Design Hints

Sensational Stenciling

Get helpful tips for bringing the delicate, colorful style of Early-American stenciling to your home.

An art form that has been around since prehistoric times -- when cavemen cut stencils from bamboo leaves and forced vegetable dyes through the holes onto bark cloth -- stenciling is a hallmark of Early-American style. In Colonial times, North American settlers who could not afford wallpaper relied on stenciling to decorate their walls and furnishings. From 1760 to 1840, itinerant artisans traveled with their pigments, brushes and stencils, decorating homes throughout New England. Here, Olympia, Washington, homeowner and folk artist Laurita Briggs, whose home is featured in the January 2010 issue, shares her tips for introducing this technique into your own decorating.

Be Authentic: Stencils proliferate in homes throughout the United States, Canada and England, but for authentic Colonial styles, Laurita recommends visiting the Shelburne Museum in Vermont for inspiration. If a pilgrimage isn't within your budget, try online resources such as for designs that mimic historical versions.

Choose Your Tools: In addition to your stencils, gather up your favorite acrylic or latex paints, a stiff stencil brush, a few plates for mixing the paint and a roll of paper towels. Also, Laurita recommends using a Scotch Restickable Adhesive Glue Stick to affix your stencils to the wall.

Put It to the Test: Once you've decided on a design and a palette, test your paint colors on a piece of scrap wood to ensure they flow well together. This also gives you an opportunity to practice your stenciling skills before you start on your walls.

Apply Yourself: Dip your stencil brush in paint and dab it in a circular motion on a piece of paper towel on a tray to evenly distribute the paint until it appears there is almost no paint left on the brush. Apply the first color sparingly, with a tapping motion, starting at the center of the stencil and working slowly outward. Peek underneath the stencil periodically to check your work, and apply additional coats as needed.

Follow the Leader: Multilayer stencils typically come in Mylar strips, each layer marked with its placement order. When the first color is dry, lay the second stencil atop the first one. Repeat the instructions above until all of the design's colors have been applied to the wall.

Written and Styled by Donna Pizzi
Photographed by