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Hawk & Trowel - Spring 2009

Plaster Stenciling

Plaster Stenciling

by Chris Mayo

According to David Haynes, co-owner of Buckingham Stencils in Nanoose Bay, British Columbia, the first known wall stencil dates back to prehistoric times. "It was created by a hand held against the wall of Lascaux Cave in France," explains Haynes. "Blood was blown through a reed over the hand, leaving a clear (and lasting) impression on the wall.

"So it was also the first use of airbrushing technique," he adds.

When it comes to stencils, Haynes and his wife and business partner Leslie know their history. They say plaster stenciling has experienced ebbs and flows of popularity over the course of centuries. "The Egyptians were the first large organized society to use plaster stenciling techniques," says David Haynes. "The use of plaster is why Egyptian stencils have such a wonderfully engraved, almost alive, look. There are beautiful examples of freehand work in plaster in Avignon, France, and the English used a lot of plaster stenciling in what are now historic mansions. American colonial stenciling emigrated from England and remained popular until the advent of the arts and crafts movement in the 1880s."

Haynes says that plaster stenciling remained popular through the Arts and Crafts movement, through the advent of nouveau riche designs, to current retro-style designs.

Despite or maybe because of the changes, plaster stenciling has remained a popular and relatively low-cost way to create artsy, high-end accents in homes, businesses and public buildings. Stenciling is both an avenue for individual expression and a "cost-effective means to achieving high-end results," says Victoria Larsen, owner of Victoria Larsen Home Decor in Everett, Wash.

Plaster vs. joint compound
Opinions are mixed regarding what is the best material to use when doing raised stenciling. In fact, the material one chooses to use may be limited only by the imagination of the person applying it - stucco, concrete, thin-set material and wood putty have all been used. However, plaster and joint compound are the materials of choice for most jobs.

Anthony Banayat, owner of Graphetto LLC, a stencil manufacturing company in Phoenix, Ariz., says that plaster offers more versatility and lends a higher-quality appearance to the finished product. "Venetian plaster, for instance, creates a phenomenal end result," he says. "It contains marble powder and it can be burnished to a sheen to achieve the illusion of depth and texture."

Banayat has also seen beautiful results with integrally colored plasters. "With plaster," he says, "you can create stunning effects … beveled, inlaid, and multiple colors, to name a few."

The Victoria Larsen Home Decor Web site offers a tutorial on using joint compound as a versatile alternative to plaster. For its part, drywall joint compound sets up slowly and is easy to work with, Larson says. "Because it sets up slowly, it can be scraped off the surface if you aren't happy with the effect."

David and Leslie Haynes have experimented with a number of materials. "Joint compound is fast and easy to use, and it's inexpensive," David says. He's found that if the stencil is ripped off the wall while the joint compound is still wet, it leaves a ragged edge that can be its own unique effect. "Because joint compound is softer than plaster," he says, "you can use a tool to accentuate lines before it has dried."

Dean Sickler, owner of Dundean Studios in Chatham, N.J., has been a high-end painting and decorating contractor since 1977. Joint compound may be the best option for a novice, he says, but plaster is better for the professional. "There are a couple of problems with joint compound," he says. "One problem is that when you pull the stencil off the surface, the edges of the material tends to lift up. Synthetic plaster leaves a much cleaner look and you don't have to prime or paint it. Plaster is harder and therefore more durable.

"Another problem with joint compound is that you have to add something to it - latex paint or glue - to make it work with a stencil. Plaster is made for this kind of thing, so why not use it?" Sickler also points out that there are a wide variety of plasters available, allowing a contractor to achieve any number of textures and finished effects. "When glaze is applied to a synthetic plaster, it looks as though it's part of the surface rather than appearing as though it was put on top of the surface as an afterthought," he notes.

"Joint compound is limited in what you can do with it," says Sheri Hoeger, owner of The Mad Stencilist in Placerville, Calif. "And it's not really made to create decorative effects." She points out that joint compound is more porous than plaster, requiring a base coat before any type of finish can be applied.

There are plasters that are designed specifically for decorative work, Hoeger says. One example is Proceed Plasters, which offers a range of specialty plasters - metallic-imbedded, rough regular, rough irregular, smooth translucent and smooth transparent, to name a few.

Materials matter
While there is an almost unlimited supply of stencil designs, the materials that stencils are made from are more limited. Vinyl, Mylar and plastic are the most commonly offered stencil materials. Vinyl stencils tend to only be used only once, while Mylar or styrene are saved for multiple uses. "The type of stencil you choose to use really depends on the job you're doing," says Sickler.

Thickness also varies. The standard is a 3-to-7-mil stencil, while specialty stencils can be up to 25 mils thick. Graphetto has developed a 25-mil plastic stencil that can stand up to sandblasting on concrete.

"The thickness of the stencil determines how raised an appearance you'll end up with," says Sickler. "If you're doing a repetitive stencil, repeating the design along the corner of the wall and ceiling, for instance, a thicker stencil is best as it will be easier to reuse. Plaster is abusive to stencils, so you need one that is durable enough to hold up."

Additionally, Sickler says that it doesn't take as much thickness as one might think to achieve a raised look. "Just a little relief will throw shadows," he says. "That's what creates the effect."

Adding stenciling to your repertoire
It makes sense that a stencil manufacturer would include a training program as a component of their business. Most interviewed for this article do. But why would a contractor offer to teach other local contractors how to better compete in the same market in which he competes?

Sickler added a training component to his business about 10 years ago, and he has a quick answer to that question. "Doing a job well elevates the entire industry," he claims. "If a contractor does a job correctly, and at the right price, it's not competition."

Sickler sees both an upside and a downside to adding stenciling to your business. "The upside is that it can make a contractor stand out from the competition. And as a plus," he adds, "you may get more satisfaction out of the work compared to doing straight walls all the time."

The downside? "When you get into design, you're dealing with the subjective opinions of your customers, who sometimes have difficulty picturing the end product. When they see how good stenciling looks and they understand the potential it offers to a wall or a room, they often want to change and upgrade mid-job."



The Plaster Zone >
Ornamental considerations
by Robin Raymer

The Preservation Plasterer >
How to repair historic plaster
by Rory Brennan

That Drywall Guy >
Building the best arches and curves
by Myron Ferguson