Introduction: How to Create Vinyl Decals (by Hand)

Picture of How to Create Vinyl Decals (by Hand)

Hello and welcome to my first Instructable. Here I will show you my method of creating vinyl art for sticking on stuff. Most of my work goes on the back of my truck, I've sold some stuff. Also, white vinyl is decent for masking some stuff for painting because it is the most flexible color (least amount of creases which account for paint leakage) although it's not 100% water [paint]-tight.

I pretty much taught myself how to do this out of frustration for the rip-off shipping costs of online sellers of decals. I am fortunate to live down the street from a plastics store (S&W Plastics on University Ave) that carries a huge selection of adhesive vinyl for sale by the foot or by the roll. They also have the transfer tape.

In this instructable I attempt a two-tone decal. It's just double steps and lining up the two parts properly  and I even ended up with an extra sticker when I cut out the shading part!

List of ingredients:

- A design. Preferably two colors only with high contrast and not too much detail. Keep in mind; gradients are impossible to cut but photoshop filters can help. For starting off, the simpler the better... practice on line-art stuff then move up to more detailed work.

- An  X-Acto knife or other suitable sharp cutting utensil.

- A cutting surface I use the poster board mailers my "other vinyl" comes in. This part totally depends on how much you care about your work station surface, although I still recommend something as you'll see explained in step 2.

- Scotch tape

- Adhesive-backed colored vinyl
color choice is up to you.

- Tweezers I prefer a needle-nosed pair, really sharp points.

- Scissors

- Transfer tape specially made tape with the adhesive strength in between that of scotch tape and a post-it note.

- Patience and a penchant for the meticulous.

Once I save up for an electronic cutter I will laugh at my once archaic ways... but until then I like doing it this way.

Step 1: The Design

Picture of The Design

Create in photoshop (or illustrator, corel or whatever), xerox a cool design, cut something out of a newspaper... this is the fun idea part! 
After you have your design on paper and the size you want cut it with about a half-inch margin (you can use this as a template and hold it up to whatever you're sticking it to in order to make sure you have the right size and the placing looks good).

Since I did a multiple layer design I printed out two of the same image. I could have also printed each layer separately but I didn't feel like it. It's kinda like screen printing.

Note: Had I printed out each layer individually I would have been able to combine the two post-cutting onto the same backing with a tricky application of transfer tape. I preferred to combine the two on the actual surface itself because it is easier... but if you're making a multi-layered decal for someone else or don't yet have somewhere to stick it, you can do it that way.

Step 2: Vinyl Selection and Securing Image to the Vinyl

Picture of Vinyl Selection and Securing Image to the Vinyl

Cut a piece of vinyl about a half-inch bigger than the design. Since I had a remarkably curvy piece of vinyl, I taped it to my cutting surface. The aforementioned benefit of having a small portable cutting surface. If the vinyl isn't too curly I usually don't tape it down as it allows for easier manipulation of the project when cutting.

Tape the template to the vinyl as flush and in as many places as you can. If you have big empty spaces in the middle of your design, cut a hole in it and tape the middle too. As you start cutting you'll find the paper moving a lot. The more anchor points, the less this happens. Small pieces of tape make it easier to remove the template afterwards.

Step 3: Cutting

Picture of Cutting

This is the tedious part. This is what gives you the hand cramps and finger calluses. If you get a headache from straining the eyes or focusing too much, take a break. You don't have to finish it all at once. I've had more than one sticker take several days (the Pirate Bay logo on my truck was a nightmare to cut! All those sail ropes and wooden slats on the hull!). Opposite what most people think, it's actually the smaller decals that are harder to cut and take more time than the big ones. The larger ones are trickier to put on, but that's later...

Tips for cutting:
- This step is where you have freedom of interpretation. When doing a detailed work, you may want to round corners, ignore small details or straighten edges. This is the last step for creative input on the design.

- Probably most important: cut inner designs first (see pic description) like the inside of an "O" or "A" for example. If you cut the border first you'll have to tape it back to cut the inside part.

- Better to cut too deep than too shallow. Also, better to overlap cut-lines (on corners for example) than to leave a gap. Re-tracing cuts when you're picking and the template is off is a pain. If you cut through the paper, you can fix it by taping the back (see pic description) when you're done. After a while and depending on the thickness of the vinyl (and template paper) you'll find the right depth. Until the blade dulls, that is, and you replace it with a new one. Then you're cutting all the way to the table until you adjust all over again.

