I recently had the need to acquire 13 individual award plaques for a group of Cub Scouts who earned their Arrow of Light award and graduated to Boy Scouts. As part of the ceremony, they tie a square knot around a ceremonial arrow they made that represents their accomplishments as Cub Scouts. It is a tradition in our Cub Scout Pack to present each boy with a plaque to display their arrow. This year, I wanted to do something a little different than we had done in the past and after searching for something appropriate I ended up using an ink transfer method that produced highly personalized plaques for less than five dollars each and only a few hours work.
This method could be used for all kinds of award plaques. I went the rustic route with an elliptical shape to suit our purpose, but you could use any shape, apply different finishes for a more refined look, and use any artwork you choose. The cost will vary depending on how many you produce, the size, and the finishing.
First, you will need to determine what you want the plaque to look like, particularly the artwork. I wanted to use some of the pictures that had been taken over the years of our group. I used Microsoft Publisher to put together the design. Any publisher program should work as long as you can reverse the image. Reversing the image is the key to making this work. In Publisher, I put all the photos and text together, saved as a picture, (fig. 1) and then use the “flip horizontal” function (fig. 2) to get a reverse image, and more importantly, backwards text, for each plaque. You will need an individual file for each plaque. In my case, all I had to do, after creating the first one, was change the name, save as picture, flip horizontal, and save the new file until I had them all. (fig. 3) At this point I sent them to the local UPS shop to have them printed on a color laser printer. It is important that the images are laser printed or photocopied because the finished quality is far better than transferring an ink jet image. Now it is time to head for the workshop.
I started with a clean grain pine board which I cut to a length of 14” and then cut an elliptical shape on the top. Knotty pine or any other species of wood you want will due, however, I have not tried oak or any similar open grain wood. I am a little concerned about how the ink would transfer to oak so I would suggest testing a piece first before committing to the whole project. It is important to have the surface smooth for the ink transfer. The reason for limiting the length to 14” was to be able to print the design on a legal size (8.5”x14”) sheet of paper to keep the cost down.
My favorite method for replicating shapes is to create a template out of a piece of hardboard. This way I only have to get it exactly right one time. (fig. 4) Trace the shape from the template to your material and make the rough cut with a band saw or jig saw. You will then need to attach the template to the material with some small nails. I needed 2 pilot holes consistently placed on each plaque for the screw hooks that hold the arrow, so I placed my nails at those 2 spots to provide my pilot holes. If you do not want or need any holes in the face of the plaque, simply attach it to the back.
Once you have the template attached to the material, use a straight bit with a bushing in a router to plane down the final shape. (fig. 5) Be careful not to take off too much material at once. Work it down like a planer, just a 16th or so at a time. You will get a much cleaner result and need less sanding. After carefully prying up the template with a putty knife, I then used a quarter round bit to give the edge some detail. You can choose any edge detail you like or none at all. I then had what I refer to as the “blank”.
At this point, we are going to employ the ink transfer method to embed our image on the plaque. There are several great instructional articles and videos online so I am not going into great detail here. I encourage you to search for “photo wood transfer” to learn more about this method. First you want to cut out the image you want to transfer. Avoid white edges around the image because it will leave some residue that can be seen after finishing. I used regular Mod Podge Matte because I was going for a more rustic look and wanted to allow some wood grain to show through. You can use Mode Podge Photo Transfer Medium or other gel transfer mediums if you want a more opaque image. Apply the Mod Podge to the face of the image and cover generously being sure not to miss any spots. (fig. 6)
Place the image, face down, onto the blank. You will want to press it in to get out any air bubbles. After doing a few, I found that using a roller and working you way out from the center was a good way to roll out any bubbles. (fig. 7) Now, just let it dry overnight.
Once it is dry, use a damp rag to start working away the paper leaving only the ink imbedded on the wood. You will want to be gentle and take the paper away gradually. (fig. 8) When it is damp, you will see the image but it will quickly cloud over as it dries. (fig. 9) Repeat this process as many times as needed until the cloudiness is gone. The images used on these plaques took 5-7 iterations to get the image fully exposed.
Since I was going for the weathered look, I made sure to rub the edges of the image down to the wood and even used fine sandpaper around the perimeter of the image to give it a more worn look. Light tanning and scorching with a propane torch completed the look. (fig. 10).
To protect the plaque and particularly the image, I sealed it with a non-glossy clear-coat. (fig. 11) I drilled a hole about ½” deep in the back so a peg could be inserted should the recipient want to stand it up on a table and I also attached a saw tooth hanger on the back should the recipient want to hang it on the wall. (fig. 12)
The finished product is ready for presentation. This method allows someone to produce an inexpensive plaque that is nearly unlimited in design and highly personalized.
Rod Gunter is Operations Manager at Gunter Building Solutions and has over 20 years of experience in the homebuilding and cabinetry industries. Rod has been responsible for building over 200 homes above the $500,000 price point. Rod has trained large groups including all the major home centers on selling skills, construction techniques and sustainable natural wood products. Rod resides with his family in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Gunter Building Solutions owns WoodAirGrille.com which produces wood return air filter grilles and wood return air vents.