Bleach T-Shirts – Now Available for Those Lacking Artistic Talent!

…Available for those lacking Artistic talent, but possessing a CNC router that is.  For those of you wondering what a bleach T-shirt is, it’s a process whereby you spray bleach on a shirt in order to produce some sort of artistic design.  Many have seen this during some sort of laundry mistake that produces unusable jeans or shirts.  However, if you control bleaching with a stencil, the results actually come out pretty cool.  I saw these shirts on Reddit a while ago and decided I needed to try it.

What you see in the video is me cutting a tiger paw pattern into a piece of Duralar that will then be stuck onto a t-shirt and used as a template for bleaching.  I haven’t tried it yet, but if one were to use a 1/16 inch thick piece of polycarbonate, things may turn out even better!  This process should work with any sort of spray-paint template as well, but bleach was my media of choice for this project.

To do this process, you’ll need the following:

  • CNC router setup (I used a Zen Toolworks 7×12 model with Mach3 software)
  • Engraving bit
  • A copy of Inkscape and the G-code tools extension
  • .005 inch thick Duralar – available in rolls at hobby stores.
  • A shirt that’s 50/50 cotton/polyester blend
  • 3M Spray adhesive (“General Purpose 45”)
  • Bleach
  • Some sort of spray bottle

Bleached image drying

First you’ll need to import and trace the bitmap that you want to use with Inkscape.  Use it to generate G-code for whatever you want to cut out (what you want bleach on).  I always generate G-code on my notebook and use Dropbox to send it to the computer connected to the router.

Put a pointed bit on your router like the Dremel 125 bit shown in the video.  Fasten your plastic material to the worksurface as shown, using a sacrificial piece of wood so you don’t mess up the main surface.  It might be best to use spray adhesive here as well, but my first experiment with this didn’t turn out too well.  Run the code you generated with Inkscape to allow the machine to cut out your pattern.

marginal results with a 1/8 inch bit, a less-level table, and spray adhesive

Once done, deburr any leftovers with an exacto knife.  Place this template on the shirt where you want it marked using the spray adhesive, then put some sort of cloth between the front and back of the shirt to protect the back from unwanted bleach.

Spray bleach on the template.  Some recommend a 50/50 water/bleach mix, but I used 100% bleach in the example (Not having any bleach, I bought the only brand at Walmart that was cheaper than their brand, so maybe it just wasn’t very good).  The Grey shirt that I used bleached out somewhat orange, which was great for me, but maybe the mix had something to do with this.  It was a new shirt which may affect things as I tried it on older shirts first with worse results.

The shirt was then air dried for 15 minutes or so then rinsed the shirt in the sink thoroughly.  Rinsing it is important so that when it’s washed it doesn’t bleach all your other clothes with it.  Or so they say.  I haven’t gotten to the point of washing it yet, so if you’re in doubt you might run the shirt by itself the first time.

I’m definitely not an expert in the shirt bleaching field (and don’t vouch for the clothing or personal safety of my methods), so I’d recommend consulting other websites about it.  The purpose of this page was more to point out that you can make the stencils for it with a CNC router…  Oh, and GO TIGERS!

Update 3/4/2012: If you’d rather not bleach a t-shirt, and would like to spray-paint a Star Wars AT-ST walker, check out this stencil I made!


  1. Hackaday links: October 4, 2011 - Hack a Day - pingback on October 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm
  2. VEERRRRYYY Interesting… do you think that Duralar could be used to make a simple SMD stencil?

    • Hmm, Honestly I know very little about the SMD process, but I’d love to hear about it if you’re successful!

  3. Hackaday links: October 4, 2011 | You've been blogged! - pingback on October 4, 2011 at 12:23 pm
  4. You at Clemson? I’m in Graphic Comm up here and stumbled upon this. Real interested in checking this out. Hit me back up on an email man!

    • Hi, I graduated from Clemson a few years ago, but I don’t live too far away… I’ll shoot you an email.

  5. If you hit the bleach with vinegar after a few minutes of it lightening, it will neutralize. This helps keep the fabric strong, but also can lighten the bleach print. I used to be able to get black shirts that turned orange or brown to turn white or yellow. Give it a try, couldn’t hurt.

  6. so random that it turned out orange! pretty sweet 🙂

  7. More Bleach T-shirts! (With a CNC Router) | JCOPRO.NET - pingback on November 23, 2011 at 11:29 am
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  10. Very nice, bit suprised it turned out orange! I may have to make a shirt like that.

    • Yeah, so was I! Seems different shirts can turn different colors – I think green turns yellow for example.

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