Introduction: Easy Method for Custom T-Shirts

Picture of Easy Method for Custom T-Shirts

My buddy, JB, is celebrating his 40th birthday party. The JB4.0 Mashdown  promises to be the mega-party of 2011 that will ring throughout the halls of party legend for generations. I have 2 small problems: 1) what to wear and 2) what to gift.

My Armani tuxedo is at the tailor and nevertheless is entirely inappropriate for the occasion. Furthermore, JB is a man who takes what he wants and is the man who has everything. I will need to create something special to solve this problem.

My solution is to create a customized t-shirt to capture the milieu of JB4.0 and to serve as a lasting souvenir of the event. There are many great instructables for screenprinting, but these involve frames, photosensitive and emulsion chemistries, squeegees, special inks or tediously cut stencils.

Luckily, over the years, I have developed a simple technique to one-off a great looking t-shirt whenever inspiration strikes. I now share my method with the fine instructables community…


Step 1: Get the Stuff

Picture of Get the Stuff

Required Materials
1. Plain T-shirt ($3 to $20USD)
2. Sharpie brand fine point permanent marker ($4USD) (I suppose other permanent blank markers will work, but it doesn't get an better than Sharpie)

The following items are optional
1. Tracing box (based on this instructable )
     a. Two Push-on Lights ($4USD/each)
     b. Clear storage container ($6USD)
2. Masking tape ($4USD)
3. Graphics software like Photoshop (priceless) 

Step 2: Prepare the Design

Picture of Prepare the Design

The first step is to decide the design for the t-shirt. You should choose or create a simple design. Markers on t-shirt does not allow for high-resolution images.

I decided to create a custom icon for the party based on a pic of JB I pulled off the Facebooks. There are several good instructables to describe detailed how-to (Like this one  and this one ), so I will only briefly describe the image prep.

Here’s the fast guide to what I did: Select a photo > Remove the background > Convert to Black and White > Adjust Threshold > Cleanup the rough spots > Add the finishing touches

Step 3: Tracing the Outline

Picture of Tracing the Outline

Now here is the fun step. I printed my graphic on a sheet of paper and taped it to my tracing box. Then I layed the t-shirt on top of the tracing box. Then I started start tracing the outline of the design.

• Use masking tape to hold the shirt in position.
• I like to make a dotted outline of the design. If you try to draw the lines, you may pull the shirt material and distort the drawing.
• My tracing box is based on an easy setup described here .
• If you do not have a tracing box, then you can just as easily tape your image and shirt to an outside window. On a sunny day, you can easily see the design through lighter colored shirts for tracing
• In a pinch, I have even stretched a t-shirt around my computer monitor and traced directly from the screen. If you try this, then first cover your monitor in plastic wrap otherwise there can be marker bleed-though to stain your monitor screen.

Step 4: Fill in the Blanks: AWES_ME!

Picture of Fill in the Blanks: AWES_ME!

Now we just need to fill-in the outlined design. I find this step is easier with backlight turned off. For this design, I was able to make 3 t-shirts using only a single Sharpie marker.

Step 5: Finishing

Picture of Finishing

If you like, you can throw on your new shirt and go party, but you will smell like you’ve been huffing paint all day. And and you risk smudging your design.

For best results…
1. Lay your shirts flat for at least 2 hours to let the ink thoroughly dry
2. Wash the shirt in cold water
3. Air dry

Step 6: Final Thoughts

Picture of Final Thoughts

JB loved the t-shirt and I even got a few orders to make some more. 

I have used this method for a while and the t-shirts that I made years ago still look great. Please see some pics attached.

• Go forth to make your own rad shirts and share some photos
• Share questions and constructive criticism (this is my first instructable)



srilyk (author)2011-09-26

Excellent Instructable! I'm lovin' it...

I've got an airbrush (or two or three ;) and I just might have to try this out (I recently graduated from college so I'm trying to catch up on the past 4 years of projects).

I'm curious if one of those el cheapo $35 projectors (like this one: would give quality results.

I'm thinking about getting a large sheet of plexiglass and then just projecting the (mirrored) image on the back of the shirt. If someone beats me to the punch (since I don't have a cheap projector yet), I'd love to see the results!

