Lately, I’ve been sharing several lessons as I’ve been spiffing up my porch for spring. (Yes, for some of you it’s already summer, but we are still having nights in the 40s here). I painted a door mat with our name using a freezer paper stencil. I also gave a preview of how I created the layered letters for this project from a plain font. Now, I’m going to show you how I made a contact paper stencil with material from the dollar store. I wanted to show you some tricks to working with it, as well give you pros and cons. It’s also helpful to teach you some text tricks such as using vertical text and spacing out your letters. You can use the concepts I’ll teach you to make any type of sign with stain and paint and any font you like.
Note: This post contains affiliate links. That means if you click the link and purchase something, I receive a small commission. You pay the same price. This helps me to be able to keep my business going and provide more tutorials.
Before we go any farther, let me first give credit. The look of this sign is something I saw on Pinterest and wanted to make myself because it’s so perfectly what I was looking for. The original is by Jenny Hulu, who sells resuable stencils and chalkology paint. You can find her shop here and the specific stencil here. As it is not my original design, I would not sell any I made that looks just like this.
- Silhouette cutting machine
- Wood plank — I got a 5.5″ wide board at Lowe’s and cut it down 5 feet long.
- Stain — Any color works. I used Minwax Penetrating Stain in Jacobean (small can) that I picked it up at Walmart.
- Paint — I started with spray paint, but after I got several coats on it started raining outside. So, I switched to white acrylic craft paint and a sponge. If you don’t want to get messy, try sponges attached to a dowel. You can use 2 colors of paint instead of paint and stain if you wish.
- Sealer — Can be the kind you brush on or spray. I usually prefer a matte finish. Look for one that says it won’t yellow.
- Stencil material — I used contact paper from Dollar Tree called Magic Cover.
I like that it’s semi-transparent. You can use any vinyl. I prefer a bright color so it contrasts well with the wood and paint, which makes it easier to see if I’ve missed any spots. Silhouette America sells several products for stencils —
- Stencil vinyl is clear and comes with transfer tape. It is only 9″ wide.
- Stencil material. It’s supposedly resusable, but only really for the current project. This one is 12″ wide.
- Stencil sheets that are 8.5″ x 11″(get the adhesive ones). If you’re doing a smaller sign, then this could work. It’s see-through-ish.
- Transfer media — I prefer transfer paper instead of the plastic tape kind because I find it picks up the vinyl better and I can write on it with a pencil.
- Silhouette machine
- Painter’s tape — You should always have this in your craft room.
- Rags — I use an old t-shirt.
- Weeding tool
- Squeegee — Can be as simple as an old gift card.
- Cardboard, paper, painting tarp, etc.
Step 1: Stain the board
I recommend you do this as your first step so it can dry while you do the other steps.
- Work outside or in a very well-ventilated area. Most stain stinks! You can get gel stains that don’t smell nearly as bad, but it’s still a good idea to have clean air.
- Put your gloves on. It’s not easy to get stain off your hands. Plus, for me, I have to protect my nail art!
- Using your rag (or a brush if you prefer), wipe the stain on in the direction of the grain. Try to keep it even and get it fully covered, watching out especially if your board isn’t smooth.
- Let sit 5-15 minutes, or whatever your stain recommends.
- You can even use 2 different colors if you want, using them in different areas and overlapping them if you like. That creates a more rustic look.
- Wipe off any excess stain with your rag.
- Repeat at least once more. I did 3 coats just to make sure.
It’s best if you can let this dry at least 24 hours before you add your stencil and paint.
Step 2: File setup
While that sits, you can work on setting up your Silhouette file.
- Draw a rectangle that’s the length and width of your board.
- Fill the rectangle with brown to represent the stain color.
- If you want to cut the stencil all in one long job, set the page size to the length of your piece of stencil material (but keep reading) and the mat to None. For my sign, I spaced the letters pretty far apart. That means there’s a good deal of blank space between them. That’s the reason I chose to do a contact paper stencil — it’s cheap so I don’t mind if there’s excess waste.
- If you are using up scraps of vinyl or don’t want the waste, you can cut each letter individually. In that case, set your page size to the size of your piece of material and select a mat if you want to use one. You can cut from a larger scrap without a mat, but only if it is 9″ or 12″ wide and at least 1.25″ longer than your letters.
Step 3: Designing
Now let’s design the contact paper stencil.
