Design insights & tutorials.

Tutorial: How to Design and Print Custom Silk Screen Die-Cut Stickers

Turquoise Flag-Tip

This post is a revealing walk-through behind the design, illustration, and sticker printing process. I’m proud to show off the new artwork I created for the upcoming Weapons of Mass Creation Fest 4 event.  The artwork below is going to be used for stickers, t-shirts, posters, etc. In this post I’m going to show you how I created it and how I set it up to become a die-cut sticker. I got these custom die cut stickers printed at Sticker Robot and they did a great job! Let’s do this. Strap yourselves in, this is going to be a fun ride.

Related: Check out this other article I wrote about how to design custom Kiss Cut Stickers for your Band.

WMC Fest 4 defy the hand you're dealt

Step 1: Sketches!

Way back when I started WMC Fest I used the phrase “defy the hand you’re dealt” quite a bit. I wanted to bring that back this year. A couple years ago Brandon Rike created an image for WMC that featured a hand stuck with two arrows. It’s a clever way of illustrating the idea behind the phrase. I wanted to expand upon that and combine it with images of friendship, togetherness, and community. Those are frequent ideas people have when they think about WMC. I started sketching and I came up with a pair of holding hands with a sword through them. You know, like we’re fighting this struggle together!

defy the hand you're dealt sketch

Step 2: Photoshop Prep

Since this artwork is going to be used in lots of ways, I created my Photoshop document at 18″ x 24″ at 300 DPI.  Why didn’t I use Illustrator you ask?  Just personal preference mainly. This design could have been done in either program to be honest. Since we are setting up the files for CMYK sticker printing, I chose the CMYK color mode. Once I got my new document set up, I copied and pasted my sketch in the document and sized it accordingly.

new photoshop document settings

placed sketch in photoshop

Step 3: Gathering References

Before I start illustrating, I need to find a reference image for my holding hands. While my sketch is OK, I want the proportions to be accurate. I asked Bill to shoot a photo of my wife and I holding hands. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I want to at least get the pose correct so I can manipulate and illustrate it in Photoshop to my liking. Here is our reference photo:

holding hands

Step 4: Blocking it Out

After I placed my reference photo into my document, I rotated it and cut out just the arms and hands. The rest of the photo is unnecessary. I also went ahead and blocked in some additional reference like perfect circles, real fonts, starburst lines, and framing for the die-cut sticker.

wmc fest design references

Step 5: Start Illustrating

I reduced the opacity on my reference to something like 25% so I could start drawing on top to create the illustration. I use my Ye Ole Wacom Intuos 3 tablet and my brush settings are below. There are better drawing tablets out there, but this has served me well since 2006!

jeff finley wacom brush settings in photoshop

wmc fest design in progress

Step 6: Hand Lettering

Once my outlines are created, it’s time to start drawing the type. Now it took me many tries to get the letters correct for “Defy the Hand You’re Dealt.” My sketch itself wasn’t detailed enough so I had to improvise a lot. I knew I wanted “defy the hand” on the left arm and “you’re dealt” on the right arm. It was just a matter of making the letters fit! It was a lot of trial and error. Some tips for your own lettering would be to block in the letters first. Try a rough draft and get the letters in there how you want. Then you can turn that layer’s opacity down and draw it again over top while being more creative with the letter forms. Since I don’t have a very steady hand (often a little jittery from coffee and anxiety) my letter forms are not perfect. They’re a little wobbly, which is ok considering my entire design will be slightly imperfect.

hand lettering by jeff finley for wmc fest

The rest of the lettering was easier because I had a font to base it off of. For the words Cleveland, I set my reference type up with ITC Caslon and warped the type and got it into place. Then I drew over top of it my own custom version of it. For the dates, I loosely based my letters on the font, I drew it in rather quickly. Check it out:

cleveland hand lettering by jeff finley

wmc fest lettering in photoshop

 

Step 7: Shading and Stippling

Once the drawing was complete, I printed it out and used a good old fashioned light box. I placed my outlined drawing down first, then placed a blank sheet of paper directly on top. The light box allowed me to see through the paper so I can have precise detail when stipple shading. I used a set of fine-detail Micron pens. There is no shortcut to stipple shading, believe me I’ve tried!  I actually tried using my Wacom tablet to do this, but I didn’t get as natural and consistent results. So I went analog for this! To be honest, stipple shading is much easier using Micron pens and doing it on real paper than trying to do it digitally. My intention was to scan my shading into Photoshop onto a different layer. Then I could do whatever I wanted with it!

jeff finley drawing with a light box

Stipple Shading on its own layer

One trick to note: I did a separate scan for any stippling that would be “highlights” or “distressing” on my image. For example I did the stipple shading on my text on its own piece of paper and scanned it separately. That way I could change its color easier. I did the same for all the abstract dots that fill the background. In the end those were going to be lighter than the background, but it is still nice to have it on its own layer.

wmc fest design fully shaded

Step 8: Coloring!

