Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Part I: How to Paint Lettering on Wood

I just realized that I've never posted anything about decorative painting on this blog!  I guess that's because I've been so focused on jewelry lately.

Recently I was hired to paint a plaque that is going to be given as a present to a man who will hang it on his deck.  He jokingly refers to his deck as "The Martini Deck," so that's what the plaque needs to say.  Of course, there is other embellishment as well—after all, this is "decorative" painting.

The person who hired me gave me a few ideas that she had for the plaque and asked me to think about it.  A few days later we talked and we had very similar ideas about the design.  We quickly came to an agreement and I painted a sample for her to check out.  She liked it, so I got to work.

This is the photo I sent to my customer for approval before I begin varnishing.  I don't like the way the yellow "t" in martini looks and she agreed with me.  I'm going to re-paint it the same deep pink as the glass at the top.

Here's the finished sign with a pink "t" and some minor adjustments in the design of the glasses.

The first thing I needed to do was to design the lettering and that is the main focus of what I'm going to talk about here.  An important thing to consider is that lettering can be tricky to paint, so you don't want it to be too fussy—Victorian serifs would drive me crazy—but it does need to be interesting.

For simplicity, let's say that I'm going to paint a sign that says Linda's Art Barn.  Before I start the lettering, I would have already decided on the size of the sign and have a pretty good idea of the placement of the words.  These are the steps that I follow:

I open a word-processing file and type Linda's Art Barn.  I personally use Microsoft Word, but there are other sources of lettering on your computer that you might prefer.
  1. I enlarge the text to a size that looks like it might work.  If necessary, I change the layout of my page to Landscape or even change the size of my page so that I can make it wider to fit the words.  Of course, how you do these things will vary depending on the software you're using.
  2. Sometimes when I want really big lettering, I put each word on a separate line.  I've even split a single word onto more than one line when I wanted extra big letters.
  3. Next, I Select my text and browse through my fonts until I see one that I think will work.  Then I change the font of the selected text.  At that point, I might decide to readjust the font size.
  4. Now, I'm probably going to want to test out a bunch of different fonts before I make a decision and I want to be able to compare them.  So I type Linda's Art Barn several more times.  Then I change each occurrence to a different font.  I always make a note below the text that says which font and font size it is.  That way, I don't have to depend on my memory when I make a final decision.
  5. When I've made my font decision, I finalize the font size.  Then I change the lettering to Outline.  This is because I don't want to waste all that printer ink/toner by printing solid letters.
  6. Finally, I print the lettering onto plain, white paper.

Now that I've printed my letters, I'm ready to transfer them to tracing paper and then trace them onto the plaque/sign.

My husband cuts the wood for my signs.  Then I sand, seal, and basecoat the cut wood.  It's important to let the sealer dry completely before basecoating and then to let the basecoat paint dry totally before continuing.

My next step is to trace the lettering onto the basecoated sign.  Decorative painters usually know how to do this, but for anyone who doesn't, it's fairly simple:

  1. Trace the letters from the printout onto tracing paper with an Ultra Fine Point Sharpie.  If you don't mind the price, tracing vellum is wonderful.  It's stronger than regular tracing paper so it stands up to repeated usage.  It's also easier to manage than regular tracing paper.
  2. Now tape the tracing paper/vellum onto the prepared wood.  Make sure it's exactly where you want it before you tape it down.  Use Scotch Magic Tape because you can remove it without damaging the paint.
  3. Slide a piece of graphite paper or Chaco Paper between the tracing paper/vellum and the basecoated wood.  Be sure that you've done this with the colored side of the graphite or Chaco Paper face down.
  4. Using a fine stylus, empty ball-point pen, or other device, trace the lettering.  This will transfer the design onto your wood.  Don't press too hard or you'll dig into the wood and make dents.  You will probably also rip your tracing paper.
  5. Now you're ready to paint.

Graphite paper comes in gray or white and is inexpensive.  If you have a dark background, use the white; if you have a light background, use the gray.  I have pretty much stopped using gray graphite paper for several reasons.  First, new graphite paper leaves very dark lines. Second, even the light gray lines of older graphite paper can be difficult to remove after you're painted over them.  It can be a real bear to clean this up because some colors of paint are just too transparent to hide those lines.  Even worse is that while you're resting the palm or side of one hand as you're tracing with the other, you can leave a messy smudge.  I don't find it to be as much of a problem with the white graphite paper.