Select a font
First, pick out a font you like. Because I was working with large letters, I didn’t have to worry so much about tiny pieces as I might on a smaller project and so had more flexibility. I linked above how I created layered letters from a basic font, but you can also choose one of the many block fonts in the Silhouette Design Store. Here are some ideas–
- To get a 3D look similar to mine but without creating it on your own, check out Calasans, Rainbow, Vintage Woodblock or Official.
- Wanna go farmhouse? Think about Homestead, Farmer’s Market, Mercantile or Farmhouse Recipe.
- Retro/Vintage? Consider , Graphite, Cinnamon Peaches, Mr. Capone or Stain Cool.
- Patterned? There’s Zen Mandala, Monogram Family, Football Monogram or Necklace,
- Holiday? Try Hollytown, USA Nation, Beautiful Love or Autumn.
If you’re doing a horizonal sign, you could use a script font. They just won’t really work for a vertical one.
Once you have your font selected and installed, create a text box and type your word or phrase. (I’m going to use Necklace font for the software pics because I made my own letters and they aren’t a font… at least not yet). Typically, you’ll use all caps or all lowercase letters on a vertical sign.
Right away, fill it with a color. I used white paint, so filled mine with white. The only problem is that I also like to set my line color to clear so I can visualize the project better without the distraction of the red, but then I can’t see my words. I usually change to a black line color in those cases.
Make text vertical
Since it’s a sign to lean on the porch, you want to make the text vertical with only 1 letter per line. Here’s how you do that–
- Make sure you aren’t in a really small text size, even if you are going to make a small sign. Otherwise, this trick won’t work.
- Get into text edit mode by double clicking quickly on the text box. In this mode, you’ll have the green box around the words.
- See that blue bar at the right? Drag that toward the left. What that does is shorten the width of your text box and force letters to the next line.
- The reason we didn’t want the font small as we did this is because the software will only let you go so far on decreasing that width on a text box. So you start with the text large, adjust the width, and can then make the font smaller if you wish.
- Depending on what font you’re using, you may need to add in some hard returns. For instance, let’s say I was using the word WINTER with a font called Amastery. The “W” is really wide, but the “I” isn’t. So I can’t get it to get just one letter per line.
In that case, I would have to hit ENTER after the “I.”
Use center aligning
Adjust size and spacing
If you don’t have Show Cut Border checked in your page setup panel, do that now. This is especially important when you cut without the mat.
Now’s the time to bring your rectangle back over. Select both the text box and rectangle and center them both horizontally and vertically. You can do it with 1 click in the Quick Access Toolbar.
At this point, my words are pretty small on my board. So I make my text box bigger using the corner squares of the bounding box.
Hmmmm. There’s still a pretty big space above and below my word, but I don’t want to stretch the letters taller. Here’s how we can easily adjust the spacing in between them. In the Text Style panel, increase the Line Spacing.
You should know that when you do this, it’s going to change your alignment top to bottom on the board so you’ll have to work back and forth with that. Also, you should know that a text box has extra space around the letters. In my case, there’s more space below the last E than above the W. (For more on why, see this post). That will affect your alignment as the software looks at the outside of the box, not the letters themselves, when aligning.
I detailed some tricks for finding the actual size of a word in this post. Those will help you get it really aligned.
I’ve also seen signs where someone puts a planter at the bottom of it, so if you’d like to do that you might decide to leave more space at the bottom.
Add designs if desired
The sign I was copying had leaf spray at the top and bottom. I liked that, because it took up space and added another design element. I pulled it from a design called Autumn Berry Leaves Wreath, but the branch by itself is like Autumn Branch Berries.
Here’s how I placed them. (Now that we’re done working with the text box, I’m going back to the layered letters I created). I also set the line color to clear.
HINT: To make sure the word is centered between the 2 branches, group them and then center them with the text (remembering what I said about the text box spacing).
Final designing steps
- We ARE going to be cutting that rectangle. Normally, I just use that for seeing how big to make my design. But since we’re cutting a stencil, we’ll remove the design and use that background piece.
- Notice my rectangle goes past my cut border at the bottom. Remember, I set my page size to the length of my board, but I need a longer piece of vinyl than that.
When cutting with a mat, there’s a margin above and below the sticky area that the rollers grip during cutting. The blade is past the rollers, so when cutting without the mat you need to “create” that margin by leaving an extra 1″ blank. This is also why you can’t cut a full 12″ wide — you need left and right margins. You don’t have to leave that margin at the top edge because when it’s cutting the top, the rollers are already holding it up there.
