There seems to be allot of interest in making custom reusable airbrush stencils. If you search around the web you will find some information on this subject. Unfortunately most of the information out there will leave you with more questions than answers. So some of the things I will cover here are plotter basics, cutting and design software and of course stencil material. This is not a tutorial, or lesson project. You can find a step by step project plotter tutorial here. This is more of an overview of what you need to start cutting your own airbrush stencils with a plotter and advice as to where you can find those tools.
The biggy in cutting airbrush stencils with a plotter is of course the plotter. Plotters come in a wide array of sizes and prices from hundreds of different manufacturers. The standard for airbrush stencil cutting is the 24" plotter. Right now there are two plotters that stand at the top of the heap. Roland GX-24 and the graphtec ce5000 plotters. The price tag on these plotters is over $1000.00. Both of these machines will cut perfect airbrush stencils. If you dont have $1000.00 plus to drop on a plotter US Cutter sells cheap plotters here that work!. The US Cutter M-721 is a good machine that will only set you back a few hundred dollars. I personally have a MH-721 in my studio. It has been working flawlessly for over three years. The main thing with plotters is that you do your homework before buying any machine. Read user based ratings, watch user based Youtube videos and know what your buying before you buy it.
With your plotter you will also need three types of software. You will need an raster editing program like Photoshop, a vector based editor like Illustrator and then a rip or cutting program.
Photo Editing Software: A basic photo editing software is essential. The two most popular programs available are PhotoShop and Gimp. Photoshop is the industry standard2 in photo editing software. Though robust it can be a bit expensive for a hobbyist. If you are business oriented and work as a professional artist Photoshop is your only choice. For the hobbyist is a software called GIMP. Gimp is every bit as extensive as Photoshop in most respects. Gimp unlike Photoshop is open source and free.
Vector Editing Software: You will also need a solid vector based editing software and again there are really only two choices. Adobe the company that also offers PhotoShop also has a program available called Illustrator. Illustrator is basically the industry standard and is used by millions of professionals every day. Illustrator is the ideal vector editing software, but can be a bit pricey for some. For those of you who dont have, or dont want to spend the money is a open source vector editing software called Inkscape. Inkscape is free to download and use and is an extremely powerful program.
Rip Or Cutting Software: Cutting software can be very expensive. Unfortunately there are no open source options when it comes to cutting software. There are though some very affordable solutions. If your only going to be cutting airbrush stencils and paint masks you dont need a $4000 program. I personally use a very inexpensive easy to use program called Sign Cut. You can buy a license to use Sign Cut for a week or for a year. So you can purchase the use of Sign Cut for the times you are going to be cutting stencils.
Adobe did something I think is ground breaking! At one time if you wanted Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator you would have to shell out a thousand or two dollars. Now you can pay for you Adobe programs monthly. I have access to every Adobe software available for just $50.00 per month. I highly recommend Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator to you for editing your graphics and turning your graphics into vector images. At bare minimum you will need illustrator for creating vector images of your airbrush stencils.
You can also go the open source route and download free editing softwares. The two free programs you will need are GIMP and Inkscape. Gimp operates allot like Photoshop it is a complex raster image editor. Inkscape is a vector based program used to create vector images from raster images and from scratch. At a minimum you will need Inkscape for handling vectors.
You will then need a cutting program. This is the program that will take the vectors you create and feed them to your plotter. Unfortunately the only open source, or free cutting program I have ever found was a plugin for Inkscape that only works if you have Ubuntu Linux installed on your pc. Seeings that 95% of you have Windows installed your going to have to pay for a cutting program. Vinyl cutting software is usually very expensive. The thing is if your going to be cutting airbrush stencils you dont need a $1500 vinyl cutting program. In fact all you need is a basic program that will cut your stencils. I personally use a program called Sign Cut. This program allows me to pay for a day of use or 365 days of use. This software is also basic and extremely easy to use! In fact cutting airbrush stencils dose not get much easier.
Finally you are going to need stencil material. It is hard to find quality airbrush stencil material that is plotter ready. What I mean by plotter ready is that the material is backed. The material you use has to have a backing adhered to the reverse side of the material or it is not going to cut right in a plotter. After experimenting with allot of materials and spending a bunch of money. Ive found a product that is made for use in a vinyl cutter and is perfect for reusable airbrush stencils. The product is made by GreenStar and is sold through USCutter's website. There really isnt much out there in the way of backed material made specifically for reusable stencils.
If you are also interested in cutting your own paint masks there are a few high end products out there. The difference between airbrush paint masks and stencils is that the stencil can be reused. Paint masks are generally one time use stencils used to create sharp defined lines in an airbrush painting, or sign. In my opinion there are two companies right now that provide the best masking products. Oracle offers a wide variety of paint mask films. Their products are high end and work great in any plotter. Gerber also makes a variety of paint mask films all of which are high end. Gerber's Ultra Yellow paint mask is probably the most versatile masking film available.
I will be posting some articles shortly that cover design, plotter cutting and application soon. Hopefully this article gave you some insight into what is required to cut airbrush stencils on a plotter.