Instead, I prefer Blue or White Chaco Paper, depending on my background color.  It's more expensive, but SO much nicer than graphite.  What makes it so wonderful is that most of it will disappear when you paint on it with acrylic paint.  If there are some marks left after your paint has dried, you can remove them with a damp cloth.  Be sure your paint is fully dry before you do that.

You do need to be careful of moisture while using Chaco Paper.  If you're in a humid environment, you might find your transfer disappearing before you've completed your painting!  It's not a huge problem; you can just retrace the design.  Be careful that your Chaco Paper doesn't get damp or wet because the transfer color can disappear from the Chaco Paper itself.  You should store it in the paper folder and plastic bag that it's sold in.  It wouldn't hurt to seal it up in a zipper bag, too.

Another tip I'd like to pass on is to tape a piece of waxed paper over your tracing paper before you begin transferring the design onto your wood.  First, it helps your stylus or pen to glide over the design as you trace.  Second, you'll scratch the outline of the design into the waxed paper as you trace, so you can always tell what part of the design has already been transferred and what part has not!

I don't recommend using a pencil to do any of your tracing because you can get black marks on your hands and smudges on your project.  A ball-point pen that still has ink in it can also make a mess.  My preference is a stylus.

I almost forgot to say that if you don't find a font on your computer program that you like, you can search the internet for free fonts and download them to your computer.

Don't forget that your finished, painted-wood project needs several coats of water-based varnish, especially if it's going to be hung outside.  Also, be sure that if holes are drilled into the wood for screw-eyes or other hardware for hanging a sign, you need to go back and seal those holes so that moisture doesn't enter that way.  If there is even a single spot for moisture to enter the wood, the moisture will keep collecting until it touches the paint from the inside and makes the paint peel off.

If you plan to hang your sign/plaque, the hardware needs to be stainless steel, aluminum, or something else that won't rust or develop a patina that will run onto the sign and stain it.

Although there are other ways to do some of these things and there are people who have other preferences,  what I've shared here are my opinions and my favorite methods.

© Copyright 2011 Linda's Art Barn. All rights reserved.


  1. Awesome! Thank you so much for this tutorial...I have steered clear of doing wording for family members because my lettering sucks freehand. I never thought of using chaco paper. Thanks so much!

  2. You're very welcome, ChaosandOrder. I love your name--I always say that there's no in between for me--I'm either totally organized or in complete chaos!

  3. thank you for the tutorial! Do you have any recommendations for the sealant, basecoat and varnish. I want to try this but I am totally illiterate when it comes to the products. What do you use for the lettering???

    Thank you! I love these blogs..I would never have tried anything creative before!

  4. LadyPicker,there are so many different products--it really depends on what you're going to paint and what you intend to do with it.

    In general, these are my personal preferences: for sealing raw wood I like "j.w. etc. First Step;" for varnishing a finished painting I like "j.w. etc. Right Step;" for basecoating I like FolkArt or Americana acrylic paint; and for the lettering itself I like Americana acrylic paint.

    This doesn't mean that I never use other products or that the products I mentioned above will be best for every project.

  5. Thanks for the steps. I have been looking for easy ways to decorate my table top. I knew that there were tracing papers, but having back-ups is great.
    New follower

    1. You're welcome, Self Sagacity. I hope your decorated table is a huge success!

  6. Hi Linda! Thank you for this tutorial! I am painting several signs for a friend's wedding in a couple of weeks.

    Where do I purchase the supplies you mentioned above: Chaco Paper and the Stylus Pen?

    Thank you again

  7. Hi Kolein, I'm glad you enjoyed the tutorial. I purchased both the Chaco Paper and Stylus at Michaels Arts & Crafts. In my local Michaels store both products are in the same section as the metal leafing products. They used to be in the glue aisle, but are now on the wall next to the acrylic paints (FolkArt, Americana, etc.)

    Just to clarify--the stylus is not a pen, but a tool. It's shaped somewhat like a pen. It's a short wooden dowel with a needle-shaped piece of metal on each end, with rounded tips. I hope this helps.