- You'll soon find certain lines are easy to speed through, especially if it's shading or folds or something organic. However, it's important not to get complacent and forget where you are in the cutting. Certain lines need to be straight or your whole piece will be off; borders, circles, parallel lines, and text especially. Take glimpses at the whole picture occasionally to make sure you're on the right track. It's easy to get tunnel vision when you're just looking at the lines.

- If you make a mistake, wait until you take the template off to correct it. The paper gets in the way and your repair cuts won't be as clean.

Step 4: Picking

Picture of Picking

This part used to daunt me in the beginning because I was afraid I wouldn't know which parts to pick out and which to leave. As long as you made your cuts right, pick a negative space or outside piece to start from and the rest solves itself as there should be no adjacent pieces.

Start by cutting the border into sections to make removal easier if you have a design with a complex edge. If your design is a circle or something, obviously you don't have to do this (although you still may). Then just pick a piece with the tweezers and begin. I find the corners are usually the easiest places to grab from.

Once you have the design picked, you can go over it and trim edges or line up straight lines.

Step 5: Add Transfer Tape and Trim

Picture of Add Transfer Tape and Trim

When applying the tape, make sure the decal is flat (tape it down if you must) or else it will distort. Static electricity is your enemy and transfer tape has a lot of it (another reason to tape the decal to your work-station). Start at one end and slowly roll it down, following the tape with your fingers to make sure it is completely flush and there are no creases or bubbles. Bubbles aren't too big a deal on transfer tape, but wrinkles are. They are hard to fix once the tape touches the vinyl, especially if you have a detailed decal. If the decal is larger or has big spacious pieces, then it may be easier to fix on the spot. Don't worry about it too much because you don't want to stretch the vinyl. It can still be fixed after you apply it. Sometimes.

After the tape is on trim it to about a half-inch from the decal and leave one end overlapping (it helps with decal placement later on, in addition to making it easy to take the backing off).

Step 6: Apply to Surface!

Picture of Apply to Surface!

First of all, clean wherever you are going to put it. Then place it and secure the overlapped tape side. I marked the opposite side with a dry-erase pen as a guide. Make sure your tape overlap is large enough to hold it in place securely enough to not move when you take the backing off. If you need to, you can cut more backing off to make the flap bigger if there's enough room.

Once it is in the proper spot, take the backing off and roll it down, making sure it goes down even and minimizing air bubbles. Press firmly on the decal to make sure it is adhered well. Rub it all over making sure every little piece has been covered.

Take the tape off pulling back at a 180 degree angle. Small details and pieces will give you trouble and stick to the transfer tape. On bigger pieces, air bubbles are your worst enemy. A trick I read on-line for applying larger pieces and allowing some flexibility after placing the sticker is to spray a mild soap mixture on the surface before applying the decal. I've never tried this because I don't know how you'd get the decal away from the transfer tape without adhesion to the surface. If you get it to work, this method allows easier brushing out of air bubbles and even minor placement adjustments.

If you get air bubbles you can't squeeze out, just lance them with the x-acto (in a slicing motion, not poking... you don't want to stretch the vinyl). If you get creases or folds, simply slice them then make them overlap each other so that the decal lays flush (creases stick out like a sore thumb, seams are practically invisible).

Do a final rub of the decal on the surface to make sure every piece is set. Take a step back and admire your work. You are finished!

That is unless you're using the decal as masking for painting, in which case remember to take the decal off after roughly an hour after the last coat of paint is applied. You want to take it off while the paint is still soft so it doesn't tear or stick to the mask.

Vinyl decals are easily removed unless they've been on your car a few years. They will still come off cleaner than a regular sticker but will be brittle from sun exposure (you'll end up with lots of vinyl pieces wedged under your fingernail from scraping). A little Goo-gone gets rid of the adhesive gunk.


chefspenser (author)2017-07-09

Very will done!

You had mentioned repositioning the decal and using water and soap maybe...don't. I have tinted many windows with film/vinyl. There isa solution for spraying the glass prior to applying the film-it is nothing more that water in a spray bottle, with Finish LIQUID drying agent. Just ass several drops or many, to the water, shake and spray the entire surface-position the vinyl, and position it until happy. Squeegee the film from the center to the outside, getting rid od the bubbles and solution, and mop up the solution with a clean cloth as you work. Presto,

TwoWindsBear (author)2017-07-09

Take your design to your friendly neighborhood sign shop, have them cut it, weed it, and apply transfer tape. Save yourself a LOT of headaches!

