How To: Make a Hand-Painted Sign

Yesterday's post was surprisingly emotional for me to write. I really wasn't anticipating that! I don't always get so personal here on the blog, but I felt like it was important to share the story behind this house sign before telling you how I did it. If you missed the introduction and are curious about the story, you may want to go back and read it here. If you're just looking for a tutorial on how to hand-paint a sign, no problem - read on! Get ready for LOTS of details about the project and some tips/suggestions based on what I learned. As I mentioned yesterday, I had never done anything like this before, so it was certainly a learning process!

Supplies needed:
  • Piece of wood
  • Sandpaper (150 and 220 grit)
  • Wood stain
  • Gloves
  • Paintbrush/foam brush (cheapo ones are fine)
  • Cotton rag (pieces of old t-shirts or socks work well)
  • Sign template/design
  • Painter's tape
  • Ballpoint pen
  • White paint
  • Short, stiff-bristled paintbrush
  • Polyacrylic sealer (optional)

The very first thing you'll need to do for this project is put on your patience pants. (Yep, just made that one up. I'm lame, I know.) This project is pretty involved and does take awhile, so be prepared for that. 

After putting on your patience pants, you'll stain your wood. I used Minwax Wood Finish in Dark Walnut. You can use whatever color you like best. This sign will be living outside by the water, so I chose an oil-based stain for durability. When using an oil-based stain, unless you want to mess with mineral spirits and have to deal with messy clean-up, I'd suggest applying it with disposable materials. I chose a foam brush to apply it and an old sock to wipe off the excess (not pictured - who wants to see an old sock anyway?). 

This was my first try at staining wood, so before I got started, I consulted with my resident carpenter (my father-in-law) who gave me a couple of great tips. If you're a staining pro, this may seem like, duh, but if you're new at this like I am, I think you'll appreciate them!

1. Sand all edges and surfaces of the wood using high-grit sand-paper WITH THE GRAIN. 

I used 150 first, then 220. Going with the grain will help stain apply evenly. If you have any stray sanding marks or divots, the stain will absorb more heavily in those. So unless you're going for a rustic look, make sure your surface is very smooth. 

Since my sign is going to live outside, he also suggested I sand down the edges so they're more rounded. The rounded surfaces will help it weather and endure the elements better than squared, sharp edges. Hard edges and harsh weather don't mix apparently. Clean any sanding dust off the board.

 2.  Wet the wood with a damp cloth. This opens the pores of the wood so the stain will apply more evenly.

After I completed these steps, I was ready to get started staining.

First things first: when dealing with oil-based stain, you'll want to wear gloves and protect your clothing. This stuff won't come out easily if it gets on skin or clothes. It's also stinky, so you'll want to do this project outside. Follow the directions for your particular stain. For mine, I applied the stain to the whole board with a foam brush and wiped excess off immediately to get the color I wanted. Allow it to dry for the allotted time (mine said 6-8 hours - I let it go overnight).

Now you'll need to transfer your design to the board (you didn't think I free-handed this completely did you? No way I was going to try to do that!) I researched a few different methods, but ultimately decided on this one using a ballpoint pen and a paper template. It seemed to be the most straightforward and didn't require any special supplies.

Go ahead and print out your sign template. I designed mine in Illustrator and sized it to my board, then printed it on a regular sheet of white paper. You could do this easily in Word or PowerPoint too.

Position the template on your board so that it's straight and centered. I placed a border around the outer edge of my template so I could line it up easily.

Fold/crease the edges down around your board so that your template will stay in the right position.

Use a few pieces of painter's tape to secure the template to your board on the backside.

Take a ballpoint pen and trace the letters/design on your template. Press hard so that you make a slight indentation in the wood. Your design will "transfer" to the wood and give you outlines to guide the painting process. If you look really closely at the wood in the photo below, you can see some faint outlines from the indentations. For more details on this process, check out the tutorial from That's My Letter.

Finally, go to town painting your letters using the indentations/outlines as your guide. Like I said at the beginning, put your patience pants on for this - it does take awhile if you're being careful to stay inside the lines! My biggest tip for this part is use a STIFF-bristled brush. I started out with a not-so-still brush and it was really challenging to stay within the outlines and get crisp edges. Once I switched to a stiff-bristled, angled brush, the process was much easier.

I used two coats of white latex paint to cover the dark stain. If you paint is too thick (mine was) to easily paint with, water it down a little.

Eventually, you'll end up with a sign like this! Love.

And that's how you make a hand-painted sign (from a total non-expert's experience).

For being a first-timer at this stuff (and not an artist), I think it turned out really well. It definitely has that hand-painted look, which is pretty charming, if you ask me. I still have one more step to finish it up - sealing. I'm planning to use some spray polyacrylic in a satin finish to protect it. This should hold up well outdoors and I can always re-coat it in the future when necessary.

Has anyone else ever hand-painted a sign? What was your experience like? Any tips or tricks? (Or corrections! I'm open to that :).)


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  1. Chaney, this is SO adorable, I always leave your blog SO inspired to get my DIY on! Love this...wish I was as crafty as you.... AND, I nominated you for the Liebster Award...not sure if you know what that is {I'm not even really}, but I was supposed to nominate blogs I love and yours is one of them...

    Read more on what to do to get it here::

    1. Aw, thanks Mandy! You are so sweet. Glad you like the sign and thanks for the nomination!!

  2. This is so pretty! Love it!
    Would love it if you would link this up to Give Me The Goods Monday: 1 Party, 5 Blogs! http://www.rainonatinroof.com/2013/04/give-me-goods-monday-linky-party-2.html
    Jenna @ Rain on a Tin Roof

  3. This is awesome. I have a sign that I wanted to make myself, and I don't have a vinyl/stencil cutter. This is wonderful

    Thanks so much for sharing! I've pinned it, and I'm your newest follower.

    A Tossed Salad Life

    1. Wow, thanks so much Emily! Glad you enjoyed the post - I'd love to see the sign when you finish it!

  4. So cute, and what a perfectly easy tutorial to follow. I am sharing at my party today, thanks again. -K

  5. Still lovin this SO much! Thanks so much for linking up to Give Me The Goods Monday! Can't wait to see what goods you bring next week! Jenna @ Rain on a Tin Roof

    1. Jenna, thanks! Link ups are the best - thanks for hosting one! I'll be back, don't you worry! :) Have a great Thursday!

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