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Published Nov 16, 2020

stencil imagery on potteryStenciling is a great decorative technique for pottery. A traditional method for applying stencils is to cut or tear paper shapes, adhere them to leather-hard clay and then apply slip over the entire clay surface. Once the slip dries, the paper is peeled away to reveal the design.

While this technique can yield some lovely patterns and surfaces, sometimes more dimension is desired. In this post,
 Ann Ruel shares her ideas for getting a stenciled look with more dimension. I thought her ideas were pretty nifty, and I hope you do too! - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

To get more dimension on pieces without airbrushing and layering stencils, I began to search for other materials with interesting textures. The materials needed to be lightweight, durable, and possess a unique shape or pierced surface to create the illusion of texture. I found candidates such as pierced shelf liners, photo corners, doilies, lace, and lace paper.    

    • stenciled imagery on potteryNon-slip gripping shelf liners are relatively inexpensive, easy to cut, and have an assortment of perforated designs.
    • Pointed photo corners can be rearranged to form a multitude of designs - jagged borders, flower petals, or even basket weave. These can be found in any store that carries scrapbooking supplies.
    • Paper doilies often have a pierced spiral, heart or scallop pattern and can be cut apart and rearranged into a variety of textures and designs.
    • Although pleasing, avoid the temptation to use the whole doily stenciled onto the center of a piece. Don't be afraid to cut the doily apart and explore the possibilities.

Lace comes in a beautiful array of patterns that can be cut apart and rearranged to come up with new and exciting designs. There are several types available, including lace made from thin netting and a lace that's made from heavier cotton or stiff polyester. The thicker cotton and polyester lace tends to be more durable for masking surfaces and holding up against repeated slip applications. Lace contains beautiful design elements and cutting it apart can yield some exciting designs.


stenciled imagery on pottery

Japanese paper called—lace paper—is made from 100% manila hemp and is available at art supply stores. This hemp has long thick fibers and a porous appearance similar to Swiss cheese. The patterns  are created by dripping water onto the newly formed sheets, causing a separation of the hemp. The fibers can be gently separated into long strands to create a totally different texture.

Building Texture

stenciled imagery on potteryBy experimenting with these or similar materials, you can design stencils with a repetitive pattern or create cutouts of more recognizable objects. If you decide to make cutouts, be sure to keep the outlines as simple as possible. The texture of the material creates the details within the shape you've cut out. After you've pieced together a design, test it using paint on a separate surface first before putting it on your clay piece. This simple method for testing stencils will save you lots of cleanup time that might happen otherwise if you don't do a test and end up dissatisfied with the stencils you've created on your greenware piece.


stenciled imagery on pottery

Once you've tested the stencil design, glue it to the clay using a glue stick. Water does not work well for holding these non-traditional materials on the clay surface. Generously spread the glue to the back of the material and apply the stencils to leather hard clay (as shown at top of page). Be careful to avoid excessive globs of glue which may clog the perforations and prevent slip from easily penetrating. Lightly tap or rub the stencil into place, making sure that it is secure, especially around the edges. As soon as the stencils are in place, begin the slipping process. If the glue dries before the slip can be applied, the contact between the stencil and the clay will loosen. Always double check and reinforce the stencils before spraying or brushing slip on top, or when dipping a piece into a bucket of slip. One loose stencil can throw off the whole design.


The most effective way I have found to apply slip over these delicate surfaces is to use a spray gun. Spraying ensures complete coverage over even the most intricate designs.

Caution: Always wear a mask and have adequate ventilation when spraying slips and glazes.  Before spraying, disconnect the glaze canister and give the stencils a quick blast of air to see if they will adequately adhere to the clay surface.

Generally speaking, all of the stencil materials recommended here can handle up to three rounds of spraying before breaking down, so limit yourself to no more than three colors of slip for a single piece. Allow the slips to dry between rounds and be careful not to peel the stencils away from the clay until the slips are fully set or else you risk bleeding into the masked off areas.

stenciled imagery on pottery

Once this slip has dried to the touch or lost its sheen, take your needle tool and carefully lift up the stencils. You will now see that at this point, the thick texture of the stencils has allowed for a thick build-up of slip thereby adding texture to an otherwise two-dimensional decorating process. At this point, you can decide whether the design is complete or whether to overlay this initial stenciling with another layer for added dimension or to outline portions of the shapes with black slip using decorative brush strokes. Once the piece is bisque fired, cover it with a clear glaze and fire to the required temperature.

Ann Ruel resides in Chesapeake, Virginia and is a potter and frequent contributor to Pottery Making Illustrated.

**First published in 2009.