Bike banners


The one accessory that turns a gang of cyclists into a spectacle is a banner – or, rather, lots of them. For over ten years now, I’ve been involved in bike- and rickshaw-based campaining, and have developed a simple (if somewhat labour-intensive) technique for mass-producing these attention grabbers.



My preferred material is white “Silkytex” – a lightweight polyester(?) fabric, available in a 1140mm width at around £1 a running metre. The finished shape of the banner is about 1700mm long and 340mm deep where it fixes to the pole, tapering to 230mm at the tail. When buying the material, I reckon on getting 4 banners per 1.8 running metres.

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banner_designsObviously, you’ll need to pick a design/slogan that fits this shape of banner. It’s also important to keep the design as simple as possible, as you’ll need to hand-cut a stencil for it. The most complex design I’ve produced using this method was the Jubilee 2000 DROP THE DEBT one shown here – which also came in French and Italian versions. The MAKE POVERTY HISTORY banners were produced in sufficient numbers to justify the cost of screen-printing: the strap line beneath the main text would have been too fiddly to create with a hand-cut stencil.

You’ll need to consider legibility as well. Many observers will catch just a glimpse of the banner, maybe from an odd angle, distorted by the wind or even from the wrong side (as if read in a mirror). This is another reason for keeping the message short, clear and in a very readable typeface.

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Mounting the pole

mph0036To fly the banners, you’ll need bamboo canes at least 2 metres long. Any shorter, and you’re likely to get the banner caught up in the chain or wheels. I nicked some of my wife’s garden canes that she got from Homebase.

My preferred method of attachment is a short (230mm) length of plastic overflow pipe gaffer-taped to the left front fork and mudguard stays so that it’s vertically in line with the handlebars.

The traditions of the Rickshaw Freedom Riders dictate that you block off the bottom end of the tube with a 10p piece held in place with gaffer tape. I find that this socket arrangement holds the cane perfectly well when it sits immediately in front of the handlebars – usually no need to tape/strap the pole to the handlebars. Nice and easy to remove for going through doorways, boarding trains etc.

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Riding with a banner

Some people prefer their banner mounted at the back – but I prefer to have it at the front where I can keep an eye on it. Most of the time, even at slow speeds, it’s streaming out behind you. Occasionally, however, while waiting at traffic lights, a slight breeze might blow it into your face – but I’ve never found this to be a real problem. The drawbacks of having it at the back are that (a) you can’t control it and (b) you can’t see what it’s up to. Many’s the time I’ve seen someone flying a bare bamboo pole because the banner got removed by an overhanging tree a few miles back and the rider didn’t notice.

Most of the time, banners are a real boost to safety, as they make you a lot more visible to other traffic (which is why recumbent riders often fly a pennant). The main safety issue to be aware of with banners, however, is that horses can be severely freaked out by them, rearing up and putting their riders at risk. Always furl your banner when approaching horses on the road and proceed with caution.

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Production technique

The basic idea is to spray the design onto the fabric through a hand-cut stencil, using spray cans of cellulose paint (unfortunately, fairly toxic stuff – sorry).

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Cutting the fabric


For this stage, you’ll need a marking-out board at least 2m x 0.6m. (Later, at the printing stage, you’ll need a base board at least 2m x 0.4m. White-faced Contiboard or similar is ideal for both of these, and it would be possible to use the same 0.6m wide board for both, using one side for marking out, and the other for printing.)

With a pencil, mark out the board as shown by the blue lines. The lower horizontal blue line represents the centre-line of the material, so four banners of these dimensions can be cut from a 1.8m length of material 1140mm wide.

Spray a very little Spraymount adhesive onto the board, to help hold the fabric in place while marking out.

Using the edges of a large rectangular table as a guide, cut the fabric into approximately 1.8m lengths.

Take a length of fabric and align one edge along the top edge of the board, using masking tape to hold the top corners in place. Smooth down carefully and tape down the bottom “corners”.

With a straight edge and HB pencil, mark the position of the blue lines onto the fabric. Don’t worry if the fabric is slightly shorter than indicated by the blue lines – the length is not critical provided the design fits on without looking too cramped at either end. Bear in mind, though, that the head end will need an extra 40-50mm in order to form the pole pocket.

