We’ve featured a lot of nicely designed icons for Windows, but have you ever wondered how to create your own? Load up a web browser and GIMP (or your favorite photo editor), and we’ll show you how to turn any image into an ICO file.

Being able to use high-res icons really goes a long way to making your PC look fantastic, but it’s just so annoying when you can’t find one that looks the way you want it to. So make them yourself, and really give Windows the custom look you’ve been craving.

Grabbing Graphics for Custom Icons

Google Image search.

Your new icons can be whatever you want, or whatever you can Google. You can design your own, if you’re artistically inclined, but for the sake of demonstration, we’ll simply grab something simple from Google Images. If there are multiple versions of the graphic you’re looking for, grab the best looking one at the highest resolution, which should be above 256 x 256 pixels. Higher is fine, but smaller could give you a low-resolution icon!

Preparing the Image

The next step is to remove the parts of the image you don’t want in your icon. We’ll use GIMP, the popular free and open-source image editor, for this but you can use another image editor if you prefer it. The principles will be the same.

Fortunately, our example image has clean, well-defined black lines around the subject and a plain background. That makes the fuzzy select tool (Magic Wand in Photoshop) the ideal tool for the job. For images with more complex backgrounds, you’ll need to use more complex methods.

First, we need to make sure our image has an alpha channel. Alpha channels allow images to have transparency. In the case of our icon, it’ll ensure we don’t have an unsightly pure white background.

Open your image in GIMP, then go to the right-hand side and look for the layers menu. There will probably only be one layer, unless you’ve downloaded something like a PSD file. Right-click the layer, and then click “Add Alpha Channel.” If the option is greyed out, you’re in luck — the image you downloaded already has an alpha channel.

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Then we need to tweak some settings for the fuzzy selection tool. Activate the fussy selection tool by clicking the icon near the top left, then tick the box that says “Show Mask.”

The mask isn’t strictly necessary, but it is helpful. It highlights the region being selected in bright pink while left-clicking, making it much easier to see. Once you release left-click, the pink mask will disappear but your region will still be selected. Hit the Delete key to remove the selected region.

One region highlighted using the magic wand with masking enabled.

In this case, clicking on the white background once isn’t enough, since the black lines outlining Mario meet the edge of the image. You have three options:

  1. Delete the white background piece by piece until it is all gone.
  2. Shift+Left-Click each region formed by the black outline of Mario (or his plane) meeting the edge of the image, and then delete them all at once.
  3. Adjust the tolerance of the fuzzy selection wand to select all of the regions in one click, and then delete them simultaneously.
Tip: The third method is really convenient for this example. If you have the fuzzy selection tool active, left-clicking once will select a region. If you hold left-click and drag right or down, it increases the tolerance, and dragging left or up decreases the tolerance. Hold left-click in the first region you want to delete, and then drag your cursor right until all of the white regions are selected. Don’t drag your cursor into the character or his plane — then they’ll also be selected.

Once you’ve selected and deleted all of the white background, you should see the pilot and his plane on a grey checkered background.

Pilot with the entire white background removed.

Click File > Export As and export the image as a PNG. Keep the default save settings and name the image whatever you like.

Making an Icon

Once we have our image cleaned up, we need to make it the correct size. Icons come in various sizes, but they’re always square. Common sizes for Windows icons are 256×256, 48×48, 32×32, 24×24, and 16×16, but there are plenty of others. Icon files, ICOs, often store multiple versions of the same icon at different resolutions. That way the icon can accommodate being used at different sizes.

RELATED: Everything You Know About Image Resolution Is Probably Wrong

First, resize the image by hitting Shift + s or by navigating to Tools > Transform Tools > Scale. The box that pops up shows you the width and height of the image you’re working with — change the larger of the two quantities to 256, then click Scale. The other quantity should change correspondingly. If the image isn’t perfectly square, don’t worry about it.

We now have to resize the canvas so it is 256×256. Go to Image > Canvas Size, set the canvas size to 256×256, and then click resize.

If your starting image wasn’t exactly 256×256, it won’t be properly centered on either the length or width axis. The easiest way to fix this is just to eyeball it with the move tool.

Select the move tool.

You can add guidelines to help you get it exactly centered if you’d like to be more precise. Go to Image > Guides > New Guide (By Percent), and place a guide at 50%. If your image is not centered vertically, use a horizontal guide; if it is not centered horizontally, use a vertical guide.

The guide appears as a blue line through the middle of the canvas — when you click the image with the move tool, a tiny white cross appears in the middle of the image. Click and drag the image with the move tool until the cross is as close to the blue line as possible.

Small cross at the guide line created.

Once that is done, you need to create the other sizes. Right-click the original layer and click “Duplicate Layer”, or left-click the layer and hit Ctrl+d. There are four duplicates in this example. Double-click each layer and rename it something descriptive, like 256×256, 48×48, 24×24, etc. Then select each layer and scale it to the correct size using the transform tools, just like you did before.

Creating additional guides for each icon size makes positioning the layers a breeze. For any given icon size you’ll want to place guides at half of the total width and height to locate the center point. Once again navigate to Image > Guides, but this time select “New Guide” instead of “Guides by Percent.” For example, if you have a 48×48 size, place both the horizontal and vertical guides at 24. Then use the move tool to move each icon into place.

Note: If you don’t care what your working file looks like, you don’t really need to organize the layers in a specific way like this. The important thing is that each layer is scaled correctly.

Click File > Save, and save the entire project as an XCF. If there is a problem, or you want to change something later, having the working file around is invaluable.

After that, you need to go to File > Export As, click “Select File Type”, and search for “.ico” in the file extensions list. Name your icon, then click “Export.” Go ahead and keep the default settings in the popup, then click “Export” again.

Creating the icon was the hard part — all that is left is to use your custom icon. If you want to create a completely new icon, you can also do that in GIMP. Alternatively, you could use a program like Inkscape.

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Nick Lewis is a staff writer for How-To Geek. He has been using computers for 20 years --- tinkering with everything from the UI to the Windows registry to device firmware. Before How-To Geek, he used Python and C++ as a freelance programmer. In college, Nick made extensive use of Fortran while pursuing a physics degree.
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