How to Paint With Stencil Designs

Kate Miller-Wilson
Hand stenciling with paint

Painting with stencils allows you to decorate almost anything quickly and beautifully. From home decor items like pillows and curtains to personal items like clothing and accessories, you can create gorgeous designs with ease. Knowing how to use stencils properly can help ensure your projects turn out well every time.

How to Use Stencils

Stencils are easy to use, but understanding the process will help you avoid potential problems like paint bleeding under your design. The process for craft stenciling differs slightly than stencil techniques for wall painting.

Things You'll Need

  • Stencil in your chosen design
  • Paint appropriate for the surface you'll be stenciling
  • Paint for a base coat, if desired
  • Palette or paper plate
  • Stencil brush, dauber, or sponge
  • Small paint brush
  • Painter's tape or repositionable adhesive, such as Krylon Easy-Tack

What to Do

  1. Start by making sure the item you'll be stenciling is free of dust and grime. If it's a hard surface, wipe it with a lint-free cloth. If you'll be painting on fabric, pre-wash it to remove any starch or surface treatments.
  2. If you'll be doing a base coat on your item, apply the base paint in an even layer. Allow this paint to dry completely before you begin stenciling.
  3. Choose the placement for your stencil. If you'll be doing a continuous or repeated design, make sure you start your stencil in the center of your item and you have enough room to continue the design to your liking.
  4. Use painter's tape or repositionable adhesive to hold the stencil in the position you chose. Follow the instructions on the type of adhesive you select, as each product is different.
    Tape down the stencil into position
    Tape down the stencil into position.
  5. Squirt a small amount of paint onto a paper plate or palette. Use the paint that works for your surface, such as fabric paint for canvas tote bags and acrylic craft paint for prepared wood items.
    Squirt paint onto a palette
    Squirt paint onto a palette.
  6. Dip your dauber or stencil brush in the paint and tap off any excess. It's important not to overload the brush since too much paint can cause your design to bleed. You can offload the brush by dabbing it a few times on the paper plate.
    Dab paint onto stencil
    Dab paint onto stencil.
  7. Lightly push the brush or dauber straight down on the stencil and then lift it straight up. Continue this motion as long as the paint lasts on your brush. Dip your brush again when you need more paint. Start with thin coats and add more paint if you need it. For tiny corners and tight areas on the stencil, lightly swirl the brush to distribute the paint.
    Finish painting the stencil
    Finish painting the stencil.
  8. When you've finished painting the design, gently peel the stencil off your project. Be careful not to smear the stencil as you remove it.
    Stencil removed
    Stencil removed.
  9. Dip a small paint brush in the paint and touch up any areas you may have missed. For letters and other intricate designs, you can make the results look more professional by painting over the "bridges" or areas of the stencil that hold the center of an image together with the rest of the piece.
    Touch up of stencil complete
    Touch up of stencil complete.
  10. Allow the paint to dry completely. Consider applying a coat of spray varnish or other protective product to keep your work looking beautiful.

Tips for Stenciling Various Materials

The general process for stenciling is the same for most projects, but there are little variations that can help you get the best results for certain surfaces.

Stenciling Fabric

  • Iron fabric to ensure there aren't any wrinkles to interfere with your design. Don't use starch when ironing since it can interfere with the paint adhesion.
  • If you'll be working with a thin fabric or an item that doesn't have much body, stretch it over something rigid to give yourself a flat surface. An embroidery hoop can work really well for smaller designs.
  • For two-layer items such as pillowcases, protect the back side of the project by inserting a piece of cardboard between the layers. The cardboard will soak up any excess paint and keep it from bleeding through to the back.
  • If you'll be washing the item you're stenciling, use paint designed for fabric. Most craft stores have a great selection of fabric paints in different colors and textures.

Stenciling Wood

  • Sand the surface of the wood object with 220 grit sandpaper to give it a nice, smooth finish. Remove the dust with a tack cloth.
  • If you're dealing with raw wood, prime the surface before you begin. Otherwise, it will soak up the paint and result in an uneven design.
  • If you want an antique look and want to stencil raw wood, use a wood stain instead of paint. You can find stains in a variety of colors at most home improvement stores.
  • Choose a quality acrylic craft paint for most projects.
  • For larger projects, consider using a stencil roller instead of a brush or dauber. This will give you an even coating of paint and cover a larger surface at one time.
  • You can use spray paint for stenciling wood projects too. This requires a couple of modifications to the process. Use lots of thin coats to keep the surface from cracking. Spray directly toward the stencil to keep the spray from bleeding under one side of your design.

Stenciling Paint Canvases

  • Remove any dust from the surface with a soft, dry brush and a tack cloth.
  • Because paint canvases can be a bit uneven in texture, expect your stencil to bleed through slightly. You can touch this up with a fine paint brush.
  • If your canvas is not primed, be sure to apply gesso to it before you begin. You can purchase gesso at craft stores. Follow the product instructions for applying it.
  • Acrylic paint works well on artist's canvases. You can purchase high quality acrylic or use regular acrylic craft paints.

Stenciling Cardboard and Paper

  • Use a tack cloth to remove dust from the surface before you begin painting.
  • If the surface is rough, test the stencil adhesive or painter's tape in an unobtrusive area. You don't want the adhesive to rip the surface when you remove it.
  • Acrylic craft paint works well for this type of project. You can also use spray paint if you can work outside.

Stenciling Metal

  • Use a solution of one part white vinegar and one part water to remove any grime from the surface of the piece. Allow it to dry completely before moving on.
  • If the metal hasn't been primed, start with a rust-inhibiting primer. This will keep your design looking wonderful for a long time.
  • Spray paint is great on metal, and so is oil paint.

Stenciling Glass and Ceramic

  • After washing the item, wipe it down with rubbing alcohol. Allow this to dry before you begin.
  • Choose a vinyl stencil for this type of project since they adhere well to the smooth surface of glass and ceramics.
  • Use a paint appropriate for the surface. Generally, enamel paint works well for these items. You'll need to cure it according to the instructions on the product.

Customize Anything With Stencils

No matter what you choose to stencil, you'll love the amazing effects you can create. From all-over designs to elaborate motifs and lettering, you can customize just about anything once you understand the process.

How to Paint With Stencil Designs