Making Your Own Wall Charts

Have you ever had trouble finding a wall chart that shows *exactly* what you need?  Or if you did find one, was it prohibitively expen$ive?  The solution to this problem may just be to make your own!   It's fairly easy and much cheaper than buying charts that probably won't be as sturdy.  Here you'll find step-by-step directions for making them. 

Click on the thumbnails for full-size images.

You will need:

Getting Started

NOTE: These directions assume you will be drawing and laying out your own chart.  You could also tape fabric to the wall and project a design on it for tracing.

1.  Plan your design.  If you need to, make it exactly the same size as the finished chart.  Lay out images and text exactly as you want them.  Make sure it will fit on your fabric with room around all four sides–two sides will have hems and two will have pockets for the dowels. The dowels may be at the top and bottom or at the sides.  Just remember that the short dimension of your chart is limited by the length of your dowels. (Ex: if your dowels are 36", your short dimension can only be this big.)

laying out chart

2.  Wash and dry the fabric.  No fabric softener needed!  If it’s going to shrink, stretch, fray,  disintegrate, or otherwise misbehave, you want to know that NOW, before you put in any hard work. Also, if there are no finishing chemicals in the fabric, the results will be better.  

3.  Iron the fabric.  You may need to spritz it with water to get out stubborn wrinkles.

iron fabric

4.  Square it up.  You may need to tug on opposite corners to straighten the grain.  The selvedges should be straight.  You may need to square the other two sides by raveling or cutting back to the first thread that goes the entire length.  Often, if you pull a thread and keep gathering it, you can get it most of the way out.  When it’s gone, you will have a straight grain line to cut on. 

Getting the design onto the fabric

5.  Tape the fabric to a (clean!) table, using the T-square as a guide.  You want it flat, smooth, and secure, with all of it on the table at once if at all possible. 
fabric on table

6.  Tick-mark the center line lightly along the top and bottom edges, and use tape to demarcate the right and left margins.  Remember that you want to leave room for hems, dowel pockets, and  visual white space.

7.  Place your figures and draw them in very lightly.  You cannot erase pencil very well on fabric, and even then only with a white eraser or one made for drafting film.  I suspect you could use an air-dissolving pen, but in humid climates, the ink doesn’t last long, and I’m always leery of using them on something that won’t be washed.  Found objects can be useful here-–trace plates for circles, etc.

8.  Using the T-square to guide placement, put down masking tape to be your writing guidelines.  Use the ruler to help ensure that lettering areas are the same height if they need to match.  One piece of tape can provide the bottom edge of one line and the top edge of another.  At this point it is helpful to use the T-square held along the bottom or top edge of the table to transfer your center-line tick mark to all the pieces of tape so you always know where your center is.

laying tapeusing T-square to lay tapestarting tapetape all down

9.  Very lightly, block in your text in pencil.  You’ll be writing over this with a Sharpie, so give yourself room for fat letter lines.  Be careful with spelling.  For some reason, going carefully letter by letter often leads to more mistakes than writing normally! If your handwriting is illegible, practice neat block letters beforehand, or get someone else to do this step!  (I find that years of drafting experience has been useful for this!)  Depending on the size of your chart, you may find that you have to climb onto the table.  Keeps you limber.

10.  Go over your pencil with Sharpie.  Go slowly enough so that you can be neat, but try not to pause with the pen on the fabric or it will bleed along the threads.  This is especially important when going over the figures-–use long strokes on the curves rather than short ones. Use the tape as guidelines, but avoid catching the pen tip on the tape, as that will make a fatter or smudgy line.  Now is the time to check that spelling again!  (If you make an error, just offer your students two points for finding the typo.  Not that I've ever done this.  Nope.  Not me... Honest!)  Don’t be surprised if your letters don’t exactly match the spacing you penciled in.  If your pencil is light and your ink is neat, it won’t matter. NOTE: If you have a lot of inking to do, take some breaks.  Sharpie fumes are potent!  If some of your inking needs to go under where you have tape (tails or stalks of lower case letters, superscripts, commas, etc., ) do them after you remove the tape.

letters and center linesall lettered

11.  Remove the tape. (This is fun!)  See how professional this looks!  Add in any other inking–pointing lines, sub- or superscripts, punctuation, etc.   Now is the time to make any adjustments, remove cat hair, etc.

all inked

12.  Coloring time!  Use bright, bold colors with good contrast.  I like to shade each color with lighter and or darker colors for a little more depth.  Be creative, and remember that you don’t necessarily have to use colors found in nature.  Color *hard.* Color like a two-year old!  But be careful–mistakes are NOT removable.   It helps to outline with a pointed or edged crayon and then fill in with one of those big horse-leg crayons they give pre-schoolers.  This takes a *lot* of wax.  If you borrowed Little Timmy’s crayons for this project, you will be buying him a new box.  Brush off any loose crumbs of wax from the background and text areas.

