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Making Stencils - How to Make Stencil Art

Making Stencils - How to Make Stencil Art

Excerpt from the book:  Three Hundred Things A Bright Boy Can Do
The use of stencils is familiar to most people in one form or other. Ladies frequently use stencil plates in which their names or initials are cut out to mark linen.
A commoner use is that of metal plates in which the letters of the alphabet are cut out in thin metal for use in labelling trunks, boxes in commerce, with the name and destination of the owner, merchant, or goods.
It is possible that a very delicate form of stencilling is familiar to many of my readers, which is used to multiply copies of letters, circulars or notices to go through the post.

Fig. 1. Frieze or Dado.
The machine consists of a handle to which is attached a small wheel which has projecting from its rim a series of sharp points. The letters are formed by writing with this wheel. As the wheel passes over the paper the points pierce small round holes, sufficiently close to each other to indicate the letters, while the paper between the holes are bridges or ties holding the inside of the loops firmly to the rest of the sheet.
This writing becomes the stencil.
To obtain copies, the stencil is laid over a sheet of paper, and a brush charged with colour is rubbed across. The colour passes through the holes to the paper beneath, and the copy is secured.
In making the metal stencil plates of letters, ties or bridges have to be left to prevent the inner parts of the letters becoming solid like a printer’s. Such letters as I, F, J, T, and some others, can be given in their complete form, though in the case of the F, it would be better, that is, the stencil plate would be firmer, if a tie were left where the top horizontal line joins the perpendicular stem. In cutting stencils this matter of tying or supporting all the interior or enclosed parts of the composition is very important, and should never be lost sight of.
It is better to err in an excess of ties, than to risk the falling to pieces of the whole by insufficient support. The reader will perceive that if the white parts of the loops in the letter B are not connected with the outer surrounding whites, they would fall out, and the letter would stencil solid, while if only one tie is given, the loops would get out of position, as the paper swells with the moisture of the paint.
Instances of these ties will be found in nearly all the illustrations, particularly in the Mooresque design, Fig. 2. It is the aim of the designer to make these ties a part of the composition, and an assistance in the effect of the whole. But cases will occur where the composition must be ruthlessly cut across as in the Greek design, Fig. 1, where in one repeat the central portions are shown with ties, and in the other in its complete form.
The restoration is made with the brush afterwards. The ties should be broad or narrow according to the strength of the material of which the stencil is made, and the number of repeats for which it will be used.

Fig. 1a. Altered for Vertical Use.

Stencilling is employed as an easy method of repeating the same ornament, figures, or letters, with exactness and speed. If I desired to use the simple Greek composition Fig. 1, as a frieze in the study in which I am writing, not by any means a large room, being about 14 feet by 11 feet, it would be necessary to repeat it between 90 and 100 times. If I had to draw this in by hand, and laboriously paint it, probably the enthusiasm for art which projected the scheme would be frittered away long before I completed it, and I should throw it up in disgust and call in the paperhanger to put on the usual wall furnishing. But if the design were cut out in stencil, it would take but little if any longer to stencil the frieze than it would for the hanger to paper it, and the scheme being carried out in the other details, I should have the satisfaction and enjoyment of a room specially decorated to suit my own taste, and unique according to the originality of the design.

Fig. 2. Mooresque Design for Dado.

Fig. 3. frieze: silverweed, frog.

In the article on the use of leaves which follows, it is suggested that the forms of leaves to be met with in the field, hedgerow or wood, are peculiarly adapted to ornamental purposes, stencilling in decoration of the home among others. But this use of natural forms in ornament requires taste and consideration. To stick a leaf here and another there, without a purpose or design in the composition, is not ornament. I propose, with the aid of the printer, to give an idea of the principles which govern the making of designs. The first one is repetition. To use a star thus * singly, is not ornament. Place a number of stars side by side at regular distances between parallel lines thus:—

and you have a design, elementary, it is true, but as far as it goes decorative. In place of the star put a clover leaf, a conventional flower such as is used in Fig. 3, or a briar leaf laid slanting to the right or left, and you have

and Toad.

a border which may be used for a light frieze or the top of a dado. Arrange the stars in parallel rows thus:—

so that each star falls midway between the star above and below, and you have the elements of a design such as is very commonly used in wall-papers, prints, and nearly all forms of decoration under the name of diaper patterns.
Again, in place of the star put some other form, as an ivy leaf or a small spray. But in this class of design we shall not be much concerned in room decoration, as they are only used for large panels. Another principle in ornament is alternation. It may be illustrated thus:—

in which parallel lines alternate with stars. This composition is not more crude than much of what passes for decoration at the present time. For our immediate purpose let a shapely leaf take the place of the upright lines and a flower the place of the star, and you have a more advanced border, and if the masses are well balanced and drawn, one agreeable to the eye.
I think the printer can illustrate another principle of design for us in symmetry thus:—

in which three exclamation marks are placed side by side at different levels, with parallel lines and a hyphen below, alternating with stars. Or a simpler form still of the same principle may be given thus:—

in which the double dagger alternates with a star. If you draw a perpendicular line up the central exclamation mark or the daggers, the right and left sides will be found to be
Fig. 4. Dado or Frieze: Oak and Squirrels.