Now that I had my outlines and shading complete, it’s time to fill it with color! I knew I wanted to go with my tried and true WMC Fest color palette. With my outlines and shading layers on top, I made a new layer underneath everything for each element. I started with the left arm first and colored it with the WMC pink color. Then I made a new layer and started coloring the right arm an orange color. By having the outlines on a layer above your colors, all you have to do is get close and color between the lines. It doesn’t matter what kind of brush you use, I’m just painting in solid colors. To make sure I’m using the same consistent colors throughout the design, I use “color overlay” layer style on each layer.

Also, since I made my background dark, notice how I changed the colors of “we are weapons of mass creation” and “until the end” to something brighter. Also, take a look at how I colored the little flag in the middle and the rays shooting out from the center. I just selected those layers and changed the “color overlay” setting to the color I wanted. No additional coloring needed.

Here is what our design looks like without any outlines on top.

wmc fest design with colors blocked in

And here is our finished design when we turn back on the shading and outline layers. Note: you might see some subtle distressing on the type. What I did for that was duplicating some of my stipple shading layers and placing them strategically on top of the type. Since the shading layers are the same color as the background, I was able to achieve a slightly distressed look.

WMC Fest 4 defy the hand you're dealt

Step 9: Prep for Die-Cut Sticker Printing!

The design is done! Now I just need to send it to print! But before that I had to make sure I was adhering to the specs that Sticker Robot calls for on their website. They actually screen print their stickers, but use a CMYK simulated process print. They literally screen print tiny dots of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black to get the exact colors in your design. So all I had to do was send them a high res CMYK .tif file and they did the rest. No complicated color separation work for me!

The trickiest part in setting this up for print was creating the die-cut layer. This was just a single color outline that on a separate layer that tells the printer where to cut the sticker out from the background. Since we aren’t going for traditional square-shaped stickers here, you need to specify the shape of your sticker!

It’s pretty easy. See below:

sticker die cut prep for wmc fest design

One thing to note was that there should be at least a 1/8″ safety area separation from your artwork to your die-cut line, and an additional 1/8″ bleed  area beyond your die-cut line. This will ensure your sticker has enough room to move around slightly on the press.

Another cool thing with Sticker Robot is they are one of the few sticker printers that allow you to print a grayscale design on the back of your sticker! To set this up with my custom shape sticker, I mirrored my sticker shape horizontally and designed the sticker back. I used a collage background I designed for the festival last year as my background and added our website URL. The only catch is the design had to be black and white. Check it out:

wmc fest die cut sticker back

Step 10: Print up the Stickers!

The design was sent off to Sticker Robot and here’s a few photos they took of the sticker printing process, from film to packaging:

Film for the black plate.

Film is printed for each color. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. The film will be used to expose the screens.

Film for the back plate

The film is exposed.

A bright light is used to expose the film through the emulsion to the silkscreen itself. Each color will have it’s own screen.

film is exposed

Silkscreen Sticker Printing

A squeegee pushes ink through the screen onto the vinyl substrate, one color at a time, one sheet at a time.

silkscreen sticker printing

close up of cyan ink on the squeegee

a close up of cyan ink on the squeegee

Cyan and Magenta Ink

The cyan and magenta ink have been laid down. Next will be yellow, then black and finally 3 coats of clear UV protective ink.

cyan and magenta ink

Silkscreen Quality Ink

Silkscreen ink is notoriously thick and durable, typically 10-20 times thicker than digital ink. This is magenta:

magenta ink

Doesn’t really LOOK like bright magenta we know does it?

Magenta, Cyan and Yellow

The basic colors are coming together… we’re just missing the final color, black.

colors are coming together

Black ink is laid down…

Now it’s starting to look like a sticker!

black ink is laid down

Sticker Diecutting

This is a tedious process, where each sticker sheet is literally cut one at a time – a truly custom sticker. See the video below that shows the process on creating die cut stickers.

sticker die cutting process

Sticker Packaging!

Here are the final stickers. WMC here we come!

stack of wmc fest stickers

2,000 wmc fest stickers

this is what a couple thousand custom die cut WMC stickers look like…

custom sticker for wmc fest

Conclusion

So there you have it, that was how I created the artwork for the 2013 Weapons of Mass Creation Fest and how the stickers were created. You can get your own screen printed, die-cut vinyl stickers created with your designs through Sticker Robot. If you want to attend the upcoming WMC Fest and see a ton of great bands, speakers, and designers, tickets go on sale soon at http://wmcfest.com.

wmc fest die cut sticker time lapse

A simulated time-lapse of the illustration

About the Author, Jeff Finley

I'm a partner at Go Media, a Cleveland web design and development firm. We also specialize in print design and branding. I started Weapons of Mass Creation Fest and wrote the book Thread's Not Dead, teaching artists and designers how to start a clothing company. In my spare time, I write songs and play drums in Campfire Conspiracy. I'm a happy husband and an aspiring b-boy and lucid dreamer.
Discover More by Jeff Finley

Discussion

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  • http://www.facebook.com/PeterRizzo Peter Rizzo

    Great tutorial! I have an idea on the stippling issue. I’m going to try it then I will email you…

    • http://twitter.com/Go_Media Go Media

      Great! We look forward to seeing it! :)

  • http://simonh.me Simon H.

