I learned the hard way so you don't have to! DIY: Wood Transfer

One of many things that I did over Christmas break was make a gift for a couple of close friends of mine. My friend Jay had a simple request for his wife, Meredith: to paint their vows on a canvas to hang in their home.

Easy, right?


When he "hired" me to create this gift for Meredith, I immediately decided to throw out the idea of a canvas just because it's really hard to keep them from looking cheap, despite many different paint/mod podge/etc tutorials you can find online. It always ends up looking like a $10 canvas in my opinion. Jay gave me the freedom to do whatever I thought looked best, since Meredith was my roommate for two years in college and I know her taste pretty well.

So after much deliberation, a coworker and I traded talents to accomplish what I wanted Meredith's gift to look like. Josh is incredibly talented at carpentry and painting, so I photoshopped his Christmas card photo for him in exchange for a 2'x2' wooden piece - planks held together with screws, painted, distressed and just beautiful. He did an amazing job.

The next step: getting the vows onto the wood.

So this brings me to why I decided to write a blog post on this. I did an endless amount of research on transfers and cutting vinyl, painting, projecting, stenciling, etc, but nothing seemed easy and efficient enough to ENSURE that this thing looked awesome. Vows aren't short, so free handing was out of the question. I wanted this gift to look professional and beautiful since it was going to hang in the Brocklebanks' home for years to come.

What did it come down to? Trial and error.

So I'm here to share with the blogosphere what TO do and NOT to do when attempting to transfer text onto painted wood. Because nothing I found was easy enough to do without days of work or special products, and I don't want anyone to have to go through the trouble I did figuring it out.

First of all, let me show you to finished product. If I must say so myself, I'm pretty darn crazy about it. If it weren't tacky to do so, I'd totally make one for me and Logan... but this is something special only Jay and Meredith should have. It would be way less special if I had one hanging in our home, too. However, I may transfer a quote or something onto another wood piece - just because I love it that much.

So Josh, who made the wood piece for me, told me that he'd heard that you could take an image, reverse it, print it on a laser printer, and iron it to get it to transfer onto wood. This made sense to me, since laser printers use toner and heated toner leaves the paper... but it sounded way to good to be true.

Spoiler: it was. But in the long run the overall concept DOES work.

Heads up: This first part is really designer-y and I'm not sure what to suggest if you don't know how to use Adobe Creative Suite, but I'm putting it out there because this is how I did it... and I'm sure if you get the idea of what I did you can be creative and do the same thing through Word or Pages.

So I made a document in Illustrator the size of the wood piece and I put the vows where I wanted them to go, in the typeface I wanted, so I could see how they would fit onto the wood piece. Then, I placed four 8.5"x11" rectangles onto the document until all of the text was covered. This allowed me to print the four sections of the text on a regular printer and match them up to get the 2'x2' square of text that I wanted. I simply (graphic design terms here) selected one rectangle and the text, clipped it, and put it into a new 8.5"x11" document for printing. After I did one, I'd undo it, and do the next until I had all four sections of the text.

Okay we're done with the designer lingo. Basically: find a way to print the text onto regular size sheets and match them up to make one big one.

My first mistake: I forgot to reverse the text.

Luckily, I realized this right after I printed them, so it wasn't a big deal... but it would have been disastrous if I'd started transferring only then to realize my text was backwards. So don't forget to reverse the text! Again, I'm not sure how to do this in Word, etc, but I'm sure there's a way... try googling it. :)

So now that I had my text, I was just going to match them up, iron them, and call it a day.. right?

Wrong again.

I made three huge mistakes that no one should repeat:


2. DO NOT LET THE PAPER COOL (Josh told me this - smart guy!).


If you can manage it, try to find a matte heavy brochure paper. This type of paper won't be glossy, so you won't burn any coating onto the wood; it isn't porous, so the toner will not soak into the paper but transfer much easier; and it's thicker - so it will pull off the wood easily instead of sticking and tearing. I started with regular printer paper and it kind of worked... but I had to pull of little pieces of the paper that adhered to the wood, and it didn't transfer well enough to really read it unless you looked closely. It looked like this after regular paper:

Photo paper will melt and the top glossy layer will adhere to your wood and YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO GET IT OFF WITHOUT SANDING. Trust me. Do not do it. You'll think that once you put water on it to gently rub it off all is well, but FALSE. It will only dry looking like paper again and you'll be up a creek. I'm not going to point it out - but I bet if you look closely you can see where I made this mistake on Meredith's...

So let me walk you through the best way to transfer then, in pictures. I know everyone loves pictures when it comes to a tutorial.

First let me explain that I had used the regular paper taped together (make sure no tape is exposed or you'll melt it to the wood! I used double sided tape sandwiched between the two layers of paper), so I already had the first transfer that I had to match up with. You will hopefully be starting from scratch, so just make sure you're placing your paper where you want it to be transferred.

So in my case, I had to lay each piece of paper down (out of four total) to match up exactly with where I had already transferred. Again, I'm using MATTE brochure paper at this point. Then, turn your iron onto high with the STEAM OFF. Rub the iron over the paper firmly and slowly, but not slowly enough to burn the paper. You may have to hold your paper in place for the first few sweeps, but hopefully after that the toner will start sticking and your paper will stay in place.

Keep the paper warm at all times and peel it back in each corner periodically to see where you're missing transfers. In the places you're having a hard time, heat it well with the iron and then use an object such as a wide close pin (that's what I used) to rub down firmly on the area.

Let me tell you: this is NOT a short process. It took me at least 30 minutes per sheet, and that was after already having lightly transferred the text on the night before. Be patient.

After you've peeled back most the areas and you feel good about what you see, heat the whole piece really well and pull the whole thing off. Note that if there is sap on the wood, it will get sticky and melt... but in my opinion this just added to the overall shabby chic look of everything.

Keep doing this to your whole piece until you're satisfied. Voila! :)

Now... I liked the way it looked afterward because it naturally looks worn and distressed since the whole text will not transfer perfectly. However, I didn't think Meredith would love that much distressing so I wanted to make the text VERY clear. Also, since it was going to hang in their home for years to come I wanted it to start out very crisp in case it fades over the years.

To accomplish this, I used the transfer as a pattern and very carefully traced over the entire text with an extra fine point Sharpie paint pen (black). Everyone should keep these on hand anyway, they're a staple in my craft closet. :)

It's a long process, but in my opinion it completely made the piece look finished - and Meredith said use loved opening this present on Christmas day!

So ultimately, transferring onto wood isn't the walk in the park that I'd hoped it would be, but it's definitely worth it to get a professional finish on something. Without the transfer, there's no way that I could have perfectly written the text to look so beautiful. And while some things look great with more of a hand-created touch, this piece definitely looks better with a cleaner finish.

I hope this helps anyone wanting to transfer text onto wood and I hope you guys are having a happy holiday season!



**UPDATE: I just stumbled across this tutorial, which essentially does the same thing except with water instead of heat! It might be worth a try if anyone out there is looking to transfer text to wood any time soon. :) Here's the link: http://diddledumpling.blogspot.com/2010/05/tutorial-vintage-looking-painted-sign.html **