How to Stencil

Learn how to stencil and you can transform household items into works of art for under $15.

| October/November 1994

Stenciling is the art of painting over a design cutout so that the design is reproduced onto the object underneath it. If there's one thing I learned after a morning of stenciling, it's that there's no excuse for not doing it yourself. It's quick, ridiculously cheap, and virtually mistake-proof.  

Lynn Bittner, who has made a part-time business out of stenciling for the past ten years, showed me the basics of how to stencil. You grab some brushes, a pattern, and some paint — all under $15 — and then stencil your way to a new desk, hat, rug, or kitchen wall in a few hours.

According to Lynn, when it comes to stenciling there are only a few practical tips that you should remember. Take your time choosing the colors of your design because once they're on, they're there to stay. Go slowly and fill in all of the surface areas because it's hard to go back and realign the pattern once you've removed it. And above all else, use your paint sparingly. Start with the smallest amount possible and continue building your way up. The number one mistake in this craft is using too much paint and causing blurry edges or smudges in your pattern.

"If you do make a mistake," says Lynn, "there are plenty of ways to fake it. Say a dot of paint splashes under your first pattern. All you have to do is continue to paint that exact dot under each pattern. No one will ever know you didn't mean it."

For first timers, Lynn recommends starting with very simple patterns, such as ivy or large flower borders. Stay away from precise linear patterns, such as the classic "early American house" stencil, as it calls for exactitude.

Lynn and I chose to create a southwestern design on a small cotton rug. I was struck by how quickly we could turn a bland piece of fabric into beautiful artwork that could enhance, even create, a room theme. This is not a free-form craft, if that's what you're looking for. But you do get professional-looking results for low cost in almost no time.

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