but sometimes paint will gather in corners or seep through where it shouldn’t.  It’s not discouraged to brush paint, just be a little more careful about even coverage and not over-applying.  Foam stipplers are circular sponges on sticks that can soak up the paint and be applied on top of your stencil by dabbing it on.  Since the motion is perpendicular to the stencil, this method can be better than using a brush.  Great videos by Kickstradomis here and SneakerKraft here.  

    Now that we’re done with how to apply paint over stencils, let’s get to the methods for making stencils.  They are in order of cheapest to most expensive.

    Stencil from Paper Cutouts

    A stencil made from cutting paper is not going to be very good.  I wouldn’t recommend ever using them for sharp lines, except I saw Sierato use paper cut-outs to frame his images onto the shoe.  A perfect example in one of his videos here.  He basically starts out by cutting out the image he wants, airbrushing around the outline, and then drawing in and cutting out more sections as he draws in and paints more.  This dude is a pro and this is not recommended for beginners.  Btw, I think he developed this method all by himself.

    Stencil Cut Out from Masking Tape

    The easiest way to make a quick stencil is to trace it onto some masking tape.  It will be less durable and flexible than vinyl stencils, but work as a quick, low budget solution.  Masking tape is less adaptable to curved surfaces since tape doesn’t conform when heated like vinyl does, so you’ll want to use them only on flatter surfaces.  There are a few ways to make masking tape stencils.

    1. You can simply draw onto some masking tape and then cut out the image with an xacto knife on a cutting mat.
    2. You can trace a pattern on your iPad, tablet, or phone by turning up the brightness, taping up the area, and tracing it. Then, you will take the tape off of the screen, bring it over to a cutting mat, and cut the image out with an xacto knife.
    3. Print out an image onto some sticky paper, stick it on top of the masking tape, and then cut the image out with an xacto knife, going through the sticky paper and the masking tape at the same time. A great video is done by Sophiesophss here, but she uses vinyl instead of masking tape as a backing/ sticky material.

    Stencils from Plastic Dividers

    Stencils made from plastic dividers (or any similar plastic) are thick and re-usable.  The methods for making stencils from plastic dividers are the same as for masking tape.  A good video on it is here.  The downside is that you can’t conform it to surfaces.

    Vinyl Stencils Cutout by Machine

    If you are going to be making multiple customs that uses stencils or want to make stencils that aren’t being sold, you will want to buy a vinyl cutting machine.  The most popular model is the Silhouette Cameo.  A machine will cost you about $200 and each 10 foot (by 12 inch wide) roll of (Oracal 651) vinyl is about $9.  Amazon is recommended for buying both of these items.  Some basics about how to make your cutouts in the Silhouette program is here.  Another video by Sierato here.

    Stencil Application Process

    Now that you have your stencil, we will go over how to use it.  A good tip is that the less stencil material you use, the better.  For instance, if you are doing a LV shoe, you will want to put on the LV pieces rather than the outline. The reasoning is that sometimes you will work on curved surfaces and it will be very difficult to mold a flat stencil onto that surface.  Painting wise, this means if you will want to color the background the same color as you want the LV to appear (usually the lighter color) before applying the stencils.

    Good/bad choices for using positive or negative part of the stencil.

    For each area needing a stencil:

    1.  Outline the area you want to cover with the stencil. This can be achieved by using a clear sheet over your shoe and drawing an outline.  Or, you can use a piece of paper or the actual stencil the same way - you just won't be able to see through it.


    Estimating size of the stencil.

    2. Cut the stencil to the shape you want.  Better to go too big than too small.

    Cutting the approximate size.

    3. Weed the stencil.  Use weeding tools (I actually just use an xacto knife) to pull out the parts of the stencil you don't need. 

    Weeding the stencil.

    4. If you have just one piece to put on the shoe, go ahead and place it on.  If not you will need transfer paper. Go to step 5.

    5. If you have pieces that need to stay in place relative to each other you will need to use transfer paper.  To use transfer paper, place it on top of the weeded stencil and press down with a flattening tool.  Make sure you do a good job pressing down or the vinyl won't stick onto the transfer paper well.

    Pressing the transfer paper onto the vinyl.

    6. Slowly peel the transfer paper (and vinyl) from the vinyl backing.  Make sure all of the stencil pieces adhere to the transfer paper.

    6. Apply the stencil onto the shoe.  This is the hard part so have patience.  Take your time and pay attention to every piece, it will pay off in the end by reducing your clean up work.  Fist, align the stencil onto your shoe exactly where you want it. I try to find an anchor location and put a large piece of tape to connect the stencil to your shoe and keep your pattern in place.  Then, start with one end and peel back the transfer paper, while making sure the pieces of stencil you want are down on the shoe.  Use your flattening tool again to press the stencil pieces onto your shoe.

    7.  Re-flatten each piece. Then, use a heat gun or hair dryer on each piece (for about 1-2 seconds) to help it adhere better to the shoe.  It will help the adhesive on the back of the vinyl to stick to the shoe better and decrease the likelihood of gaps where paint can sneak in.  Be VERY careful not to overheat or warp your vinyl.

    8. If you are airbrushing, mask the areas of the shoe where you don't want paint.  Even if you are using a brush or stippler, you may want to mask off some areas.  Make sure your masking is PERFECT because paint can get into any tiny gap.

    Example of shoe with stencils and masking done.  Ready for airbrushing!

    9. Airbrush, paint, or stipple over the stencil.  Use thin layers (3 minimum) and do not allow the paint to pool in areas.  Use a heat gun or hair dryer to decrease the dry time between coats, if desired.  Be sure to wait at least 15 minutes between layers after you have heat set with a heat gun.

    Shoe that has been airbrushed over stencils.

    10. Allow 1.5 - 2 hours to dry before peeling the stencil.

    11.  Peel the stencil pieces.  This is the most exciting part - enjoy the results of the work you have done! But...

    11.  There is still a lot of work to do.  Go in and do clean-up of any imperfect lines with a detail brush.

    Example of bad case of needing clean up.  It will look good still, it just takes time.

    After clean-up it looks great!

    12.  Allow to dry and then apply finisher.

    Finished AF1 LV shoe.

    Some important tips:

    • Be sure you do the right prep work and use are using the right paints (with the right additives) for the surface you are working on. Check out our (coming soon) articles on canvas, leather, mesh, plastic, and foam composite materials.
    • It's worth repeating that airbrush will be the best method for applying the paint.  From personal experience, brushing has left a lot of clean up work at the end to fix imperfections.
    • If you are putting a stencil on TOP of a surface you just painted, spray a layer of finisher on it so that the stencil doesn’t peel up your paint. Allow the finisher to dry or dry it with a heat gun before applying your stencil.
    • After putting the stencils onto your shoes, use a heat gun or hair dryer to help the vinyl stick to your surface better.  This will make the vinyl stick closer to your shoe and your lines will be much cleaner.
    • If painting with a brush, pull away from the stencil.  If you brush towards it, paint will be more likely to seep underneath the stencil.
    • If you have the time, it's best to wait 1.5-2 hrs before peeling the stencils.
    • No matter how clean the paint job/ stencil work, you will always have some clean up to do.  Go in with a fine brush and clean up any lines necessary.

    Some great videos to watch:

    Some places to browse and buy stencils:

    Some tools and materials for you (search for them on Amazon):


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