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New Methods Of Stencil Making

( Originally Published 1914 )

The making of stencils would be an easy matter were it not for the difficulty of getting good and original designs, and in carrying them out through the medium of a heavy stencil paper. Because stencil paper is hard to cut, it is a serious handicap, and compels the craftsman to use commercial patterns or to cut patterns of an elementary kind. But as there are many justifiable uses for attractive stencils, it is worth while to find a way by which good and original designs can be more easily executed.

The Japanese have overcome the technical difficulties of stencil cutting by using a preparation of shellac on their fibrous paper. This preparation is said to be a mixture of resinous gums and the juice of the persimmon fruit. Probably few of the gums are native to this country and at any rate the Japanese formula is not known here. We can, however, use a similar process which will also do away with the resistance paper has for the stencil knife.

The best kind of paper to use in stencil making is pliable, thin and tough. The thinner, the better, for then the stencil lies close to the cloth when the pattern is printed. It must be tough and pliable, or it will break and bend. In the process described here the resistance of the paper fiber to the knife is destroyed by clearing the paper with melted paraffin, and results very similar to the Japanese are thus obtained.


Materials needed for newer methods of stencil making are: Two yards of commercially prepared blueprint paper; three dozen sheets of good quality Japanese drawing paper; one-half dozen sheets of white blotting paper; one stencil knife; one shaving brush, price ten cents; one piece of thick window glass size 24 x 24 inches; one drawing board, size 26 x 26 inches; one cake of paraffin; one tube of yellow ochre, artist's color; one pint of denatured alcohol; one ounce of rosin; two ounces of dry yellow shellac; one pint of benzine; one bottle of liquid bluing.


In stencil-making the design does not grow out of the method to the same extent it does in other crafts. For example, in the various kinds of rug-making, decorative features develop and are controlled through the use of certain materials. In stencils there are only two features which come under the head of technical limitations. One is the simplification of the design through cutting, the other, the use of the ties which hold the stencil together. In stencil craft as in other methods the restrictions give it its individuality but as they are few the method must be controlled by a carefully planned design.

The first step in making a design for stencil is the selection of a subject. The problem is what to use and how to get it into shape for decorative application. As the method in this craft does not dictate the type of motif, the worker has an unusual degree of freedom in its selection.

There seems to be a general superstition that design to be excellent must be predigested. It must first have been sifted through the medium of some one else's mind. But why? A good design was originally suggested by some fact or phase of animate or inanimate nature. Then why not go at once to nature, and have the real enjoyment of selecting at first hand a subject which is pleasing to one's self? Motif for decorative treatment chosen in this way is more vigorous and convincing.

Two factors go to the making of a design: the development of the unit and its arrangement. A grape leaf has been selected as a unit for composition and the steps of the process are as follows:

Select a number of leaves of plants or trees and put them aside in water until they are used. It is wiser to gather several different kinds of leaves to use in the making of the shadow prints from which the designs for the stencils are to be made.

Cut a piece of blueprint paper twenty by twenty inches. Take the drawing board and lay two thicknesses of blotting paper on it. On these lay the piece of blueprint paper face down. The face of the paper is easily distinguished, because the preparation used in making blue-print tones the sensitive side to a yellowish color. Now on the back of the blueprint paper lay a number of leaves and press them out a little so that the thicker parts will lie closely to the paper. Place the leaves in rows leaving at least three inches between each row and between each separate leaf in a row. Make all these preparations in a darkened room for blue-print paper is sensitive to light and if exposed, its printing qualities will be destroyed.

Place the window glass over the leaves and then put the board with the leaves and glass in the full sunlight to print for at least twenty minutes. The unprotected paper will darken in sunlight and the protected part which is covered by the leaves will show a white print, after it is washed. After the paper has been the required length of time in the sun, hold it under running water and the print of the leaf will appear on its face. Wash the paper thoroughly or until no more of the yellow solution can be seen in the water. Then put it away under something heavy to press and dry. After it is dry, cut apart the print of each separate leaf. They are now ready to be made into units for stencils.


After cutting apart the prints lay them on the drawing board and pin them down. The leaves from which the prints are made should be saved. Take them and examine them with a view to finding out which are their most important ribs. The illustration of the grape leaf shows how it has been treated. There is always a midrib in every leaf and most always two important side ribs. Every leaf has a characteristic construction and this construction will be emphasized by picking out and using the main ribs. They are in reality the bones of the leaf.

By soaking a leaf in pure vinegar the vegetable matter will disappear and the network of ribs be left intact. This network of ribs can be used as a guide in the decoration.

After carefully determining which are the most important ribs draw them in on the shadow print with a soft pencil. The print has been made in outline only, there is no detail. Take the cake of paraffin, scrape it fine and sprinkle the scrapings as evenly as possible over the prints which are pinned on the board. Having heated a flatiron, pass over the face of the print until the paraffin is all melted and the print is "cleared." When the print is cleared it sticks closely to the board and becomes transparent. There should be no air bubbles underneath.

