DIY Wall Stenciling

Why wallpaper when a simple stencil will add the perfect personal touch? With a little elbow grease and imagination, even the most uneven old wall can become an artist’s canvas.

By Polly Forcier, MB Historic Decor | Updated Jul 3, 2020 1:29 PM

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DIY Wall Stenciling


Artisans Polly and Ken Forcier of MB Historic Decor joined Bob Vila on the Season 13 “Modern Colonial” project house to decorate several interior walls with colorful stencils. The following stenciling advice from the Forciers offers practical tips and advice for applying decorative stencils to interior walls.

Few supplies are needed, and all can be obtained at your local craft shop or hardware store.

MATERIALS AND TOOLS Available on Amazon
1inch or 11/4inch paintbrushes
Paint (latex is preferable)
Stencil patterns
Spray adhesive for the back of the stencil
Masking tape
Scotch tape
Measuring tape
Indelible finepoint pen (if pattern is more than one color)
Pencil with eraser
Baby wipes and paper towels
Palette with dampened paper towel to squeeze the paint on
Palette knife
Plastic baggies to slip the brush into when not in use
Plumb bob
Small jars (for mixing paint colors)
Painter’s tape (33/4inch for ceilings, 2inch for woodwork)
Paint thinner (for oilbased paint)
Bristle brush (for cleaning patterns)
Drop cloth
Background paint


Begin with an idea about the placement of the frieze (the decorative horizontal band along the upper part of a wall in a room) at the top of your wall. You will begin here. You have some options: If you have a fireplace, you may want to center the pattern above it, if it is large and noticeable. Sometimes each wall is treated as a separate entity, and the pattern begins and ends with a full unit at each corner. A little stretching or squeezing in the placement of the units, which is imperceptible when completed, is usually successful. Or, you can start and end in the least obvious corner of the room and just carry the pattern around the corner as it comes. Computer buffs can easily plot the whole room using measurements and graphics. The rest of us can use a calculator, graph paper or scratch pads, or just start in!

Using 3-3/4-inch painter’s tape, mask off the ceiling as you work, not all at once. Remove it as soon as possible. Mask woodwork using 2-inch painter’s tape.  After stenciling the frieze, do the chair rail and baseboard horizontals.


Now you are ready for the verticals. The pattern is reasonably small. It is hoped you can begin and end with a full unit. Using a pencil to make a dot through the register holes, plan your spacing for the first time before applying the paint. Start with the same top unit by the frieze each time. Measure spacing from the ceiling. If you must use part of a unit, fade it out at the lower level close to the chair rail or baseboard horizontal, where it will be below eye level. Sometimes a little squeezing in its placement can help it come out right. If you have a slanted ceiling or floor in an old house which causes the floor-to-ceiling distances to change, make compromises.

Stenciling is great for old houses where wallpaper would be a disaster. Don’t insist on straight and plumb with the woodwork—just follow it. “Out of square” will be less noticeable in the end.


Mix your paint, enough for the whole job to ensure uniform color. For an average room, three small baby-food-sized jars should be more than enough for the major color. One small jar is ample for the second color, and less for the third.


Hold your stencil to the light and make sure all the holes are popped out. If not, poke them out with a pointed object. Place #2 stencil over #1 and align them using the register marks (small holes that are not part of the pattern). With your indelible pen, trace the outline of an outer shape, at either end, from the first stencil onto the second one. These will be a lot easier to use when applying the second color than the registers would be. Spray the backside of the stencil with adhesive and use according to directions. Stick it to the wall.


Put out about a tablespoon of paint. Get your brush into it and work it up into the bristles on a clean part of the palette. Wipe your brush gently on all sides of the paper towel to make sure no excess is on the edge. Wipe the blunt bristles gently. Little pigment should come off. A very “dry brush” technique reduces the likelihood of excess paint causing mistakes. There is always a delicate balance between where “elbow grease” should give way to more paint. Each person must determine the comfort zone from the danger zone by making small mistakes.

Rotate your hand in a clockwise/counterclockwise motion, keeping the bristles of the brush perpendicular to the wall. Start at the edges of the stencil and move in toward the middle of the openings.


Cleaning stencils.

Clean the stencil only when paint smears on the back, the pattern gets “gummy,” and small holes and slits clog up, or when you take an extended break.

For oil paint, pour some solvent in the pan. Put the brush in the solvent. The pattern is on the cardboard. Lift the brush out of the solvent and clean the pattern with it. Carefully blot or wipe the front and back of the pattern with paper towels. Use proper ventilation.

For water-based paint, clean the pattern in the sink on the flat with fingers or a Scotch-Brite scouring pad. When cleaning the stencil, always use a flat surface. Be careful of vulnerable places, such as serrated leaves and long curved openings. A bristle brush works well with the solvent.  For oil paint, clean on a flat piece of cardboard. Blot the back and front carefully with paper towels.

If using the stencil again right away, be certain the back is totally clean and dry. Adhesive spray on the back of the stencil will dissolve with paint thinner.

Repairing stencils.

If you do have the misfortune to tear a stencil, Scotch tape across the rip back and front. If you break off a piece—for example, a point of a leaf—stick both sides with Scotch tape over the missing part so the faces stick together and re-cut it with a single-edged blade knife on a pane of glass for a background.

Freeing stuck stencils.

You may bend one corner up to have a “tab” to start pulling the stencil from the surface. Take care to free up and away from your work. Do so gently so as not to stress it and cause it to tear.

Maintaining paintbrushes.

After you have been stenciling awhile, your brush will get “gummy.” To fix this, either take a baby wipe or put some solvent on a folded paper towel in the palm of your hand and pass the brush across it, closing your hand around it. Brush the tips of the bristles, too. Be very careful with solvent! It can cause too-wet paint and a great mess very easily. If a few drops of thinner must be added to the paint, mix it thoroughly with your palette knife. Never go directly into it with your brush while painting. Do go into it at the end of the day and clean your brush very well, ending with soap and water. Do not use again until dry.

Fat over thin.

This rule means that you can paint oil (fat) over latex (thin) with success, but not to reverse the procedure, as in acrylic (thin) over oil-based background paint (fat).

Fixing mistakes.

On a latex wall using acrylic paint, try wiping clean with water and cotton swabs or paper towels and/or paint over the area with the original shade of latex paint. You can paint over huge areas and start over! In this case a hair dryer comes in handy to speed the paint drying time.

On an oil-based paint wall, use a solvent on paper towels and wipe clean. Follow with cleaning agents for large sections. For small places try wiping back with cotton swabs.

Allow your wall paint to be totally cured before stenciling. Attempting to stick anything to it may pull it off.