We do it a lot at the sign shop where I work

Hacking Artist (author)2017-04-27

Hey man, how do you prevent all the pieces you cut out from moving and falling out once they're completely cut through the image and vinyl?

leenaud (author)2017-02-16

What adhesive vinyl do you recommend to use for putting a decal on the tailgate of my recently painted truck? Thanks in advance for your reply.

leenaud (author)2017-02-16

After having my 1990 truck repainted what vinyl adhesive shall I use to put the T
OYOTA decals on the tailgate? Thanks in advance for your reply.

salazam (author)2017-02-05

Tip: When doing larger multi-level decals, it's best to layer the smaller detailed color directly on top of the larger base layers when doing the final application. That way you don't have to worry about cutting the negative spaces in the base layers and lining them up right. Unless you're really really sharp with the knife, because nothing beats a smooth fit. Layering is second best I've found that way you don't have the surface area of whatever you're sticking to showing through. The adhesion won't be as good since it's vinyl on vinyl instead of vinyl on surface, so I have yet to report back on it's durability. This is why I only recommend it for larger pieces instead of smaller ones, as the details might flake off. I've found when I wax my truck it helps protect the sticker so I'm wondering if there's any other type of protectant that might work. Epoxy would work if you wanted your design to be permanent. I will post an update to the instructable after testing.

jigoku123 (author)2016-08-31

Is the vinyl material you use permanent or removable type vinyl

salazam (author)jigoku1232016-10-22

It is removable.

craftescorner (author)2016-08-03

Thank you for the information.

theoriginalrage (author)2016-03-18

This is amazing! I wanted to see if I could order a few different custom decals online but you're right, the pricing is crazy. I'm going to try this. Thanks for making it!

Also, I like the b&w Darth Vadar in the first pic. I'm not good with highlighting like that but I hope I can achieve my goal!

salazam (author)theoriginalrage2016-04-22

Thanks! My trick (which I honestly should've posted in the instructable) is to jack up the brightness and contrast of the image before I convert to cutout in photoshop (Filter/Artistic/Cutout). This helps to tone down a lot of unnecessary detail and wash out the gradients.

If you're sketching by hand, squint at your subject and only draw the most prominent contrasting shapes. Simple is better, even if you think you're cutting out too much detail, the image usually reveals itself if you take a few steps back. Unless it just looks like a blob... then I'd start over lol. Good luck!

jausin (author)2015-07-05

does it come off easy

salazam (author)jausin2016-04-22

Depends on how long they've been on and how harsh the sun is where you are. UV rays will make the vinyl brittle and when you go to remove it, will chip instead of peel. I just took Darth off last year (so he'd been on my truck about 3 years?) and it came off pretty trouble free.

depotdevoid made it! (author)2016-04-20

Thanks for this, I used your instructable to help make my daughter a sweet Star Wars longboard!

salazam (author)depotdevoid2016-04-22

That looks amazing! And your daughter looks thrilled! Good job, man!

Rexanvil76 (author)2016-03-23

awesome I've been doing this for years trying to explain it to friends and now I can just link them here thank you

pjkumpon (author)2016-03-08

love this.. .thanks for posting.

Aurora CO Locksmith (author)2016-03-06

Awesome collection!

GenerallyOdd (author)2015-06-28

Never knew or checked or had any interest whatsoever in decals before, thinking they wouldn't be worth the trouble, but saw your "POW!" and had to check it out. It turns out that it's the exact same thing as semi truck ICC and authority number decals which have been around for decades, LOL which never occurred to me. Easy as pie. I assumed it was something "new-fangled" but it's the exact same thing...VERY good instructable. Well done!

youn_link (author)2015-06-05

could you please be more specific in wich transfer tape are you using? I can find a proper equal in my country becasue a transfer tape is a tape that transfer the adhesive to a surfice so the surfaace becomes sticky and you can stick other thinks

bb7 (author)2015-05-10

Carpet Protector from the home depot could work as it is a low adhesive film..use it a lot at Trades shows to protect carpet during setup..also had an alternative idea..inkjet for dark material is sort of a vinyl type material ,I wonder if that could be used as well,..either print out a graphic and be done or use it as a template to cut out a mono design.

chococupcake (author)2014-12-29

Hi! I was just wondering where you can buy the transfer tape? I see Amazon has it, but it's like $20 something a roll, is there an alternative to this tape? Could I use blue painter's tape?

