Saturday, February 9, 2008

Decorative Paint Techniques: Stencil a Wall or Border

Skill Level: Beginner

Stenciling is perhaps the most widely used decorative painting technique. In part, the reason must be its aesthetic appeal and that it takes no particular skill or talent. Anyone can stencil anything. Stenciling also can be an inexpensive fix for decorating and architectural problems. Border a too-small window to make it appear larger. Use a border on a wall just below the ceiling to warm up a cold room or to make a high-ceilinged room more cozy. If you like the look of a chair-rail molding but aren't up to the carpentry involved, try a stenciled border there, too. You need very little paint but likely several colors. Choose colors that coordinate with your furnishings.


  • Live in an apartment and can't paint the walls? Pulverize colored chalk, add a little water, and you have a completely removable "paint."
  • Bring a dimensioned sketch and some fabric samples as you shop for stencils and paints.

Materials List

Tape measure
Ladder or stepstool as needed
Spray mounting adhesive
Craft knife
Latex, acrylic, or stencil paints
Painter's tape
Stenciling brushes (1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and/or 1")...or
Mini foam paint roller
Marking pen and pencil
Numerous shallow containers for paints
Level (2' or longer)
Drop cloth

1. Purchase or Make a Stencil
Whatever your taste - teddies holding hands, bold geometrics, or subtle floral designs - there are precut stencils you can buy at paint, decorating, craft and hardware stores. Generally, the less formal designs such as flowers and vines are easier to work with than geometric patterns, especially for borders around windows and doors, which have mitered corners.

Feeling ambitious? Find a design you like from books or wallpaper sample books. Using a copy machine, enlarge/reduce it as needed. Then trace it onto 7-mil Mylar or a clear plastic file folder with a marking pen; or use the copier to transfer it to clear acetate. Using a craft knife, carefully cut out the areas that you want to paint. Make extra copies if you are making a separate stencil for each color. Stack the stencils together and use a hole punch to create registration marks (see Step 4) on the lower edge of the stencils about 1 inch in from each end.

  • Acetate or Mylar stencils are transparent so you can see previously applied colors. This makes it easier to align the pattern as you move the stencil along the surface in Step 7.
  • Make extra copies so you can bend or cut them as needed at corners.

2. Draw a Guideline
To keep your lines straight, level, plumb, and parallel to ceilings and trim, you may want to align your stencil on a guideline. If for example you want the bottom of the stencil to be 12 inches below the ceiling line, measure down 12 inches from each corner and make a mark. Make additional marks as needed to connect them with a long straightedge, and very lightly pencil a line.
Safety Tip!If the area being stenciled is out of easy reach use a sturdy ladder, stepstool, or low scaffold to gain access, not chairs or other unreliable jury-rigged setups.
3. Mask Cutouts
While it's faster to apply several colors at a time, doing so may increase chances for error. Beginners especially should mask the cutouts for all of the colors except one (unless, of course there's one stencil for each color).
4. Affix the Stencil to the Wall
Spray mounting adhesive onto the back of the stencil and carefully align it with your guideline. (Or use low-tack painter's masking tape.) Place a small piece of masking tape on the surface under the registration holes. With continuous designs start in any corner. With noncontinuous designs plan each wall separately so the pattern stops equidistant from the ends; center the first stencil or place it to the left or right of the centerline, whichever produces the best result.

You need to plan carefully if you are bordering a window or door; the design will need to be mitered ("cut" at a 45-degree angle), just like the corner of a picture frame. You want this "cut" to be made in a relatively open area in the design so any mismatch is less noticeable. Test your plan by tracing it on paper.
5. Load Your Brush
Hold your stencil brush very close to the bristles. Use very little paint. Dab the brush in paint and then dab or swirl it on a paper towel to evenly distribute the paint across the tips of the bristles.
6. Start Stenciling
Dab and/or use small swirling motions working from the edge toward the center; don't brush across the stencil, which may force paint under the stencil. With most designs you don't want to completely cover the surface with paint, but rather allow some show-through for subtle variations in color and tone. Dab some paint on the tape you placed under the registration marks in Step 4.

  • If you do want solid colors, consider using a mini foam paint roller, rolling out a little of the paint on paper before you roll the surface.
  • Shade or accent the edges of a stencil by swirling the brush around the edge but not in the center.
  • If paint gets under the stencil edge, move the stencil to cover it and paint that area again to get a sharp edge.

7. Reposition the Stencil
Carefully peel the stencil off the wall and clean the paint off it. Reposition it on your guideline so that the registration hole/notch aligns with the previous registration mark. (If you move to the left, the right-hand registration hole will align with the left-hand painted mark left by the previous stencil.) Repeat steps 4, 5, and 6 until you finish one color and it dries, and again for subsequent colors.

  • To wrap an inside corner, measure the distance to the corner and transfer the measurement to the back of the stencil. Score (don't cut through) a vertical line at that point on the back of the stencil with a utility knife and it will bend nicely. If you're wrapping an outside corner, score the front face of the stencil.
  • To miter a corner - around a window, for example - run a horizontal stencil past the corner and apply masking tape at a 45-degree angle, then paint up to the tape. (If your stencil is 8 inches tall the top edge will be 8 inches longer than the bottom point.) When that paint is dry, reposition the stencil vertically, aligning the patterns a best as you can, and again apply tape diagonally to protect the already stenciled area.

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