How to use tattoo transfer paper for tattoos. With or without a thermal copier

How to use tattoo transfer paper for tattoos. With or without a thermal copier or tattoo stencil machine
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If you’re looking to create your own tattoos, you’ll need to know how to use tattoo transfer paper.

Tattoo transfer paper is a special type of carbon paper that helps you easily transfer your tattoo design onto the skin. You can create a tattoo stencil by hand with it or with a thermal copier. Both methods transfer the design into a carbon stencil outline which can then be transferred to the skin.

In this tutorial, we will show you how to use tattoo transfer paper for tattoos. We will outline both methods, by hand or using a thermal copier, and run through all aspects of successfully using tattoo transfer paper to transfer your artwork and create your own tattoos. Once you understand the method, keep practicing to create perfect stencils every time.

How to use tattoo transfer paper for tattoos.

So you have a tattoo design and you want to transfer it accurately onto the skin or practice skin so that you can tattoo it. How does this process work? It can seem like a complicated process but it will become easier. Its not a difficult process but it takes practice.

All the lines on your drawing need to be accurately reproduced so that you can then tattoo over them with ink.

An accurate crisp stencil is one of the most important stages of creating a professional tattoo. Professional tattoo artists become masters of creating perfect stencils.

A crap stencil leads to a crap tattoo.

For this accurate stencil to happen you need tattoo transfer paper.

Using transfer paper can look like a confusing process. What are all the different layers of paper for? Which way up does the paper go? Why is this not straightforward? Aggh!


Don’t worry. We will go through all this and you will be stenciling like a pro in no time.

So lets look at how to use transfer paper for tattoos and the things you need to know to create a great stencil.

The Two Types of Tattoo Transfer Paper – Hectograph or Thermograph

The first thing you need to know is that are two types of tattoo transfer paper. Hectograph and Thermograph.

  • Hectographic tattoo transfer paper – This is a form of carbon paper sheets for hand drawing designs. This may be called freehand transfer paper or manual transfer paper. This paper won’t work in a thermal transfer machine. It’s for hand tracing only
  • Thermographic transfer paper – It can also be called thermal tattoo transfer paper. This is the kind of carbon sheet you need for a thermal copier transfer machine. It works by a process using heat.
    However, It is possible to make a freehand stencil with it too.

Spirit master is a popular brand of tattoo stencil paper used in many tattoo shops.

Some brands of stencil paper will specify that they can be used both by hand and by machine.

Why are there different colors of tattoo thermal transfer paper?

Once upon a time, there was only one color of transfer paper. This had a purple ink layer and created purple outlines on the stencil.

However, the color purple shows up badly if you are tattooing dark skin. The purple just blends into the dark skin and the stencil is impossible to see making tattooing difficult.

Therefore the transfer stencil manufacturers came up with other colors which show up much better on different skin tones. You can easily find both green and red stencil paper colors.

  • Red tends to work well on paler skins, allowing you to see the difference between the stencil and the tattoo.
  • Green tends to work well on dark skin, showing up more in contrast to the skin.

If your clients have darker skin tones it will be worth experimenting with the different colors to see which color shows best on their skin tone

What is a thermal copier or thermal printer?

Tattoo studios usually have a thermal copier machine or thermographic transfer maker. This is a machine that uses heat to copy designs from normal paper to carbon stencil paper.

You place your tattoo design into the machine. Then you feed a piece of thermal stencil paper through as well.

You run it through the thermal machine and out comes your tattoo stencil ready to use. It’s that easy.

Why it’s worth investing in a thermal copier

If you are serious about wanting to become a tattooist then it’s worth investing in a thermal copier.

Stencil machines will make your life so much easier when it comes to making tattoo stencils.

The designs come out perfectly every time with nice clean lines. No more hand tracing and hoping for the best!

If you hand trace, any imperfections in line will be magnified. You just can’t get an as good and clean result.

And if you mess up the stencil your client has to hang around waiting for you to retrace it. A time sinking nightmare if it’s an intricate design.

Stencil machines will improve your tattooing in the following areas.

  • Improve your accuracy of the design. Crisper lines.
  • Save you time.
  • Save you the frustration of having to trace and redraw stencils.
  • Lead to much better tattoos.

You can even buy little desktop thermal copier machines which are affordable options.

Check this one out which is a decent machine and would be a good investment for your future career.

Tattoo Transfer Stencil Machine 

1pc tattoo thermal copier,

1pc power supply cable

Instruction book.


Preparing your artwork for stenciling

Now that you know all about tattoo stencil paper let’s get into how to make a tattoo stencil ready to transfer from your artwork.

The process is slightly different if you are going to create the stencil by hand or using a thermal copier.

You can freehand a design or use tracing paper overlays to refine it.

Once you have your tattoo design prepared you want to do the following.

1 – Preparing your artwork for stenciling using a thermal printer.

