Stencil Tools

Stencils are a great tool to introduce to children. They open little minds to the idea that there are many options for creating art besides applying a crayon to paper. The number of crafts where stencils can be used is vast. While children should not cut out their own stencils, you can do that for them.

In the adult world stencils can be used to paint walls, ceramics, fabrics, glass ornaments, tennis shoes and more. No matter what your canvas, stencils can help you to apply color or design with a predictable outcome. Besides using the stencil itself, retain the shapes you cut out of the stencil and use them to block an area from receiving paint. This is called "resist" in the art world. You can also use the cutout to create a perfect shape or an outline in the current project or in a totally new one. This tote bag was decorated with a deer stencil, "tis the season" stencil, and die-cut "Noel" lettering.

Stencil and the cutout

Stencil Materials


Cardstock stencils do not provide you with unlimited uses. The number of times you can reuse the stencil depends on how many coats of paint are applied to it. Multiple layers of paint can ripple edges and prevent them from laying flat. While you may be limited by the number of uses with cardstock, it also has many benefits. It is convenient because it's not expensive, it's easy to cut with craft knife, and you can print your design onto the stock. Another benefit is that paint applied with an airbrush does not pool on the surface of cardstock. Here we see an image on cardstock and the result of painting with a stencil.

Design on cardstockpainted design


Like cardstock, glossy photo paper makes a good stencil because of the weight of the paper and because you can print your design directly onto the page. In addition, if paint pools on the paper surface, it can easily be wiped off.


Blanks are about the same weight as cardstock. Many have a slightly frosted appearance but you can easily see a design through them. That makes it convenient when you want to trace the image with a marker. But there are other options. You can tape the blank and the image together so they don't shift and cut through both layers. Blanks can be used repeatedly and can be found at craft stores. This is an image of a blank with the design already cut out.

stencil blank

If you have a purchased a ready-made stencil and for some reason you want a duplicate of it, or maybe you want that stencil in another size, place your existing stencil over dark paper then scan it. Once you have it in your computer, you can resize it, print it out, then cut out a duplicate or another size of the original stencil. Blanks are available at Michaels, JoAnn's and other craft stores.


Crafters and artists also use clear vinyl sheets for stencils but they are a little harder to cut with a craft knife because they are generally thicker. Vinyl can be used in the same way as a stencil blank.


Freezer paper offers crafters a simple and handy product with which to create stencils for fabric. You can print your design out in black on the paper then cut it out with a craft knife. Iron the stencil onto the fabric in its final position. The shiny side should be touching the fabric. When your design is painted and dry, the freezer paper peels off neatly.


Frisket is a lightweight adhesive back film. It may seem that if you cut into it, that it might easily rip. But it's not as sensitive as it appears. Frisket is available in sheets and rolls and comes in high and low tack versions. High tack has a stronger adhesive and is ideal for applications on very hard surfaces like glass and plastic and on uneven surfaces. Because low tack film releases more easily from the surface, it's ideal for use on fabric. The genius of Frisket is the work environment will be cleaner because you don't need to use stencil spray. When using Frisket, be sure your surface is clean so that lint or dirt will not lessen the product's adhesive qualities. You'll find Frisket at craft stores like Michaels and at most stores that sell airbrush paints and tools.

With stencil blanks, freezer paper and Frisket, a paper towel should be used to absorb paint that has pooled on the stencil surface before removing it to prevent drops of paint from transferring to unwanted areas.

How to Apply Stencils

Although repositionable spray adhesives have improved dramatically over the years, you can still smell fumes and it requires working in a space with plenty of ventilation and ideally an open window. Use repositionable stencil spray on the back side of stencil blanks, card stock, or vinyl. It works extremely well to temporarily bond the stencil in nearly any application and provides perfect adhesion between the stencil and the underlying material. Even stencils that contain lettering with tiny sharp edges and curves will stick very well.

type on stencil

Always wait a couple of minutes between spraying and applying the stencil to your material. Applying the stencil too soon after spraying can leave adhesive residue on the surface to be painted.

Cardstock is made of several layers of fiber bonded together. If you spray too heavy a layer on the card stock stencil, when you're ready to remove it the fibers of paper may separate. Removing these fibers can be difficult. But it's only a problem if the spray is too heavy. Before using the spray for the first time, do a test with cardstock and a scrap of the kind of material to be painted. You will quickly learn that it doesn't take a heavy layer of spray to create good adhesion.

If it's not important that the finished design have perfectly defined edges, you can place the stencil on a flat surface and hold it down with weighted objects.

Stencil Paints

Stencils can be used with several different types of paints. Here are a few of the most popular.


When using liquid paint and a brush, always work from the outside of the stencil into the design. Working from the inside out, can create a heavy rim of unwanted paint on the stencil edge. Other tools you can use to dab on liquid paint include sponges and crinkled plastic wrap to create a textured effect.


An airbrush tool offers unlimited design possibilities, like layering paint colors to create different effects. Some airbrushes use pouches, others use bottles. With both of these delivery systems, the air pressure from the tool propels the paint. The paint doesn't actually pass through the tool. Still other airbrushes pass the paint through the airbrush nozzle. Pouches are easy to snap onto the airbrush tool when you want to change colors. It's also easy to clean up. Pouches come with a lever that gives the option of a heavy or finer spray.

Some airbrushes using bottles, give you as much control as a marker with the option of also painting broad areas. If you have artistic ability this is a great tool because you can create designs without using stencils. Inks, dyes, watercolors, and acrylics can all be applied with an airbrush tool. Craft shops sell bottles filled with paint and empty bottles which you can fill with your own color mix. Airbrushes allow you to work on vertical projects.


Cream paint also works well on vertical surface applications and is ideal for painting accents or borders on walls. It's fun to work with, easy to control, and creates little mess. Cream paint requires a sponge applicator or brush. Fewer paint colors are available in cream paint so your palette is limited, although you may layer them to achieve certain tones and effects.

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