Right off the bat let me say, run. Leave me, save yourself, run for your life from stenciling. It requires patience, fortitude, and a not-unsubstantial degree of self-loathing. In fact, stenciling is the leading cause of suicide among DIY’ers. Sometimes I make up statistics.
Kent asked me if stenciling was “tedious”, and I said, “No. Tedious implies that it is easy and mindless. It’s neither. It is irksome and difficult trying to get everything to line up level and flush, and trying to work your flat stencil around corners and moldings and casings and…and yes, it is incredibly annoying to have to wash and retape the stencil over and over. I wish it were only tedious. I can do tedious.”
And I can. I have the opposite of ADHD. When I start something, I just want to put my head down and work for 50 hours straight until I finish it without having to pause to sleep, shower, or feed myself or any 3 year-olds. So yes, I should never have left law school. Where were we? Of course, back to stenciling.
Here are the things I learned from the intertubes and trial and error.
1. Use high quality stencils and paint.
This is true for almost all DIY. Save on labor, not parts, but especially with something as finicky as stenciling. I used cuttingedgestencils.com. I bought their clip-on stencil level, but it was too big to be useful and kept slipping on the stencil which destroyed its utility. I used it many, many times to check for level, but I did not clip it to the stencil.
The main material not to skimp on is paint. You do NOT want to go over stencils more than once because that’s when bleeding and errors come in. You want a thick paint, not runny or watery, with great coverage that is going to do its job in one coat, i.e. not Behr or McCormick or Valspar. I strongly prefer Benjamin Moore. Don’t be tempted by the Sherwin Williams coupons. Benjamin Moore has all their color codes and can match anything you might love at S.W..
2. Think it through.
If I haven’t already talked you out of stenciling, this step might.
Where are you going to start? Where are you going to end? If you’re doing a full length wall, you definitely want to start at the top of the wall and work down. If you’re above a casing, the bottom of the stencil which rests at the top of the furniture might be more obvious and noticeable than the top so you might start there as I did. Or you may disagree with me. Just make sure you do it intentionally.
I worked really hard to make the walls look symmetrical. The back of the couch is the most obvious focal point, so I started there making sure the stencil was in the dead center of the two windows. I also centered the stencil between the two arched windows on the other wall which was easy because those windows create natural breaking points for the stencil. If you’re just doing one wall, you don’t have to think about where the stenciling meets up with itself, but if you’re doing a whole room, you have to plan for the seam. If you’re clever and patient, you can ease the stencil by fractions each time (no more than a quarter of an inch) so that you might get an invisible seam that lines up perfectly. Otherwise, pick the least obvious corner.
I made sure my seam for the whole room was over the long, arched windows which basically bisect the whole wall so that you can never tell there is a seam at all.
3. Load the roller correctly and often.
Yes, roller, not the brush that your mom used to put an ivy border around your kitchen in the 80’s. Those little high-density foam ones that have no fabric nap work best. How you load the roller has a big impact on your success. It should be obvious why you would want the paint on the roller to be perfectly even: no blobs, no holes, no uneven patches. Getting the paint loaded perfectly evenly is less obvious. Instead of using a paint tray with bubbles or ridges, use a flat paper plate.
I poured the paint on one side of the plate, then loaded a bit of paint (never very much) onto the roller, then used the empty side of the plate to work the paint evenly into the roller. The roller is like a sponge, so if you keep rolling it firmly back and forth and round and round on the paper plate, pretty soon you get the whole roller head evenly wetted. The stencil company suggested after loading the paint that you should run the roller over paper towels to take off any drips or excess paint before putting it to the wall. I did this initially with the mudroom project, but I found that if you’ve loaded enough paint to have drips, you’re already in trouble, and working the roller back and forth firmly on the paper plate was safer and more effective than trusting the towel off.
Because you’re not putting a lot of paint on the roller, you’re going to have to reload many, many, many, many times. Resist the urge to try to load more paint. You’ll spend even more time fixing the bleeding disaster you’ll create than you would painstakingly loading the roller over and over.
I also used a separate plate with no paint on it as a roller tray. Flufferella did most of the camera work for this post which means that the entire instruction part of this video got cut off, but at least you can see the roller and the roller tray that I rested it on. And you can also see that I’m doing all this on the unprotected top of an irreplaceable Balinese table because I like to live dangerously. I also don’t use drop cloths and rarely tape anything off. Gasp! Don’t worry. In the whole time I’ve been painting stuff, I’ve only spilled an entire gallon of stain on white carpet that one time, so it’s fine.
4. Attach the stencil to the wall really well.
Lots of painters’ tape. So much painters’ tape. I tried Frog Tape, but it was way too weak to hold up the stencil and I had to switch to blue tape. These 4-piece crown moldings, arched casings, 2-piece chair rail and shadowbox wainscoting are all from our builder Classic Homes.
Because the stencil I was using has these large cells with small connector bits, it tended to deform much more than the other stencil I used (that one had a more even ratio of plastic to blank space while this one is mostly heavy plastic). I eventually figured out that I had to tape the back of each of the cells to keep it on the wall effectively. More than anything, you want the stencil to lay flat against the wall with no gaps. Bending it around corners and moldings, washing it, and basically using the darn thing all tend to deform the stencil. If it gets really wonky, you can wash it, lay it flat and use a hairdryer to straighten it, but even fresh out of the bag, you’re going to spend a lot of time re-positioning the stencil to get it lined up properly and laying flat. Any gaps between the wall and the stencil are invitations to drips and bleeding.
