how to make holes for string art signs

How to make nail holes for string art signs?

This is a question we get a lot. With each timelapse we post on Instagram there are a few questions dedicated to this topic.

So here it comes - GoodStrings overview on the topic of making holes in the wood base for string art signs.

I firmly believe if you want to try out making your first or even second string art sign then you don't need fancy tools for making it - just the basic set - hammer and pliers will be enough to get you through.

HOWEVER, if you have fallen in love with string art and/or you are a serious maker who is thinking of making a business of it here you will find some insights into how I am making them. 

The technique for holes for string art signs has evolved together with us (GoodStrings) - since 2015 we have done it in 3 ways and I will try to explain each of them.

Generally, all of them have some advantages over the other and some disadvantages.

So without any further adieu - let's begin!  

THE CLASSIC - let's nail the pattern (figuratively) to the board.

So this is how we started and did for a long, long time and it worked - just did take a bit more frustration and nerves to do. 

So the basic idea is:

1) Print out the paper pattern

2) Align the pattern on your chosen wood base

3) Scotch the pattern onto the wood base so it holds firmly

4) Once the preparation steps are done start hammering the nails into the dots marked on the pattern and nail in all the nails marked. 

5) Have a moment to enjoy the sight and then start tearing down the paper pattern so that the nails are left in the wood but the paper is left in a cute pile next to your wood base.

6) Start stringing your sign

nail over paper pattern

So one major ADVANTAGE of this basic approach is that you don't need any extra tools to hammer in the nails... though you might need eyebrow tweezers and that leads to the main DISADVANTAGE - the small and annoying small bits and pieces of paper that could be stuck under some nails. 

Yes - for the small pieces use tweezers or a sharp paper knife to nudge them out or cut them off. If you plan to make small string art signs with relatively few nails and you are not bothered with nudging out the small pieces this is a great way how to do it all day every day. 

small bits of paper left under nails

Oh, and though it is quite obvious - you can not re-use the pattern as you most probably tear it to pieces when you remove it from the wood base. 


Also, with this technique, use low gsm paper (thinner) so that it rips more easily. Store your expensive 120 gsm paper for more fancy stuff. If your printer allows it, you can print the pattern on tracing paper or a white baking sheet.

 Also, be sure that your wood isn't too soft and your nails stay firmly in place. The worst-case scenario is that you pull out some nails with your high-density paper from the wood base. I usually used 80 gsm paper and though I needed to deal with small pieces of paper and tweezers I never pulled out nails from the wood base. 

 One more advantage that shouldn't be overlooked is that black dots on white paper stands out - you can see them whereas other methods add more tension to your eyes. 

 So to sum up - if you want to try out making your first sign to dip your toe in the string art sign world do this first. Don't invest in tools for your first sign - make it this way.

If your patience level is high and you don't mind nudging the paper out - make it this way. 

Hell, I did this like this for at least 3 to 4 years and it worked fine then I remembered a tool I used in school and that brings me to the second type of making the holes... 

The long-forgotten tool - THE AWL.

So this in no way is a forgotten tool in case you work with leather for others it seems to be a bit unknown tool at least from my experience. 

It is a sharp pointy thing you can poke hard things with and leave noticeable indents in it.

awl - for making holes for string art nails

The process is quite similar to the one described before

1) Print out the paper pattern

2) Align the pattern on your chosen wood base

3) Scotch the pattern onto the wood base so it holds firmly

4) Poke holes where the dots on the pattern are. Do it firmly enough that the tip of an awl goes in the wood and leaves an indent

5) Once all holes have been poked remove the paper from the wood base

6) Turn on the light and find the awl-made indents on your wood base. These are the places where you need to hammer in nails. 

7) Hammer in the nails

holes make with an awl for string art signs

The advantage of this approach is that you don't have to deal with the small pieces of paper stuck under nails and you can re-use the pattern for other signs. The disadvantage is that you need one additional tool to make your sign and you could spend more time on smaller signs and save some time on larger ones using an awl (it is quick to nudge out 10 paper pieces but a real pain if you have 300+ and many signs waiting to be made).

To sum up (and to be honest) - awl isn't an expensive tool and if you have a bit more extra time for poking holes and you hate those small pieces of paper and don't want to spend a lot of money on an upgrade - do it. 


THE NEW AGE - some kind of drill

So at first, I wasn't convinced about this and had so many skeptical questions - is it worth it, will the nails stay in and not fall out, is it faster, do I need it, and so on.

