How to Stencil a QR Code

QR codes are an excellent way to add a modern touch to any project. QR codes are capable of holding a variety of information such as web links, plain text, and even business cards.

in real life
in VR

Why would I want to paint a QR code?

Some of the reasons you might want to stencil a QR code on a surface:

  • Connecting your customers to free Wi-Fi access
  • Transmit your vCard info
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Guiding people in an unfamiliar environment
  • Registration for an event
  • Any place where you want to publicly link to more in-depth information

Other options besides painting on a surface

You can also:

  • use QR code stickers or posters
  • display on a screen
  • print a URL for a user to type

But I think we agree that a QR code is cooler when it’s stenciled on the wall.

QR code that represents a URL
photo of a painted QR code that represents a URL
QR code representing a Shakespeare sonnet
This QR code represents a Shakespeare sonnet: scan to see which one!

QR codes have two components

QR codes have two components: the alignment and the information part. The big square bulls-eyes on three of the four corners are for orienting your reader so that the information in the center can be recognized properly (that’s where all the detail is). The big squares don’t have to be so perfect, but the part in the center should be as clear as you an make it.

QR codes can be in any color, but black on white works best, because that has the highest contrast. (Ordinarily we recommend that you leave out the layer that corresponds to the surface color, but in this case it’s probably best to cover the surface with white and then paint the black layer.)

Incorrect scan

When QR codes fail, they don’t get ‘a little bit’ wrong. They just don’t scan. The reason for this is clear, right? If you took the trouble to go all over town and stencil a QR code with the url USPS.COM in it, and then a week later it got a little smudged and started reading UPS.COM instead of USPS.COM, that would totally defeat the purpose.

QR codes don’t get wrong; they just stop working.

How to create your QR code

Click here to turn a URL or vCard or a poem into a QR code. (Or, if you want you can try Canva’s QR code generator.)

A simple search for “QR code generators” will provide you with several options to choose from. Add the information you want to encode, and then customize it by changing colors and settings such as error correction level, size, etc. Additionally, you may add an image to the background of the code if you want.

Once you have downloaded the QR code, upload it here. You’ll receive nine variations in an email. In the email, click on the last two (both of which are two-color variations).

choose the two two-color variants to see how they stencilize

If the more detailed, sharper variant stencilizes okay, use it (because it will be sharper, and stay legible longer). If for some reason that version does not turn out to be cuttable, then you can use the slightly less sharp version (which will improve the connectability of the points).

Cutting Your QR Code Stencil

Download the SVG from Bay Stencil. The best material to use is vinyl because it is easy to cut and is flexible enough to fit around curves.

Instructions are different depending on the kind of cutter you have.

See cutting instructions for any of these methods:

Painting The QR Code

Before you start painting, make sure to cover the area around the stencil with newspaper or a drop cloth to protect the surface from any paint splatter. Once your stencil is in place, it is time to paint your QR code. Make sure you are using non-toxic paints in a color that will contrast the wall surface so that your stencil is clearly visible.

It’s easiest to use spray paint, but you can also use a brush or roller to apply the paint, making sure to use even strokes and to fill in all the details of the QR code. Allow the paint to dry for a minute or two before removing the stencil.

Once the paint is dry, you can remove the stencil and admire your work. Make sure to take a picture of your QR code and share it with your friends and family.

Test To See That Your QR Code Works

Once the paint has dried, use a smartphone or tablet with a QR code scanner app installed to see if your code works. Scanning your code should bring up the information or web page you encoded in your QR code.

Test each spray of your QR code to make sure it works. Each surface can be a little bit different (it can be uneven, or it can absorb more paint, for example) so you want to make sure it works wherever you paint it.

QR code stencil color schemes

You can try black on pink or navy blue on yellow, because those are also high-contrast. But don’t invert the colors (don’t swap the black and the white, for example), because QR code readers aren’t prepared for that.

Will the stencil bridges keep my code from working?

Probably not. As long as the width of the bridges is small compared to the areas of contrast in the QR code, it won’t affect the ability to read the code.

What if my QR code is really big?

If the information encoded by your QR code is longer than a URL or an SMS, it may be pretty complex. The Shakespeare sonnet QR code above would have to be about two feet across to work as a stencil, for example. On an average surface, the smallest white or black square should be no smaller than the size of a pencil eraser.

Your QR code will eventually become unreadable, so keep an eye on it

Keep an eye on QR codes that you spread around. As the elements take their toll, the code will eventually become unscannable. If your QR code is branded (perhaps you put your logo beside it, for example), then you don’t want to frustrate users who try to scan your code after it’s no longer readable.

In particular, you could plan for your QR code to last for the duration of a promotion. If you paint it using black and white spray chalk, it might last two weeks or more. Once the promotion is over, return to the site and remove or clean up the QR code so that you don’t frustrate users who attempt to scan.

Tracking where people scan your QR code

Some folks want to be able to track how many people scan the QR code from various locations. If you want to know how many site visitors you have from scanning at Location A (say, on Elm St) versus how many site visitors you have from scanning at Location B (5th Ave), then you actually should make two stencils with two different URLs. For example, you might set up two different URLs and create stencils for the corresponding QR codes:

  • www.mysite.com/?loc=elm_st
  • www.mysite.com/?loc=5th_ave

So when you get traffic to your website, you can check your analytics and separate out the traffic from Elm St scans versus 5th Ave scans. When you paint the stencils, make sure you paint the right stencil in the right location. It helps to write the URL (or at least the location) right on the stencil with a sharpie to keep it clear and simple.

There are a few other ways to gather location data at the destination site as users scan your codes, but this is the only airtight way to know which code they scanned without asking for additional information and permission from the user.