Easy Method for Custom T-Shirts




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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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)


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    61 Discussions


    Question 10 months ago

    Hey, I read this and I just want to say great job explaining! I could easily understand it. So I have a couple questions.

    1. Can you do this on a sweatshirt/hoodie?

    2. When you fill it in, do you fill it in with dots or just color like usual?

    3. what kind of sharpie did you use, thin or thick and can you use colored ones?


    1 answer

    Reply 10 months ago

    Thanks for the kind words. I have never tried this on a sweatshirt, but I think it will work. You can't really fill the color in the same as you would on paper, the fabric stretches too much. I use more of a dotting/smearing technique. I like plain black fine point Sharpie. I have never tried other colors.

    Have fun


    7 years ago on Introduction

    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: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/accessories/B0024I8H42) 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!

    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago

    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


    5 years ago on Introduction

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


    7 years ago on Step 6

    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!!


    7 years ago on Introduction

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


    7 years ago on Step 6

    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.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    7 years ago on Step 6

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


    7 years ago on Step 6

    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.

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Step 6

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


    7 years ago on Step 4

    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.

    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.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    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 ;)


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    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...


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    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.