WilliamR29 (author)srilyk2015-08-20

I've been airbrushing over 20 years and used every range of projector from $10-$250. No big deal. Your talent affects the end results. Plexi on windows is great for large areas after you blow something up on a copier. Cheaper projectors usually just have smaller areas. I prefer copying original, spray gluing to poster board and cutting out relevant areas as a guide. Good luck. Airllusion dot com

coznick (author)2015-04-28


chetfield (author)2013-08-06

generally do you wash with detergent and cold water or cold water only?

tuffguy1500 (author)2012-05-28

Just made two shirts for an upcoming Spartan Race. This was such an easy way to do it. Things I did: Used an ultra fine sharpie to make the outlines and color in around borders, then used a regular sharpie to fill in the larger areas. Super clean edges, looks awesome. Thanks for the idea!!

hhamilton2 (author)2011-10-03

You had me at milieu.... Also, the waxed paper tip will serve you well.

chkrvrty (author)2011-09-27

I did this one night a couple of years back for a "pirate" themed event. I used almost this exact same method. The only thing I didn't do was wash it in cold water and air dry, so the ink ran just a tiny bit and blurred the dges - no big deal.

Few repiles to various comments:
1. fabric markers are a good idea, but if you're just doing one or two t-shirts, it's not worth a separate trip to the store. Just pull out that Sharpie you have sitting in the drawer!
2. mronallo asked how you fill the shapes in without pulling on the shirt. well, once you trace the outline with dots, it doesn't matter if you pull on the shirt. you're not damaging the shirt, just moving it so it doesn't line up with the reference drawing anymore. Once the drawing is copied via dots, I would recommend removing the reference drawing and just setting it beside you while you simply fill in the dotted areas by scribbling. Final artistic touch can be done freehand while looking at the reference drawing.

dchall8 (author)2011-09-26

Well deserved of the coveted "Featured" designation. Great Instructable. I am always looking for an easy way to put paint on shirts. This one cuts out a lot of steps that others require. I don't see any reason you could not use acrylic paint and, maybe, sponge it on with a custom cut sponge dauber. There's no question that acrylic paint is permanent.

verybluesky (author)2011-09-23

Awesome instructable. Thanks for posting. Love the tracing box.

inkette (author)2011-09-19

Someone mentioned "how do you keep the shirt from moving when you draw on it"? Use spray adheasive lightly sprayed on the plastic lid and the image paper you're tracing and smooth the shirt flat. Its similar to what screen printers use(Platen Spray) to keep the shirt from moving.

jsgraham (author)inkette2011-09-21

Great idea. I also use a sheet of 150-grit sandpaper glued to the backing board.

jsgraham (author)2011-09-21

Great instructable. A very effective technique I would like to add, and I've done this with T-Shirt painting for years.... If you place a sheet of inexpensive 150 or 200 grit sand paper between the T-Shirt and the backing board, it will give the T-Shirt fabric something to grab and keep it from drifting around while you fill in the blanks.

You can use spray adhesive on the back of the sand paper and mount it permanently to the backing board.

hartmannsclass (author)2011-09-21

Excellent idea and well written. I've wanted a one off design for a long time and didn't know how to accomplish it easily. I formatted on the computer, printed and taped to light box. The Glad wrap seems good, but I've never tried it.

My half grown kids are actually impressed and are lining up their own designs to complete.

nickodemus (author)2011-09-13

This is great! Do the designs seem to fade at all over time?

mvieke (author)nickodemus2011-09-13

The designs hold up fairly well over time, but these will fade.
I added another picture to step 6 to show a brand new design side by side with an older shirt. You can see there is some obvious fading. I guess that Sharpie Permanent markers are somewhat less than permanent ;)

johnny3h (author)mvieke2011-09-18

I "number' all my white athletic socks, and my work coveralls to be able to match socks, and to evenly rotate use of the work coveralls to facilitate improved longevity. 

I have a "Sharpie" brand "Laundry Marker" [came in Black only] which looks exactly like the ordinary black Sharpies I use at work.  I keep it on a shelf above my washing machine, and use it to mark new clothes, AND to touch-up the older ones which DO FADE over time.  Even though it is a dedicated laundry marker, it does fade with multiple washings.  Hmmmm, I just wonder if Sharpie uses the ordinary black marker and relables it "Laundry"????

I can't recall where I got it, but it was either at a fabric and sewing store, OR Walmart.

mvieke (author)johnny3h2011-09-20

I think you're onto something...
I have also used the Sharpie laundry markers, and I found no obvious differences to the standard Sharpie. I would also guess that Sharpie is just re-branding their office products for more home use.
I just sent an email to Sharpie to ask if there is any formula differences...

mvieke (author)mvieke2011-09-21

The Sharpie people replied. I guess there is a difference between the regular and laundry markers...

