How To Stencil a Small Number of T-Shirts Yourself

Make a T-Shirt Using a Stencil

Okay so why should you take my advice?

Well, let me start off by introducing myself, my name is Chantelle and I started a t-shirt company called Wear Me Naked three years ago. We specialize in hand painted, hand stenciled, hand stitched and silk screened t-shirts. Besides giving our t-shirts a good hand job (sorry I couldn't resist) as opposed to having machines printing up shirts for us, we hire artists to take their place. We really are about as couture as a t-shirt gets. When I started in 2004 I was mostly using stencils, over the years we have graduated to silk screening and other methods.

But enough about Wear Me Naked, what about you? You, sitting there all alone with a three color design and a dream. A dream to print up about 8 shirts without having to list your assets on Craigslist to do so. You got a few quotes from some screen printing companies but you have to pay a set up fee, and you have to pay a fee per color and since you only want 8 shirts you are going to have to pretty much pay retail for the t-shirts since you are not buying in bulk. You thought maybe you would try to screen them yourself, but you don't have the experience or the equipment to pull it off.

Throughout my years of grass roots entrepreneurship, I have noticed that when it comes to printing on clothing there is something about the silk screening/screen printing process that must seem so much more prestigious than any other. People won't often entertain any other way. Silk screening or screen printing are definitely good methods to print your shirts. Especially when there is a high number of shirts you want to run. But in my humble opinion if you are printing up anything under 12 shirts you may want to consider stenciling.

Silk screening was made for running a large number, the surface of the screen is flat so instead of painting over a stencil you just pull the paint once and your design is already on the shirt, it saves you time when you are running a large number of shirts. One pull of paint with a squeegee beats painting over a stencil and making touch ups over and over again. But when it comes to small numbers, the time difference isn't all that noticeable. It's faster to make a stencil than a screen anyway, so if you aren't running a large number of shirts you are wasting more time. And if you want someone else to do the order you really are paying a lot of extra money.

Hopefully I have explained why I believe you should use stencils when running a small number of shirts. Now let me explain how to go about doing so.

  • Choosing what kind of material your stencil should be made out of and printing your image on that material.
  • Cutting the stencil.
  • Gathering the supplies.
  • Getting your shirt ready to be printed.
  • Time to paint!!!!! Tee hee.
  • Lift the stencil ever so carefully and dry the shirt.

  1. Step One: Choosing what kind of material your stencil should be made out of and printing your image on the material.

    I often use card stock paper, you can also use acetate. Acetate is more expensive, and if you are getting a stencil made you are still going to have to pay set up fees and such. If you want to cut the acetate yourself that's cool too. But I'm going to use card stock paper in my examples, just so we are on the same page.

    Cardstock paper is great because it's just thin enough not to cause too many smears and smudges. It's also good for cutting because unlike cardboard you'll get cleaner lines, which will keep your design nice and clear.

    Print your design on the card stock paper the size you want it on your shirt, or whatever fabric you are stenciling on.

    : If your design has more than one color it will require more than one stencil. Make a stencil for each color.

  2. Step Two: Cutting the stencil.

    You are going to need an exacto knife for this. It will take some time. Please be careful and pay attention, make sure you are cutting on a piece of cardboard or something that will protect the surface you are doing the cutting on. Do not use an exacto knife if you have been drinking or if you are on any medication that may make you drowsy.

    Using the exacto knife, cut all the areas you want the paint to go through. So cut out everything you want on your shirt. Be careful with circular patterns and some letters, use your common sense, if you are cutting a circle and you are making detailed cuts in the middle of the circle you are wasting your time because when you are done cutting all that will remain is an empty circle of failure. So don't get too fancy without thinking it through first. Pay attention to what you are cutting.

  3. Step Three: Gather your supplies.

    You'll need:

    • Brand new stencil
    • Fabric paint
    • Fine brush (for touch ups)
    • A towel or old blanket
    • A folding board (piece of flat plastic or cardboard to go in between the layers of your shirt)
    • Hair dryer
    • Hanger
    • Tape
    • Scissors (just in case, I find I always need them for something or other)
    • SHOUT wipes (I'll explain later)
    • Sponges (I use the ones on a stick you can find at Michaels. You can also use sponge rollers, or other sponges as well.

    Fabric paint recommendations: For bright colors (red, orange) I recommend Tulip fabric paint. It's really bright and it stands out very nicely. Just because it says fabric paint as opposed to screen printing ink doesn't mean it's not as sturdy. I have shirts with TULIP paint that I have washed since the beginning of my company and they are still not fading. You can get TULIP online or at Michael's if you are near one.

    For white and black paint I recommend SPEEDBALL screen printing ink. Not a fan of their bright colors, but their white especially is impressive, it's thick and it really pops on dark fabric. Be careful when you are applying layers with thick paint though, too many will cause it to crack over time.

  4. Step Four: Get your shirt ready to be printed.

    Lay your towel down on a surface that is a good height for you. You can sit or stand if you'd like, whatever you prefer. Just make sure your surface is not too high, or too low. If you are on the floor be careful with your knees, I really hurt my knees that way once. Get comfortable because you are going to be working for a little while. Don't make the job any harder than it has to be.

    Put the shirt or piece of fabric you are printing on top of the towel. Place the folding board between the two layers of shirt, try to get a big folding board if you can to stretch the shirt out as much as possible. This is useful because the image will stretch when someone is wearing the shirt, you don't want empty spaces in the lines of your design when it stretches, so stretching it before hand creates a more realistic palette. A plastic folding board is always better because the paint will dry and stick to the a cardboard folding board if you are not careful.