    Boom.

  • Dave Davis

    Epic tutorial Jeff. Silk screen rocks. Video is pretty interesting too. Just like with shirts.

  • http://twitter.com/beckycmurphy becky murphy

    Awesome tutorial. Thanks for sharing, Jeff! Can’t wait to make my own.

    • john

      wow

    • http://www.gomedia.us/ Jeff Finley

      thanks Becky, it was great meeting you last weekend! Glad you liked the tut!

  • http://twitter.com/StarSunFlower StarSunFlower

    Wow this is a lovely tutorial. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://twitter.com/stickerobot stickerobot

    Looks great Jeff! We’ll send out a newsletter this week, linking to the sticker tutorial.

  • http://www.clippingpathcenter.com/clipping-path-service.php mamun

    fantastic tutorial & nice sharing.
    :D

  • mam_raj07

    amazing & awesome tutorial………………. :D

  • http://twitter.com/thatdeadpixel Mike Lohrman

    Great look into your process!

  • john

    amazing & awesome tutorial………………. :D

  • http://twitter.com/DesignsnPrint DesignsnPrint

    Wow this a really detailed and resourceful post. Great work!

  • Travis Jeremy Blair

    Would the decals have been cheaper for you if the files had been supplied using spot colours instead of CMYK?

    • http://www.gomedia.us/ Jeff Finley

      Not sure, I was following Sticker Robot’s guidelines of CMYK screen prints, not spot color.

      • Eric Jasso

        Doubtful. Sticker Robot gangs their work by screening everything CMYK. Spot colors would be more expensive since you could only gang run with jobs using the exact same spot colors.

  • Aimie

    Really good and informative stuff you share with us in details. I like it.

  • ben

    hi jeff, great tutorial. i was wondering how u spilt your file for printing, did u just load the different channels for each screen or do u bitmap the image first?

  • ndough

    very very impresive awesome tutorial

    • Marissa Mele

      So glad you enjoyed it, ndough! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/mariana.pavusa Mariana Pavusa

    Amazing tutorial! I really love your work, thanks for one more!

  • http://www.webdesign.org/ Julia Agnes

    cool and easy to follow tutorial))

  • http://www.facebook.com/statictourist Patrick Kelly

    One of the best tutorials ever. Really nicely done.

  • charliesheenhardcore

    I like it a lot. Especially the screen printed process. Crazy how much goes into it. I’m just done with the whole tracing thing that “graphic designers” do. It’s stale and overdone these day. Makes your work look extremely stiff. There are guys out there that know how to draw from the mind who can draw those two hands in seconds. If you just learn the craft properly there is no need for tracing. People say they trace to save time. That’s crazy talk. Again, if you truly know the craft and spent time learning it well time wouldn’t be an issue. To much of this tracing stuff is going on. It’s time to bring this industry back to it’s origins. All you designers out there should go back to the drawing board and learn how to draw without tracing. As much as you want to say it’s not cheating it most surely is. I don’t even know how anyone could justify it as not cheating, but folks have come up with ways to justify it. Trust me, your work will look a lot more fluid, real, and man made when you don’t trace.

    • http://www.gomedia.us/ Jeff Finley

      Hey “Guest” I totally get where you’re coming from. Your point is extremely valid, however, this was just my preferred method for creating this design. Here’s the straight up honest truth here, if I were going to draw it from my imagination, I would not be happy with my result because I have lost practice in drawing freehand by spending too much time being a graphic designer! So my drawing skills have declined over the years. Had I chosen the path of being an illustrator more, then I would be practicing the craft much more and would be out on comment threads calling out “the tracers” just like you. I wish you would use your real name so I know who I’m speaking with though.

  • http://www.dpcreates.com/ Darold J. Pinnock

    Pretty awesome!

  • http://www.facebook.com/simeonhendrix Simeon Hendrix

    I love this! Amazing!!!

  • john smith

    Hey, I was wondering how you got your brush to look like that. I couldn’t get mine to have the the pointed look like that.

  • StickerDot.co.nz

    Great tutorial! I have learned so much from this and it’s very detailed.

  • jose cardenas

    what kind of paper do they print on?

    • Heather Sakai

      Hi there Jose! They print full color, outdoor Silkscreen Vinyl Stickers

  • http://www.karlavonbohn.webs.com/ Damon Von Bohn

    wow! <3

  • http://www.kccodecals.com/ Kcco Decals

    Nice work. Amazing set up