13.  Iron in the wax.  Cover your ironing board with several layers of brown paper or paper toweling.  Place the chart face down onto the paper and cover the back with several layers of paper towel.  Using an iron set on {"cotton with steam"  but without any water, press down on the paper over the chart.  Hold it there for several seconds.  (Count to 30 or sing the alphabet once.) Lift the paper and peek-–you should see that the wax has migrated into the fabric. The color will be much denser than in the un-pressed areas.  Repeat, section by section until you have melted all the wax into the fabric.  Look at and feel the front of the fabric.  It should no longer have wax you can scrape off.  At this point, you can re-color any bits you find you might have missed, and you can also touch up any ink lines that you have colored over, though Sharpie writes on wax only to a limited degree.  Re-iron if you re-color.

ironed (from the back)

Assembling the Chart

14.  Hem the two sides that will not have dowels
by turning the chart face down and folding up a scant 1/4" to the back side and then folding that over again.  Pin in place.  Note:  if you have a good selvedge along these edges that has no loose threads, you may want to skip this step, but I find that the hem really helps in giving a little heft and weight to the edges of the chart. 
Thread the sewing machine according to directions and set for straight stitch.  With the fold on top, sew each hem down along its inner edge.   You can tie off your threads or backstitch along the beginning or end of the seam, whichever you prefer.

pin the hemsewing the hem

15.  Measure for the dowel pockets.  Now, you can drag out your knowledge of pi and circumferences and figure out how wide to make these, or you can do what I do: Hold the dowel against the fabric and roll the fabric around the dowel to see where it comes.  Give yourself a little bit more for ease, and then enough more to fold the raw edge of the fabric under about 1/4". Measure how much you have to fold the fabric up to allow for the dowel pocket, the ease, and the turned-under edge.  (For a 1/2" dowel, I turn under 1/4" and then turn up a further 15/16 or so--just under an inch. Put the dowel aside.  Turn under the raw edge and pin the fabric over on itself at the distance you determined.  Do this all the way across, then do the same thing for the other dowel on the other end.

measure for dowel pocket

16.  Sew down the dowel pocket along the edge of the turned-under fold.  Start at the edge of the fabric and sew to the other edge.  Then stop with the needle in the fabric. Lift the presser foot and turn the fabric 90 degrees.  Then lower the presser foot and sew across the open end of the dowel pocket.  When you’ve done this, turn the work again and sew back across the end of the pocket for strength (or sew in reverse if your machine can do this.)  Knot or backstitch to secure ends.  Repeat with the other dowel pocket.

sew dowel pocketbottom of chart dowel pocket

17.  Insert the dowels. Slide the dowels into the pockets.  At this point, you may find that you need to shorten the dowels a little bit to allow for sewing the open ends of the pockets shut around the dowels.  A small saw or a Dremel tool can be used for this.  I usually use a coping saw, though I can tell you that a good hand pruning saw will work in a pinch .  When the dowels are the right length, slide them into the pockets.  Use a knotted thread in a hand-sewing needle to whip-stitch the pockets closed along the edges.  Knot and cut the thread.

18.  Attach hanging rings and ties.  Nearly done!   Cut about 10" of your tie material and prevent the ends from raveling by using Fray-check, dabbing on glue, melting, or knotting.  Fold the tie in half to find the center.  

If your chart is going to hang horizontally with the dowels running vertically, sew a ring to the top edge of each dowel pocket.  Then sew the center of the tie, cross-wise,  to the center of the edge of one dowel pocket.  To hang, put up two nails the proper distance apart and the hang chart by the rings.   To store, roll and tie.  If you need to put the chart someplace where you can’t/don’t have nails but can tie the chart to piping or suchlike, sew ties to the top corners as well.

If your chart is going to hang vertically with the dowels at top and bottom, sew the center of the tie, cross-wise,  to the center of the top of the top dowel pocket, then sew the ring down on top of it.  To hang, use a single nail, or tie up by the tie.  To store, roll and tie.

sewn ringsewn tie

19.  Admire your work!!!  Here's a shot of my favorite chart.  Nice and colorful!  We have about a dozen and a half of these now.  Some are general anatomy charts, and some of the highlight particular families.

chart hanging
Final notes:

A good way to store these is to find some empty wall or door space and put up a column of cup hooks.  Hang the charts by their rings (horizontal charts by their ties). You can even label the hooks!

If you ever need to wash one of these, you can wash by hand in cold water with mild soap and then hang it to dry.  For the love of all that's holy, don't remove the dowels and put the chart in the dryer! There's all that WAX, remember?  If you need to touch up the colors after washing, just re-color and iron the wax in as you did the first time.

Should a dowel ever break, just pick the stitches out of the hand-sewn end of the dowel pocket, replace the dowel, and resew the end. 

Something to think about:  Using this draw/color/iron protocol you can make yourself or someone you love a TRULY SPIFFY LAB COAT!  It also works on aprons, tote bags, etc.... Ooooo.  The possibilities!