Inexpensive Home Decorating With Stencils

Cathy Johnson shares her tips on inexpensively decorating with stencils, including matching the design of your home, creating your own stencil designs, Victorian stencil ideas, and more.
By Cathy Johnson
May/June 1986
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As I was looking through some pictures of Victorian rooms, I remembered some stenciling I'd done. This technique, I felt, would be a perfect way to add color and pattern to our plain walls, and it would cost very little.
PHOTO: CATHY JOHNSON
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It's easier than you might think to add a truly personal touch to any room in your house. 

Try to imagine a plain white room with an uncurtained window centered on one of the walls. How dull! Now paint that imagined window frame sky blue, stencil a green vine to surround the window, and scatter blue morning glories among the tendrils of the vine. Outstanding! Or, perhaps, picture yellow daisies marching cheerfully across your kitchen soffit . . . a border of coral seashells in your bathroom . . . or a band of American Indian designs in brown and brilliant turquoise above the chair rail in your den. You might be surprised to learn that achieving such effects with stencils, using an uncomplicated design with just one or two colors, is easy. No artistic talent is needed — just a careful touch with knife and brush, a bit of practice, and patience.

After we finally finished restoring our 90-year-old Victorian home, my husband and I found we had no funds left for decorating. At first — after eight years of living with dingy green wallpaper — the clean expanses of freshly painted walls seemed heavenly. Soon, however, I felt an urge to personalize those somewhat sterile surfaces.

As I was looking through some pictures of Victorian rooms, I remembered some decorating with stencils I'd done. This technique, I felt, would be a perfect way to add color and pattern to our plain walls, and it would cost very little. I'd need only to choose my designs and then spend a few dollars on acrylic paint, a stencil brush, an X-Acto knife, and some sheets of frosted plastic from which to cut stencils.

Decorating With Stencils: Keep Your Home Design in Mind

I selected my designs with two criteria in mind: They should be to scale in each room and should enhance the Victorian character of the house.

If you decide to try decorating with stencils, choose designs that suit the style of your house and furnishings, and ones that appeal to your own tastes. You may be able to find precut patterns in hobby and craft shops, but be sure any such design is large enough to show up well on your walls. I bought several stencils, used tracing paper and colored felt — tipped pens to reproduce each pattern three or four times, then taped the papers up in various parts of the room to see if they created the effect I wanted.

I found all my decorations in a book called Authentic Victorian Stencil Designs (edited by Carol Belanger Grafton, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1982). Dover offers a whole collection of books with heavy manila-paper pages that can be cut out and used as stencils. Each book has a different theme: Early American, American Indian, Art Deco, Pennsylvania Dutch, and so forth.

(Of course, once you've had some experience stenciling, you may want to create your own patterns. There are some excellent books and also classes to help you do this.)

In a larger room, I like to use several designs, making sure they're all compatible and that the colors either match or harmonize. For example, when decorating my living room I decided to use just one color for three patterns: a small, regular repeat to add interest over windows and doors, a more sweeping design to decorate the walls at chair-rail height, and one large, dramatic half-medallion to accentuate the arch between the living and dining rooms.

Once the stencils are decided upon, it's time to choose the paint. If the surface to be decorated is varnished or coated with an oil-based enamel, you'll need to use an oil-based stencil paint. Otherwise I'd suggest buying acrylic stencil paints because cleanup will be easier and they smell better, too.

Cut the Stencils

You can purchase stencils that are ready to use, but if you trace your designs from a book, you'll need to cut your own. (The printed stencils in the Dover volumes also need to be cut.) When tracing stencils, I use frosted stencil plastic that comes in 9-inch by 12-inch sheets. If you're painting with just one color, simply lay a plastic sheet over your pattern and trace the whole design with a black felt-tipped permanent marker (the plastic is semi-translucent). Then place the tracing on a breadboard or a piece of glass you don't mind scratching, and carefully cut it out, using a new blade in your X-Acto knife.

Stencil patterns are made with bridges — that is, all parts of the stencil are connected so it won't fall apart. If you're tracing a design that wasn't meant specifically for stenciling, you'll have to make your own bridges. (If, when you're cutting, you should accidentally slice through a bridge, you can easily repair it with transparent tape.)

If you plan to use more than one color, it'd be best to make a separate stencil for each hue. In that case, to make sure the design elements of all stencils always line up correctly, make notches or registration marks at the same spots on each one (two lining-up points are sufficient).

Measure the Stencils

Since you'll be using the same stencil over and over again, it's important to mark some guidelines on the wall in order to correctly place the stencil each time you move it. For my continuously repeated pattern at chair-rail height, I simply measured 36 inches up from the floor and marked that point, at about 30-inch intervals, all around the room. Then, using a yardstick, I connected all the marks with a light pencil line. I also drew a line across the stencil itself that could be matched to the guideline each time the stencil was repositioned.

Turning corners — around a window frame, for example — isn't difficult, especially since most border stencils include matching corner designs. Just divide the size of the stencil into the area to be covered, and use a partial repeat, if necessary, to make the corners come out where you want them.

When using a repeat pattern that isn't continuous, determine the amount of space between each repeat by figuring out how many times the whole design will fit into the wall area you want to cover. With a little adjustment of the blank spaces, you can avoid having to end up with a partial design.

Paint the Stencils

When your stencils are cut and your guidelines marked, assemble the rest of your materials. You'll need the paint, of course, and a large, flat stencil brush, paper towels, a disposable pie pan, and some masking tape. Fasten the stencil to the wall, using a couple of pieces of tape, in a spot that's appropriate for the design you've planned. (For my 36-inch-high repeat around the room, I started as close as possible to a corner. For a design that's centered over a door or window, I'd probably start in the middle and work outward on both sides.)

Pour a small dollop of paint into the pie pan (it takes surprisingly little), and touch it lightly with the tips of the brush's bristles. Then hold the brush as you would a pencil, and pounce it on a clean part of the pan to distribute the paint evenly through the bristles. (Pouncing is a light, rapid tapping motion.) Pounce a few more times on a paper towel, and you're ready to paint. (It's a good idea to practice ahead of time, stenciling on newsprint or brown wrapping paper.)

Press the stencil against the wall with the fingers of your free hand, keeping them as close to the cutout design as you can without interfering with your brushwork. Now, pounce the brush against each cutout, tapping in a circular motion from the edges inward. When the design is filled in completely, carefully pull the stencil away from the wall and reposition it. If the stencil has slipped or the paint has crept under the edges, let the spot dry and then touch it up with a bit of background color. (When using more than one hue, finish the entire first-color design and then let the paint dry before starting in again.) With a continuous repeat, overlap the design by one element and be sure to position the stencil along the penciled guideline.

When you come to the end of the wall or to a corner in the room, you can usually adjust the overlap to make the stencil end where the wall does. It's even possible to bend a stencil for an inside or outside corner, but I've found it easier (on me and on the stencil) to simply treat each section of wall separately.

Once you try your hand at stenciling, you'll probably want to experiment. After finishing the basic pattern in my living room, I went on to stencil the metal baffle behind our wood stove and also designed a medallion that beautifully complements the ceiling fan. And in the bathroom I used three colors to border the window and the wainscot. Now I'm beginning to think about tackling the kitchen. Let's see; maybe red cherries set among rosettes of green leaves and . . .


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