Intro: How to Stencil a T-Shirt Using Bleach and a Vinyl Sticker
There are lots of different ways to create a custom T-shirt. If you're looking to achieve a gritty, distressed look, a bleach stencil is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to get it. You can create a stencil for this method out of cardboard or heavy craft paper (cheaper) but for this Instructable, we'll be using a vinyl stencil.
A note about positive vs. negative stencils: When you cut out a stencil you have two stencils - A Positive stencil (what you cut out) and a Negative stencil (the hole left where you cut the positive out). For this stencil project I will be using a Positive stencil because I want the "background" of my tshirt to be bleached and the design itself to remain the original color of the T-shirt. Just make sure when you're designing for your stencil that you know which parts you want masked and which parts you want to bleach! You can read more about positive and negative stencils here.
Why vinyl? I'm using vinyl because I wanted to get sharp lines on an image that included some fine lines and I wanted to have text without using "stencil lettering" (where all the parts of the letter are connected). I also wanted to make multiple tshirts and vinyl seemed the best means of repeating the image over and over.
What's the story behind the stencil image? A conversation at a party turned to the discussion of a news article about bears in Russia who are making a habit of huffing empty jet fuel barrels (poor bears!). This conversation generated the phrase "Russian Kerosene Bears", which in turn lead to the creation of a logo for a fictitious product/cover band/candy/anti-theft device/biker gang/etc. T-Shirts featuring said logo seemed the obvious next step.
Step 1: What You'll Need
- Dark colored T-shirt (I am using 100% cotton but a poly/cotton blend will work just as well)
- Vinyl stencil mounted on transfer paper (Not pictured)
- Sturdy board that can fit inside the T-shirt (to stabilize it and keep the bleaching solution from soaking through to the back)
- Spray bottle
- Smaller spritz bottle (if you want to fine tune the bleach distribution or get a finer mist)
- Rubber gloves
- Bowl big enough to soak a T-shirt in
- Plastic card or something with a firm but flexible edge (A less-important card from your wallet will do nicely)
- Binder clips or something similar (also to stabilize the T-shirt)
- A sink or water source
Step 2: Prep Your T-shirt for Vinyl Sticker Application
1. Slide your stabilizing board into your t-shirt and get it relatively centered inside the shirt (the seams of the shoulders are a great registration point for this).
2. Use binder clips (or something similarly clip-y) to clip the front of the t-shirt taut around the stabilizing board. The goal here is to create a less-stretchy surface to have to try to transfer the vinyl onto and t-shirts are stretchy! If the t-shirt is already stretched pretty tight across the board, you might not need to do this.
Step 3: Place Your Vinyl Sticker
Note: I realize this picture doesn't have the binder clips from the last step. It was taken before I realized I needed them!
1. Center your vinyl stencil on the shirt and place it down onto the t-shirt. I am sure there is a fancy way to find the center of the shirt using math but I just eyeballed my placement.
2. Firmly press the your stencil especially the edges) down onto the t-shirt through the transfer paper. I found using my finger/fingernails for this step seemed to work the best. I tried using the plastic card for this same step but it seemed to press the vinyl harder onto the transfer paper which made it more difficult to get the vinyl to stick to the t-shirt instead of the paper.
Step 4: Transfer the Vinyl Onto the T-shirt
This is easily the most time-consuming and tricky step in this entire Instructable and probably the biggest deterrent to using vinyl for this kind of stencil work. But you'll get really great results!
Vinyl wasn't meant to stick on fabric so you really have to sweet-talk it into doing so but it can be done! The trick here is to be patient and slow. You might want to put on an audiobook or podcast while you're doing this because you're going to be here for a while.
I found the best method was to slowly roll the transfer paper back against itself and away from the vinyl and the t-shirt . The vinyl is going to want to roll up with the transfer paper, so you will have to use a plastic card or your fingernails to catch the edge of the vinyl pieces as you roll the transfer paper away and stick them down to the t-shirt.