Hello Mr. Vieke, the Sharpie Fine Point Permanent Marker is an alcohol-based ink and the Sharpie Laundry Marker (Rub-A-Dub) is a Glycol Ether Based ink.

1inspirit (author)2011-09-20


WizenedEE (author)2011-09-19

Wow that was really well-written - I only noticed by the end that the instructable, in a sentence, was "Draw on your shirt with sharpies."

How long does it take to make? A day per shirt?

mvieke (author)WizenedEE2011-09-20

For this instructable, I cranked out 3 shirts in less than 2 hours.

Leo4613 (author)2011-09-20

I have a suggestion for those who worry about "bleed through" and possibly keeping the shirt still. Try Glad Press and seal. Put it sticky side to the shirt . The light will still go through, will stabilize it while drawing , and any bleed through won't get on your light box or monitor. Plus no sticky residue from double sided tape. :)
Also, you could apply it to the picture or drawing / design and trace it , peel it off, apply it to your light box. Handy if the pic has dark areas that don't work well with the light box or if you are using a a one of a kind design. (Also gives you a preview of how it will look. ), I have used this method to put designs on bone, wood , and sewing projects. When carving or cutting on wood or bone I can peel and reposition it 'till it's right , then carve or cut right on the lines and still have my original design.
Hope this helps. :) :)

danugrah (author)2011-09-19

You can't always do that when your t-shirt moving or stretched when you paint your tees.. Your t-shirt need t-shirt glue or double tape to do that..

inkette (author)2011-09-19

I'd suggest using fabric markers! They are made with textile dyes and will not wash out or change color like a sharpies do. (remember that old high school t-shirt you had everyone sign at grad night? Well everyone signed mine with a black sharpie and it faded into purple & red-blue shades over time and washings. After using the fabric markers you'll want to heat set the drawn image with an iron set at 360 degrees.

shawnlambert (author)2011-09-19

There are some ink jet printer t-shirt iron-on transfers that are a lot easier to use and get you full color. I have some that I made over 4 years ago that while a little faded still look great. The marker trace you did here is a great job, but time-consuming, especially when you need to do more than 1 shirt.

kilbia (author)2011-09-19

This is a brilliant idea (one that made me go "OMG how did I not think of this myself, it makes so much sense!"), and the instructable is very well written. I especially appreciate your giving out links to other instructables in order to keep yours more concise and focused.

I'm getting ready to put together my first couple, so this was a great inspiration. Thanks very much for this!

spark master (author)2011-09-19

nice instructable, but Sharpies fad even the laundry markers fade. Sharpies come in several colors and point sizes including a very small point. I have 20 pair of white socks and hate when they wear out at different rates. They are all identical. So I started putting marks under the toes or on the soles , they fade after 5 or so washings. BUT these are bleached loads. I am sure regular loads (no bleach) would be easier on the ink. I do not think the laundry marker did much better then the sharpie. I use sharpie brand because they last longer.

mronallo (author)2011-09-19

Great instructable! The one thing I don't understand is how you fill it in without pulling on the shirt, which you did dots instead of lines to avoid. (Probably a dumb question, but I'm not that quick on the uptake.) Thanx for putting this up! :)

never_more (author)2011-09-18

Perhaps you could still do the dotted outline with sharpies, but then use a fabric paint and brush in the color? That could help with fading, and extend the life of the sharpies!

javandyck (author)2011-09-18

Why not use Sharpie Laundry Markers? They are designed for clothes that get laundered and thus resist fading more than regular Sharpie ink. Check your local office supply store.

dwilkinson1 (author)2011-09-18

One word: WOW!

Your instructable is extremely well written, even with links to other how to's VERY VERY WELL DONE...

Im definitely going to do that very soon!!!! In fact Im out of work at the moment so might make some to sell.. but I might get into screenprinting as well..


P.S. Was it an epic party? lol

mvieke (author)dwilkinson12011-09-18

"epic" doesn't even begin to describe the party ;)

Wasagi (author)2011-09-18

Sweet! I was wondering how you got it so the sharpie wouldn't wash out, but cold water makes sense, Great Instructable!

vfx (author)2011-09-18

Can you use a new sharpie to re-ink the 5 year old shirt? Or is there a problem of the fabric being too worn and/or the ink bleed is too difficult to deal with?