SO… what you need to do is cut a piece of material that’s 1″ longer than your design. Or, if it’s on a roll, make sure there’s an extra 1″. You could also just remove the rectangle and let the outer edges of the stencil material be your rectangle.
- If your sign isn’t very wide like mine, you could cut more than one stencil with your width. What I actually ended up doing was putting half my design on the left side of the page and the other half on the right because the contact paper is only 4′ long.
- Once everything is centered and where you want it, go ahead and group it if you like.
Step 4: Cutting the contact paper stencil
I’ve got an entire series about cutting without the mat (first lesson here). Some tips are CRITICAL when cutting a contact paper stencil.
- Move the right roller into the appropriate groove.
- It’s okay if your material is a bit wider than the outside rollers. My contact paper was 13.5″ wide. You just don’t want it running into the sides of your machine.
- Check the leading edge of your material — the one that goes into the machine. It needs to be a really good 90º to the side of the material. Don’t trust even vinyl from a great source.
- If you’re using an earlier model of machine that has options for Load Mat and Load Media, use the latter.
- After you’ve loaded, peek behind the roller bar to make sure the leading edge is parallel to the cutting strip, which indicates a straight load. Use the “riding on cardstock” method as needed.
- Once loaded, move your middle rollers so they are spaced evenly along the bar.
- HERE’S THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE!!! Once your contact paper is loaded, use the arrow keys on your machine to roll it more past all the mechanisms. It has a real tendency to catch on those and make a mess. Don’t forget to take that into account for your length!!! If you have to move it in another 6″, your material is now 6″ shorter. Here’s mine sticking out the back of my machine.
- Start with the cut settings for vinyl, but tweak as needed. You’ll probably need to adjust the blade and/or force downward. How much depends on your blade, machine, brand, etc. TEST CUT!!!
- Babysit the cut. Contact paper, because it’s very thin, has a higher likelihood of it bunching up. If that happens, pause the cut, cancel the job, unload and start over.
Step 5: Weeding and applying transfer tape
Always check the cut BEFORE you unload it from the machine. There’s nothing more frustrating that trying to weed vinyl that’s not cut through quite enough. If you check before you unload, you can send the cut job again and it cuts in the same place. But if you unload first, you’ll never get it back in the same spot.
REMEMBER!!! You’re weeding away the design itself on a stencil. That’s why I always work with filled shapes. For this one, I told myself, “It’s the white that I’m going to paint. I need to get the vinyl out of the way of where the paint goes.” I keep my software open so I can double check that as needed. It’s harder than you think sometimes!
If you’re not using the entire width of your material for your contact paper stencil, you can cut it apart now. Just remember to leave a good amount of space around the letters.
Once your design is weeded, apply your transfer tape or paper. I never use the gridded stuff. I am so completely inept when it comes to getting things on straight that it’s not even the least bit funny. Even if you offer to pay me $1 million I can’t eyeball it. Then grid lines really throw me off. How you apply it depends on whether or not your transfer media has a backing.
Without a backing
I use a transfer paper on a roll that’s just sticking to itself. It’s less expensive and I’ve learned to work with it pretty well. Plus, it rarely has the grid on it.
When I use that, I stick the edge to my table, then slide the top of the contact paper stencil underneath it. I use my phone or another heavy object that’s at hand to hold the stencil down flat. I put one about every foot or so, depending on how much my vinyl is wanting to curl. Then I begin rolling the transfer paper over the stencil, shifting or removing the heavy objects as I go. Finish by burnishing well.
With a backing
If I use a transfer media that DOES have a backing, I use a modified hinge method. Fold back and remove several inches of the backing paper to expose the adhesive. Line up your transfer media over your stencil and burnish down just that portion onto your contact paper stencil. I actually like to have an extra 1″ or so at top and bottom so it’s holding it to the table. That holds it in place. Now reach underneath and begin rolling off the backing paper, starting at that top edge. Use your squeegee to burnish the transfer media onto the stencil as you go. You only ever have a few inches of the adhesive uncovered at any point, so there’s less chance of it sticking where you don’t want it.
And if you’re a vinyl ninja and can remove the whole backing paper and get it straight and unwrinkled onto your stencil without the hinge, I salute you. I just don’t understand you. LOL!
Once you’ve got your transfer media on, trim the sides all around.