    Tape your stencil down on the t-shirt where you would like your image to be. Make sure the shirt is nice and stretched and the stencil is taped down enough so that it's not moving around.

  5. Step five: Time to paint!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Tee hee...

    Put the color paint or screen printing ink you are going to use on a paper plate, or lid and dip the sponge in the paint. Dab the sponge a bit almost like blotting lipstick, on a piece of paper or something else disposable you can test on. This is important because you don't want to blob down a bunch of paint on the stencil, it will cause the paint to bleed and have you making more touch ups than necessary.

    Carefully apply paint with the sponge of choice on the stencil in the areas you cut out. Let it dry a little bit, (If you have cardboard between the layers of your shirt don't let it dry completely or it will stick.) Apply as many layers as you feel necessary; with thicker paint don't apply too many layers, when you wash it a few times the image on the shirt may start cracking.

    Side note
    ! Paint is probably going to get on your hands
    , be careful where you are touching the areas of the shirt you don't want painted. If a tiny accident occurs you can try SHOUT wipes. They have saved me a on a few occasions. Use the SHOUT wipe before the paint dries. DO NOT RUB, blot the area you want the paint lifted from like you would a stain on an expensive rug. The paint may lift, this usually works on darker colors, I've had a few miracles on light colors. If the paint won't lift, you may want to add something artistic to the design of your shirt to cover the mistake, if this is not an option, then you have to get a new shirt. Don't worry, it could be worse you could be paying those creepy set up fees I mentioned earlier.

  6. Step Six: Lift the stencil ever so carefully and dry the shirt.

    It's time to lift your stencil! BE CAREFUL. If you have a plastic folding board between your shirt you should let the image dry as much as possible. Either way, take the tape off of the edges of your stencil and very carefully lift the stencil. Remove the folding board. You will see your image on the shirt, some parts may have bled, or maybe some parts didn't come through as you had hoped for. That's what the fine paint brush is for, making touch ups. I love this part because you really get to hand paint the shirt. You are putting a brush to canvas so to speak. You don't get brush strokes from a machine. I have created an entire theme for my clothing line with this, and a few sewn patches. It's just more personal. But that's my take on the situation. Feel free to insert your own opinion on the matter.

    Once you have made touch ups it's time to use that trusty hair dryer I listed in the "Things you'll need" section. There are other types of dryers that are used specifically for drying shirts. Feel free to use those, but since I started off saving you money with the painting process I may as well present a frugal option for drying as well.

    Drying is important for a few reasons. One, the obvious reason, you can't wear it until it has dried or it will smudge, and two the heat from the hair dryer will set your image. I've actually made shirts where I didn't dry the image and they came out just fine, but legend has it that you are supposed to use heat to set the image, so, just to make sure, I recommend doing so. You should dry it for at least two minutes, putting the dryer as close to the image as possible without touching it.

    Hang the shirt, and let it sit for a while just to make sure it has completely dried and you are officially done. Repeat the process with your other stencils if the design has more than one color. Make sure you are lining up the stencil properly with your image. The stencils you made should only have the different parts of the design that require a different color paint cut out.

Some last minute tips:

  • Say you are running a larger number of shirts and silk screening/screen printing is a better option for you, if you are in the San Francisco, Bay area I highly recommend the Mission Cultural Center, off of Mission and 25th in San Francisco. They offer a screen printing class from 6pm-10pm Tuesday through Thursday. They can get you started with some tips on how to screen print. If you are using the Photo Emulsion Technique they have a huge machine that will burn the images on the screen for you in 20 seconds. The class is only $12 too! You should bring a shirt to screen on, your image on transparency paper, fabric paint or screen printing ink, and some photo emulsion.
  • If you are a new designer you should copyright your designs. It's very important. Some clothing companies, who shall remain nameless, have the money to start a company but none of the artistic talent to create the designs that appeal to the masses. Instead of paying you what you're worth they will alter your design just a bit so they can make a quick buck or a million. I'm not saying all companies do that, but you want to protect yourself as much as possible.
  • The U.S. Copyright Office has a form called the Visual Arts Form, fill it out and include printed copies of your design and send it in. I think costs $45 now. It's probably less. To print the form out online visit the following link (
  • For some of you grass roots folk out there who like to push the cost-cutting a bit too far the "Poor Man's Copyright" days are long and gone. Take an envelope post marked to court against some larger company's fierce and highly paid attorney and I guarantee you will not be pleased with the outcome. Fork out the money, it'll save you in the long run.
  • Take pictures of your shirts, and put it on your website. If you can't afford a website, create a Myspace page or Facebook account. Posting pictures serves as evidence, having friends see your designs is evidence. It's all stuff that can help you out if push comes to shove and someone tries to steal your design.

Creativity makes for some excellent currency and gives your designs that unique edge against competitors who have the money to do exactly what everyone else is doing. Everything is an advantage depending on how you look at it.

Hope this helps. Feel free to share your creativity with me as well.

Cheers and love,


-I started my company with pretty much nothing. So I'm a huge advocate of promoting cost effective and creative ways to get around having to pay a lot of money. WEAR ME NAKED is pretty much a product of the creative ways I got around having to lay down a bunch of cash to get my company started. I urge you to do the same. 

Share this article!

Follow us!

Find more helpful articles:



Well done - nice to see other alternatives for t-shirts.

By Marion Cornett