How to Stencil

Stenciling Tools
A single overlay stencil is made up of one layer.
A single overlay stencil is made up of one layer.

Most stenciling supplies can be found at local craft and hobby stores, though you might need to check a hardware or home improvement store for tools such as a level, plumb line, or tape measure if these items aren't already stocked in your toolbox.

A wide variety of detailed stencils, high-quality brushes, and other accessories can be found in stencil catalogs as well as online.


Stencils are typically made from a stiff plastic called Mylar (a material that's sturdy enough for repeated use and that cleans up easily), though brass, coated paper, and acetate can also be used. They come in two basic types: single overlay and multiple overlay. This simply refers to the number of stencils required to get a complete image.

A single-overlay stencil is made up of one layer. These designs are usually simple and have obvious spaces, called bridges, between each part of the image. The bridges create distinct shapes that make up the design; without them, you would see just one big shape and no details.

Although pictures that are created with a single-overlay stencil will never be completely realistic, these are good stencils for the beginner. They are easy to apply, allowing you to develop a working technique. As your skills advance, you can make even single-overlay stencils look more complicated by blending colors, free-hand­ing details, and masking off areas to separate colors for a more realistic effect.

Color is added one layer at a time with a multiple-overlay stencil.

Multiple-overlay stencils allow for more realism because painted areas butt right up against each other rather than being separated by bridges. One single design is cut on multiple stencil sheets, as the name implies, with different areas on each over­lay. Color is added one layer at a time until the image is complete. The size and detail of the image determine how many layers there are to the stencil. The overlays are matched up with registration marks.

When marking registration points, make a mark through each hole on the first overlay.

Registration marks are small holes in the sides of the stencil; make a pen or pencil mark through each hole on the first layer, then line the holes up with the marks on subsequent layers.

Using a variety of paint brushes and applicators will help you achieve different looks.

Brushes and applicators

Stencil brushes, the most common appli­cators, have short, stiff bristles of uniform length and come in a variety of sizes. Handles range from straight wood to plastic bulbs; find what's comfortable for you. You will need several brushes, ideally one for each color used. This keeps colors from becoming muddy and also speeds things up because you won't have to clean your brush between colors.

Match the size of the brush to the size of the area to be painted: Ideally, the brush should be about half the size of the area to be painted. This helps contain the paint in the correct areas without you having to mask the rest of the stencil.

If the whole design will be stenciled in one color, use a bigger brush, which allows you to work more quickly. But if you need to apply a specific color to one tiny area, use a smaller brush to keep the paint where you want it. Also use smaller brushes for adding shading and highlights.

To obtain different looks, experiment with other kinds of applicators. Sponges, which give a less filled-in look, may be cut down to a workable size. Rollers can speed up the project greatly, but they don't allow for subtle shading or detail. Cotton swabs, cotton balls, cheesecloth, sponge brushes, and spray paint provide unique looks as well.

­You can use a variety of paints when working with stencils.



There are two basic kinds of paint used in stenciling: acrylic and oil. Acrylic paint cleans up with soap and water and comes in a wide variety of colors that can be easily mixed to make others. Acrylics dry quickly, so paint doesn't smud­ge easily. Shading is created by adding other colors on top of the base-­coat rather than blending the colors.

How­ever, because acrylic paint is very liquid, it is easy to get too much paint on the brush, causing see­page under the stencil. To keep brushes workable while stenciling with acrylic paints, load them with gel-blending medium and work them on paper towels to clean and soften.

Oil paint comes as crèmes and crayons. These take longer to dry, making them ideal for blend­ing and creat­ing smudgy shadows. They're less likely to run under the stencil because of their solid state, but they come in a smaller number of colors and cleanup is more difficult, requiring mineral spirits or brush cleaner.

You will need to stencil with oil-base paints on an object that has an oil-paint base-coat. Try to be as precise as possible when stenciling with oil paints, but if you do notice any smudges, you can do touch-ups with a white art gum eraser.

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