  • Print [xerox] the tattoo design onto an A4 or letter-sized regular sheet of paper to fit in the thermal printer. You will need a regular printer to do this. A print shop can help you here if you don’t have a printer.
  • Make sure the lines are good and black so that the thermal printer picks them up.
  • Clean lines work best in this kind of printer
  • Any areas of heavy black or thick lines can mean too much purple sticking to the paper and creating a messy stencil. You may need to outline these areas so you don’t end up with too much carbon and a huge purple mess. This is a skill that comes with the practice of using the machine.

2 – Preparing your artwork for stenciling by hand.

  • The process is slightly different if you want to create the stencil by hand. If possible, make the lines gray. That way you can trace over them and see where you are up to. Which bits you have traced over or not.
  • It’s easy to make the lines gray if you are creating the artwork digitally. Just lower the opacity of your artwork slightly.
  • If you are photocopying hand-drawn artwork you can adjust the xerox machine to make the lines paler.
  • Don’t worry if your lines are black. It will still work. Gray lines just make it slightly easier, that’s all.

Creating tattoo stencils digitally

If you are creating tattoo stencils digitally there are a few things you need to do to make sure your file is ready for printing.

As we mentioned earlier, too much black or areas of heavy black can cause issues with the carbon not sticking properly or being too thick in some areas.

You want to make sure the lines are even and consistent throughout the design. The best way to do this is to use a thicker line weight for the outlines and a thinner line weight for the details inside the tattoo.

This will help ensure that your tattoo stencil comes out looking clean and crisp when you print it.

Creating artwork digitally is the easiest way to create it. That way you can make all adjustments and then print them out directly to a photocopier.

I use an Ipad Pro with an apple pencil. I create stencils using ProCreate software which is perfect for designing tattoos. I then print the design directly to my Brother printer ready for making into a stencil.

Using apple iPad and procreate and Apple Pencil to create tattoo artwork

I use an Ipad Pro, Apple Pencil and Procreate software to create tattoo designs. You can then print this out to make your stencil.

How to use tattoo transfer paper by hand without a thermal copier

1 – Get your tattoo transfer paper.

Buy some tattoo stencil transfer paper. Spirit is a good brand which works well and comes in various different colours which work with different skin types.

The ones shown below are thermographic or printable tattoo papers. They can be used for hand stencilling as well as by using a thermal copier. If you are going to be only stencilling by hand its best to buy hectographic hand stencilling paper.

If you buy hectographic transfer paper this just comes in single blue sheets. You don’t need to faff about separating the layers. Just go straight to the tracing step.

Spirit Tattoo Transfer paper

Spirit is a common brand of Tattoo Transfer Paper. This type is slightly longer than A4 which helps you to make slightly longer stencils.

Roll of tattoo transfer paper

A roll of tattoo transfer paper is budget friendly and is good for making longer stencils.

2 – Use a solid smooth surface to lean on.

You need something solid to lean on to get the best detail. A metal clipboard works great.

How to use tattoo transfer paper by hand

3 – Separate out the layers of tattoo transfer paper.

4-layer thermal printing paper has 4 different layers

  • The yellow backing sheet – for protection
  • The brown protective sheet – stops the carbon going onto the white transfer sheet
  • The white transfer sheet
  • The dark blue carbon copy sheet

In order to trace by hand you just need the blue carbon layer. We will go through what the other layers do when talking about using a thermal copier below. You can ignore them for now.

How to use tattoo transfer paper for tattoo

To trace by hand, you need to find the blue [or green/red depending on your sheet] carbon layer.

4- trace over your tattoo design

To transfer the design, you simply place your piece of paper with your photocopied design onto the carbon sheet and trace carefully over the lines. Use a fine ballpoint pen for greater accuracy.

Make sure that you have the piece of carbon paper the right way up and are stencilling on the right side which is usually slightly matt and not glossy.

How to use tattoo transfer paper without a thermal copier

This method means that you don’t need to worry about the stencil moving about as you trace creating inaccuracies. You can simply flip over the stencil to see how far you have progressed with your tracing.

If you hold it up to the light this helps to see how much you have completed.

transferring a tattoo design by tracing

Check how much of your stencil you have completed by flipping it over. It doesn’t matter if you move the paper.

Tracing onto Xerox paper makes a sturdy stencil that you can reuse quite a few times if your initial transfer attempts fail.

How to use tattoo transfer paper with a printer or thermal copier.

If you have access to a thermal copying printer you will be able to make much bigger and more accurate stencils much more easily. I really recommend purchasing one as soon as you can.

This is where you need to understand the layers of transfer paper and what they do.

1 – Separate out the layers of you tattoo transfer paper.

Remember – you have…

  • The yellow sheet – for protection
  • The brown sheet – the center tissue sheet -a protective layer
  • The white layer – the master sheet or transfer sheet
  • The dark blue carbon copy sheet

You can remove the brown tissue sheet and tear off the yellow sheet.

You are left with just the blue/red/green carbon sheet and the white transfer sheet.

