FAQ: How do you paint signs with stencils?

Here is the much requested TUTORIAL on I make my signs using stencils.

I use ‘reclaimed’ wood that I buy locally.  ANY kind of smooth surface wood will work.  After cutting my sign boards ‘to size’, I sand the edges on a 4″ belt sander.  The surface is usually already smooth enough, but if it does need some sanding, I use a hand held orbital sander for that.

I usually ‘prep’ a whole batch of wood like that; so that when I’m ready to paint, I can just focus on painting.  Think ‘assembly line’.  
4.24.13 buys stars etsy crap 146I almost always have a stash of ‘ready to stencil’ boards on hand for sign making.   That prep work is kinda BORING and when I feel like creating, I don’t feel like having to do the boring part first!  BUT, there are also times when I’m NOT feeling creative at ALL, but I still need to use my time wisely and be PRODUCTIVE.

That is when I sand and base coat my sign boards.  PLUS, I can sand, base coat, topcoat, touch up the edges and distress a good FIFTY sign boards OUTSIDE on a dry day.  If I have to do that work inside on my craft table I can get maybe five done at a time!  So I really TRY to never have to prep sign boards inside; except maybe for an occasional custom order.

My process for painting the sign boards is:

I use small foam paint rollers; smoother finish that with a brush.

Black paint the edges and front.  Let dry.

Paint the topcoat color.  Let dry.

If some of your color has gotten onto the edges; touch up with black paint.

SAND!  I use my orbital sander for this; and I use COARSE sand paper.  (yes, really!)

4.24.13 buys stars etsy crap 141This way, when the creative mood hits and I’m ready to stencil on the sign designs, I can get LOTS done in one day.  I almost NEVER make one sign at a time.  Even custom orders get sandwiched in with more ‘like signs’.  It’s just a better use of my time to do several at a time.   It takes the same amount of time to set up and clean up, and to clean a stencil after TEN uses as it does after ONE.   So, why not use it ten times and save on clean up time?!?

4.24.13 buys stars etsy crap 124I store my sign stencils in manilla folders.  I have WAY too many of them to just put one per file, so I file similar themes together and use paper between them in the folder.

4.24.13 buys stars etsy crap 137BEFORE I start stenciling I set up my sink for cleaning the stencils.  The SOONER you get that left over paint on the stencil into soapy water, the easier it will be to clean.    I’ve found that DAWN dish soap works best.  I put a couple of squirts into a dish pan and fill about half way with warm water.  As you can see from the above stencil, not ALL of the paint always comes off.  And some people will tell you that you don’t need to clean the paint off at all.  But if you want to get more than 10 uses out of a stencil, you’d best clean off some of that left over paint!  If it builds up enough you will no longer have a ‘sharp’ (as in PRECISE!) edge to your stencils and your lettering will be sloppy.

5.8.13 StarsCURIOSITY 109

I use acrylic craft paints for my sign making.  And FOLK ART brand is the only brand I will use for the lettering.  It’s thicker than any other acrylic craft paints and has more pigment.    I KNOW they make special ‘stencil paint’ and special brushes for that special paint.  (I remember stenciling a sunflower border in my kitchen 20 years ago like that.  The paint came in little round plastic cups and was more like a soft CRAYON than paint.)   That is NOT the stuff you should use for making signs!!  Use the liquid craft paints; the thicker the better when it comes to using stencils!  (if the paint is too thin, you will get ‘paint bleed’ on the edges of your letters.)

4.1.13 etsy STARS 003These are the kinds of  ‘pouncers’ that ‘they‘ tell you to use.  THEY are wrong!  These do not work very well at all.  And trust me, I’ve made THOUSANDS of signs, and  I  KNOW what works best!  These sponge or soft rubber pouncers just fall apart after a couple of uses, and they don’t give you a very sharp line at all.  I used to spend HOURS touching up the messy edges of my lettering before I happened upon the BEST applicators ever!

4.1.13 etsy STARS 004YEP!!! Cosmetic make up wedges!  These work like a dream, and are much easier to hold onto and my hand doesn’t get all cramped up when I am making a lot of signs.

