Introduction: Unorthodox T-shirt Printing: Airbrushing With Stencils

About: I'm a Mechanical Engineer who has been a part of this community for over 10 years! My interests have evolved over time, and now center around 3D printing.

In this Instructable I will show the process I used and am using to airbrush designs onto t-shirts. 

I like t-shirts, and there are many how-to's out there on "screen printing".  Whenever I read or watch these, I always think to myself, "But there has to be a better way!  I don't want to try to find a special ink-permeable fabric and make a frame!".  I'll admit that many Instructables and how-to's give links to places to purchase the necessary items, but I hate paying for shipping.  Another of my pet peeves with DIY "screen printing" is that in many cases (not all) the design you spend so much time drawing out and preparing to print is ruined after using it once! It's ridiculous. 

Anyway, enough of my anti-screen-printing nonsense, on to the good stuff.

*I apologize for less than adequate pictures, I only have the camera on my phone, and my basement does not have much light, but I tried really hard nontheless. : (

Step 1: Required Items

You'll need a few things to make the dream of freedom from screen printing a reality.

1.  A design to put on your t-shirt.
2.  A t-shirt to put your design on.
              (I go to the craft store, they always have a huge bin of "closeout shirts" really cheap.)
3.  An airbrush.
              (See next step)
4.  Paint, or "ink".  Must be water-based!
              (I am using "crafter's acrylic" paint, from my local craft store.  It's about 50 cents a bottle, and seems to work really well.  Therefore I say, "No! I won't buy your overpriced special t-shirt paint!")
5.  Contact paper.
              (We use it to cover school books, it's clear plastic that is sticky on one side.  Go to your local office supply store.)
6.  General hand tools/supplies.
               (Razor blade/Exacto knife, Sharpie marker, pencil, scissors, newspaper, etc., more may be mentioned in later steps, but they're household items.)

Step 2: The Airbrush

I made my own airbrush, which I should probably write an Instructable about, but I didn't take pictures as I went along : /.

They sell small airbrush kits at my local hobby store for about $20, so you could pick up one of those, and it would be way better than mine.

However, it you want to make your own like I made mine,  I drew up a small paint diagram for you : ).

Or, you can make one like msolek did, here:

Step 3: Making Your Stencil

Before you can make a stencil, you need a design.  I drew mine by hand and then cleaned it up on the computer.  It is a fairly simple flame design, that I included below.

Then you'll need to get out your razor blade, scissors, design, and contact paper.

First I trimmed roughly around the shape of my design.

Place your design over the contact paper, and secure with Scotch tape if you wish.

Place your design-contact paper on top of some newspaper or cutting board to protect your kitchen table.

Using your razor blade, slowly cut our the areas that you want to be airbrushed onto your t-shirt.

*Note: If you place your design onto the clear side, not the paper-covering side, or the contact paper, it should not end up backwards when you unpeel your stencil.  (If this sounds confusing while reading it, it should make perfect sense when you're making the stencil.

Step 4: Airbrushing the Shirt

Finally we're here, where ink meets t-shirt.

Grab your stencil and peel away the paper backing.

Stick it onto your t-shirt where you want to airbrush it.
           *Note: Make sure it is tight against the fabric! Mine was not, and the design came out all blurry, so i had to go around the design, stippling with a paint brush, with a similar color to the shirt to try to patch it up.

Place your t-shirt on a flat area where it won't have any wrinkles to distort your design.  I use a pizza box, and use sewing pins to keep it in place.

Use something to block drips and overspray away from the rest of the t-shirt.  Newspaper is good, or another t-shirt that you don't care about.

Spray away! 
            *Note: My paint is mixed with about one half water, to make it thin enough to travel up the airbrush.

Keep the stencil on the shirt for a few minutes to allow the paint to dry a little bit, then remove it and enjoy the beauty of non screen printing.

Store your stencil on wax paper to preserve the stickyness.

Step 5: The End!

Wear your t-shirt proud! You can see the final result below.  You'll notice I didn't match the colors perfectly, but I ended up liking the two-tone flame effect, so no harm done.

It is a good idea to iron over your design once the paint is dry, then soak your t-shirt in water for a few hours to get off anything that could hurt your other clothes in the washer.  Wash cold to help the paint last.  Wash inside out if you're super worried about it.

Good luck, thanks for reading, I like comments! : )