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Right stencil tools for the right job!

Successful stenciling project starts with the right tools!

I am going to show you  my favorite stenciling tools and explain why do they work for me while other don’t.

There are many tools that are suitable for stenciling. You can use stencil brushes, foam rollers, sponges, pieces of foam, spray paint etc. Some of these tools are of good quality, some are not, and some are better to avoid. I’ll explain here how to select the better tools for stenciling and how to properly use them.

stencils and supplies

Stencil brushes.
These type of brushes are actually specially designed for stenciling. Stencil brush looks like a regular round brush, but unlike other brushes,  it has a flat top which makes it perfect for dabbing and swirling the paint over the stencil without getting the paint to seep underneath.  If you try stenciling with your regular watercolor artist brush, or a painter’s chip brush you’ll get a very messy result, due to the wrong shape of the brush. The flat top of the stencil brush is key, so please get the right type of brushes for your stencil project.

stencil brush

Now, how to choose a good stencil brush? These days there are so many brushes to choose from, it’s confusing! A good stencil brush is soft, flexible but densely packed, has natural bristles, minimal shedding (well, it seems that most new brushes seem to shed, unfortunately).  When you buy a new stencil brush, test how flexible it is. Bristles should not be too stiff.  Avoid stiff brushes,  especially those with synthetic bristles, they will be so hard to work with and will  create rough brush marks as you stencil. A good flexible stencil brush will give you beautiful soft shading  and blending of colors similar to the airbrush effect.  When you got your new stencil brush, it’s helpful to vigorously rub it with your thumb to get rid of most loose bristles before you start  stenciling.

the stencil brush

Use larger brushes for large stencil designs, and small brushes for shading and for smaller designs. In general, the size of your brush should relate to the size of the stencil openings, the bigger the openings – the bigger the brush. There are some really big stenciling brushes out there, perfect for large scale designs. Soon we’ll offer them for sale too.

Most stencil brushes have these glossy painted wooden handles.  I really don’t like them! I wish all of them had acrylic plastic handles! These wooden handles look great when new, but sooner or later will start to deteriorate and peel, especially if you like me  forget to clean your brushes  and let them sit in a cup of water for a couple days. The wood swells, paint cracks and chips, and next time you stencil  these annoying peeling paint chips will be falling all over your beautiful fresh stencil work…
Acrylic handles are great!  They don’t swell, don’t crack and peel, and you can forget your dirty brushes in the cup of water for as long as you want! :)

We offer these “soft comfort” stencil brushes with acrylic handles on our site, they have soft  flexible natural bristles,  translucent blue acrylic handles with soft rubber grip and are very reasonably priced.

stencil brush

How to correctly load the stencil brush with paint.
The main rule: not too much paint! Use very little paint for stenciling.
Start with  squeezing a small amount of craft acrylic paint onto a foam plate. Foam plates are the best for this, they are cheap, readily available and are just the right size. I don’t like using paint trays for stenciling, but this is a personal choice.

Now dip just the tip of your stencil brush into the paint.  Remember: not too much! Less paint is always better for stenciling. Now you’ll need to distribute the paint evenly through the bristles. This is easily done by painting a couple circles on the foam plate. Next – very important step! – rub off some excess paint onto a folded paper towel. This step insures that you have just the right amount of paint on your stencil brush.  Now you’re ready to stencil!

I like to hold a foam plate in my hand and tape a folded paper towels to the wall with blue tape when I work. This way I don’t have to run back and forth to my paint station. It’s especially useful when you work up on a ladder.

Stencil Rollers.
While stencil brushes are perfect for detailed stenciling, nothing beats a stencil roller when it comes to speed! If you’re doing a large design that doesn’t require too much shading and detail, definitely use a roller. With allover patterns such as damask stencils, a  foam roller is a must.   I can’t even imagine stenciling a damask room with a small brush!

The best roller for stenciling is a dense foam roller with rounded edges. No, you’ll not get good results with your regular fluffy paint roller! Don’t even try! It holds way too much paint and will make a huge mess if you use it on a stencil.  Even those foam rollers that are made of soft, not dense, yellow foam will hold too much paint and are not good for the stencil project. Your roller  foam should be fine, dense and firm, not soft. These rollers will hold the paint nicely and will dispense the right amount of it as you work.  Rounded edges are great because you’ll not going to get sharp roller marks all over your design.  We offer the perfect dense foam rollers on our site.

How to correctly load the stencil roller with paint.

Start with pouring some acrylic or latex paint on a foam plate or a paint tray. You don’t need much, about 2-3 tablespoons of paint is plenty to start with.

Load your foam roller by rolling it over the paint a few times until it absorbs most or all of it.  Press on the roller as you roll it over the paint, the goal is to absorb the paint into the roller, not to have it sit on the roller surface. Here’s where my favorite foam or plastic plates are the best: they have totally flat surface and it’s perfect for even absorption of paint. Most paint trays have some kind of textured pattern  on them, and because of this the paint ends up unevenly distributed within a foam roller.


When the roller absorbed enough paint,  blot off the excess paint on a folded paper towel by rolling it back and forth a couple times.  This is a very important step, not to be skipped! Always blot off some paint on paper towels before stenciling.


Properly loaded roller should have paint evenly absorbed into it without  dry patches on it (except the very ends). There should be no visible chunks of paint on a roller surface, it should look almost dry. Remember, it’s always better to have less paint on your roller, than too much paint.

About paint for stenciling:

My absolute favorite paint for  stenciling is craft acrylics. I prefer Folk Art acrylics because of their beautiful color range, opacity, and certain thickness that seems to be just perfect for stenciling. Some acrylic paint out there is too runny/watery,  and this is not desirable for stenciling.  Adding a drop of glazing medium to your paint will make blending of colors easier, also you can create amazing translucent effects with acrylics diluted with glazing medium.  I don’t recommend using high quality artist acrylics in tubes for stenciling. They tend to have lots of acrylic resin in them and will stick to the stencil too much  making cleaning a challenge.

These craft acrylics can be used even for a focal wall stenciling project! They often come in bigger 8oz bottles, and you may need only 2-3 bottles for your average wall. Acrylic paint doesn’t accumulate on the stencil as fast as any latex paint, so it means less stencil cleaning!

One of the best paints for large wall stencils and allover  stencils in our opinion is the Benjamin Moore paint called BEN.  This paint has just the right consistency for stenciling: not too thick and gummy and not too runny.  It comes in various sheen ( flat, eggshell, semi-gloss, etc.) and  can be mixed as any Ben Moore color.
You can use any latex paint too, your regular wall paint will work, but it may be less opaque or more gummy and will accumulate on the stencil pretty fast.

For fabric stenciling you can use  craft acrylics with added textile medium, or specialty fabric acrylic paint that have the medium already mixed into it.  I had great results with both types of paint, but regular acrylics come in much more shades and cost much less than fabric paint.

You can also use oil-based stencil crèmes, however I never developed a liking to them.  Some people like them a lot, they blend very well, and you’ll never get any paint bleed with them, but for me this was just too slow, and I never liked the smell of oil paint.

I personally would not recommend using spray paint for indoor stenciling project. Any spray paint is much harder to control, you’re very likely to get seepage under the stencil and get overspray if you’re not paying attention and didn’t use proper masking. It’s perfect for outdoor graffiti-style  stenciling where it seems to be a medium of choice.

In the next post we’ll talk about stenciling techniques and tips and tricks that go along with them! Stay tuned!

Janna Makaeva

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