When an artist is turning a design into a tattoo, they will often use transfer paper. Using transfer paper helps simplify the placement process and provides the tattoo artist with an outlined guide for your design. There are many types of transfer paper, but they all generally work in the same manner.
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Hectograph or Freehand Tattoo Transfer Paper
This specific type of transfer paper uses manual transfer, meaning you draw your design by hand and it transfers onto the carbon paper that will apply your design to the client’s skin. They often have three layers and are a great alternative if you don’t have access to a computer or stencil printer to create your design.
The artist draws on the top sheet which is translucent to allow for tracing capabilities. The middle piece of paper contains the carbon ink sheet. The bottom sheet is where the ink is then transferred, and that’s what is placed against your skin.
These transfer papers often require a specific pencil called a hectograph pencil. It works more like a pen but it does not have ink that bleeds. The paper also comes in numerous colors which is great for varying skin tones.
To apply this paper stencil to skin, you must,
- Sanitize and shave the area where it is going to be applied
- Hold the stencil over (but away from) the skin to get an idea as to where it should be applied, and use a surgical skin marker to mark the placement
- Put a stencil stay solution onto the skin
- Align the stencil to the spot that is going to be tattooed and press the stencil firmly against the skin
- Apply the stencil using a damp sponge or wet paper towel
- Remove the transfer paper carefully
While this is an easy and cost-effective alternative to a stencil printer, it can only be used two or three times before it stops transferring the stencil. In addition, should tattoos need to be resized, it is not possible with this kind of stencil unless you are willing to dedicate time to redrawing the stencil.
Thermographic Tattoo Transfer Paper
Thermographic transfer paper uses a roller machine device to transfer, much like a regular printer, but made specifically for tattooing stencils in mind. You can have a look at all of our favorites by checking out our article on the Best Tattoo Stencil Printers.
This paper has four layers:
- The top white layer (this is the stencil)
- A milky layer that protects the stencil and your drawing
- An inked layer
- Yellow bottom layer, that is typically of a thicker consistency than the other papers
This machine may take some time to heat up, so turn it on early to ready it for your transfer.
You can use an original design which can be printed from a standard printer or drawn by hand on a sheet of white paper. You then take a sheet of thermographic transfer paper, placing the sheet with the drawing between the ink layer and the bottom yellow sheet, with your drawing facing up at the ink layer.
After, you put all these papers through the thermogenic transfer machine; sometimes they are placed between a folder optimized for heat, depending on the machine being used.
The papers will roll through the machine and the heat and compression will transfer the drawing between layers three and four onto your stencil on the first white layer. The stencil is then applied in the same format as the freehand stencil paper.
The benefits of having a thermal stencil machine is that you can redo stencils frequently, and you can resize and redo a placement with ease. The downsides of a stencil printer is that there is a cool down time between usage due to machine overheating, and there is also a financial burden with investing in a quality machine.
Most tattoo shops have thermal tattoo stencil printers available, and like freehand paper, these now come in a variety of colors for any skin tone.
Questions About Using Tattoo Transfer Paper
- Why should you use a stencil stay product? - It is specially formulated to not only capture the lines of a stencil crisply, but it also stays on through tough wipes. Since you need to stretch and wipe the skin as you are tattooing it, stencil stay can withstand this process.
- Can vaseline be used instead of a stencil stay product? - Yes, you can use Vaseline, but you need to be wary of the fact that stencil stay is created to hold the stencil through multiple wipes during the tattoo process. A stencil applied with petroleum jelly may not hold as well or may vanish after the first wipe, and you cannot reapply a stencil mid-tattoo.
- Are there alternatives to tattoo transfer paper? - Yes, you can use tattoo stencil pens if you wish to freehand a design onto your client. These have tattoo-safe ink and will stay on the skin during the entire session.
- What is better, freehand transfer paper or thermographic transfer paper? - This depends on your own personal preference as they both have pros and cons. Hand-drawn transfer papers have very little leeway when it comes to errors, but some people prefer how “old school” this method is.
Our Final Thoughts
Transfer paper stencils give clients that first look at their placement, the size of their tattoo, and an idea as to what is soon going to become a permanent part of their lives. Choosing your favorite method of stenciling is a personal and financial choice. If you are an apprentice, don’t hesitate to ask your mentor for a closer look at their shop’s machine so you know what you’ll be working with, in the future.