Before making these 2 long cuts, the fabric needs to be sealed to prevent fraying. Brush cellulose dope, suitably thinned, along the pencil lines. When dry (almost instantly), use sharp, good quality dress-making scissors to cut along the lines.

The other half of the fabric length can now be marked, sealed and cut, using the same technique. The head and tail ends of the banners will be trimmed and sealed once the image has been applied.

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Making the stencil

First you’ll need a full size copy of your banner design to use as a cutting template. Assuming you’ve used a Mac or PC to create your design, you’ll need to print it out in sections and tape them together – many applications allow you to “tile” the print-outs to achieve this. Make sure that the complete design fits comfortably into the shape of the fabric pieces, with plenty of room at each end.

The stencil should be cut from transparent plastic sheet, thin enough to cut easily with a scalpel or modelling knife, but not so thin that it flops under its own weight. PVC or polystyrene sheet (available from craft shops) about 0.3-0.5mm thick is probably about right. Cut the stencil in manageable sections: tape a section of the design print-out to a suitable cutting board (eg hardboard) and tape the plastic sheet on top. Use a fresh blade and – where possible – a straight-edge.

The centres of letters like “O” and “P” (the typographic term is “counters”, but we’ll call them “middle bits”) should be kept somewhere safe, as these will be dealt with later.

When the complete design has been cut, Sellotape the stencil sections carefully together, ensuring that no distortion is introduced – the complete stencil should lie completely flat on the baseboard, without wrinkles. The middle bits are now fixed in position using lengths of thread held in place with super-glue: this is a fiddly operation but this rather flimsy looking arrangement seems to work fairly well.

The stencil should now be mounted in a suitable frame. I use a sheet of MDF a bit bigger than the banner, with a hole cut in it and strips of wood fixed along each long edge to give it strength and to act as handles. The stencil is then taped to the underside of the frame, again ensuring that it lies flat against the baseboard.

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Spraying the image onto the fabric

This operation is messy and – above all – smelly. Make sure the room you use has adequate protection from overspray, has no naked flames and is well ventilated. It’s a good idea to have plenty of fresh air breaks when spraying the banners – and remember that Spraymount adhesive, cellulose dope and cellulose spray paints are all harmful to inhale and highly flammable.

Before starting the production run, apply a little Spraymount adhesive to the baseboard and the underside of the stencil. The outline of the banner fabric should be pencilled onto the baseboard and the print-out of the design taped temporarily in position so that the stencil can be aligned and the position of the frame also marked on the baseboard.

Remove the stencil and print-out from the baseboard, and smooth a piece of fabric into position, ensuring that any wrinkles are removed. Align the stencil frame to the marks and, pressing firmly, run a finger around the edge of all the holes in the stencil – the aim is to make sure that the stencil is everywhere held firmly against the fabric. Time and care invested at this stage will help to ensure a clean image. Don’t forget to press the middle bits firmly into position too.

If any of the banner edges are protruding beyond the frame, use newspaper to protect them from overspray. Now take a well shaken can of celulose spray paint and spray a light coat quickly over the whole stencil, keeping the can moving. Typically, it takes about 15 seconds to complete a pass. Now do a second pass while standing at the other side of the baseboard.

banners_at_restThe stencil can now be gently lifted off by raising one end and allowing it to unstick itself from the fabric. Don’t rush this process. If the fabric lifts off the baseboard instead, you’ll need a bit more Spraymount on the baseboard before you take the next impression. Place the stencil somewhere safe (eg: prop it against a wall) and pull the banner carefully off the baseboard, making sure that the wet paint is not allowed to make contact with anything. Drape the banner somewhere suitable to dry (I use a stepladder).

For banners in more than one colour, a separate stencil will need to be made for each one. Designs that require precise alignment of two or more colours should be avoided, as this can be tricky to achieve.

To complete the banner, the tail end should be sealed and cut to a suitable length. The head end should also be cut to length and a sewing machine used to form the pole pocket, closed at the top and incorporating nylon cord at the bottom to secure the banner to the pole.

Producing these banners requires a lot of time, but the results are well worth the effort invested. Why not give it a go?

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Bill Phelps