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Using stencilling as a decorating feature

Stencilling like marbling and wood graining is a technique that dates from antiquity. There are examples of it on surfaces of domestic houses to painted tombs. Its popularity had waned in Europe until recent years, due to the use of wallpapers and also its overuse in the late Victorian period in England. In America the technique was preserved by settlers and used as a form of decoration in their houses. As a result it achieved status and has become part of American folk-art and culture.

Stencilling is a quick, easy, and rewarding paint technique and a lot can be achieved with a little practice. It can be used to decorate almost any surface, including walls, woodwork, floors and ceilings, furniture, fabric and ceramics. With stencilling, colour is brushed, sponged or sprayed over a cut-out shape. It is a simple and flexible technique that allows you to apply your own choice of paint in your chosen scheme to a given design. A stencilled design can make an old piece of furniture look special or add individual touch to mass-produced modern pieces. Can be used to create patterns on almost any painted surface—provided that it’s clean and sound—and many unpainted ones.

Things to consider:

  • Work on flat surface to begin with and with practice you can move to curved ones.
  • Bold designs without too much detail are easier to work with. Stick to a simple shape and a few basic colours. Always stencil all of one colour before going on to the next.
  • Consider how a stencil design relates to the shapes of the item to be stencilled. For example a round table, chair seat or square cupboard door are suited to circular design. For a rectangular table or cupboard, choose a oblong shaped motif for the centre.
  • To decide the best place for the design, do a test piece on plain paper, cut it out and tape to, eg. a piece of furniture at different positions to see the effect, before you start to stencil.


Materials and tools

You can buy a stencil ready-made or you can adapt a motif from curtain fabric, wallpaper or upholstery to made your own stencil to coordinate with other furnishings. Pre-cut stencills are available in designs ranging from small, single motifs to large, intricate border patterns. For the more detailed designs you build up the effect using separate stencilling sheets for each colour. The most common type of the pre-cut stencil is made of clear plastic film, which is easy to position and bends around curved surfaces.

Ready made stencills are ideal for beginners but it’s not difficult to design your own. Draw your stencil design free-hand or buy a book of stencil designs. Trace off a motif (eg. animal shape on a nursery curtain fabric) you want. You may need to enlarge or reduce it. Then copy the various colour areas onto separate sheets of acetate (this is a transparent or frosted plastic film for making stencills) and cut out.


Emulsion, acrylic and stencilling paint are all suitable for stencilling on wood and walls. The paint must be the right consistency—if it’s too thin it will run; too thick it will clog the stencil. Use fabric paint for fabrics that require regular washing. Spray paints are good rough finishes such as wicker and matting.

There are different ways you can apply the paint – using foam print roller, spray or sponge, but the easiest and most versatile method is a stencilling brush which come in range of sizes.

Other items you will need are masking tape or spray mounting adhesive to hold the stencil in place. Also an old plate for holding the paint, and paper towelling.


For all types of stencilling it’s a good idea to test the techniques and colours on scrap material before you embark on the real thing.

Gently press out the cut-out sections of the stencil and use masking tape (or stencil mount) to stick in place.

Put a little amount of paint on a plate. Dip the tip of the brush into the paint and dab off excess on the paper towel or side of plate, leaving the brush almost dry.

Press the stencil against the surface with one hand and quickly dab (circular motion) the top of the brush on the cut-out shapes (do the large areas of the stencil first). Make sure the paint goes right up to the edges. To darken, go over again.

Stencil all one colour and allow to dry before doing the next colour.


You can transform any plain or uninteresting household object into a unique and personalised article. Start with easy objects such as lamp shades, cushions, wooden trays, ceramic vases, table mats etc. When you have gained some experience you can decorate a wall or piece of furniture such as a kitchen cupboard with a flower motif which would give a cottage feeling to it. The same stencil would be used on kitchen chairs. This is a good way to link all furniture in the kitchen.

Stencilling adds charm to plain or inexpensive fabrics and is economical way of decorating a room. A stencilled border of bold moon and stars along the centre edge of plain fabric curtains are ideal for a child’s bedroom. The same theme can be used on other accessories in the room such as a laundry bag made from left over fabric and also can be a pretty decoration for the front of a chest of drawers.

Borders are by far the most popular wall decorations as well as looking very appealing, a stencilling border can have an architectural impact. It can highlight arches and fireplaces and on bare walls can add character and alter proportions of the room. They can be used at skirting board, dado, or picture rail level or just below the ceiling to make it seem lower. A stencilling border on the ceiling itself will make it seem higher. One just below the ceiling and another at the skirting board will draw attention to the central proportion of the wall. A border stencilled floor will draw the eye downwards and around windows and doors will add character. Part of the border stencil can be picked out and used on other items in the room to give a coordinated look. Careful planning is the key to a successful stencilled border. Decide the position and if it’s immediately above or below a dado rail you have a line to guide you, otherwise use a spirit level and lightly mark a dotted line with a pencil.

Other projects to try are

A shell design on the surround of a Victorian claw-foot stand-alone bath. This could be coordinated with the same design on plain bathroom tiles—only do some of the tiles.

Paint a wooden floor and stencil with rug type design.

Hang pictures with bows, ropes and ribbons created with stencills.

A stencilled garland of flowers over a picture.

The charm of stencilling is its simple, hand-done look, so it doesn’t matter if you make the odd mistake. If you need help there are lots of books available for the beginner to the more accomplished – so have a go.

Note: If you are decorating your house for Christmas (I know it’s only September and I shouldn’t mention it), start now, don’t leave it until the last minute because it can be difficult to get things done as everybody else are doing the same. If it’s a large project it might be better to leave it for the new year when there is more time and less pressure.

Mary D. Kelly
Decorating Options
(091) 798224