Wargaming Tradecraft: Masking and Stenciling


Masking and Stenciling

a stencil, via
These are two different techniques that fall under the same category...

"Masking" means you’re covering areas to make sure overspray doesn’t accidently paint over parts of your surface.

"Stencilling" means you have a pattern or design cut into something. When you spray paint through this hole, the pattern is transferred to the surface.

Products for Masking and Stenciling
  • Masking Tape

Cover areas you've already painted with masking tape. It’s designed to peel off without leaving residue behind or and without peeling paint off.

Painters masking tape prevents paint from leaking under the edges. (Creating cleaner lines) Some will also be rated for how many days it can be left on before leaving residue.

Drafting tape will be less sticky and peel off easier.

Generic brands can’t be trusted. If you’re going to put sticky tape over your paint, you don’t want to chance damaging it. Cheap masking tape might also be too sticky. Go to a hardware store and buy the green or blue type.

  • Stencils

You can buy premade stencils like radical skulls or bodacious flames from Airbrush suppliers (stores, online, eBay) however they may often be too large for working with miniatures. Salon suppliers will carry stencils that are sized for fingernails and therefor work with things our scale.

The selection will be large and they should already be cut. This means cleaner lines and no hassle.

  • Stencil Paper
Rather than buying stencils, you can make your own. (Covered in more detail lower) Here are some products to help you:

Regular paper will work in a pinch but since it absorbs paint, won't be too reusable. Photo paper might last a little longer however.

Plastic paper like overhead / transparency (projector) paper works well and is readily available. Unfortunately some office supply stores only sell bulk packages, but you could try teacher supply stores or photocopier places. DJ suppliers will usually have coloured film, which are rolls of plastic for placing infront of lights. (but usually comes in rolls and curls are a pain to work with)

Clear binder pages or card protectors also work, but you can't run them through a printer. You'll have to use a black sharpie marker to draw a stencil on these.

Masking tape also works, but you usually have to draw and cut the stencil after the tape's already on whatever you're painting... possibly damaging the surface.

  • Masking Liquid / Film
Another way to mask and/or stencil is to purchase a product that allows you to paint a mask on. Once you’ve painted your stencil, let it dry. This allows you to paint right on the surface of the mini and when you’re done, the liquid peels right off.

Test your product to make sure the stickiness won’t damage the surface you’re covering and that it’ll peel off easily.

  • Cricut and Other Cutting Machines
Starting around $150 you can buy machines that not only print but also CUT. That's right, this is a stencil printer. Careful though, the expense with many of these are in the "cartridges". That link is a cartridge for $25 that gives you 48 cheap little flowers that can be printed. Same thing for font packs and so on... this makes the cost add up quickly.

If you're going to look at buying one of these, make sure that you can find software (Like Sure Cuts A Lot) that lets your computer take control of one and print ANYTHING.

How to Mask

Masking is a simple process of covering things near where you're spraying so that you don't get any paint where you don't want it.

For example... in Step 15 of my Postapocalyptibuggy project, I taped up all the blue areas around where I was about to spray the orange metallic.

Actual masked photo lost in flood, but this is a rough approximation.

How to Stencil

A stencil is instead a pre-cut shape (or shapes) that create a shadow image.

Stencils can be masked if you tape over some of the holes. You might do this for a couple reasons:

The first is if you might not want to paint the entire image of the stencil.

Second, and more interesting, is using multiple colours in a stencil. With a fine airbrush and a steady hand, you don't need to mask, and could even create gradients in your stencils.

To use a stencil:
  1. Hold or tape it over where you’d like to paint.
    1. The closer and flatter your stencil is against the surface, the straighter and cleaner your lines will look.
  2. Spray the airbrush at the stencil
  3. Paint goes through the hole and creates a pattern on the surface, while the extra ends up on the stencil.
  4. Watch for wet paint!
    1. Paint doesn't dry fast on plasticy surfaces, so stencils are often still wet after using them.
If you mask the area around where you're going to stencil, you might have a little more control over where you're painting.

Using the above image as an example, I could have masked around where I was stenciling to prevent the blob of black underneath.

This goes a long way to justifying an airbrush purchase if you consider the nail painting options available ;)

Create Your Own Stencil

You can mask an area with tape, then cut an image into the tape. You might find this neccessary now and then, but it's a terrible method, for these reasons:
  • You can't see underneath masking tape.
    • Therefor you don't know exactly where the stencil is going.
    • Clear tape is (usually) too sticky to mask with.
  • Cutting too deep.
    • This will scratch the mini and damage already existing paint.
  • Tape doesn't cut cleanly.
    • Creating rough edges instead of clean straight lines.

The better method is to print or draw an image on one of the stencil papers I discussed above, then cut it out with a knife. Be careful, and try to make straight lines.

A thick black and white image is easy to print off then cut as a stencil. If you do some Googling, you'll find there are lots of online sources for stencils that you can print and make yourself. (http://www.spraypaintstencils.com/)

Or look into shadow puppetry, which goes a lot further than using your hands.

as used on my Khorne Standard
If you don't have a black and white image, you can try printing off a colour image and approximate how you should cut the image out.

Or, some photo editing programs have image tools that will take a normal photo and find lines by separating shadows and highlights.

an old photo of me, using Gimp's Threshold feature
It takes some fiddling to adjust the levels, but here's an example of the above Threshold tweaking in Gimp.

vias: marker, card sleeves, sheet protectors
Instead of printing an image out, you can also use a black marker to draw or trace an image on card sleeves, plastic binder pages and other materials that are unprintable.

They tend to be a little more flimsy, but you can still cut them out just the same.

Take a look at the Wargaming Tradecraft Techniques Page for links to the entire Airbrushing series and other tips, tutorials and information.


  1. I've used masking tape on my drop pod, and I've used liquid mask for the camo stripes on my hammerheads.

  2. Thanks for the comprehensive article. I have been wanting to do some stenciling, and now I can use some of your ideas. Great article.


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