By Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison, Wisconsin - USA

Painting Lettering

I don’t know about you, but for me it’s always a bit of a let-down to see a beautifully crafted homebuilt boat with mailbox letters slapped onto it for the registration number. There’s nothing wrong with it, of course – it does the job for a reasonable price. But you see every month how compulsive I am, so I think we both know that wasn’t going to fly on anything I build.

A little history

Here we are touching on the old and dying art of sign painting. When Ole Evinrude was selling his first outboard motors, every city had sign painters. It seems like a mundane trade, but these guys were artists of the highest caliber. Don’t believe me? Try painting some lettering on a vertical surface. Try to make it look really sharp and professional. Go ahead! I’ll wait.

See? I told you it was hard!

These professional sign painters painted lettering all day, every day. They could paint signs as fancy as anything we can do on a computer with nothing more than a collection of brushes and their highly-trained eyes and hands. Actually, some of the fonts you see on your computer came from styles painted by sign painters. Now, of course, computers and modern printing methods can do the same jobs with labor of much lower skill. (Like mine, for example.)

Still, sometimes you want it in paint.

Trying my hand

I did this with hand brush lettering. I read up on the techniques of sign painters, then practiced on cardboard for a few hours before attempting anything on the boat. This was positively the best I could muster.

I cheated too! I first drew the lettering on paper with guidelines to help me get the spacing right. Then I transferred it to the hull by poking a pin though the paper. (I later discovered that this is easier with a pattern transfer wheel made for sewing.)

I am in no way ashamed of these efforts, as I think they are pretty respectable for someone untrained in the field. They do the job, too, and anything is better than stick-on mailbox letters.

But some boat designs want something a bit more refined. To do any better I have to resort to…


One tends to assume that a stencil makes the job easy. If only it were so. Stencils have tricks of their own that must be understood.

A good starting place can be found in the way-back issues of Duckworks:

The author goes by Errol Flynn, and I hope for his sake it is a nom de plume. Whatever his name, his techniques are quite interesting. But he focuses on spraypaint, which I found troublesome for lettering. You need to mask a lot to avoid overspray getting where it shouldn’t be. And the stencil must be stuck very flat against the surface to be painted, or paint gets under the stencil and makes the letters look blurry (at best). He calls this a “blow out” and I will too.

Keeping the stencil flat against the surface is harder than it sounds. It basically requires glue. But obviously it needs to be glue that comes off easily.

Cutting Stencils

I think this is pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t belabor it here. In short, I used manila file folders and stuck the photocopied design to them with glue stick. Then I cut to the lines with a utility knife. Any little bitty interior parts (like the middles of numbers like “6” and letters like “A”) need to be labeled.


This is a whole new thing to those of us who are accustomed to brush painting. Our first instinct will be to use the template like a guide and brush along the lines. In fact this is the very worst thing you can do. The thing we need to avoid is paint building up along the edges of the stencil, because this always leads to paint creeping under it – a blow out. This is ugly.

If you think about it, this makes sense. The brush is acting like a tiny version of your finger when you use it to make a caulk fillet. We don’t want any fillet of any kind – just a very flat, thin coat of paint. This means stippling, not brushing.

This means a very, very dry brush. Apparently people who do wall stencils dip the brush, then remove the excess on the edge of the can, then brush out most of the paint on scrap newspaper. When the paint is almost gone it is time to apply it to the stencil. Yes, this is wasteful, but it’s how you get a clean impression from a stencil. The left side of the “W” is two coats in rapid succession done this way.

“Then why have bristles at all?” you ask. Good question. It would seem that we don’t really need them, because we are not using their capillary action. A lot of wall stencil people use foam too. I didn’t have such good luck. Check out the “S” in the photo above. Maybe I wasn’t getting the foam dry enough.

Another approach would be a roller, but again I think I didn’t get it dry enough.

I suspect that bristles are an advantage because they can individually get down to the painted surface right next to the stencil, where any kind of sponge or roller leaves a tiny gap, so you try to make it wetter and get a blow out.

So let’s put some paint on a boat.

On the Hull

Here is the stencil taped on.

Notice the interior parts of the sixes. I glued those on with a little rubber cement. It rolls off politely when the paint is dry. Here’s a look at the stippling.

The “G” has one coat and the “K” has two. I stopped at three.

Not too bad, though I probably should have filled that spot under the second “62” where I chipped out the top veneer.

Patterns again

Here’s that file folder stencil on the boat again.

See how parts of the cardstock are lifting up? This happened because I used the stencil to make some test runs. The paint drying on the front side contracts a little and curls the paper. This is really inconvenient. Curled stencils need to be held down when stippling, and I did it with a screwdriver. This was not ideal because I had to be very careful how I pressed it back down for later coats or I would get paint where I didn’t want it. I could have gotten around that by letting each coat dry fully, but then I would have to worry about the paint gluing the stencil to the hull.