On Instagram, I have seen a lot of variations on what kind of drills makers are using for making those holes - from the big handheld ones or even those mounted on tabletop drill presses to pen-like drills. 

Depending on the brand, there are a lot of drill bit adapters you can use to mount thin (with a small diameter) drill bits to use with your handheld drill. I have not tried this personally as I cannot fathom how to do really precise drilling with a tool that is heavy and partly covers your line of sight each time you get to the next hole. On the plus side, you will work on your arm muscles.

One day my relative showed me this tool Dremel that he bought for craving things in wood and at that moment I didn't give much thought to it - fast forward a few months and I realized that that small tool has many uses and one being a drill. I borrowed the tool which is much lighter than any Bosch drill I know and ordered the small drill bits that are NOT included in the standard set nor is the adapter to hold them.

dremel drill for string art nail holes

As you might have already read in my "Which nails to use for string art signs?" blog - I use nails that are 1 or 1.2 millimeters in diameter therefore drill bits' diameter must be smaller than your nail diameter. For example - I use 0.8 mm drill bits for my 1 mm nails and 1 mm drill bits for my 1.2 mm nails. 

holes drilled with dremel drill for string art nails

 Once I was happy with the holes that my borrowed Dremel tool produced I decided to order my own and I found one smaller than the one I tested which resembles a thick marker with a wire at the end of it (if I am not mistaken then they had battery-powered options as well for those of you who are looking for portable solutions).

But it is not all sunshine and roses with using a drill - drill bits may break and they may break while inside your wood base. 

If you want your nails to be straight you need to be sure that you drill on a flat surface and the drill bit goes in perpendicularly to your wood base (looking at you, you sofa-sitting-pillow hugging guys). 

The same as with the awl - you have to manually drill each bit and then add the nails - each pattern dot will need your attention whereas not all nails with the first technique (hammer over pattern) will have paper stuck under them.

Drill bits need to be replaced once in a while and if you plan to replace them with the original stuff it can get quite expensive fast - there are some China alternatives to explore. 

You also have to be cautious of how deep you drill - I have glued on a paper tape marker so I know how deep I have to go each time that all my nails look closely the same height once they are hammered in.

Also, while it looks like a big marker it does not have the weight of one - your hand will get tired at first. 

Oh, and then there is drill dust - heck, I don't understand how so much dust can come from holes as little as this - but the answer is a lot. Be ready to do some cleaning after a day of drilling. 

The last notable disadvantage is the price - it is not cheap. If you want to keep using the original replacement drill bits, the smaller bit sizes don't come separately. You need to buy their set of 6 small drill bits (all in different sizes) and at least for my nails, only 2 can be used - the remaining 6 are useless for me. 

Also, please note that you will still need to use a hammer to get in the nails. In the beginning, I hoped that I will be able just to place those nails in the hole, squeeze a bit, and be done - no hammering - this is not how it works. 

On the positive side - you can reuse the pattern, you don't have to worry about any branches in your wood base - nails won't bend on them as the hole is made with the drill already, hammering process is faster and not as loud (I live in a flat and this is really important for me). 

For me, the small drill technique works - the few advantages it has outweighs the disadvantages, but it is for you to decide what works for YOU the best. 

To sum it all up...

If you are just starting out - do the first one - tear down the pattern, and nudge out a few paper pieces - all will be good. 

If you think about doing string art more often AND paper nudging is a problem for you - try dotting the pattern with an awl before hammering in the nails. 

And in case you are invested enough in string art and you know that you are short on time or nerves with nudging the papers out and most of your designs are quite large - do it. Invest in dremel and all the spare parts it will need over time.

Thank you for reading this and I hope this will help you to decide on the way how to make your string art holes :)

In case you are interested in more string art related posts check out these:

Which threads to use when making string art?

Which nails to use for string art signs?

Also, it would mean a world to me if you could check out our digital pattern section and maybe get one for your future string art projects - String Art Patterns

Do you know some more techniques? Please share them in the comments section below!

Happy Crafting! XOXO

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Hi Sally,
yes, paper bits drove me crazy as well – I think I messed up some of the wood bases just by trying to get them out :D.
I think that the awl is the best option if you don’t need to use dremel for something else and don’t make signs every day. Also, I have seen that some people add really tiny drill bits to their big drills but I can not imagine how to get precision with that… I guess practise is the key.


Thank you for the blog. I also started with the paper method and drove me nuts with paper stuck (OCD). I now use awl. I tried to get dremel but didn’t know I need an adapter. So I gave up on that part.

Sally Johnston

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