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Our nation's first settlers brought with them the European tradition of stenciling floral and fruit patterns on walls to mimic the look of pricey wallpapers. Today, stenciling is still a cheap way to add charm to a room. If you've never worked with stencils before, painting a decorative border around a doorway is a project any novice can tackle. Though you can certainly work with precut stencils, you'll get a more customized look if you design your own, as we did here. Follow along as senior technical editor Mark Powers creates the pattern, cuts the stencils, and stipples on just enough paint to let the wall color show through for a look that's both old-world and up-to-date.

Overview for Stenciling a Border

Illustration by Gregory Nemec

Project timeline:

  • Day 1: Measure the project area and create your pattern.
  • Day 2: Trace and cut the stencils.
  • Day 3: Use the stencils to paint the border.

Download the pattern we used.

Step 1: Mark the Doorway's Centerline

Photo by Kolin Smith

Measure the length of the casing above the doorway. Using a light pencil line, mark a centerline on the casing near the top. You'll use this marking in Step 8 to help position the top stencil.

Step 2: Create the Pattern

Photo by Kolin Smith

Sketch a design freehand or print one using a computer. (You can download the pattern we used.) Affix your sketches to the wall with painter's tape. Be sure to leave a consistent space between the edge of the casing and the stencil design. (Ours was 1½ inches.) Lightly mark the ends of the border on the wall with a pencil. Our project required four stencils: a top detail centered above the doorway, a corner detail, a tail detail, and a linear pattern to fill space between the details.

Step 3: Trace the Pattern

Photo by Kolin Smith

On a work surface, lay a piece of stencil film over the top detail so that one edge aligns with the edge of the pattern that's closest to the door casing. Cut the film to size, leaving a space of at least 1 inch all the way around the pattern to keep the stencil intact. Tape the film to your sketch to prevent shifting. Trace the pattern onto the film with a fine-tip permanent marker, using a straightedge as needed. Measure and mark a centerline on the bottom edge of the top stencil.

Step 4: Cut the Straight Lines

Photo by Kolin Smith

Place the film and pattern on top of a self-healing cutting mat. Leave the pattern below the film while cutting, or if you prefer to remove the pattern, mark the areas to be cut away with an X. Using an X-Acto knife guided by a straightedge, carefully cut the straight lines.

Step 5: Cut the Curved Lines

Photo by Kolin Smith

Place the film and pattern on top of a pane of glass to protect your work surface. Using an electric stencil-cutting pen, carefully trace the cutlines with the tip of the pen, working in small sections and lifting the pen from the film as needed to keep the cuts clean and crisp. Repeat all steps for the remaining stencils.

Tip: For a clean cut when cutting out stencils, be sure to pull the X-Acto knife or cutting pen toward you as you work.

Step 6: Apply Adhesive

Photo by Kolin Smith

Lay the top stencil facedown on several sheets of newspaper. Apply a light coating of repositionable mounting spray on the back of the stencil. Allow it to dry for several minutes or until the adhesive feels tacky.

Step 7: Mount the Stencil

Photo by Kolin Smith

Holding the stencil away from the wall, align its centerline with the one you marked on the door casing in Step 2. Working from the center outward, press the stencil into place. Use a plastic putty knife to smooth it out; this will remove air bubbles and prevent paint from bleeding underneath.

Step 8: Load the Brush

Photo by Kolin Smith

Pour paint into a small container. Dip the end of a flat-tip stencil brush into the paint, then lightly dab the ends of the bristles on a lint-free cloth or paper towel, leaving the brush nearly dry.

Step 9: Paint the Pattern

Photo by Kolin Smith

Using a dabbing motion and a very light touch, stipple the brush onto the open areas of the stencil. Avoid stippling near the ends of the stencil where the pattern will continue, as this may create a visible, overpainted seam. Continue stippling until the pattern is filled in but the wall color underneath still shows through. Avoid using a back-and-forth motion while painting, which may leave brush marks and cause paint to bleed beneath the stencil.

Tip: If you prefer full paint coverage instead of a stippled look, dab on the paint in thin layers instead of applying a single thick coat.

Step 10: Remove the Stencil

Photo by Kolin Smith

When you're finished, carefully pull up one corner of the stencil, then peel it away from the wall at a sharp angle.

Step 11: Continue the Pattern

Photo by Kolin Smith

Repeat Steps 7 through 11, working your way outward from the top stencil. Make sure the paint has dried on the adjacent project area before mounting each stencil, and avoid overpainting areas that overlap where the pattern continues. Between uses, rinse stencils in hot water and dry with a lint-free cloth or paper towel. Flip over the corner stencil to paint the symmetrical pattern at the doorway's corners.

Step 12: Finish the Border

Photo by Kolin Smith

Mount the tail stencil on one side of the doorway. Paint the detail as described in Steps 9 through 11. Rinse and dry the stencil, then flip it over and repeat on the opposite side. Allow paint to dry completely.