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How to Stencil Anything with Our Masterful Technique

Stenciling can turn anyone who picks up a paintbrush into a bona-fide artist. The masterstoke is finding stylish templates, like the modern botanicals and sweet motifs seen here. Then simply take any surface you want to elevate, and place, color, and peel. Beautiful patterns are bound to emerge.

The Technique

Materials

  • Drop cloth or kraft paper
  • Paint
  • Scrap cardboard or fabric
  • Stencils

    (We suggest buying two of any stencil you plan to repeat across a surface in order to make your project faster and easier.)

  • Paper towels
  • Plastic bag
  • Foam pouncers
  • Iron
  • Painters' tape
  • Spray adhesive
  • All-purpose cleaning spray
  • Paint roller, cover, and tray (optional)
  • Drop cloth or kraft paper
  • Foam pouncers
  • Paint
  • Iron
  • Scrap cardboard or fabric
  • Painters' tape
  • Stencils

    (We suggest buying two of any stencil you plan to repeat across a surface in order to make your project faster and easier.)

  • Spray adhesive
  • Paper towels
  • All-purpose cleaning spray
  • Plastic bag
  • Paint roller, cover, and tray (optional)

Steps

  • 1

    Cover work surface with drop cloth or kraft paper to protect it from drips and spills. Set out tools. (For most projects, you'll need foam tools called pouncers (aka stipplers) in a variety of sizes (they often come in multipacks, though we used a roller for our floorcloth.)

  • 2

    Pour paint into small dishes. (For a roller, you'll want a paint tray.) For items you may want to machine-wash, such as tablecloths or shower curtains, use high-quality fabric paint, such as Jacquard Textile Colors, that you can heat-set with a dry iron. For fabric-covered notebooks, use craft paint. For plastic or acrylic, consider substituting a tinted bonding primer; you'll get a slip-proof grip, and it won't flake off. For our floorcloth, we used Benjamin Moore Regal Select Pearl Finish interior paint, and a low-VOC water-based varnish as a topcoat. If you want a sheer watercolor effect, mix a few drops of water into your paint; otherwise use it straight up for a more opaque look.

  • 3

    Press item you want to stencil well with an iron. Lay it on work surface, and place a piece of scrap cardboard or fabric underneath or inside, to prevent paint from seeping through. For a three-dimensional item, such as a tote bag, place a thick, flat object (we used a slim cardboard box) inside to create a flat surface. Apply painters' tape to any trim or handles.

  • 4

    Lightly mist stencil with spray adhesive and let dry for several seconds, until just tacky; this will help keep stencil in place and stop paint from seeping under edges. Apply stencil to item you want to decorate, and press to adhere.

  • 5

    Dip pouncer sparingly in paint, and tap or roll on edge of paint dish or scrap paper to remove excess. Tap on paint in ultra-thin coats, keeping pouncer at a 90-degree angle. (In other words, move it straight up and down only don’t brush!) Layer coats of paint if you want a more opaque color; thick coats can seep under the stencil and smudge design.

  • 6

    Let paint dry for a few minutes, then carefully peel off stencil. Let dry completely or, to repeat stencil, wipe it with a damp paper towel (or if needed, rinse in sink, or clean with an all-purpose spray, such as Simple Green), then line it up to continue the pattern. A clean stencil lets you see the item underneath more clearly, which makes it easier to ensure you're not applying color anywhere you don't want to and check how you’re lining up repeats. Repeat to cover surface. When finished repeating pattern, let dry completely. ​

  • 7

    When your project is done, toss stencils in a plastic bag with some cleaner overnight to thoroughly degunk.

Idea no. 1

Serve It With Flora

To take a napkin from plain to personalized, use a smaller section of the large fern stencil by covering some of its design with painters' tape.

When ferns unfurl across a tablecloth, an understated dining room comes alive. Rustic linen is ideal to work with, since it readily grabs pigment and won't smear easily, and this 22-by-28-inch stencil is a snap to repeat along its length. Before you pick up a pouncer (aka stippler, the foam tool used to tap paint straight down so you stay inside the lines), iron the cloth well, and put a scrap of fabric or cardboard underneath to catch any paint that soaks through—the first steps for any fabric-stenciling project. Then mist the back of the stencil with spray adhesive and press it onto the linen, aligning the edge with the hem to keep your pattern even.

THE DETAILS: Alabama Chanin Fern Stencil, $88, alabamachanin.com
 
Jacquard Textile Colors fabric paint, in Opaque White, $11 for 8 oz., dickblick.com. Royal & Langnickel Crafter's Choice sponge stippler set (used throughout), $5 for 10 pieces, walmart.com. Zara Home washed-linen tablecloth, in Mink, from $70; and faded-linen napkins, in Strong Coral, $36 for 4, zarahome.com.

Idea no. 2

Sit Pretty

To make a quiet nook extra-inviting, sprinkle blooms, swirls, and squares across a jumble of soft, comfortable throw pillows. (And why not spread the love to a nearby window shade, too?) We repeated larger stencils twice, as with the thistle and lavender stems on the pink pillows, eyeballing the spacing to line up the second set of stems. And we repeated smaller stencils, like the feathery branches and Swedish flower pattern on the blue pillows, multiple times to cover the surface. They take a little more time to position, but your results don't need to be perfect—a little randomness gives the designs a charming, organic feel.

