DIY: Vinyl Subway Art Canvas

For the first time in many years I was determined to make a majority of my Christmas gifts rather than purchase them.  I’m happy to report that I actually followed through even though it meant less time to blog here at Artful Geek Girl.  My Cricut Explore really opened up the door to many possibilities for creating unique gifts.  I settled on personalized glitter ornaments that my granddaughter helped me with and Subway Art Canvases.   The ornaments were pretty simple and there are tons of how-to’s out there.  The canvases, were a bit more challenging but completely worth the extra time.  Since I learned a few tricks along the way I thought I’d share them with my readers.

Here is my version of how to create Subway Art Canvases with your Cricut Explore and vinyl.

Tools & supplies needed:

  • Art canvas in your preferred size, I got mine at Michael’s and Joann when they had sales.
  • Acrylic paint (optional)
  • Vinyl in your preferred color, I used both Oracal 631 and 651 with good results.
  • Photoshop or other image editing software (, GIMP, etc.)
  • Cricut Explore (or other cutting system that allows for upload of your own image files)
  • Weeding tool or needle tool for weeding vinyl
  • Squeegee or Credit Card for applying vinyl
  • Heat gun

I made nine canvases for gifts from various sizes.  I used 8 x10, 12 x12, 4 x 12 and 12 x 16 sizes.  I found that it really didn’t matter what size I was working on, the process was identical except for the fact that the larger canvases allowed my words to be in a larger font, which can be helpful with the script fonts at times.

I started out by applying a background of acrylic paint that fit the subject matter.  For example, I painted several shades of gray on a New York City skyline canvas and a deep blue and black that looked like space on the video game worlds canvas.  You can of course choose to go with a simple white background and in that case you wouldn’t need to paint the canvas first as long as you purchased the type I did which has had gesso applied already.

I let the paint dry at least 8 hours.  This is important!  Even when acrylic paint feels dry to the touch it still may not be completely dry.  You want to be sure it is completely dry before applying vinyl.

While the paint is drying I pull up Photoshop to create my subway art image.  First I create a new project with the dimensions of my canvas and a transparent background. Then, using the text tool I begin placing words and choosing appropriate fonts for them.  I went really simple for the gift canvases and didn’t rotate any of the words to appear vertically with the exception of the teacher’s canvas. On some canvases I also inserted appropriate images as filler, for example a wine bottle in the wine canvas and the Red Sox logos in the baseball canvas.

When I have the design the way I want it, I save it as a .png file, which allows me to keep the background transparent.  This saves me a step when uploading the file to Cricut’s Design Space; which is what I do next.  If you can only save in .jpg with a white background that will work too, but you will need to use the feature in Design Space after uploading that will let you remove a colored background as shown below. Once you have your image(s) uploaded, set your canvas in design space to the size of your canvas, choose your uploaded image and size it to fit.  Now simply let your Cricut Explore do its magic and cut out your design.

My paint was usually dry at this point, so I began the weeding process for the vinyl.  This was one of the trickier parts of the project, but as long as I took my time it worked out fine.  Trick one: I learned to first peel away the outside, one small section at a time, cutting away the excess so that it didn’t accidentally stick to letters in the design. Yes, I learned this the hard way by losing a few letters and painstakingly hunting for them in discarded vinyl scraps. Once the outside is completely removed, then it was time to grab the weeding tool and get all the insides of the letters.  This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, I could actually watch TV and do this part.

With the weeding complete, I applied transfer tape.  I know lots of people use clear contact paper for this, but I wouldn’t recommend it for canvases.  It’s too sticky.  I use a paper transfer tape that I bought in a large roll soon after I purchased my Explore and I love it.  It works so much better than any of the other transfer methods I tried and it lasts a long, long time!  I think I would have given up on vinyl if I hadn’t discovered this tape, it really is that much easier to use!  I’m not going to lie, applying the vinyl to the canvas is tricky.  It doesn’t always want to adhere, so the fact that this tape is less sticky and very thin helps a lot.

Once you have your transfer tape applied, you can then center your vinyl design over your canvas and apply it, using a squeegee or credit card to really burnish it onto the canvas.  Trick number two:  Place a book or other hard, flat object under your canvas to help you with this step.  Then very, very carefully start peeling the transfer tape away from your vinyl/canvas. Trick three: go very slowly, working one small section at a time, using your squeegee/credit card to hold letters that want to lift in place. Cut away excess transfer tape as you go.  Do not hurry or you will lose letters.   Trick four: It’s crucial to take your time and use your squeegee and fingers to press letters that lift back down to the canvas.

Once the transfer tape is completely removed, use your fingers to rub the design down so that no parts are lifted away from the canvas before we move on to the final step (and the final trick).

Trick Five: Grab your heat gun (a blow dryer may work?) and carefully heat a small section of the design at a time, being careful not to overheat and cook the vinyl. While the vinyl is still warm, use your finger to rub it down.  You will notice that the vinyl takes on the texture of the canvas. Be careful! The vinyl gets very hot and it is easy to burn your fingers if you don’t test it first with a quick tap.  I find that quickly tapping the design or running your finger over the design super fast works best and keeps your fingers from getting singed.  I also found that fingers worked better than the squeegee as the plastic doesn’t ‘give’ and tends to push wrinkles into the vinyl rather than pressing it into the canvas.


Once you’ve heat set the entire design, you’ll be able to run your hand over the design and barely feel a difference between it and the canvas.  In fact, it almost looks like you’ve painted it.  That design isn’t going to go anywhere.

I’m sure I’ll be creating many more of these subway art canvases.  They were a huge hit with those that received them as gifts and since they can be personalized you could create one for just about anything. Wedding gifts, baby gifts, birthday, housewarming…the possibilities are endless.

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