salazam (author)chococupcake2015-01-20

No masking tape would not work. You could use a low-adhesive tape like scotch tape I imagine. Anything that has less adhesion than the vinyl itself. If you do a piece small enough or with little detail you could transfer it without tape. Just peel and set. Yeah that price on amazon is ridiculous. I forgot how much mine was but not $30 that's for sure.

chococupcake (author)salazam2015-01-20

Thank you for replying~!! I've been hoping to find the transfer tape at the craft and hobby stores in my area, but no such luck... :(

I've searched online for an alternative and some people say I could use clear, reposition-able contact paper or the Glad Press n Seal wax paper. I've not tried either of them yet. I wasn't sure how sticky they would be or if they would even work... I'll try the scotch tape too! Thank you again~! ^__^

salazam (author)chococupcake2015-01-20

I don't think the press n seal wax paper would have enough adhesive to grab it off the backing. After thinking about it, masking tape might work but you wouldn't have the advantage of seeing how you're placing it. As long as you're peeling totally parallel to the work surface (as I believe I demonstrate above) it may work. Scotch tape could leave sticky residue. I say try 'em both out, return with results.

1980toyota (author)2015-01-20

Where do you get the vinyl sticker paper, transfer tape etc. at to do these vinyl stickers?

salazam (author)1980toyota2015-01-20

S&W Plastics on University Ave.

JetwashA (author)2015-01-16

What kind of vinyl do you use for the part that sits on the paint on a car? My friend is cutting it for me but I don't know what type to buy or where.

salazam (author)JetwashA2015-01-16

Ok just called the store they said: 3 mil or 76 micron which is apparently 0.076 millimeters

salazam (author)JetwashA2015-01-16

I buy the stuff my local plastics store sells. I don't know the thickness. I know the thicker it is, the easier it is to work with (thinner stuff will be harder to get off of the transfer tape).

Denofthelions (author)2014-04-18

Very cool instructable.

salazam (author)2013-12-03

Actually I tried it today on a fairly simple text decal I was doing and after the first letter I was like, "screw this" because you end up tracing twice. My method you only trace once with the x-acto and it's easier to see what you're doing.

Sam Stick (author)salazam2013-12-04


These are really cool! do you think I could buy some from you? I would make them but I have no way to get the materials. :(

I would love to, send me an email at regarding the details (size, color, design) and I'll work with you on a quote. :-)

salazam (author)salazam2013-12-03

btw, for any interested I don't do orders anymore. Teach a man to fish... you know? That's what this site is about. I don't have time to work for other people when I have ideas of my own. Happy cutting!

Sam Stick (author)2013-12-02

try my trick friend i think it would help you alot it is easier thatn yours,try to see it in my page.

salazam (author)Sam Stick2013-12-02

Not bad! That's a good idea because cutting through the paper and the vinyl it's hard to judge the depth. I'll definitely try it on my next decal. I also just found out I could use the negative parts of the decals for silkscreening thanks to a few other instructables, I'm gonna try that too once I make/buy a screen.

mrcaderly (author)2013-07-01

Very nicely done!

PrintingBlue (author)2013-04-17

Nice way to get inexpensive decals. I am gonna use it to make window decals and stickers for my car

LucDaRocka1 (author)2012-06-17

Where can i buy the vinyl?

There is a whole sale supplier called "Regional Supply" in SLC, UT web page found here:  Also a  place on line called:  Gregory in Buhler, KS,  found here:  They both are wholesellers but they do sale retail.  I bought my first vinyl from Gregory.  The vinyl sold by Provo Craft for use with the Cricut is from Regional Supply.  That vinyl is Oracal 631, matte finish, lots of colors.  I am still working on my first roll of vinyl I bought before I knew better, 50 yds of 24" wide gloss black, should have bought matte.  Oh well.  Hope this helps. 


salazam (author)LucDaRocka12013-02-28

dude, it says you live in LA. Shop local! Esp for something as heavy as a roll of vinyl! There are tons of plastic supply shops in L.A.

LucDaRocka1 (author)salazam2013-02-28

Lol Not L.A. DUH! LOUISIANA!!!!!!!!!!!!

scoochmaroo (author)2012-06-17

You could enter this in the Father's Day Challenge!

bruce5000 (author)2012-06-14

idont game the grandsons allway on but love the controler

adel antado (author)2012-06-14

I have always wondered how this is done. Thank you for sharing the method.

toezar00 (author)2012-06-13


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