You do that for several reasons. First, on a 60″ long sign, there’s no way I don’t have some overhang on the sides. Secondly, you can take this time to make sure your margin around each side of your letter is the same. That makes it easier to line up on the board. And third, you can make it slightly less wide and tall than your board. I’ll show you why in a bit.
Step 6: applying contact paper stencil to wood
With transfer paper, I use a pencil to mark the center on each edge of it. If you didn’t trim your vinyl evenly on each side of your design, be sure to base the marks on the design and not just the width of the piece of vinyl. Then I mark the center on each edge of my board with painter’s tape and match them up so I know I’m aligned well.
Because contact paper is cheap, it’s thin and doesn’t have as much adhesive as a good vinyl. That means (a) it’s more prone to wrinkling and stretching and (b) it’s harder to get it to stick. If your stencil is lifting from your board because of that, the paint will get under it. I’ll give you some tricks, but just know going in that you want to take this next step slowly and carefully.
The hinge method revisited
This time, we probably ALL need to use the hinge method. This time, we’re going to work from the center instead of the top. Here’s how–
- Use a piece of painter’s tape across the middle to secure the stencil/transfer media stack to the board. This is one reason to make the stencil a bit smaller than the board — so you can stick the painter’s tape down.
- Double and triple check your alignment.
- Fold back the top or bottom edge of your stencil stack as far as the painter’s tape and cut away the vinyl backing from that portion only.
- Use your squeegee to begin adhering the stencil to the board, working from the center outward. Do that all the way along that half of the stencil.
- Remove the painter’s tape. The stencil is sticking onto the board, holding itself in place.
- Fold back the unstuck portion of the stencil and remove the remaining vinyl backing.
Note to self: It’s not really a great idea to decide half the backing is too much to remove at once and remove only 1/4 of it, but at the top instead of in the middle. I did it as a rookie once — it doesn’t work.
- Working from the middle again to the end again, press your stencil onto your board.
- Burnish the stencil down as much as possible before you remove your transfer media.
Removing the transfer media
This part can be tricky, depending on your material and your board. Again, go slowly and carefully so you don’t stretch it. If your stencil keeps wanting to lift as you remove the transfer media, use a weeding tool or the edge of your squeegee to hold it down. The big thing is you don’t want to stretch it, as then it won’t lay flat.
I know some folks who use Mod Podge to seal the edges of a stencil onto wood and they swear by it. For me, I don’t have great success with it — the stencil tends to just keep popping up on me. Plus, I wasn’t sure how well the paint would stick to it long-term.
I did try a couple of tricks —
- If you stretch a part of your stencil that’s on a flat section, you can clip it and lay the pieces over one another. So imagine the stencil is popping up and it’s an arc. You snip it apart at the apex of the arc, press one side down onto the board, then carefully lay the other part over that. It’s tricky to get lined up, but it can work.
- Again, if it’s on a flat section you try a “stencil assist” with painter’s tape. What I mean there is lay your painter’s tape even along the edge of the stencil.
Step 7: Masking other areas
How much of this you need to do depends on how much margin you left around your letters on your stencil and how you are applying the paint. For example, if you’ve got 4″ of stencil outside every letter and are using acrylic paint and a sponge, you probably don’t need to mask off any of the rest. But since my original intent was to use spray paint, I covered EVERYTHING.
I’ll share another reason I recommend making your stencil a little smaller than your board. I found when I tried to wrap contact paper around the edge of the board, it didn’t stay put. It just doesn’t have enough stickiness.
I ended up using painter’s tape. I overlapped it slightly onto the edge of the stencil, then wrapped that down the side. That makes a good seal so the paint doesn’t seep under. I continued covering the open areas with painter’s tape and contact paper. I happened to have a leftover roll of cheap white contact paper that worked well on the back. “The back?” you say. Yes, I’m pretty messy with my spray painting sometimes so wanted to cover the whole board.
Step 8: Painting
Now you’re ready to paint. As you work, pay special attention to the outer edges of your design, as that’s where folks tend to get it too thin and so don’t get crisp lines.
With spray paint
Take your sign outside and prop it up on something like old paint cans. Protect your sidewalk or whatever surface you’re working on with cardboard or paper that extends about 1′ around in all directions.
Shake your spray paint as long as the can says. Working from above and going straight down as much as possible, spray light coats. The thinner your coats, the more the paint can cure between them and so the less chance there is of it peeling off when you remove the stencil.