How to use tattoo transfer paper for tattoo

Remove the brown and yellow protective sheets and discard them

2 – Open the thermal copier.

There are usually little clips on each side that allow you to flip open the copier lid.

thermal Tattoo transfer Machine

Open the lid of your thermal copier

3 – Insert the transfer paper

Thread the paper through white side up. Put it to the front lip and then close the lid firmly.

Insert tattoo transfer paper into the thermal coper

Clip down the lid on the thermal copier

Push down the lid firmly to clip the transfer paper into place.

4 – Choose your thermal copier settings

  • Mirror –   Flips over the design so that its the right way round on the skin – Generally keep this selected
  • Photo – This is for if you are transferring a more photo realistic image. I find this doesn’t work very well though and you generally end up with a messy purple overly dark stencil. In general thermal copiers work best for line work.
  • Deepness 1 and 2 – make the stencil darker if its coming out too light.

thermal Tattoo transfer Machine

5 – Insert your tattoo design

Insert the paper with your design on into the front slot. Insert the paper face down.

Then press the copy button.

insert tattoo design

6 – The finished stencil

Hold the tattoo transfer paper to make sure it comes out straying and doesn’t end up feeling itself back into the machine which can happen and mess up your stencil.

Ta Dah! your finished tattoo stencil in all its glory and detail.

the finished tattoo stencil

The finished stencil

the finished tattoo stencil

A detailed stencil like this would be a nightmare to trace by hand. The thermal copier makes a much more accurate stencil.

How to transfer the tattoo design to skin. 

Now that you have your stencil outline prepared you need to transfer the original design onto the skin. How do you transfer the actual image?

Here are the steps.

  1. Practice run the placement. Put the stencil on the skin and get the positioning right. When you are sure where the stencil needs to go, use a sharpie or surgical skin marker to draw a few little lines running from the edge of the stencil onto the skin. This will allow you to position the stencil correctly once you put the stencil applicator agent on.
  2. Cut a few little lines around the edge of the stencil. This will allow it to follow the curves of the skin without creasing.
  3. Get some stencil applicator agent. I use “Stencil stuff” but there are other brands of stencil solution on the market. Some in the tattoo industry use speed stick deodorant but I don’t like this as I think it poses a contamination risk.
    Check out Stencil Stuff on Amazon.
  4. Apply the stencil stuff to the skin. You don’t want to use too much or the stencil will come out blurry and need redoing. Add enough and rub it in well. The skin should feel just a little tacky. If you have too much on you can use a paper towel to remove the excess.
  5. Time for the design transfer. Carefully line the stencil up with your placement marks. Smooth it down carefully avoiding air bubbles and creases.
  6. Once the stencil is on, peel the transfer away slowly and carefully. You are checking for bits that haven’t transferred. You may need to apply tiny bits of stencil applicator agent and carefully smooth down the transfer paper to fill the missing bit.
  7. Once you have removed the paper, blot down the stencil on the skin with kitchen towel carefully. This will help it to set and not smudge.
  8. Allow the stencil to dry for 5 minutes or so before you start to tattoo so that you don’t smudge it.
  9. If the stencil goes on wrong to the skin surface you can remove it and try again. You can generally get about 3 goes out of a stencil before it disintegrates. Use a spray of alcohol and then green soap to remove the stencil. Dry with paper towel and try again.
Stencil stuff stencil application solution agent

“Stencil Stuff” is a popular brand of stencil application agent or solution.

Check out our resources centre for our picks of tattoo equipment for beginners.

FAQ’s about how to use tattoo transfer paper for tattoos

How do you transfer ink from paper to skin?

Tattoo transfer paper is used to transfer a design from paper to skin. Print your tattoo design onto the sheet of paper. Use a ballpoint pen trace over the lines of your tattoo design or use a thermal copier to transfer it to transfer paper. Then use stencil application agent to transfer it to skin.

how to use tattoo transfer paper with deodorant

You can use a deodorant stick to transfer a tattoo image onto the skin. Use Speedstick or any deodorant with alcohol. Apply it to the skin and place carbon tattoo transfer paper with the design onto it. However, using deodorant carries a risk of cross-contamination and should be avoided.

Conclusion – how to use tattoo transfer paper for tattoos


That’s it! Now you know the steps to take for a great transfer and how to use tattoo transfer paper like a pro.

Remember, practice makes perfect – so start small and work your way up to creating larger stencils. Being able to create a professional tattoo stencil transfer every time comes with practice.

Read this post for more information about the best materials to practice tattooing on…

A perfect stencil is the basis of a perfect tattoo so keep practicing. A clean stencil means cleaner lines and a better tattoo.

This post may help your lines too. How hard do I press when tattooing?

If you are just starting out in the tattoo world be sure to grab our free guide below for more tips on entering the industry.


20 Crucial Tips You Need To
Know To Enter The Tattoo Industry.

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find an Apprenticeship or break into the Tattoo Industry”

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