DIY

Inexpensive Home Decorating With Stencils

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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.
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In a larger room, I like to use several designs, making sure they're all compatible and that the colors either match or harmonize.
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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.
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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.

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 . . .