This week I want to talk about a complete crafting fail I had trying to stencil-paint a mug. My hope in sharing this is that you can avoid some of the same pitfalls. Stencil-painting a mug seems easy enough to do right? After all, there are hundreds of DIY sites all over the internet with fabulous-looking results. When I got into it though, I found a totally different story.
I wanted a mandala-type design with clean, crisp edges for my painted mug. Since my freehand painting skills are not great, the obvious solution was to stencil-paint the mug. I headed to the nearest craft store to see what I could find. Luckily I found a stencil from a well-known crafting company that was perfect. On the package it actually showed the very design I wanted, with crisp edges, in several colors. The design even went up and over the curved lip of a white ceramic plate, so clearly complex curves would be no issue.
To make sure I got the same result, I bought the paint their website recommended for the project. So far so good.
Once I got home and tried the stencil, I could see this was certainly not going to be the ‘fun and easy project’ so many crafting sites claimed it was.
First, the stencil didn’t fit around the curve of the mug tightly enough to prevent the paint from leaking under it. Even with a really good spray adhesive, I still don’t think this stencil would have worked like it did in the photo. It was too stiff, and I started to realize that the geometric design would have distorted a bit running up the concave surface of the plate lip. How, exactly, did the craft supply company do it?
Since I already had vinyl contact paper from the Upcycled Coffee Can and Organization Board projects, I decided to cut my own adhesive stencils. I made two designs, one with letters and one with a simple graphic, just to see how each would work.
Here’s what I learned about putting stencils on a mug
- It’s easier to position the stencils at an angle so you don’t have to worry about whether they’re level.
- Cut the vinyl at the same distance from the design on all sides. Our eyes tend to see the overall shape that is the stencil, border and all, not just the pattern inside. With the design centered inside the stencil block, it is much easier to position it.
- The design will distort on a surface that curves in more than one direction. I love the look of the mug I got, but a cylindrical mug would have been much easier.
- A small stencil will distort less than a large one.
You can see in the photo below that even with this small stencil, there is still a bubble at the bottom where the mug starts to taper:
Fortunately, I was able to get the inside edge of the stencil to stick, but it took a few tries.
Stencil-painting the mug
After cutting the stencil, I stuck it to the practice mug, burnished it so it was really, really stuck, and started to paint. Now a whole new set of problems arose. First, using a brush left marks. I went back online and looked at the directions for the perfect-looking mandala that was on the stencil packaging. It said to us a poncer, which is a very fine sponge.
Using the poncer gave good, even coverage, but left little bumps. That’s not what the photo showed. So I went back online (again) and looked at the famous crafting site from which I bought the mandala stencil. It turns out that if you zoom-in really, really, really far, they have bumps too! Not on the mandala project pictured on the packaging. That project doesn’t have clear, close-up photos, but on their stencil-painted mug project. The exact project I was doing! I definitely didn’t want textured paint and was really annoyed that they didn’t disclose this would be the case.
In addition to the bumps from the poncing, both the brush and the poncer left bubbles. Not very surprising since you have to shake the paint before using it. Nothing I did eliminated all of the bubbles from either application technique:
In the photo above you can see the different stencil-painting techniques I tried. I did these on a glass, with a paper towel inside, because it shows the textures more clearly.
What happened when the paint dried
I let the paint dry before removing the stencil, which is pretty standard practice to avoid smudges. Unfortunately, the extra paint that was on the stencil stuck to the paint on the mug and peeled it off a bit at the edges. You can also see that in the photo with the test textures, above.
After more internet sleuthing, I found that everyone’s stencil-painted mugs had rough edges! From a distance, and artistically blurred, the images look perfect. When you zoom-in on an image that isn’t blurry, though, you can see that the edges all have little imperfections. I couldn’t find a single, perfect, stencil-painted mug anywhere.
Testing different paints
In the interest of fairness and proper research, I decided to test several different paints:
I tested the paints on both a glass and a ceramic mug, in case that made any difference. It did not. None of the paints gave smooth, even coverage no matter how I applied them. Multiple coats didn’t help much either.
Every paint also stuck to the stencil when I removed it. I think that must be due to the plasticizers in paint, which would naturally make it stick to itself more than to a smooth surface. I got a reasonably even edge by cutting the paint around the inside of the stencil with an x-acto knife. That was really difficult to do on a curved surface, and still left me with some flat parts.
Removing the stencil when the paint was still wet didn’t help either. One blog showed that this worked well for very simple designs, and it probably does. It certainly doesn’t work well for lettering, though, as you can see here:
You can also see that the bubbles don’t disappear when they dry, they just look like lighter-colored circles. The good news is that all of the paints wash off really easily (they’re permanent only after heat-curing), so fixing mistakes is a breeze.
Moving on to markers
After the total paint fail, I did some more research, and decided to try Sharpie markers. Sharpie makes absolutely no guarantee that their markers will work on glazed ceramics, or in the oven, or in the dishwasher. Other people have had some success stencil-painting with them, though, so I thought I would give it a try.
The classic markers worked really, really well in the stencil. I was able to remove the stencil and maintain perfect edges. Could Sharpies be the answer? Alas, no. Even after baking at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 1/2 hours, the paint washed off:
Next, I tried the Sharpie oil-based markers. They are really liquid when applied, so were more like paint. As with the paint, the color stuck to the stencil and chipped a little bit when I removed the stencil:
The coverage was really even, though! It also made it through the same baking process, but did not wash off afterwards.
The Sharpie marker coverage was so good, and the markers so nice and wide (I bought the medium tip), that I thought I would try a freehand design. Since there is no way I am ever going to be able to draw four perfect ovals, I decided to use my vinyl stencil as a guide. Using a classic Sharpie with a fine tip, I traced the paw-print design:
Then I colored inside the lines with the oil-based Sharpie. I figured the regular Sharpie would wash off and leave a perfect oil-based Sharpie behind. The oil-based Sharpie was a little too liquid for a perfect stencil, though.
As a last-ditch effort to make this work, I wrote, without using a stencil, below the paw-print, using the oil-based Sharpie. The writing actually came out better than I thought it would.
I baked the mug, as I did the others, at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 1/2 hours. After 37 washes by hand (I used it exclusively for a few weeks), there was no chipping or fading. Then I decided to test it in the dishwasher. The first time through the color faded. The second time through, it started to chip:
Even after two cycles in the dishwasher, the classic Sharpie outline on the paw-print never fully washed off. You can see from this photo that it ended up really uneven:
Would I recommend stencil-painting a mug?
Definitely not. Freehand painting? Absolutely. If you want a stenciled look with perfect edges, this really isn’t going to work. I love the colors of the paints, especially the glass & ceramic ones, though, so doing a freehand design would be great. I’ll have to find an abstract design that I like since I’m still not good at freehand painting.
Also, a less shiny or matte-glazed mug would probably hold the paint or markers better as well. I chose this very shiny mug because the manufacturer guaranteed it was free of lead and other toxic metals.
So if you’ve tried this and failed, like I did, please don’t give up on making. It’s not you: it’s them. It’s the impossible (literally) standard we’re lead to believe is possible through gorgeous photos and internet hype. Much like in the fashion and beauty industries, these things do not seem to exist without airbrushing.
Hopefully we’ll all be able to revise our designs a bit to eliminate the need for stencils. I’m certainly going to try because I really love the mugs I got for this project!
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