Now the stencils can be cut, for the hardened paraffin removes the fibrous quality of the paper and the knife slips along without difficulty.

First cut out all the spaces between the ribs. But do not cut through any of the ribs. Be careful not to let your knife slip. The pieces of paper left for the ribs will form the ties of the stencil. They hold it together and its strength depends on them. In general, the best place to cut the ties in any stencil is where an interruption in the line would naturally occur. For instance, at a joint of a stem or where one form crosses another. Do not make long, narrow cuts. They weaken the stencil. When the cutting is all done, heat the flatiron and press over the face of the print. As the paraffin melts lift the stencil carefully from the board. If it sticks in pulling off the paper, iron it over again and lift off the heated portions carefully. After the stencil has been taken from the board, lay it on blotting paper and give it a final pressing with the iron. This is to remove any remaining wax.

The yellow shellac should already be dissolved in denatured alcohol with a small piece of rosin about the size of a hazel nut. Rosin adds elasticity to the varnish.

Remove pieces of cut paper from the stencil, lay it down on several thicknesses of newspaper and varnish it with shellac. Let one side dry before shellacking the other side.

Each side should receive three coatings of varnish. When the stencil is shellacked put it away for a while to harden. It is a good plan to hang it on a nail.


In a general way design is the breaking up of surfaces into harmonious intervals of space.

The most useful type of design for ornamental articles of home decoration and wearing apparel, can be arbitrarily classed as borders, allover patterns and composite units. They are arrangements of the single unit within certain spacial limits. Stencil of grape Borders are arranged between leaf unit. parallel lines as linear ornament. Allover patterns are arranged by placing the units at regulated intervals all over a given space. The composite unit is an ornamental spot used to emphasize certain positions. Borders are used as a surrounding edge to frame in any given space to mark its limits as it were in an ornamental manner. These arrangements are useful in the decoration of couch covers, curtains or table covers. In fact for anything that needs an ornamental edge.

Allover arrangements can be either a connected pattern or spots placed at regulated intervals over a surface. They are useful for ornamenting the center spaces of table covers, curtains and other draperies. They can be used in combination with borders.

Spot arrangements or composite units are the single unit placed in groups of three, four, five or six as the case may be. They are useful in ornamenting sofa cushions or centerpieces. Circular borders make attractive decoration for lunch cloths or circular table covers.

The arrangements classed in this way are necessarily restricted to a more or less formal type of decorative composition, but they are none the less useful in house decoration because of this restriction.

Take a piece of unbleached muslin and print the stencils of each one of the units on it. Use the liquid bluing for this purpose. If there are any defects in the stencil they will show up in the print on the muslin, and it may be corrected by more cutting. Lay the stencil down on a piece of window glass to cut it. There is usually a tendency to leave too much paper in the stencil so that the design is not clearly defined. If this is true then more of the paper must be cut away.

The shaving brush should be cut down to half its original length. Stencil brushes are more convenient with short bristles.

Take two pieces of Japanese drawing paper and lay them down on the board pinning them in place with thumb tacks. This is done be-cause the blueprint paper is brittle and cannot be used as a permanent stencil. The fibrous Japanese paper is serviceable when prepared with paraffin. Select any one of the stencil units and measure its width and length. Draw these measurements on the Japanese paper; you are preparing construction lines for a border of these dimensions, and the space enclosed between them is the width of your border. Now mix up some yellow ochre paint in a saucer with benzine. Do not make it too moist for then it will run when the stencil is printed on the Japanese paper. Now place the stencil unit between the lines of the border and brush over it with the ochre. Repeat these prints, one-quarter of an inch apart until there are five or six in succession. Place the unit always in the same position. The illustration shows how the grape leaf has been placed between the guide lines. The successive prints of the stenciled unit make a section of border.

This section of border printed on the Japanese paper is to be made into another stencil. It must be treated in the same way as the original print. That is, by waxing it with paraffin, ironing it and cutting it. Only the portions which are printed in the ochre are to be cut out. The uncolored portions which are the ribs will be left as ties as before. If a stencil seems too fragile, get a piece of unbarred mosquito netting and brush it over the back of the stencil with shellac; lay the mosquito netting on it. It will stick fast to it and should later receive another coat of shellac. When dry the net holds' the fragile parts of the stencil together, and makes an attractive background effect when the small squares of the meshes are printed. The allover arrangement and the spot arrangements should be treated in the same way. For allover patterns draw the guide or construction lines on the Japanese paper in either square or diagonal arrangements. Be sure to measure the stencil carefully in order to have room for the placement.

There are a few oil colors which will stand washing if carefully handled. Prussian blue, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre are the most serviceable. Blue and white combinations can be made on cotton cloth or linen. Burnt sienna can be used in combination with natural colored burlap or on Russian crash. Unbleached cot-ton cloth dyed by the processes recommended in other chapters, can be successfully combined with these oil colors. Interesting and unique effects can be obtained by using back-grounds shaded by the process mentioned in the chapter on the knitted rug.

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