How to Stencil

Make Your Own Stencils

Make your own stencil by using a transparent material.
Make your own stencil by using a transparent material.

Sometimes you just can't find the stencil you want, or the perfect design is not scaled correctly for your space. Now what? You don't have to settle for something that's not exactly right. It's not difficult to make your own stencils.

Almost any kind of clear plastic will make a good stencil because it won't absorb paint and you can see through it to trace the design. The thinner the plastic, the more careful you need to be when cutting out the design, stenciling, and cleaning the template.

Buy blank sheets of Mylar at a craft and hobby store; also check the quilting section for large sheets of template plastic. You can also use overhead acetate or X-ray film for making templates.

Another option, though not as durable as plastic, is paper. Cardstock and poster board are rigid and strong enough for accurate stenciling but not flexible enough for bending at corners. You can also treat just about any thick paper with linseed oil to make it waterproof.

Designing the stencil

Sketch, trace, or computer-draft the design you want, then use a photocopier to enlarge or reduce it until it is the right size.

Decide if this design works best as a single- or multiple-overlay stencil. With a single overlay, you'll have to plan for bridges between major areas of the stencil to make the shapes distinct. For example, train tracks would require bridges between the tracks and the side rails. The more complicated the image, the more bridges you will need.

Go with multiple overlays for a more realistic finish or if the image is quite detailed. Place a piece of tracing paper over the image, and trace all the parts to be cut out. Then num­ber all the areas for the first overlay with a "1", keeping in mind that images on the same over­lay cannot touch each other.

Number areas for the next overlay with a "2", and so on until all the areas have been numbered. This tells you how many overlays you will need. Be sure to include dots in the corners for registration points so you will be able to line up the multiple overlays later.

Making the stencil

If using a transparent material, lay your design underneath and trace it onto the stencil blank using a permanent marker. Tape the copy and your blank down to keep them from sliding around. When using opaque material for your blank, place carbon paper between the design and the blank, with the carbon side on the blank and the design on top, then trace the lines. Leave at least an inch of blank material around the outside of the design.

Cut your stencil in one fluid line to achieve a smooth edge. Cut your stencil in one fluid line to achieve a smooth edge.
Cut your stencil in one fluid line to achieve a smooth edge.

To cut the stencil, you'll need a sharp craft knife or an electric stencil cutter, which makes quick work of cutting plastic blanks. Work on a surface that won't be damaged by the knife or the heat of the cutter; a sheet of glass is ideal.

Try to cut in one continuous line; the piece should just fall out when you're done. If it's still hanging on, take your blade back through the line to get a smooth edge; don't try to pull it, or you'll get a ragged edge. It will take some prac­tice, so don't be discouraged if your first efforts don't look like commercial stencils.

Test your practice designs to see how closely they create the image you want. When you're satisfied, go ahead and start stenciling!

To repair a paper stencil, use tape and a craft knife. To repair a paper stencil, use tape and a craft knife.
To repair a paper stencil, use tape and a craft knife.

Miscellaneous tips

Repair. Stencils sometimes tear, but repairs are easily made. For plastic stencils, you'll need transparent tape and a craft knife. For paper stencils, use mask­ing tape and a craft knife. Tape the top and bottom of the damaged areas, sticky sides to­gether, then cut away the excess tape.

Storage. Stencils should be stored flat. Under-­bed boxes and dresser drawers are good places for flat storage; you can hang large stencils on pants hangers in a closet. Don't roll or bend a stencil in any way, or it won't lie flat the next time you want to use it.

Whether you're decorating the walls of a room or personalizing a set of dishes for a special gift, stenciling is a wonderful way to express your creativity and add a special touch to the objects in your life.

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