If a vinyl piece starts to roll up with the transfer paper and not stick to the t-shirt, just roll the transfer paper back down and press it the vinyl harder into the t-shirt. Patience is key here.
Once the vinyl is stuck to the t-shirt instead of the transfer paper, it generally holds to the t-shirt but you'll probably have to use your fingers or the plastic card to hold the vinyl down while you keep pulling away the transfer paper. I found holding the vinyl down with the plastic card while peeling worked very well, particularly for those places where there were delicate lines all connected together.
Vinyl is also temperamental about where you start trying to pull the transfer paper from (something about surface area and stress, I am sure). Starting at a corner of the vinyl shape is going to be easier than trying to peel parallel to the long side of a shape. If you're having trouble transferring from paper to t-shirt at once angle, try another angle and it might be easier.
Also pay attention to where shapes on your stencil are connected so you don't accidentally pull the stencil apart while you're trying to make this magic happen!
This is a slow process so just be prepared to exercise your patience here.
Step 5: Press the Vinyl Into the T-shirt Material
Phew! You made it through getting that transfer paper off. Good job! :high five: Transfer paper - so clingy!
At this stage you might want to press the vinyl into the t-shirt for good measure using your plastic card just to make sure it isn't going to immediately detach when the shirt inevitably wrinkles during this adventure.
Your t-shirt is now prepped and ready for bleaching!
Step 6: Mix Your Bleach Solution
At this point you're starting to deal with bleach. Remember - Bleach is a toxic chemical and so you should regard it as such! At this point you'll want to make sure you're not wearing any clothes you're not okay with getting bleach on and it's time to don your rubber gloves.
The most effective bleach solution for bleaching t-shirts is a 50/50 bleach to water mixture.
1 part bleach and 1 part water into your handy-dandy spray-bottle.
Depending on how many t-shirts you're doing, you might not need that much so don't feel like you need to mix up a whole lot. Bleach solutions don't keep too well so better to have to mix more than mix too much and have to get rid of it.
If you use pure bleach it's going to eat through your t-shirt fibers and unless you really want that as part of the look, I don't recommend it, it'll just destroy your t-shirt faster.
Step 7: Set Up Your Bleaching Station
You're just about ready to roll here but some important things now that we're playing with bleach:
- Make sure you're not wearing any beloved clothing.
- Make sure you're in a well ventilated area (I chose outside.)
- Make sure you are wearing gloves when handling anything that has to do with the bleach.
- Make sure you are not near anything that is going to get you in trouble if you get bleach on it.
To set up your bleaching station, you'll need:
- T-shirt (remove the clips, but leave the board inside the t-shirt)
- Bleach/water solution
- Rubber gloves
- Bowl of peroxide
- Paper towels (always good to have handy since we're dealing with liquids)
- Sunlight is ideal (it seems to help the chemical process go faster)
If you have an extra t-shirt and stencil bits to do some testing with how long you leave the bleach solution going, you might try it just to see and if you want to experiment with how much of a bleach "burn" you want. I cut an extra t-shirt into swatches and mixed a bleach solution into a little spritz bottle to test the process on a small scale before going for the real deal. If you do decide to do some test bleaching don't forget to label your swatches so you know which is which!
The longer you leave the bleach solution on the t-shirt, the more it's going to take the color out of the t-shirt. I wanted the burnt orange color that bleach typically produces on a black t-shirt but you can get some different shades of depending on how long you leave it and how much bleach solution you use. I think if you leave it long enough it can get as far as a pale grey, but I don't know how to do that and wasn't trying for that this time around.
After testing, my optimal time frame seemed to be about 3 minutes to get a good orange color. At 5 minutes, it was starting to lighten the fabric a little more than I preferred but it's up to you what color you want to capture.