alike or symmetrical. In place of the daggers or the exclamation marks, draw the leaves of the wild rose, one in the centre and one inclining to the right, another to the left; put a flower in place of the parallel lines, and you will have a symmetrical composition, the stalks being prolonged below. This principle of design is clearly shown in the two designs, Figs. 1 and 1a.
A perpendicular line divides the designs into two equal parts. This is two-sided symmetry, what we are more particularly concerned with. Another principle in ornament is balance of parts.
This is symmetry of another order, in which the two sides of the composition, although different in all the details, yet preserve the same weight or balance.
The general effect is the same. This is illustrated in Fig. 3, which is a design for a frieze.
In no place could a line be drawn which would divide the composition into two similar parts, but by the disposition of the leaves of the silverweed there is an equal distribution of weight on either side of the design. This balance of parts is important to preserve when the


design departs from the symmetrical in its arrangements. It makes all the difference between a pleasing and unsatisfactory composition, and is not to be acquired without considerable practice.
The chrysanthemum design, Fig. 6, is an illustration of this principle. It is designed for the panels of a door, or the sides of a grate, or to go round a door in the form of a vertical border, but in every case where it can be placed in pairs with the flowers away from the centre, to be done by reversing the stencil.

Having thus cleared the ground for practical work, we can describe the way to make stencils. For our purpose the best material for the stencil is the oiled paper used in the letter-copying press. This will be found strong, hard, and non-absorbent. It is comparatively cheap and can be purchased at most stationers. In cases in which this paper would not be large enough, which may happen in some of the running patterns, cartridge paper, or better still, hot-pressed Whatman’s, if coated on both sides with knotting varnish (to be procured at any oilman’s shop), would do very well.
For smaller subjects, which are not required for more than a score repeats, ordinary note paper, the highly polished kind that crackles like sheet iron when bent is excellent, and has been largely used by the writer. The knife used is one with a blade that runs to a sharp point. This point must be kept with a keen edge, so that one cut will go through the paper, leaving a clear edge. Hold the blade of the knife at right angles to the paper, which must rest upon a clean sheet of glass. If cut upon any yielding surface, the paper will bruise. A hone should be close at hand to keep a good edge to the knife. It is important to get a clean, square cut, with no ragged margins.

To get the drawing on the paper, first make a rough sketch giving the size and general character of the design on ordinary sketching paper. If the design is symmetrical, i.e., both sides alike, rule a perpendicular line. Draw as clearly and carefully as possible one-half the composition, that is all that will appear on the left-hand side of the line.
When you are satisfied with this, place a piece of looking-glass exactly on the vertical line; you will see the image of your drawing in the glass, but in reverse, thus completing the design. If looking-glass is not available, a coat of Brunswick black on one side of any piece of glass will give you a sufficiently good reflector. Probably you will not be altogether satisfied with the drawing as shown complete in the glass.
The lines are not agreeable ones, or pretty in curve, or the balance of the parts is not quite as you would like it. Make the alterations you feel necessary, and apply the glass again.
When satisfied, place tracing-paper over the drawing. This may be fastened down by drawing-pins, a touch of gum, or pieces of the free edge of postage-stamps. Indicate carefully by clear marks the position of the vertical line, and proceed to draw a firm outline of the design, with, say, an F pencil or an HB.
When done, remove the tracing-paper and fold it exactly down the vertical line, with the pencil drawing outside.
Double it, in fact. Then placing it on a sheet of white paper, draw the other half, thus completing the design. Put it, pencilled side downwards, on the oil paper or note-paper, and rub off with your thumb nail. Go over the design, marking all the ties very distinctly. Then cut out as before, taking care not to cut through the ties. In practice you will find it best to begin cutting at the ties; the paper will readily spin round on the glass so that you can follow the curves of the design with your knife. Should you cut through a tie, it must be made good. Cut off a slip of paper of the same size, put on some of the knotting, and when it is tacky, stick down the strengthening slip.
The stencil may include more than one repeat of the pattern, the more repeats there are the quicker the work can be done. Some decorators in making stencils do rather more than they intend to use when stencilling, so that parts overlap, which is done to get the repeat true. I find it better, more exact, to work from two lines on the stencil, one a horizontal line and another a vertical line.
 By using a needle point (a needle in a wood handle), I rule a horizontal line upon the wall in the position the horizontal line on the stencil should fall. This is altogether indistinguishable when the work is finished.
Then, vertically to this line, with the same point, I indicate where the repeats should fall, and then go ahead. It is a considerable help to get a friend to join in the work, as he can assist in holding the stencil on the surface to be decorated, giving you more freedom in the use of the right hand. If working alone the stencil is held with the left hand while the colour is applied with the free hand. The straight lines are not stencilled, they are run on by the help of a bevelled straight-edge. The position of these lines is indicated by ruling as above or by twanging a piece of string charged with charcoal dust in the position required.

