Preparing Surfaces for Stenciling

The decorative appeal of stenciling is limitless. Learn how to prep your surfaces properly for an exquisite finish.

The decorative appeal of stenciling is limitless. Although this art form has been known for hundreds of years, today it’s still as fresh as ever and a creative way of using paint to give your home a personal touch.

Even if you’ve never tried stenciling before, in no time at all you can liven up your walls, furniture, and accessories in a style that will reflect your individuality. For those who do not consider themselves good at painting, it is a quick and easy way to creating a “painted” look while producing a unique item with a professional finish.

Whatever surface you are working on, its preparation beforehand is probably the most important and time-consuming stage of any project you undertake. The preparation forms the base for the layers of glaze and varnish. If there is a defect in the base, it will be clearly visible in the finished project. For all surfaces, the basic rule of “clean, sound, and smooth” applies, but the degree to which it is achieved depends on the state of the surface before you start work on it.

Base Wood
If removing paint from an item in order to work on the bare wood, use a proprietary stripping agent and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to remove old finishes. Wear protective gloves and glasses and keep children and animals out of the way.

After stripping, wash the item down with water before drying it. Working in the direction of the wood grain, rub the item down with medium-grade sandpaper to remove any last traces of paint or varnish, smooth off the rough edges, and provide a key for painting. Wipe away any dust with a slightly damp cloth.

Painted Wood
Previously painted wood can be repainted to freshen it up or to change the color completely. First, wash the old paintwork with hot water and detergent, without soaking it, to remove all dirt and grease. Wipe it down with a dry cloth and wait until the surface is completely dry.

Remove any loose or flaking paint by rubbing the surface down with medium-grade sandpaper. Afterward, always clean off any dust with a slightly damp cloth.

Varnished Surfaces
To repaint an item already painted and sealed with acrylic varnish, simply wash the surface with a damp cloth wrung out in hot water and dishwashing detergent. Do not soak — the intention is simply to remove any dirt and grease. Leave to dry. Rub the surface down with medium-grade sandpaper and clean off the dust. Paint with acrylic primer in preparation for painting later.

To repaint an item already painted and sealed with polyurethane varnish, wash clean as described above and, when dry, rub well with medium-grade sandpaper to provide a key for painting. Clean off any dust. Paint with aluminum primer to prevent any discoloration coming through subsequent coats of paint.

Waxed Surfaces
Wearing heavyweight rubber gloves, rub the waxed surface with coarse-grade wire wool dipped in turpentine or turpentine substitute. Place a wad of old newspaper under your work to collect any residue. Work in a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors.

Rub hard over the surface, working into any crevices. Remove a buildup of wax by carefully running an old knife along any cracks. Use a cloth rinsed in warm water and dishwashing detergent to wipe the surface. Do not soak. Wipe with a clean rag and leave to dry. Paint with the appropriate primer for your chosen topcoat.

Wash using hot water and dishwashing detergent. Dry. Rub any rusty patches with wire wool or a wire brush. Working on newspaper, use an old paintbrush to coat the rusty patches with a rust-proofing product. Leave to dry for 15 minutes. Paint with metal primer. Leave to dry for 24 hours.

You can stencil right onto terra-cotta as long as it is clean and dry. Remove any sticky manufacturer’s labels with a product made for the purpose or rub with lighter fluid poured onto a clean cloth. Wash with a cloth wrung out in hot water and dishwashing detergent. Leave in a warm place to dry.

If the terra-cotta has been outdoors and is muddy and green with lichen, scrub well with a tough brush. Wash and dry as described above. Alternatively, after washing and drying, paint the entire outer surface with an acrylic eggshell, craft paint, or satin-finish paint. Allow to dry thoroughly before applying the stencil.

Ceramic and Glass
First, wash the hard, shiny surfaces of ceramic and glass in hot water with dishwashing detergent to remove all traces of dirt and grease. Rinse well under hot running water and leave to dry. Ceramic and glass surfaces do not require any further priming.

Choose fabrics with a high natural fiber content. Plain fabric and checks work best. Wash according to the product label. Dry and iron flat. Use specialist fabric paints or, so finished items can be washed, mix ordinary paints with a 50/50 solution of fabric medium (available from craft stores).

Select the correct type and your paper will need no preparation. Generally, paper is made from natural ingredients and takes stenciling well, especially if it is a good, heavy quality. If the paper is too thin, it can stretch and buckle with the dampness of the paint.

There is a vast selection of handmade paper on the market in a range of colors and decorative effects; many have a slight weave and texture. Although some of these papers are quite thin, they are strong and make a perfect background for stenciled designs. Handmade papers are not cheap, but the stunning results are well worth the expense.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest