Introduction: Sticking to Stencils? Freezer Paper and You

I've been experimenting with a couple different ways of doing designs and logos on T-shirts (though i imagine most fabric mediums would work for these things). For this Instructable, I wanted to test the Freezer Paper stencil method, which had been described in other Instructables and after this attempt, I found it to be an inexpensive and fairly simple process (altogether, supplies, including the shirt, were less than $12).

You will need the following items:

1) AT-Shirt (or other fabric material of your choice)

It's typically recommended that fabric be washed and dried before applying a stencil, since it tends to shrink in the process. I've never found it to be much of a problem if you don't pre-wash the shirt.

2) Freezer Paper

I have no idea what Freezer Paper was originally made to do -- the back of the box described only craft projects that it could be used for -- but you can find it in the supermarket aisle with the wax paper and foil. It's several feet of paper sold on a large roll, usually for less than $5. **Though I have not yet tested it, you will also find Instructables demonstrating how to create iron-on transfers with Freezer Paper.

3) Acrylic paint

I don't know how well ink might work with a Freezer Paper stencil. The benefits of ink, at least, is that it requires fewer coats. But I've long been in the habit of using acrylic paint mixed with tubes of Textile Medium. You can find both the paint and Textile Medium in small tubes in a craft store. Textile Medium, when mixed with acrylic paint allows it to adhere to the fabric. I prefer this method because, as you may have noticed, paints specifically tailored for fabric projects are often both pricier and also come in a lot of limited, tacky colors and textures as though the only people who would ever want to use fabric paint are six year old girls who love glitter.

4) X-acto Knife

Depending on how complex your design is, cutting the stencil is usually the most time-consuming part of the project. You'll need an X-acto knife or something with similar flexibility for reaching tight areas and later, when removing the stencil, you will need it to pick up any part of the Freezer Paper that sticks to the design. 

5) Foam Brush & Palette

Another Instructable describing a similar project cautioned that you should pat down the paint rather than brush it. Part of the reason for this is that you may pick up parts of the stencil by running the bristles of a brush along it. A foam brush is a cheap alternative. They're typically black or yellow squares on a little wooden sticks and they vary in size. The palette, of course, is for placing your paint on.

6) Cardboard

For most stencil shirts where you are using paint or ink, you need to place a piece of cardboard between the layers of the shirt that are larger than the size of your stencil. It will keep the paint or ink from bleeding through one layer to the other. If you get heavy handed with coats of paint, you may find that part of the cardboard has dried to the shirt. Don't worry, it's just paper. A little water will get it off after everything is done. 

7) Tape

You'll need a small amount of tape to hold your design to the Freezer Paper so that the design remains firmly in place as you cut your stencil. 

8) Appliances: An Iron and a Hairdryer

The Freezer Paper is eventually what you will be painting on. You will cut your design, then iron it to your shirt, and it should hold until you've completed the painting process. A hair dryer is handy for drying paint much faster than it otherwise would on its own, and that's especially true if you find you need to apply several coats of a color. 

9) Medium and/or Fine Point Permanent Marker (Color Should Match Shirt Color)

Let's face it - it's a little boring and stressing to cut out every little hole and crevice, especially if your design includes small lettering. Forget about trying to cut out the wholes in an "A" or a "B," you can always add them in later when the paint dries if you have a medium (and sometimes finer point) permanent marker on hand. Find one that matches your fabric color as closely as possible. I recommend Sharpies because of the variety of colors available.

10) The Design

Well, you're obviously going to need this. How else are we going to make this stencil?

Step 1: Starting With the Design

The first step, obviously, is to think about what kind of logo or design you want to put on the fabric. For this project, I created an image in Photoshop. The pictures I've here are not of great quality, but the shirt says... "Quint's Apricot Brandy... Est. 1974... Amity, MA... Here's to Swimmin' With Bow-legged Women." (Um... it's a Jaws reference). 

There's basically two parts to the design to worry about. The first is the text, which was pretty simple. I knew I would be using a dark brown shirt, so I wanted all of the text to be white. The second part of the design is the fruit. I had originally created the design to be easily replicated, and that's why you see each of the fruits colored in a simple 3-color scheme from dark to light.

This could have worked in the final design and is a good idea if you want a stencil that can be quickly and simply applied. When I went to cut the stencil however, I cut the fruit out as one separate part and painted the fruit and shading freehand. In retrospect, I would stick with 3-color scheme design for the fruit.

If you design your image on a computer, you do NOT need to reverse the image when you print it, as you would, for example, with an iron-transfer.

Step 2: Turning the Design Into a Stencil

The steps in this project are pretty simple: 
A) Create your design
B) Cut the design into the Freezer Paper
C) Iron Freezer Paper to fabric
D) Paint over stencil
E) Remove stencil
F) Iron design when dry

So how do you turn your design into a stencil? 

Freezer Paper has two distinct sides to it - a matte finish on one, and a shiny surface on the other. The shiny surface is the part that will be sticking to the fabric when you iron down the stencil that you have cut into the Freezer Paper. 

Take your design and cut around it leaving maybe a two inch border all around the design (big enough so that cutting will not interfere with the tape you are about to use to keep it held to the Freezer Paper). Next, cut a square or rectangle of freezer paper larger than that. You'll want a larger border when you're dealing with the Freezer Paper so you don't have to worry about going over the edges and messing up the parts of the shirt you didn't intend to paint. 

Hold up the sheet of Freezer Paper. The matte side should be facing you and the glossy should be on the back. Next, take your image (as you want it to look on the shirt) and lay your Freezer Paper over it with that glossy side still on the back. Center the design and tape it to the back of the Freezer Paper. (See the photo i have attached as an example).

If you need to, trace your design at this point, but otherwise, if you have no problem seeing your image through the Freezer Paper, then you're ready to start cutting. Grab your X-acto knife and get comfortable. This may take a while.

The beauty of Freezer Paper, especially with designs that use text, is that it can help produce an image with very sharp and clean edges, so take care when you're cutting your design. 

Step 3: Sticking With Freeze Paper

After you've finished cutting out your design into the Freezer Paper, pull whatever is left of that original image you print off of the back of the Freezer Paper and clean up any little cut segments that might have strayed. 

The next step is to iron the Freezer Paper (now your stencil) to the fabric. Figure out where you want to place the design on your shirt and position the Freezer Paper accordingly. Again, the glossy side should be down on the shirt, since that's the part that gets sticky. Get your iron ready and heated on high (no steam), and start pressing down the Freezer Paper stencil. It may take about 30 seconds or so. Make sure you give attention to all parts of the stencil, and you can test how well it's sticking by pulling up an outer edge. If it needs a little pull, you're probably set. If you don't think it's enough, lay that part of the stencil back down and go over it with iron again. 

Working with Freezer Paper was pretty good because the stencil held well for the duration of the painting, although this means that some of it also stuck when the larger portion of the stencil was pulled off at the end, but even those pieces are easy to remove.

When the Freezer Paper stencil adheres to the shirt, you're ready to start painting.

Turn off your iron for now. You'll need it again at the end of the project.

Step 4: Painting the Design

With the Freezer Paper stencil adhered to your on shirt, you can start to paint your design. Put your piece of cardboard in between the layers so they don't stick from paint bleeds. Decide ahead of time what colors you will use, and mix them up on your palette if you're using one. Pour out a small amount of textile medium to apply to each section of paint. You can find mix ratio information on the tubes of Textile Medium, but I have found that you don't really need more than two drops for a small section of paint in your palette tray. It is very thin and sort of watery compared to paint, so if you use a lot of it in proportion to the amount of paint you mix it with, you may need to apply extra coats of paint. You can also afford to be a little stingy with Textile Medium (though it's of course a good idea to actually use it), because you can iron over your logo once it has dried at the end.

If this is your first time using acrylic paints and Textile Medium on fabric, don't be discouraged if the paint applies thinly at first. With your stencil held firmly in place, wait till the paint dries (use the hair dryer to speed up the drying process!), and apply additional coats as needed. You may find that some types of paint are thicker than others. White, for example, has a thicker consistency than yellow. 

To apply the paint, take the foam brush and begin to PAT not BRUSH the paint into the stencil. This will help you avoid picking up any corners or edges, which could get messy if it needs to be fixed in the middle of the painting process. There's a few easy-fixes for some mistakes though. I'll mention a few here later.

For my shirt, I must have applied at least three coats of everything, though the fruit took a little longer because I learned that Neon Yellow is not a good substitute for regular Yellow when you're trying to mix colors for an apricot-ish shade.

Paint and dry and reapply as necessary. 

Step 5: Removing the Stencil and Making Fixes

When you've finished applying paint to the design and everything has dried at least to the point of dampness, you can begin removing the stencil. Gently start with an outer corner and carefully begin to remove the stencil by pulling upwards and across. Go slow, just in case parts of the stencil aren't as dry as you think. If parts of the stencil don't come off with the larger piece, just pick them up with your X-acto blade. Some just pieces just need a little extra nudging.

In the case of designs with text, you may have cut your stencil as I did, not worrying about trying to get all those wholes inside each of the letters. It can frankly be a little time consuming and depending on the size of the text, a little difficult to really get at even with the X-acto blade. That's fine if you're applying a light color on a dark shirt as I have here. A fine point or medium point permanent market that matches the color of the shirt comes in handy for filling in the holes when the paint has dried. (Compare the original design in Step 2 to what it looked like when it was cut out in Step 3 if this isn't making sense). It's better to wait until you're certain the paint really is dry before doing this because sometimes, it can ruin a marker if the ink is applied to paint that is too wet.

But, suppose you want to add the holes on a light colored shirt? If you are using a black font on a white shirt, you could fill in the holes inside the letter with a silver colored gel marker (Sharpie also makes these). Obviously, it will dry in a semi-glossy silver color, but for some designs, it may not matter. That's all up to you. There are also white paint pens that some companies manufacture, although, for the finer tips, these never really have lasted long in the past. For these kind of fixes in small text, you might also try dipping a toothpick in white paint. Again, make sure the text paint is completely dry first. 

Marker fixes are good for a lot of minor touch-ups in the design, though, not just text.

Step 6: Sealing the Design

Give your shirt about a day to air out and dry before this last step. The final part of the project involves sealing the design with your iron. In this first attempt at producing a design with Freezer Paper, I did notice that some portions of paint appeared to be applied too thickly, and that's why it's a good reason to heat the design.

As you did before, set the iron to High without the steam setting and start going over the design you painted on your shirt. Press in sections for a few seconds each. And overall, you should probably do this for two or three minutes. If the design gets too hot, leave it a few minutes and return to ironing when it cools a little. You may want to repeat this step again a while after the first ironing. 

Now go get working on your designs!