How to Decorate a Custom Graduation Cap

It's finally here...

The authoritative guide to decorating your own custom graduation cap.

I'm so excited to share with you all my tips and tricks for decorating the perfect graduation cap!

If you remember from last year, I created a guide for How to Attach Your Graduation Cap Decoration.  Today we are moving backwards in the process...all the way to the beginning!

I have been decorating graduation caps since 2015, back when I graduated from college.  Little did I know, my idea of "best practices" would change and develop immensely over a few short years!

I sell my custom graduation caps caps over at my Etsy shop, MidwestMermaidArt.  I take a limited number of clients each semester so that I can truly pour my heart and soul into every single one.

There are a lot of mistakes and tricks I've learned along the way that I think would be better if you knew before starting a custom graduation cap of your own.

Since I can't decorate everyone's cap, I feel like it's only right to share what information I do know with those of you who will be decorating your own caps.  From conception to finished product, every step of the process is important and should not be overlooked.  In this post, I'm going to be focusing on "idea generating" all the way to supply collection.  You can then hop to my post from last year for instructions on how to attach your decoration to your cap, linked a couple paragraphs above.

Here we go!

Step 1: Brainstorm!

In my opinion, this is the most important part.  This is the part where you determine what aspects of your personality will be on display for all to see on graduation day.  Some people know EXACTLY what they want, while others are completely clueless!  

While I do think it's great to peruse Pinterest and other sites for ideas...  It can also be a slippery slope.  Even for me, it can become overwhelming with the amount of ideas that are out there.  And on another note, sometimes you may forget where someone else's ideas start and yours begin.  

For instance, in my shop, I will not recreate an exact duplicate of another artist's work.  I will use it for inspiration, to understand the direction the customer wants to go design-wise, but it ends there.  But when someone hires me to decorate their cap, chances are they are looking for something completely original anyways.  Originality is always best!

To create something that is never-before-seen, here are some great places to start:

-Color scheme: Many people choose their favorite colors, school colors, or the colors that will match their outfit.  I recommend just choosing colors you truly like!  The best place to start is to pick a background color.  What vibe do you want to set for the rest of your cap design?
A lot of people don't know this, but I never use the fabric of a cap as a background.  I ALWAYS use a completely separate piece of colored paper to use as the background, even if it's the same color as the cap.  It will create a much flatter surface to decorate.  More on this later!
-Quote: Completely personal, always meaningful.  Some people know right away that they want a particular word, phrase, or quote on their cap.  For others, they are in the beginning stages of idea generating.  For those who claim to be "clueless," I usually recommend they try to find a quote that speaks to them!  It's an easy place to begin and you can always build ideas around it.
-Images: Do you love dogs?  Are you going to be a nurse, event planner, mechanical engineer?  Do you travel a lot?  What's your favorite football team?  What do these questions all have in common?  Almost nothing!  Except that I have created a cap based on every single one of these themes.  Just think of your favorite things!  How do people know you best?  What are you most proud of?  There is always going to be a way to work these themes into your cap.

Step 2: Sketch!

First of all, can we make sure we are decorating our cap facing the right direction?  It may sound funny, but people have done it the wrong way!  It should look like a DIAMOND as you're decorating, not a square.  When decorating your cap, you want it to be POINTY on the top and the bottom, NOT FLAT.  You want those who are behind you to be able to read it without cocking their head to the side!  When you've never decorated a cap before, it's not the first thing you may think of. But it's super important!

Now that we've got that straightened out, let's get to sketching!

I like to use a blank sheet of paper and draw the shape of a cap (diamond), with the points in the right directions.  Draw a circle to represent the button in the middle.  Be thinking about that button as you are sketching your design!  You're going to have to deal with it at some point.

I make a list of all the important details to be included on top for reference.  Then I use a pencil to draw out how I think the cap should look.  The sketching process allows you to play around with different layouts.  Draw a few if you'd like!  That way you'll know that when you sit down to decorate your cap, you've already found the most visually appealing way to glue everything down.

I like to draw arrows pointing to each component of the cap indicating their color/texture (like glitter paper).  That makes it easier for supply shopping!

Step 3: Supplies & Shopping!