THE DETAILS: (from left): The Stencil Library Squares No. 1 medium (on shade), $46, stencil-library.co.uk. StencilGirl Products Thistle (on pink pillow), $14, stencilgirlproducts.com. The Stencil Library Stars standard (on ivory pillow), $74, stencil-library.co.uk. Stencil1 Vines small (on blue pillow), $6, stencil1.com. Art Anthology Luna (on ivory pillow), $7, artanthology.net. Annie Sloan Lavender (on pink pillow), $32, anniesloan.com. Royal Design Studio Stencils Swedish Flower (on blue pillow), $26, royaldesignstudio.com.
 
Jacquard Textile Colors fabric paint, in Russet, Sapphire Blue, and Opaque White, from $3.25 for 2.25 oz., dickblick.com. IKEA Ringblomma Roman blind, 32" by 64¼", in White, $20, ikea.com. The Company Store Belgiumlinen pillow covers, in Blush, Denim, and Ivory, from $16 each, thecompanystore.com. Overstock Chiyo chaise lounge, in Light Tan, $490, overstock.com.

Idea no. 3

Customize a Basic Bag

If you're new to stenciling, get a handle on it with a super-straightforward tote transformation. Large-scale graphic patterns like these are practically impossible to mess up. To keep the trim and handles paint-free, cover them with painters' tape. Then slip a cutting board or large book inside to create a hard, flat surface; adhere the sheet; and pounce away.

THE DETAILS: The Stencil Library Stars standard, $74; and Coral medium, $46, stencil-library.co.uk.
 
Jacquard Textile Colors fabric paint, in Opaque White, $11 for 8 oz., dickblick.com. Madewell Canvas Transport tote, in Antique Purple, $58, madewell.com. Baggu Duck bag, in Washed Denim, $32, baggu.com.

Idea no. 4

Organize Your Office

Put your signature stamp on anonymous desk supplies without a work-y label maker. You can adorn a linen-covered notebook in seconds (it's the simplest of all these projects), and accentuate the spines of plastic magazine files with skinny, leafy sprigs, fashioning fitting storage for gardening journals.

 

THE DETAILS: Green Pepper Press Frond set (on file at left), and Ferns set (on file at right), $14 each, greenpepperpress.com. StencilGirl Products He Loves Me (on large notebook), $7, stencilgirlproducts.com. The Stencil Library Squares No. 1 (on small notebook), $46, stencil-library.co.uk.
Martha Stewart multi-surface satin acrylic craft paint, in Slate Gray and Wedding Cake, $2.50 for 2 oz., michaels.com. IKEA Pluggis magazine files, $9 for 2, ikea.com. Semikolon A4 classic linen notebook, in Ciel, $29, amazon.com

Idea no. 5

Hit the Floor

You could spend hours searching for a graphic rug—or DIY the exact style you want with this cool technique. Using a roller, coat the entire surface of a sturdy canvas floorcloth in two coats of dark-gray paint (visible in the "grout" lines). Once it dries, apply a large-scale stencil—we chose a two-by-three-foot one with a subway-tile motif— and roll on a coat of white paint to create the rectangles (as shown). Then add a coral "shadow" between them by shifting the stencil slightly to one side and painting a line along the short edges of each "tile" with a small pointed brush. A topcoat of low-VOC waterbased varnish creates a force field against foot traffic.

THE DETAILS: Gypsy Mint Stencil Co. Subway Tile, $46, gypsymint.com.
 
Benjamin Moore Regal Select Pearl Finish interior paint, in China White, Temptation, and Coral Bronze, benjaminmoore.com. Dunberry Hill Designs primed floorcloth, 4" by 6", from $8 per sq. ft., dunberryhilldesigns.com.

Idea no. 6

Wake Up a Wall

Transform a mantel with a striking mix of abstracts and still lifes. Prestretched canvases in unique shapes and colors (these black ones were ready-made; we painted the round one rose) set designs in sharp, stylish relief. Invest an afternoon, and you can have a whole new collection to hang.

THE DETAILS: (clockwise from top left): Cutting Edge Stencils Myriad Allover, $40, cuttingedgestencils.com. Alabama Chanin June's Spring, $90, alabamachanin.com. StencilGirl Products Daisy Wildflowers, $35; and Bali Love and Spring Fling (combined on canvas at lower left), $14 each, stencilgirlproducts.com.
 
Martha Stewart multi-surface satin acrylic craft paint, in Beetle Black and Wedding Cake, $2.50 for 2 oz., michaels.com. Benjamin Moore interior paint, in Pink Buff, benjaminmoore.com. Blick Studio black cotton canvas, from $8.50 for 16" by 20"; and Fredrix round cotton canvas, from $16 for 16" diameter, dickblick.com.

Idea no. 7

Bathe in Beauty

Dot-dot-dot your way down a shower curtain, and traditional black-and-white floor tiles become part of a crisp, cohesive palette in your bathroom. Like a canvas tote, cotton duck cloth has a smooth weave that makes for fail-safe stenciling; for this design, employ a small pouncer, and stipple sparingly. Also, choose a paint you can heat-set with an iron, so the finished work is splashproof.

THE DETAILS: Gypsy Mint Stencil Co. Polka Dot Drop Down, $46, gypsymint.com.
 
Jacquard Textile Colors fabric paint, in Black, $11 for 8 oz., dickblick.com. Vermont Country Store cotton-duck shower curtain, in White, $55, vermontcountrystore.com.