Wait the appropriate amount of time in between as directed on the can (for me it was 1 minute). This isn’t something you’re going to get covered in 2 coats. I think I ended up with about 5 coats before the rain hit and it was maybe half covered.
With acrylic paint
I’m not sure if using the spray paint first altered how the acrylic paint worked. I’m just telling you as it happened. I could have waited for a sunny day, but I didn’t want the stencil to stay on until the paint was fully cured (more on that below). And I was irritated and impatient by this point (just keepin’ it real — I was already irritated that week by my freezer paper stencil project).
Pour some paint onto something like a plastic plate. Dab your sponge into it, then dab that on a paper towel. The key is to not get too much paint on the sign at once, as that’s when you get it bleeding under the stencil and lifting when you remove it.
Now pounce straight down onto your stencil. Again, don’t try to cover it in one coat. And it’s a good idea to pounce OUTSIDE the letter and then gradually move onto it. That gets a bit of paint off the sponge. Plus, when you work away from the edge instead of toward it, you’ll get less bleed.
Let dry between coats as needed.
Step 9: Removing the contact paper stencil
This part is key for me in getting crisp lines. I like to remove the contact paper stencil once the paint has set, but not fully cured. If you remove it to soon, the paint may slide beyond your lines. Wait too long and the paint on the stencil and on the sign become one and the paint lifts when you remove the stencil. It’s a delicate balance that you can only get with practice.
I use a weeding tool to lift the edge of the stencil on inner parts. Try not to scratch the stain when you do because touching that up requires a very steady hand and a very tiny brush. Not my idea of a hot time.
Keep an eye on your edges as you lift the stencil. If you notice it’s really peeling the paint up with it, try slicing it gently with a box cutter between the two.
Step 10: Fixing bleeds
Even if you do everything perfectly and follow every direction, you’ll probably get some paint bleed. It’s just the nature of this type of project. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
First, decide if it’s important enough to worry about. Sometimes the fixes you try to do become more visible than if you just leave it be. If you decide to fix it, here’s what I did to touch up those areas.
- As soon as I removed the stencil, so while the paint was not yet fully cured, I took my weeding tool and gently scraped it off. Yes, seriously, that’s what I did.
- You can use a toothpick to add a bit of stain back if you scraped it off, but again, it may compound the problem so decide if you really need to. Wood, even stained wood, has varying shades of color so it can look just like you’ve got lighter and darker areas.
- What do you do if the stencil lifted some of your paint and so you don’t have a crisp edge? Get some bits of vinyl or painter’s tape, a really tiny brush or toothpick and a nice, big glass of wine. Use the vinyl or painter’s tape to create a crisp edge again and fill it very gently with the paint. If it’s just a small area, don’t try to get it as thick as the rest of the sign. Just the illusion of a solid paint is enough.
How far do you go? Until you’re satisfied. I wasn’t sure I was, so I asked my husband and son (the latter is also a Silhouetter) how it looked. They both thought it was vinyl I had just cut and applied. My job is done here!
Step 11: Sealing
Once you’ve done all this work, you want to protect your sign. If it’s going to be outside, this is definitely necessary. Even if it’s inside, it just gives it a nice finish.
First, let it dry 24 hours to fully cure the paint.
Spray or brush it on, again going with thin coats and again working in the direction of the grain. You definitely want to follow the directions for how long to let it sit between coats and when it’s all done. The sealer won’t protect your sign if the layers aren’t fully cured.
How’d you do? Here’s mine on my porch. It ended up on the opposite side from where I originally intended to put it.
And now that my porch projects are finished, here’s a before and after.
Why have we put so much effort into a front porch? So we can sit there to enjoy this view across the valley —
The sun sets right over those mountains in the distance!
Pros and Cons of a contact paper stencil
So is a contact paper stencil the way to go for your project? Maybe, maybe not. Here are my thoughts:
- readily available many places
- can use clear if you prefer
- difficult to cut
- thinner product, so harder to get to lay flat
- adhesive may not stick well, causing paint to bleed under stencil
Personally, I’ll probably stick with regular vinyl. I’m not great at keeping the paint from seeping under the stencil, so I prefer to have all the help I can get. If I need to make lots of stencils inexpensively, it’s definitely a good option. I just have to be more careful. I’d love to hear about your experiences with or thoughts on using a contact paper stencil!