*CLEANING YOUR PAINTING SPONGE AFTER USE:  I actually don’t  bother cleaning mine.  I just wrap in a plastic baggie and store in a sealed plastic container.  They don’t stay as “moist and ready for re-use” as the brushes and rollers that I save  for re-use in a similar way,  as shown here.  But it still saves a lot of water otherwise wasted for cleaning such a small item.  Besides, I usually make SO MANY signs at a time, that I practically wear them out in one use!  Still I save them.  If the paint has dried out on the end, I can usually just trim off the dry crusty part and get another use or two out of that same sponge again.

4.24.13 buys stars etsy crap 139I use a scrap piece of cardboard for my ‘paint palette’.  Squirt out a blob of the black paint and VERY LIGHTLY dab the wide end of your sponge into the paint; just enough to get a little bit of paint.  Then you POUNCE your sponge around on a dry area of your palette to work the paint down into the sponge.   You want it to be ‘moist’ with the paint, but not WET.

Using blue painters tape, tape your stencil into place, then POUNCE your paint loaded sponge over the open parts of your stencil.  DON’T RUB it.  POUNCE it.  Quick, short dabbing motions until it’s fully covered with paint.  You WILL need to re-load your sponge with paint often.  DO NOT try to speed up the process by using more paint on your sponge.  All that does is make your edges BLEED.

4.1.13 etsy STARS 010This is what your lettering will look like if you have too much paint on your sponge (or are using the wrong kind of applicator).  The edges will BLEED and be sloppy.  So, yes it takes longer to use a very lightly paint loaded sponge; but you get a better product!

4.1.13 etsy STARS 008THIS is how you want your lines to look!  When you are completely done stenciling your design on your board, immediately take your stencil and submerge it into your pan of soapy water.  I let mine soak for a few minutes.  Then lay the stencil flat in the sink, put a drop of Dawn dish soap onto a kitchen scrubber and GENTLY scrub the paint residue off your stencil.  As I already said, not ALL of it comes off.  And DO be careful to not ‘snag’ the pointy parts of your stencil with your scrubber.  I lay my washed stencils on a towel to dry.

4.1.13 etsy STARS 002I kind of got ahead of myself a bit there.  FIRST, right after you remove your stencil, your lettering will have ‘gaps’ in it.  That is just the nature of a stencil.  For example, they can’t completely cut out the middle  of the letter “O”, so they leave little ‘tabs’ to hold the center in place.  PLease, PLEASE, PLEEEEASE  never leave your signs looking like this with the ‘tab gaps’ showing.  It’s very quick and easy to fill them in!

4.1.13 etsy STARS 005Use a very fine paint brush with just a tiny bit of paint on it and ‘connect the lines’.  Be sure the lettering is dry before you do this so you don’t smear your paint.  And you might need to thin your paint a little for this process.  But only thin ‘a dot’ of paint on your palette.  NEVER add water to the bottle!

4.1.13 etsy STARS 006On some signs, you can barely notice the gaps (top sign); but still, please take ONE minute to fill them in.  It looks SO much more professional with them filled it.  I literally CRINGE when I see a sign made from a stencil with the gaps showing!!

4.1.13 etsy STARS 012And with a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to stencil HUGE signs like this!  I actually did FIVE of these signs in one ‘sitting’!

Do add a coat of varnish to your finished sign.  I prefer MATTE (NO SHINE) but it can be hard to find.  I just had to spend $56.00 on a GALLON of matte varnish because they were out of quarts and are discontinuing it altogether at the paint store!  sigh.

I buy my stencils from several different places on-line.  MOST of them have the very same stencils and pretty much the same price ranges, so it doesn’t much matter who you buy from.  Be prepared for a bit of ‘sticker shock’!  Stencils are NOT cheap; and probably not really worth buying if you are only going to use them ONE time. I    Most of the stencil supply companies have ‘% off sales’ throughout the year; I try to wait for those sales to stock up on new stencil designs.

While I cannot tell you ‘which stencils I got from whom’, here are the sites that I have purchased most of my stencils from:

http://maisondestencils.com/     Scrappin Along Stencils      The Stencil Smith

Happy sign making!