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How to Stencil


Mark guidelines with a level and ruler.
Mark guidelines with a level and ruler.

While stenciling is not difficult, it does require knowledge of a few basic techniques. It's a good idea to take the time to practice the techniques listed here on a piece of poster board or cardboard before painting on the real surface.

This is also the time to test the colors you've chosen and experiment with highlighting or shading. Once you're confident in your skills, move on to your project.


Getting ready

The first step in any painting project is to make sure the surface is properly prepared. Generally, this means that it is clean, dry, and in good repair, but some surfaces, such as metal or plastic, may require special preparation or priming.

In addition, before you pour that first drop of paint:

Mark guidelines to help keep the design level on the wall or the same distance from the edge of the table. You can't always count on the ceiling or the edge of the stencil to be your guide. They may look straight, but they often aren't! Place a level on the wall to make sure your guidelines are straight, and make a light pencil mark or run a strip of tape to mark the guideline.

Pick a starting point. On a wall, this should be the most inconspicuous place unless you've carefully calculated whole repeats. With accessory projects, you might start on the back of the piece or in the center so the ends come out the same on both sides.

Adhere the stencil to the location of the first repeat using either stencil adhesive or tape. Mark the registration points if you're using a multiple-overlay stencil.

If you have a single-overlay stencil with multiple colors, mask off nearby areas you don't plan to paint yet. Either tape over the open spaces or hold an index card to mask as you paint. This will keep colors from straying.

Prepare your palette. Pour just a small amount of each color, leaving plenty of room between colors so they don't run into each other. If using crème pots, follow the directions on the pots to remove the skin and reveal the paint.

Choosing colors

Different colors can make a design look entirely different. A rich navy blue and warm brick red may bring a calm, classic feel to a design, while lime green and fuschia will make it eclectic and funky. Make sure your color choice achieves the effect you want before you begin painting.

Loading the brush

Proper loading of paint is crucial to a successful project. Too much paint on the brush causes paint to seep under the stencil, ruining your work. It's always better to start light and build up the color.

To get just the right amount of paint on the stencil brush, dip the flat tip into the paint, then swirl the brush on a paper towel to remove most of it. The brush should feel dry to the touch and shouldn't leave paint if you gently touch your hand with it. If it feels wet, swirl it on the paper towel again to remove more paint.

Applying paint

There are two basic techniques you can use with a stencil brush. Each gives a slightly different look, and you might find one easier to do than the other.

To stipple paint, hold the brush perpendicular to the surface and tap up and down repeatedly.
To stipple paint, hold the brush perpendicular to the surface and tap up and down repeatedly.

Stippling. Hold the brush perpendicular to the surface, and tap up and down with the brush to apply color. The effect is that of lots of little dots created by the bristles of the brush. With stippling, the stencil is less likely to move around so you're less likely to get paint under the edges. However, when working on a large project, it can get tiring.

To swirl paint, let the brush rest on the surface, and swirl it around in a circular motion.
To swirl paint, let the brush rest on the surface, and swirl it around in a circular motion.

Swirling. This technique is generally used with stencil crèmes, not acrylics. To create a smooth finish, hold the brush perpendicular to the surface, letting it rest just on the surface, and swirl it in small circles to color in the area. Take care not to push the paint under the edges of the stencil. With swirling, there will be some buildup of paint around the edges.


For either of the two methods, when working with just one color, start on the outside edges of the opening and work into the center. This creates a dark, shadowed edge and light, highlighted center, adding depth to the piece with­out additional colors. Darken the color by applying more pressure to the brush, not more paint.

Use a darker color when shading.
Use a darker color when shading.

When using more than one color, start with the lightest color first to fill in the space and create the highlight. Then use a darker color worked from the outside edge into the center. You can then dry-brush a darker color on a different brush to create a shadow effect on the very edges. For realistic shading, a light touch and little paint are needed.

Moving on

When you've finished the design, carefully remove the stencil from the surface to avoid smudging any wet paint. Move the stencil over, line it up with your guidelines, and re-adhere to start the next repeat.

When working with multiple-overlay stencils, it's a good idea to work the entire area with the first overlay and then go back with the next layer, and then the next. This allows the paint to dry before the next stencil goes over it, eliminating the risk of smudges. Acrylic paints, however, often dry quickly enough that it's possible to complete the entire image at one time before moving on to the next repeat.

Overlapping components

When part of a design seems to "disappear" behind another part, always stencil the object in front first. This keeps ghost images and paint ridges from being visible underneath. After stenciling the first object, cover it with the dropout piece from your stencil and tape in place. This allows you to stencil images "behind" the already-stenciled object without worrying about paint drips or overlap ridges.

Cleaning up

Take some time to step back and admire your artistic endeavor, but the work isn't quite over yet! Proper cleanup will keep your materials in good shape for your next stenciling project.

To preserve the life of brushes and stencils, clean them thoroughly after every use. Acrylic paints clean up with soap and water, whereas oil paints need mineral spirits or brush cleaner. Oil soap, which is formulated for use on wood, is great for cleaning brushes because it won't dry them out.

Some plastic stencils just require a soaking in water to remove acrylic paint; others need to be scrubbed gently. Try an all-purpose cleaner, using a toothbrush or sponge very gently for any scrubbing. (Because the bridges of some stencils are quite delicate, use a soft touch when scrubbing.) Mineral spirits remove adhesive from the backs of stencils.

Protecting your work

A clear coat will keep your work fresh for a long time -- especially if it's in a high traffic area or if it will be handled frequently. Furniture, floor-cloths, and floors need extra protection, so several coats of sealer are necessary on those areas.

Clear coats range from matte to gloss; decide how shiny you want the surface to be. You can also choose between brush-on or spray. The clear coat will change the color and appearance of the surface slightly, so apply it to the entire surface. Make sure to apply sealer, especially spray sealers, in a well-ventilated area.

Can't find the stencil design you want? Make your own. Learn how in our final section.

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