If you drew those arrows pointing to the different colors/textures of your cap, you basically have a shopping list already made.  Also keep in mind you may need to shop for embellishments (flowers, rhinestones, etc).

Best Places to Shop for Graduation Cap Supplies...

(These are my opinions based on price and quality.)

Paper (cardstock and scrapbook paper):  Hobby Lobby, Michael's, Papersource if you're feeling fancy (Keep in mind the many different colors, patterns, and textures you'll find at any of these stores! This will allow you to really get creative). Larger Joann Fabrics stores carry paper, others do not or have a limited selection.

Bows:  Hobby Lobby or Michael's (I use cheer bows).  If you can't find the color bow you want to use, you can make one out of ribbon.  For the same look, make sure the ribbon is at least 3in wide.

Faux Flowers: Hobby Lobby, obvi

Acrylic Paint: Walmart (cheapest for sure), Joann Fabrics, Michael's, Hobby Lobby (I use Americana, Folk Art, and Apple Barrel.  I do not use craft store brands because they tend to be super watered down and require way too many coats in order to look opaque.  Just pay the 50 cents extra for quality and be done with it, in my opinion.)

Rhinestones/Pearls: Hobby Lobby for silver, Michael's for colors (best deal is to buy them in large quantities, then share them with your fellow graduation cap decorators!). I always stick one big gem on the button at the end, which I currently buy them from Amazon in large quantities, but you can find them in the rhinestone mixes from Hobby Lobby too.

Stickers/Flowers: Hobby Lobby (If you want a shortcut, use letter stickers!  I also love the 3D flower sticker selection at both Hobby Lobby and Michael's).

Tacky Glue:  Walmart or any craft store.  Get some, you're going to need it.

Hot Glue:  For larger embellishments like faux flowers, use hot glue.  You can get a hot glue gun/extra glue sticks at Walmart or any craft store for pretty cheap.

Sharp blade for cutting small areas: You an find an Exacto knife at Walmart if you don't already have one.  I like to use a Penblade (size 15) which I found at Blick.

*Always download the Hobby Lobby app for your 40% off coupon, the Joann Fabrics app for different coupons every week, and sign up for Michael's coupons via email (you can also use competitors coupons there).  Keep in mind you can generally only use coupons on full price products.*

Step 4: Making a base for your design!

Let me just say - this is my least favorite part of the process.  I hate measuring!


Yes, some of you will get it right the first time.  I usually do too.  But wouldn't it be...I don't know...100x less stressful if you weren't painting, gluing, and bedazzling directly onto the ONLY surface you have?  What if you mess up on your one shot to get this right?

Not to mention, that fabric on top of the graduation cap can be pretty loose and cumbersome.  Not the best surface to be doing any type of art on top of.

So can we all agree...let's create a base to decorate on top of?  Which we will then attach to our cap quickly and easily, AFTER it is finished?

Good. Now that that's settled... Let me tell you what I do decorate on!

I like to find a really thin piece of non-corrugated cardboard.  Actually, it can be corrugated, but it does need to be pretty thin.  It looks better and it will be lighter in weight.  For instance, you can find this type of cardboard inside of a calendar or poster you'd purchase from the store.  I stalk Hobby Lobby for when their giant posters go on sale for $1.99, then I buy them all up and use the cardboard that keeps the poster stiff!

(Side note: Some people ask if they can just use cardstock/scrapbook paper as their base, which may work but I've never tried.  I prefer to use cardboard as the base, upon which I attach everything else.  I use different thicknesses of paper, depending on the design of the cap, and I want to make sure there's not going to be any buckling or bubbling once I use Tacky Glue to attach my base to the cap.  I could imagine that happening pretty easily with cardstock/scrapbook paper.)

Of course, the piece you need will only be about 9.5x9.5 inches max, but you MUST must must measure your own cap to find out for sure. They are not all made within those dimensions.  You will need to measure your cap and cut your cardboard to those exact measurements.

Then, one of the biggest quandaries I have encountered over the years - the placement of button by which your tassel will hang...  I'm not sure why, but it seems as if the graduation cap making companies have all conspired against me to determine that they will NEVER place the button directly in the middle of the cap!  It's usually off by a little, sometimes a lot.  This is why I no longer take orders for graduation caps without having the graduation cap in my hands.  It's way too hard to guess where the button is going to be!  This is why you'll need to take the ultimate care in measuring where the button is on your graduation cap.