Clearly we need better stencils. This gets to be a much bigger deal with complex, flowing shapes like the logo I designed for the Sandy Shoal 16. (I had no idea at the time what a challenge it presented in terms of stencils!)

Thin stencils and thin glue

My thinking here is that a thin material is too weak to curl strongly like the cardstock did. But it needs to be a strong, dimensionally stable material that doesn’t soak up water. Professionally made stencils are normally Mylar, which is polyester. This makes sense for all the same reasons that polyester is best for sails and rigging, but where do you find a sheet of 5-7 mil mylar?

I started looking around the house for other dimensionally stable sheet goods. Here’s one that is very common – Tyvek! Any copy store or office supply place has Tyvek envelopes in various sizes, and sometimes you even get them in the mail without looking for them at all. Do not run Tyvek through a copier or it will melt. Glue sticks don’t grab tyvek very well, so I used rubber cement to attach my photocopied paper design to the Tyvek. I made sure to leave some strips unglued so I could later get a fingernail under the paper to peel it off.

Now we have a much floppier stencil than last time, so we definitely need to glue it to the substrate. Again I used rubber cement. I applied the cement to the hull over the entire stencil area, then pressed the stencil on. Carefully! It takes some real jockeying to get a Tyvek stencil placed accurately before the rubber cement starts curing too far.

The astute reader will have noticed that I have glue where I want there to be paint. No problem. Rubber cement rolls off easily from the openings in the stencil with the fingertips.

With the stencil so closely attached to the hull, we don’t need to get so worried about dry brushes and stippling. However it is a good practice to maintain, since any gap in the glue will make a big mess if you don’t do the dry stippling. The bigger your stencil and the more times it has been used, the more likely it is that you will have some gaps.

After the paint dries we peel off the stencil and roll off the remaining glue.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a useable photo of what was left of the Tyvek stencil. There wasn't really much to see, since it stuck to itself rather impressively. This, unfortunately, means it isn't reuseable, making it little better than paper.

That’s when I had what seemed like a good idea. The problem isn’t the material the stencil is made of. The problem is that we have to cut the thing by hand! Maybe rather than focusing on a durable stencil I should focus on a one-time stencil I don’t need to cut.

A visit to the vinyl people

My local Kinko’s copy shop does vinyl signs. They have a knife plotter to cut out the designs. They will tell you that these tissue-paper thin pieces of vinyl cannot be used to make stencils, and normally they would be right. But our case is rather different – a single-use glued-on stencil. However it turns out that it costs $15 per square foot. For each disposable stencil!!! Not a chance.

Back to work on a durable stencil that can be glued down.

Durable stencils

Well, given the stick experience with Tyvek, I guess we need something that it stiff enough to hold its shape, yet absorbs no water from the paint. So some kind of plastic sheeting.

My first attempt was a scrap possibly the world’s ugliest vinyl flooring.

The stiffness is nice, but the thickness is a pain for several reasons. First, it is hard to cut accurately—hard enough that I had to reverse the image and cut from the glue side. Second, it is a giant pain to roll off the unwanted rubber cement when you can’t just run your finger over it. Vinyl flooring is so thick you need to cut little tools from more of the vinyl to rub the cement away. This takes ages.

Worse, the thickness forces us to really stab the brush, which results in terrible blowout.

Let's keep looking. My next attempt was transparency stock.

Transparency Stock

Finally we have a winner! This has a huge benefit in that you can run it through a photocopier and put the art directly on it. It is also thin and easy to cut. I hope you can see the cut transparency in this photo.

Here's the paint stippled on the glued-down stencil.

And the result.

Nice! And it peels off gracefully and stays flat, so it is easy to roll off the rubber cement.

This allows us to try something else as well.

Shadow Lettering

Shadow lettering only requires the ability to add a second color offset a bit from the first. After the first coat of paint has cured, we repeat the process but shift the stencil a little. Normally less than the width of the lines that form the letters.

Then we again roll off excess rubber cement and add paint.

Here it is finished.

And finally, on the actual boat. I think I might reverse those two colors when I repaint it, though. Looks a little “frosty” this way.

Now we’re getting into that territory that once belonged only to real sign painters, and now mostly belongs to computers.

Vinyl Glue-Ons

I should mention that there’s an easier way to go about this. There are sign stores that make vinyl signs, including some that specialize in marine vinyl. They have their machine cut out letters or other graphics for you, which you then glue to the hull. But as we found out above, it isn't cheap. And of course it still looks like plastic. On some boats that looks fine, but on some you want real paint.

Rob Rohde-Szudy
Mazomanie, Wisconsin, USA


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