DIY stencil and hand painted t-shirts

I’ve made lots of hand painted t-shirts over the years. Last year I even made some stamps and stencils and brought them to a family reunion for a t-shirt making activity. It was a huge hit! I get comments on my shirts every time my kids or I wear a homemade creation. There are a few different techniques I use and all have a different place. Today I’m going to specifically walk you through the stencil method (including making your own stencil). I made the t-shirts pictured for a community fundraiser. The stencil is so helpful when you’re making a larger number of shirts (I made 80 for this project). Let’s get into it:

Making a stencil
  • The first step is to create the design. For me this is probably the hardest step! You want to think about scale, readability, and stencil logistics. What I mean by stencil logistics is how hard it will be to create and use the stencil. A tricky thing about stencils is you cannot ever complete a line so a chunk of letter falls out. For this design that made it a puzzle. I needed to write the words ‘town’ and ‘heart’ without closing the O, E, and A. I used a dry erase board to sketch out the design this time but I’ve used a pen and paper in the past more often.

  • Next you need to trace the design onto a thin sheet of plastic. You can buy it but I’ve salvaged it from the front of notebooks too!

  • Once the design is on your clear plastic sheet it’s time to cut the design. You’ll use an inexpensive heat tool. Take your time on this step. Make sure the tool is really warmed up. I have an easier time if I pull down or towards myself so I rotate the sheet as I go.

Painting a t-shirt
  • Before you paint you’ll want to put some cardboard inside the shirt in case of bleeding. Cut up cereal boxes are my go-to.

  • I’ve tried lots of paints over the years and of all the choices my favorite is your basic craft acrylic paint. I’ve never had a problem with it fading and it requires no iron or heat set. I also like it because you’ll get a more weathered or broken-in look, it’s easy to find a million colors, and it’s so inexpensive! For this project I mixed colors to give it a “camouflage” look and with another paint I don’t know if that would’ve worked.

  • Once I have the stencil I use some scotch tape to hold it in place, use a round sponge brush dipped in the acrylic paint, and stamp over the stencil. Let it dry overnight before wearing. Ideally you’ll want to wash it before use too because the paint softens after one washing but usually I’m making these the night before so it doesn’t get washed until after. 😉


For this project I also used a stamping technique to make the hearts. This step is pretty straight forward. (I made this heart stamp using foam, glue, and a scrap block of wood.) Carefully paint the stamp and press firmly down onto the t-shirt. It’s an easy process but there’s a small learning curve on how much paint to apply so do a few test stamps before going right onto the shirt!

That’s it! Typing it all out, it definitely sounds more complex and labor intensive than it is. Really it’s such a fun craft and great for kids. My children have loved it when I let them make their own shirts! I’m always on the lookout for my next fun t-shirt design idea. Lately I’m wanting to try free hand painting something. What do you think?

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