Fig. 5. running border.

In decorating your room, the first point to be decided is to what extent and where you will apply the work. If cost is not a great consideration, undoubtedly the best thing to do is to paint the wall over with a pleasing tone in oil colours. A frieze running round the room immediately under the moulding, the depth being according to the height of the room; a dado running round the bottom of the walls, high enough to clear the top of the chair-backs: and if the room is large enough, the division of the room into panels by ornamental columns at the corners, and appropriate divisions. A border may be run round the doors and the sides of the fireplace may receive separate attention if there are surfaces suitable for stencilling. But it is usual to apply this system of decoration to distempered walls, in which case the decoration to be applied would probably be above the dado (which would be papered in some richly decorated pattern), a frieze under the ceiling, and a border round the door.

Fig. 6. Pilaster: Chrysanthemums.

In mixing the distemper (whiting and size), powder colours are used to get the tone desired. This will vary with the taste of the reader, the use the room is put to, and the aspect, whether on the shady or sunny side of the house.
Do not let it be too dark, or muddy in tone: a cheerful terra-cotta, with a dash of amber in it, if on the shady side; or some tone of sage green, French grey, or peacock blue, if on the sunny side. Perhaps the best way is to keep your eyes open when passing some decorator’s establishment, or buying the paper for the dado, and fix upon the tone of colour you would like.
Then mix some harmonizing tints which will go well with the wall colour for your stencil work. You will find that if you decide upon stencilling in dark tones upon light, that it will be more pleasing to get these richer, that is more pure, than the ground colour.
The three rich or primary colours are red, blue, and yellow. In mixing your stencil colours, approach these in purity, according to the tone used. These powder colours are obtained by ounces or pounds at colourmen’s shops. The first thought to the beginner, if he wishes to darken a tone, is to put black (lamp-black) in. In practice this must be used sparingly.
Rather get your strength of tint by using pure colours. With distemper colours, you will find that they are much darker wet than dry. If you wish to employ more colours than one, each colour should have a separate stencil.

Having made your stencils, fixed upon and mixed your colours, and indicated the position of the repeats, the next step is the direct application of the colour. This is usually done with flat-headed hog-hair brushes, about ¾ of an inch across, specially made for the purpose.
With your palette knife spread out a thin film of the colour on the palette, which may be the back of a plate, or a glazed tile, charge the flat end of the brush with it, and bring it down perpendicularly upon the stencil. Don’t overcharge the brush. If the pattern is irregular in its details, do every other one with one side of the stencil, and then having been round, wash off the colour from the stencil, and turn it round and do the intervening repeats.
The lines are put on with a smaller brush, using the bevelled side of the straight-edge to guide the hand, using more pressure for a broad line, and charging the brush heavily with colour. Brushes specially made for lining, known as Fitch hair tools, cost, according to size, from 1-1/2d. to 5d. each.
Stencilling brushes cost only a few pence.

The method of producing designs, stencils, and using the stencils is employed in the production of designs for paper-hangings, carpets, floor cloths, damasks and most flat manufactured materials, except that the white used is flake-white, and the colours are mixed with gum and water.
The colours are known in the trade as tempera colours. The ground is laid evenly upon strained cartridge paper, and absolute flatness of tint in working out the design may be gained by using stencils. In making irregular designs, that is designs which are not symmetrical, the whole composition has to be drawn and traced.

In decorating a room, there is a very considerable range of choice in the styles available, some idea of which is given in the accompanying designs, from the purely ornamental ones of Figs. 1 and 2 to the natural treatment of Figs. 4 and 6. The design suitable for the top of a dado as Fig. 1 would, with a slight modification, equally suit the frieze of a room, as both are horizontal treatments; but for perpendicular applications, the designs should be redrawn.
Some idea of the fresh treatment required is given in Fig. 1a, where the parts of the composition have been re-arranged to suit a vertical position. Should it be desired to adopt two colours, the principle to be acted upon is to make the smaller masses darker tones, and more intense colours, the larger the mass, the lighter and more neutral the tone should be. Fig. 4 is equally adapted for a frieze or dado top. It is designed in squares, so that by a re-arrangement of the squares, i.e., by placing the squirrel squares under the oak-leaf squares, it can be made suitable for a vertical treatment, or for the body of the dado. In designing such patterns as Fig. 6, where again two or more colours may well be used, care should be taken that the repeats fit well in with one another, so that no ugly spaces are left unfurnished, as decorators say, and also to prevent the recurrence of horizontal or diagonal lines.
This is a failure with many commercial designs and is a fault very distressing to the eye.

Excerpt from the book:
Three Hundred Things A Bright Boy Can Do

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