Stencil Style

I made these gorgeous stencilled backings for floating shelves when I redecorated my eldest daughter’s bedroom last year. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll call them the Mark-I version though they may as well be called the Holy Grail, because my attempts at recapturing the look was far more difficult than it should have been.


The burnt orange colour is one of the accents in her room and they really make the room sing. So much so in fact, that I’ve had a lot of positive comments from visitors to our home who have been interested in my renovations. Every time I’ve shown off the finished room I’ve been asked where I got the orange shelves. I go ahead and tell them that they are just ordinary melamine shelves to which I’ve hand stencilled a background. They often sound amazed and say something like, “Did you really do that yourself?” It leaves me wondering if I should be flattered that they think they look shop bought, or insulted that they have so little faith in my ability.

Recently my younger daughter said that she wanted similar shelves in her bedroom. Well I decided that this would make an easy first project for my blog. Skip ahead two weeks and I’m beginning to wonder where my stencilling mojo has disappeared to.

Certainly I wondered where I put the stencil I used for those first shelves. Somewhere in the depths of my memory, I vaguely recall that I wore it out, so probably I threw it away. Finding a new stencil was not as easy as it should have been. For some unknown reason, hardly anybody is stocking them locally.

In the end, the best stencil I could get was a simple round dot design which cost NZ$6. I may use the word simple, but it turns out geometric designs need a more exacting execution than complex patterns. Having said that, if you do get the odd paint bleed, don’t spit the dummy too quickly. These can often be camouflaged by over-painting with a bit of white paint.

Although this is an easy DIY project, I must point out that stencilling does take some concentration and should be undertaken when you are relaxed with perhaps some calming background music. I worked on it while listening my two daughters arguing in the next room over who was going to be the ruler of an imaginary realm they had created. It nearly did my head in.

I called the girls in to see me and informed them that if they didn’t stop arguing I’d crown the dog as ruler. Whereupon my daughter pointed out that I was stencilling more ovals than dots. I had to reassure her that stencilling is never as sharp as printing and slight mistakes are all part of the charm.

Here’s what the Mark-II version looks like. I used the same turquoise paint as I’d previously used on her desk and headboard. My commissioning-daughter took one look and decided she had gone off spots. Fortunately I came up with another idea, which I’ll show you about at the end of this blog. Meantime, here’s my top ten tips on how to do these yourself.


Ten “Wish I’d Known That Before I Started” Tips

  • Choose floating shelves that have no back on them. I think these floating shelves look fabulous in white on a white wall. But if you do have a coloured wall, you could always paint the shelves with the same shade. If you decide to go down that route do use a high-quality smooth-surface undercoat so that your top coat will stick to them – especially if they are melamine.shelves2b
  • There are special stencil brushes (1) and these work with some stencils. But you can experiment using an ordinary brush, sponge (3), a small roller (4), or do what I ended up doing and dab the paint on with one of these cute “ghosts” (5). They are simply cotton wool wrapped in muslin and tied with a rubber band. You don’t have to add eyes.
  •  Use acrylic house paint. A test pot size will be more than enough. Poster paint is OK, so long as it has a decent amount of pigment in it.
  • When choosing a stencil, make sure it has a repeating pattern. Purchasing the wrong stencil was the first boo-boo of many boo-boo’s I made on this project and why it took me two weeks to complete. Notice how the floral stencil (6) does not repeat.
  • Keep in mind that a geometric pattern requires sharper edges and more accuracy than an irregular pattern.
  • Stencils come in varying thicknesses. The thinner the plastic the less paint bleed you will get, but they don’t last as long. Thicker ones can be washed, dried and reused, being careful not to tear or bend any of the segments. Wall sized stencils cost a lot of money, so I chose to use scrapbooking size stencils. You could try making your own with a 3D printer.
  • Paint onto card stock. Choose card that is thick enough that it doesn’t buckle and crinkle when you pick it up, but not so thick that it leaves a noticeable gap between the wall and the shelves. I used about 570mic (350gsm) A2 white card.
  • Paint on the matt side. The paint will slip/run on glossy card. You can paint the card to match your wall colour first and this will help prevent paint bleed. I wish I had remembered to do that.
  • Use a good quality, low adhesive painters tape to secure the stencil to the card and don’t be afraid to use your fingers to hold the centre of the stencil down as you paint.
  • Trace the inside and outside shape of the shelves onto your card first with pencil. Then make sure you stencil right into the margin between the two pencil lines.

OK, so now you know my ten top tips, I’ll give you the low-down on how to make them. I’m not giving a step by step recipe, because well these are just so straight forward. A stoned koala could work it out.

As I said above, trace the shape onto the card first. Apply a single coat of paint onto the stencil and lift off carefully. After about 5 minutes it should be dry enough to do the next section.

Touch up any boo-boos with white paint—if your background is white. When you’ve finished cut the shape out, cutting it a few millimetres inside the outer pencil line, so that there’s no chance you’ll see any card poking out the side once you’ve mounted them.

Follow the instructions for the shelves to mount them. Probably you’ll need to use screw anchors/wall plugs. The shelves I buy come with masonry wall plugs and I have to purchase plasterboard plugs for my walls. You can stick the card to the wall with a couple of tiny pieces of double sided tape, and use it as a template for your mounting holes. Or you can do what I do, and attach the card to the back of the shelf and spend the next half hour struggling to get them hung. But either way, in the end …

Voilà! Beautiful handcrafted shelves.

Earlier I mentioned that we didn’t end up using the dotty backgrounds. Unable to find a suitable stencil, I remembered these old Yiorgos Depollas posters that I had rolled in a tube doing nothing. I thought perhaps, cut up they’d make great backgrounds, but worried that they were too busy and also too mature for a middle grader’s bedroom. But she absolutely loved them, and once she saw them wouldn’t have anything else. This is what the finished result looked like.

shelves5    shelves4

They are almost too nice to put ornaments on, which kind of defeats the purpose. But so long as everyone’s happy, one little House Elf (moi) doesn’t care.

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  1. Leftover wallpaper could also be used successfully, though I think it would be quite wasteful to buy a whole roll just for one small project like this. You could also use scrapbooking paper, but as these usually come in 12”x12” squares, you’d have to mount them either in strips or decoupage.

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