When you’re stenciling an area where only part of the stencil is adhered to the wall because of a corner or a molding or the ceiling, getting the stencil flat is almost impossible. In those cases I held the stencil onto the wall with my fingers while rolling little bits at a time. You can see that and so much more in the next video.
5. Sand the Floor, Paint the House, Stencil the Wall.
You know how when you’re rolling a whole wall, you walk the roller over as you go up and down. Like vacuuming? Don’t do that. The roller goes back and forth in one plane for stenciling, that’s it. Just like Ralph Machio, you go “Up, down; Side to side” but never a combination of the two. Put the roller on, roll back and forth, pick it up, put it down in a new spot, roll back and forth. Rinse and repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Trying to walk the roller over to a new area during a roll is a terrific way to squeeze paint under the stencil, but that’s about it.
Here’s a video of me doing one of the tricky parts of the room with a corner on one side and a casing on the other. Treacherous. Fluff’s the camera woman got some terrific footage of my forearm in the beginning, but keep going and you’ll see some useful stuff.
6. Freehand corners and edges.
The stencil company shows them getting right up to the casings/ceiling/corner by bending the stencil and tapping in paint with a stencil brush, but unless you have a second person there to hold the stencil, it doesn’t really work. I found the best way to do the corners was to get as much done with the roller as possible, then use that a guide to freehand the connections.
I have super shaky hands, especially when it’s cold, always have since I was little, so that’s no excuse for not freehanding. Just make sure you wait until the wall is completely bone dry so that you can rest the palm/side of your painting hand on the wall for stability as you paint. This is why my mirror always has a partial handprint on it from when I’m doing my eyeliner. Check out the touch up videos below for freehanding edges.
7. Wash the stencil carefully and often.
You finally get into a groove, and now your stencil needs to be washed. “I’ll just try to eek out one more time before I wash it.” Famous last words. I love having a big trough sink for washing the stencil out. If I had a two basin sink, I would have had to take the stencil to the bathtub.
Your stencil is most likely to get ripped during washing and drying, so don’t go on autopilot. Use a ton of water to soak the paint and carefully wash it off. You shouldn’t let these strings of paint go down your drain, so you pick them off and throw them away when they dry. ‘Tis nasty work.
Then I laid the stencil out of paper towels and blotted it dry with more paper towels. If you are really interested in tearing your stencil to shreds, this is a great time to swipe it back and forth with paper towels. Otherwise, just blot. As with rolling, pick up the paper towels and move to a new location rather than trying to walk them across the delicate stencil connector bits.
If you insist on busting your stencil, you now have a new fun step before you proceed. I broke my stencil at three little places during the second washing just so I could show you what to do. With the stencil lying perfectly flat, put a piece of Scotch tape on the break and press it tightly. Then wrap it around. I tried cutting out the excess tape, but I found that made the connection too weak and the stencil broke apart again during rolling. So instead, I left the extra tape on and fixed the irregularities it made when I was freehanding and touching up. So, yes, now that you’ve ripped your stencil you’ve got to 1) wash the paint off, 2) remove the blue tape, 3) remove the Scotch tape, 4) carefully dry the stencil, 5) retape all those individual cells, and 6) retape all the places you broke your stencil EVERY 3 OR 4 TIMES YOU STENCIL. Gaaaaaaaaahhh!!
7. Touch up.
This is the step that separates the wannabe’s from the are’s. Touching up everything took a long time. Not as long as the actual stenciling, but long enough to make me die a little on the inside. As I said, I used an artist’s brush to do all the freehanding in the corners and up against casings. I also used the brush to fill in all my mistakes and join the diamonds at the edges of the stencil. Two coats with the brush since the brush doesn’t put the paint on as thick as the roller. I also had to wait for everything to dry between coats because the light blue stencil paint dries darker, so I couldn’t tell how it looked until it was dry.
And then, as if that weren’t enough, I got out the wall color and touched up everything again making sure all the little breaks were clean and any blobs, bleeds, wave, drags or whatever were obliterated. It’s still imperfect, but no more imperfect than wallpaper. Actually wallpaper isn’t perfect either becasue it is almost always meant to look like freehand or stencil. It’s very uppercrust to be able to afford to have your walls painstakingly stenciled by uneducated serfs–like me. Stay in school kids.
I wondered if it was really worth it to do as much touch up as I did, but Kent assures me it made a huge impact. The worst possible scenario would be to do all that work and have it come out looking bad. Egads!
What I really want to know is whether my voice is as soothing and wonderful as Bob Ross. Ahhhhh!! My brother and I used to love Bob and his happy little trees.
Tomorrow if the sun comes out, I will take another video of the finished product so you can see the difference touching up made. Thanks again to my Fluffernutter, the 7 year-old cameragirl who now keeps asking me when we can start our own youtube channel to do vlogs. Natural evolution? Anyway:
Even unedited, the stenciling definitely lightened up the room. A friend called it whimsical which delighted me no end. That’s a feeling I’m really trying to go for in this house since my personal style trends formal so much of the time.
- Background of stencil: Benjamin Moore paint mixed to Sherwin Williams color Upward
- Trellis: Benjamin Moore paint mixed to Sherwin Williams color Sky High
- Wall below chair rail: McCormick Cool Platinum
- Trim: McCormick Designer White
Despite my impressively whiney attitude toward stenciling, the fun folks at Cutting Edge Stencils featured my living room on their blog. Cool!