How to Stencil a Room

by Stacy Mintzer Herlihy


Room Stencils Add Interest

We all have those rooms that we've spent ages repainting, rearranging, and redecorating, yet for some reason still seem to lack a certain oomph. Well, one of the most inexpensive ways to add that oomph is the application of a well-chosen decorative stencil, and you'll be surprised how easy it is!

Stencils are pieces of plastic with designs cut out of them. When you tape them to a larger surface, like a wall or a doorway, you can apply paint to the cut out areas, pull the plastic away, and leave the pattern behind.

Even if your painting skills lean more toward Pollack than Picasso, stencils allow you to add a personalized hand-painted look to any room with very little effort. I can barely draw stick figures, yet I've personally stenciled over five rooms, and they all look as if we invited professional artists into our house.

Preparing a Room Stencil

Stenciling can be done in one of several ways. You can make your own, purchase a kit, or buy a pre-cut pattern and add your own colors. Kits usually cost less than $10 and are very easy to use. There are hundreds of patterns to choose from especially if you look on the Internet.

You can find any motif imaginable from simple letters in various fonts to minutely detailed murals.

If you don't want to use a kit, or you'd like a different design that you haven't found anywhere, you can either get a template made or make one yourself. Many local fabric stores will cut one to order if you bring in a design. If you'd like to make a template yourself, you can buy heavy plastic, draw the design on the plastic, and then carefully cut out your desired shape using a craft knife on a cutting board.

Tips for Stenciling a Room

If you decide to make a stencil of your own, choose colors for the project that will complement your décor. For instance, if you are stenciling a light blue room, you might want to choose an additional color such as yellow or dark blue for the basic design. Check a color wheel for colors that work well together. You can then add another color like pink or green as highlights. Stencils can also be done in white against a dark background for a dramatic effect.

If you've never stenciled before, I recommend starting with a simple design that has only one or two colors and elements. Once you're comfortable with the basic technique, you can move on to larger projects.

One of the prettiest and easiest stencils to start out with is a repeating pattern stencil used just below a ceiling or chair rail.

How to Stencil a Room

Before you begin, make sure you have all materials ready. In addition to the template, you will need tape or adhesive spray, paint, brushes and cardboard. There are specially designed stencil paints called dry brush paints that dry quickly, and compact brushes that will make the process much easier. You can find both in hardware and craft stores. They are great to use because they will not run. When you first open them, however, it may seem as if the paint has already hardened. It hasn't. The paint has a film on it that forms a protective coating that prevents it from drying out.

Gently scrape off the film. Do this again if the paint seems to have dried out. A small jar for each color will be more than adequate. Chose a different brush for each color you use so that the colors will not get mixed together.

Practice first. Take the template and place it against a clean cardboard or paper surface. Tape or put adhesive spray on all of the edges of the template before placing it on the cardboard. Open up the paint you've chosen and gently swirl your brush into the paint. Using a circular motion and starting in the middle of the cut out area will spread paint more evenly. Be very careful not to load up your brush too heavily with paint before you begin. If you do that, the paint will cluster along the edges of the cut out areas of the stencil and give the finished design a strange look.

When you're ready to start, use the ceiling or chair rail as a guide. Begin in the corner of the room that attracts the most attention. Position the template, tape or spray each corner and start painting. Try not to let paint clump in the middle of the cut out area. Periodically tapping the end of the brush lightly against the cardboard will help avoid this problem and get rid of excess paint.

Once you're done with one section, move the template to where the design last ended and start over again. Make sure you're positioning the stencil properly. The edges should meet the ceiling or the chair rail. Clean your template every so often because paint may get underneath and mar the design.

If you are stenciling near the ceiling you may wish to move the furniture in the middle of the room before you begin. If, like me, you are not tall, you may also wish to push a surface you can stand on against the wall to reach it more easily. I have used an old farmhouse table to stand on and found it very helpful. Make sure you cover the floor of the room first so you don't scratch the floor.

Apply new tape or spray adhesive to each end of the plastic if the stencil isn't sticking. Keep repeating until you're done. If your design has more than one color or pattern, complete the first design before you start on the second. To do corners finish the elements from one template as closely as you can without going on to the next wall. Don't worry if some details are missing because it will not be noticed. Once you're comfortable with the process, you should be able to complete a medium-sized room with two templates in under an hour.

And if you don't like it, just redo it. It's simple and inexpensive.


Stacy Mintzer Herlihy is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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