To Stop the Bleach Process
I read online that peroxide stops the bleach burning process (Science!) so I can control how long the bleach solution is "active" on the t-shirt. After I achieved the color I wanted, I rinsed the t-shirt in peroxide and then finally in water to get all the chemicals out of the fabric.
Step 8: Spray the Bleaching Solution Onto the T-shirt
Step 1: Test the spray bottle to make sure you're getting the kind of spray you want.
You're not trying to squirt the t-shirt with a thin stream, you're trying to get an even spray across a broad surface. Most spray bottles have an adjustable nozzle to control the breadth of the spray. It's just good to double check so you don't wind up with a puddle in the middle of your t-shirt. Make sure you're test spraying away from anything that you don't want to get bleach on.
Step 2: Spray your t-shirt!
Holding the spray bottle about 8-10 inches away from the t-shirt, start spritzing the t-shirt.
The reaction will be visible right away and you will have a few seconds to deliver a broad and even spray to the shirt and to spritz any spots that you think need more color. I found the best method was to spray in the center of the design first and then spray in a circle around the design to get the best effect. This isn't an exact science and you'll get different spray patterns every time but you can still control it a little bit.
Extra Things to Pay Attention To:
- If you have large areas of vinyl stencil, you might want to blot them with a paper towel after you've sprayed to soak any extra bleach solution up off the shiny surface just to keep extra liquid from dripping or getting on you or your design once you start moving the shirt again.
- If there is a breeze, you want to make sure you're not spraying and missing the t-shirt because of the wind. This can lead to off-center spray patterns that might make you sad.
- Try to keep your spray bottle mostly upright as you spray. If you tilt it down towards the shirt, the tube inside the bottle might start pulling up air instead of liquid and you'll get uneven, spotty spray (which can look totally cool, but can be frustrating when you're trying to spray evenly)
- I filled a small spritz bottle I with bleach solution so that I could fill in spots that I felt needed more spray without over saturating the t-shirt which can be handy if you want a finer misting of bleach solution.
Step 9: Halt the Chemical Process
Once you've achieved your desired coloration and bleaching effect, you want to stop that bleach from eating any more color or weakening the t-shirt fibers any further, so you want to neutralize that chemical process with your handy bowl o' Peroxide.
Pull the t-shirt off of the board and put the t-shirt into the bowl of peroxide. I kept my gloves on for this just to be on the safe side of not touching chemicals.
Don't be shy to dunk the entire t-shirt in there and saturate the fibers. As far as I can tell the peroxide doesn't damage it in any way. You'll want to wring it out afterwards though so you can move the t-shirt to the sink without dripping on anything.
The peroxide will probably wring out with a sort of orange-y tint. This is normal, don't worry about it. If you're doing multiple shirts, you can use the same Peroxide. I did anyway and it didn't seem to have any adverse effects.
Step 10: Rinse T-shirt in Cold Water & Peel Off the Vinyl
Move your soggy peroxide-soaked t-shirt to a sink and rinse the t-shirt out in running water a few times. At this point (or before) your stencil is going to definitely start to peel off of the t-shirt and that's as it should be - Now is the time to peel off the vinyl from your t-shirt anyway. Try to make sure you don't lose any vinyl down the sink if you can help it!
Your t-shirt shouldn't smell like bleach at all at this point, but if it does, keep rinsing with water until it no longer smells like chemicals.
Step 11: Hang Your T-shirt Out to Dry!
Once you wring out your freshly-bleached and thoroughly rinsed t-shirt you can hang them to dry and you're done! If you have more t-shirts to do, just repeat the process. If you're done, just put everything away and enjoy your sweet new duds (once they're dry)!
Since I will be giving these as gifts, I also ran my finished t-shirts through a cold washing machine cycle and a delicate dryer cycle so that any residual anything was washed away properly before getting into anyone else's laundry.
This was a great way to create some kicking t-shirts in the span of an afternoon without having to set up a silk-screening situation. It's fun with friends, it's easy and relatively inexpensive and the results are highly satisfactory. :}