I'm gonna try it. thanks.

mvieke (author)vfx2011-09-18

I dig the worn look, so I never tried to touch up my old shirts.

neosoyo (author)2011-09-18

Have you tested any other color? or just black will work? i really like the result but i guess will be hard to find this sharpie here in brazil

mlima3 (author)neosoyo2011-09-18

A gente até tem esse marcador aqui, mas o problema é que o fabricante garante que o uso em tecido é desapropriado. Tem outras canetas para tecido que podem ser utilizadas, como as da Acrilpen.

neosoyo (author)mlima32011-09-18

poh legal! vo atras dessas canetas! =D

dawnweck (author)2011-09-18

I think I can offer a bit of help with the fading. Your very first step should be to pre-wash the shirt according to the manufacturers directions. You'll find the washing instructions on the little tag on the inside of the shirt. Manufacturers add chemicals to the dying process so if you wash your shirt first it will be chemical free and less likely to fade since you're not adding the ink over a layer of treated fabric. After completing the shirt you will want to do a second washing, but this time you will need to add one cup of ordinary table salt to the washer along with your detergent.I have used this salt trick for years and it really helps keep fading to a minimum. Being a bit of a skeptic, I did my own experiment before ever using salt in all my new washable clothing I bought several new yellow bath towels and kept one of them in the closet not used. After a dozen or more washings I compared the laundered towels to the brand new unused towel. It worked!!! The laundered towels were just as bright as the one stashed in my closet. I keep the big box of salt on the shelf above my machine so I don't forget to use it. I hope this helps you. Great instructable!

pro2xy (author)2011-09-18

In case you do get permanent marker stains on your monitor, you could spray some deodorant and wipe it off... Works for most alcohol based permanent markers...... But be careful not to overdo it and get some fluid inside your screen. That would make permanent dead pixels.
Just a tiny spray is enough.

thebeatonpath (author)2011-09-18

Brilliant! I can use the lightbox idea in quilting as well. Thanks! I think I'll make the kiddos some custom T-shirts!

ksmcrae (author)2011-09-18

Use freezer paper to stabilize the t-shirt for easy drawing. Yes, freezer paper. You buy it at the grocery store where the foil and wax paper is found.

cut a piece the size needed. Turn shirt inside out. Press freezer paper shiny side down, using medium hot iron. Paper will adhere to the fabric and stabilize it for drawing.

When done, the paper peels right off. And it can be reapplied to another shirt.

it is fun, almost magical stuff.

ksmcrae (author)2011-09-18

you can 'set' the sharpie ink by heating with an iron. Even so the color will fade a bit over time.

Leo4613 (author)2011-09-18

Great instructable! :) For those who would like color, you can find color multi packs of fabric markers at Walmart. Or, another possibility is embroidery pens used to make embroidery patterns. My mom and Gee-Gee ( Granma), used to use them. came in lots of colors and lasted well through washings . I.d imagine they would be found at crafting stores.
Once again, thank you for sharing this. just may help with a up coming birthday here. :) :)
^5 !!!!!

ghoe (author)2011-09-18

Nice instructable. One thing to keep in mind is to make sure the shirt is right side up when you start drawing. Last year for Halloween I wanted to be iron man so I thought I would draw the periodic table box for iron (Fe) on a t-shirt. I strapped the shirt to a board and used pretty much your sharpie method, but I got so into the drawing I never checked which way was up. I didn't expect a lot of people to get my nerd joke, but I just looked like an idiot with it upside down. I still wore it and people were as confused as ever. It looked good though and for a one off shirt this method is prime. Thanks for sharing.

rmolenaar (author)2011-09-18

VERY VERY cool instructible---I know whats being made for Yule this year!!

mslaynie (author)2011-09-18

... and a sudden flash of inspiration... this could be fun to use along with some of the bleachartteetutorials for more color and lightness variation. What can I say, this has my brain spinning with ideas! Thank you!

mslaynie (author)2011-09-18

To echo other comments?

Holy WOW this is brilliant. LOVE this... and I may use this myself to dress up some tees soon... LOVE the idea!!

maxman (author)2011-09-18

This is great! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I've been wanting to do something like this for a long time, AND I already have a lightbox.

joefed62 (author)2011-09-18

Awesome instructable! I never thought of creating the tracing box. You mentioned air drying the shirt after this something you should always do to keep the shirt looking good, or do you now use a dryer once it's been washed a few times?

About This Instructable




Bio: Electrical engineer currently working in semiconductor quality and reliability.
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