Larry Brogan: How To Make Stencils with a Thermofax Machine

By Larry Brogan
Courtesy of Tattoo Road Trip If your shop does not have a quality Thermofax copier, preferably a 3M, the old, super-heavy-duty kind, you are living in the dark ages and making life difficult for yourself. The best models to buy are 3M45, 3M4500 or 3M4550. If you are still hand-drawing stencils each and every time, you are wasting your time, and time is money. 3M no longer makes Thermofax machines, but they can still be found on the Internet, on sites like eBay. Expect to pay about $1,000 for a good, working, used machine, but believe me, it will be money well spent…

There are newer styles of Thermofax machines being made overseas but, from my experience, they do not work near as well as the old 3Ms. Sometimes, you can find them at school auctions for very cheap or they may even be throwing them away, not aware that they are gold to the tattoo industry.

Always use a plastic carrier sheet (I find the blue carrier to be the best) with your Thermofax. You can make your own with two pieces of acetate. This is the transparency film for copiers that you buy in any stationery store. Put two pieces together, with a tape on top. With a carrier, you can use small pieces of spirit masters, which saves a lot of money. It will greatly increase the life of the machine and avoid many problems that arise out of feeding the paper without it. It keeps the machine much cleaner inside and you will not have small chunks of Thermofax paper getting caught inside the belt, which can cause it to run continuously and overheat. Using the carrier allows a properly running machine to function at a single dial setting, without ever having to be adjusted. The machine at my shop has been functioning perfectly, without the need to adjust the dial setting, since 1994.

You can buy SPIRIT band Thermal Paper from most tattoo equipment companies, and they come in 8 ½” x 11” as well, as 8 ½” x 14” sheets. There are knockoff brands that do not work as well, so insist on “Spirit Thermal Paper.”

Thermofax Warning/ Scam!
You will find several listings on eBay advertising 3M Thermofax machines as tattoo stencil machines. WARNING. Not every Thermofax has the right power and lamp to produce a stencil with spirit paper.

Things to look for:

*Amperage higher than 12 amp.

*The bulb doesn’t look like a light bulb. It should look like a long, thin tube.

*If you find a Thermofax for under $200 (the cheap ones or the ones with low bids are most often the Thermofax machines that don’t work for stencils)

*Some sellers on Ebay claim that machines made later (the 4500 series) have a wider imaging area. This is false. The bulb on the inside is the same size, but the feed slot is wider, to allow for occasional lopsided feeding or larger documents. In the older machines with a narrow slot, papers and film that are fed in askew will sometimes get stuck, causing the carrier or film or paper to burn, requiring the replacement of the belt.

*Don’t buy 15 amp machines. There are no replacement lamps for these machines. The few lamps that are available cost more than $250.

*If a machine is producing only a black copy, it may be that the motor is running slow or the clutch is not turning properly. The machine may need service. One way to go around it to use a carrier (as indicated above) and put a piece of paper between the lamp and carbon to reduce the heat intensity.

*If the machine does not stop, it is probably because the switch that you activated when inserting the stencil is touching the borders. It has to come back after the stencil has passed through.

*Keep the machine clean and center the belt every two months. Wash the belt, from time to time, with water and soap. Clean the rolls. Start with water, follow with ethanol and, if this is not enough, try some cleaning solvent.

(Larry can be found at Tattoo City Skin Art Studio in Lockport, IL.)

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