Christopher Brimley updated October 11, 2011

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  • Make Your Own Stencil Signs

    by Doug Geiger, MMR

    Photos by the author

    A prototype sign is painted directly onto a buildings brick surface. Cozad, Nebraska; August 2001.
    Model Railroading - February 2002 - Page 37

    Signs that identify buildings can set the layout in both location and era. Large industrial complexes usually identify their business name and function with massive signs. For many older industries, signs were painted directly on the brick facades. These signs would advertise the company and its products. Many of these signs were bold, block letters that were painted white on a black background.

    With the advent of computers, designing a sign has become relatively easy. With the vast number of fonts available and drawing packages to use them in, creating a sign can be fun. However, transferring those designs onto a brick building side can be challenging. By using the computer to print out the design and then using that same printout as a stencil, you can quickly transform that creative sign into reality.

    One way to make a large brick sign is to use dry transfer letters one at a time to mask the area to paint. Unfortunately, spacing can be difficult and producing a logo can be almost impossible. Another approach is to use a stencil to create the painting mask. The key is to make a stencil strong enough to use. By applying white glue to a printed paper output effectively makes a pseudo-laminated stencil. Or the sign can be printed or copied onto transparency material used in overhead projectors. Then by using low-tack spray adhesive, that stencil can be applied to the building as a painting mask. By following these step-by-step photos and their captions, you can create almost any large building sign. The procedures work best on a flat wall, with few bumps or ridges since the stencil must adhere tightly to the wall. Although developed for HO scale, the techniques as presented here can be used in almost any scale. The larger the sign, the easier it is to apply these stencil sign making methods. The difficult part may just be naming the building and designing the sign!

    1 - Begin by painting the brick whatever color you desire. In this case it is Testors Flat Red, sprayed directly from a spray can. The building is a kitbash of the Walthers Paper Mill complex. Let the paint dry completely before proceeding. Stencil signs can be applied to almost any surface: e.g., brick, cinderblock, or corrugated metal as long as its not too bumpy.

    2 - Design the sign using whatever tools you are familiar with. For this simple sign, a CAD package was used to develop the sign. After the text is input (Colorado Can in this case), a thick box is drawn around the letters, spaced comfortably around the text. Then each letter is connected to that box with thin lines. These thin lines will hold each letter in proper orientation when the stencil is cut out. Two sizes of the sign were made for different areas of the same building. Print several copies of the sign.

    3 - Orient a printed copy of the sign on the building to check the fit of the design. Add some reference marks to the sign and building to help position the stencil on the structure. Make sure the sign clears any piping or chimneys that will be added later, although interest can be added by having new appliances like a vent pipe added through a weathered sign. Add these after the sign has been applied.

    Model Railroading - February 2002 - Page 38

    4 - One of the secrets to using large stencils is repositioning spray adhesive, like 3M ReMount™. Although it is expensive, it will keep the edges of the stencil firmly against the building side. This prevents paint spray from going under the stencil, although s ome will invariably find its w ay underneath the paper. 3M ReMount will not leave any residue on the building like rubber cement does.

    5 - Next, cut one of the sign copies just outside the edges of the thick box. Spray the back of the paper with the low-tack adhesive and place the paper onto the building. Match the reference marks on the stencil to the marks on the building. Use masking tape and scrap paper to cover any areas that are in the vicinity of the sign.

    6 - Now carefully spray this rectangle. The spray will be the color of the letters of the sign, MODELflex Reefer White in this case. Spray perpendicular to the sign area to minimize underspray. Remove the masking and the paper stencil. Careful touch-up painting with a fine brush can eliminate any underspray of the white onto the brick color.

    7 - Now its time to make the stencil. Begin by gluing another copy of the sign directly to a piece of plate glass. Coat both the backside of the sign and the glass with rubber cement. Let the glue dry for several minutes and then stick the two together. Use a linoleum roller to firmly press the sign onto the glass.

    8 - Tape the edges of the sign down to the glass. The idea is to keep the paper from wrinkling during the next two steps.

    9 - Add a thick coat of white glue directly onto the paper sign.

    Model Railroading - February 2002 - Page 39

    10 - Spread the white glue with your finger. Try to maintain an even coat of glue over the entire paper sign. After the glue dries, repeat Steps 8 and 9 several times. This glue acts to stiffen the paper stencil so it keeps its shape when applied to the building.

    11 - After all the glue layers have dried, remove the masking tape edge and carefully peel the stencil from the glass. Then rub the back of the stencil to remove any remaining rubber cement. Next, remove all the background between letters by using a new #11 X-Acto® blade. Be patient with this step as the stencil will become quite fragile as more and more of the background is removed. Change blades often to prevent tearing the stencil. For the tiny cuts, use magnification to aid your blade.

    12 - Turn the stencil over and apply a coat of repositioning adhesive. Next place the stencil over the white rectangle area that was painted in Step 6 and press it into place. The stencil should be set so that there are equal amounts of white hidden beyond the edges of the stencil. Mask off any surrounding area. Then spray the building side with the background color, usually black. MODELflex Engine Black was used here. As with the white rectangle, spray perpendicular to the sign to avoid s praying under the stencil. An airbrush is recommended to apply light coats of paint. Since black will cover the white area very quickly, only a few coats are necessary. There will be some underspray, regardless of how carefully you paint since thin sections of stencil will tend to lift during the airbrushing.

    13 - Remove the masking and peel off the stencil when the background color has dried. At this point, your sign should look like this photo.

    14 - The final step is to brush paint out all the attachment lines. Use the background color. Take your time and use a small brush. For an older sign, consider painting tiny areas of both the letters and background with the brick color. This will simulate some of the sign flaking off the building. Dont overdo this as most signs stayed firmly attached to the bricks.

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