Here's how to do it:
-Grab your cap.  Have your cardboard handy.
-Measure from one of the sides of the cap to the direct center of the button. Mark a line on your cardboard at that point.
-Turn it by 90 degrees.  Measure from that side of your cap to the direct center.  Mark another line on your cardboard so that you now have a + shape drawn in the middle.

Then you'll have to chisel out the hole in the middle for your button to fit through!  I use an Exacto knife, or my current favorite, the Penblade (size 15) because it's curved and easier to cut a circle with.  I'll do the best I can to describe the process I use to cut the circle.  First, I trace that + shape with the blade, making it through to the other side of the cardboard.  Then I use the blade to connect each point of the cross shape (so 4 triangles).  Then I place it on top of the cap to make sure I'm on the right track.  If I am, I'll round out those triangles by cutting 2 semi-circles.  
If that's still confusing, I do have these shapes drawn out in my "Grad Caps" highlight on Instagram @midwestmermaidart.

Once you have this process finished, your cardboard is cut to fit perfectly on top of your graduation cap, and your button fits through the hole you cut, it's time to adhere your background color to the cardboard.

For the flattest, most sleek look to your background piece, I recommend using Tacky Glue and a paintbrush to glue your piece of scrapbook paper down.  Just make sure the cardboard is has a nice thin coating of glue all over it.

(Hypothetically, you could use a gluestick, but I haven't had the best experience with this.  The paper seems to lift and bubble in spots upon drying when I use a gluestick.  It's just not right for this project.)

Then I pick the cardboard up and flip the it right on top of the scrapbook paper and let it dry for a bit!  Once I feel like it's ready, I'll trim off the sides of the scrapbook paper with scissors.

Once you've finished and the glue is dry, I like to finish it off by using a Sharpie to make my edge black.  I just think it looks better than the brown cardboard.  
(Picture below of a base with one of the edges colored black, for reference!)

You now have your base ready for decoration!

Step 5: Decorate and piece it all together!

This is where your vision and imagination come into play!

I would highly advise laying or sketching everything out and THEN gluing it down. I pretty much use only Tacky Glue on my caps.  If it's a small piece of paper on top of paper, then I'll use a gluestick.  For anything big, like faux flowers, I use hot glue.

I can't describe exactly how to decorate a cap, because it's literally different every time.  But if you have any questions specific to what you're trying to accomplish on yours, please let me know!  Leave a comment below and I'll answer it.

A question that I get a lot is - How do I know if I've gone overboard with decorations or added too much?  Is there such a thing?

To be honest, I run into the opposite problem way more often.  I'm always adding, adding, adding to caps because I don't think they look quite complete.  But I'm actually the opposite of a minimalist, so in life and in design I'll always tell you that more is more and less is a bore.  I love when there are multiple dimensions to a design along with intricate details.  I don't like too much empty space, unless it's purposeful.  My thought is just to keep adding things until you feel like it's complete, but don't glue anything down until you're sure.

And ta da!  Your decoration is finished and ready to be attached to your cap.  Just make sure everything is DRY, especially any rhinestones or pearls, before moving onto the next step.

Step 6: Attach your decoration to your cap!

Please refer to THIS blog post for my entire run-down on how to attach your decoration to your cap!


Are you trying to get an amazing photo of your cap to show off to your friends and followers?!

I ALWAYS photograph my caps in natural light.  The best time to take your photo is when it's light outside. I shoot for the hours of 11am-3pm.  Make sure you're near a window when you take the photo.  Also try to think of a nice simple background to photograph on.  Choose something that will compliment, not detract, from the decorations on your cap!  Just trust me, a natural light photo will look way better than if you took the photo at night!

I know it's nearly impossible to answer every single question you may have in one blog post. Please feel free to reach out if you have any other questions about decorating your cap!

And if you want to bypass this entire process, I am still taking custom graduation cap orders (for certain weekends) of Spring/Summer 2018 at my Etsy shop: MidwestMermaidArt!

Until next time,