A Brief History of Stencils

A Brief History of Stencils

A tool that is generally an afterthought, yet commonly used and very helpful is the stencil. It allows the user to add words, numbers, or a pattern cleanly to a surface, using paint or dye. Stencils have many applications. You may be surprised to learn that stencils have been around for about 35 millennia.

How a Stencil Works

A stencil is generally made from paper, cardboard, or plastic, but metals and other materials can be used. The stencil can have a word or series of words or numbers cut into it. For some uses, the cutout may be a pattern. Holding the stencil against the object to which the pattern will be applied, the user brushes or sprays paint, dye, or a pigment over the stencil. When it is lifted away, the pattern is now on the object.

This is useful for creating signs or adding words to streets and parking lots. The stencil can be made with the words intact, or custom messages can be made separately. For example, if a person in the state of Washington frequently needed stencils with different words, they could use individual letters and numbers Carnation WA


Archeologists have found stencils in parts of Europe and Asia that are 35,000 years old. Since ancient times, stencils have been used to pattern clothing. This was very popular in Japan in the 15th Century. Another common use of stencils is in publishing where they have been used to add illustrations to books. This application was at its height in 1920s France. Stencils have seen extensive use in the military, applying serial numbers and descriptions to footlockers and equipment.

The stencil has been with us for a long time. It continues to be a useful tool in many industries. The next time you see a pattern that was applied with a stencil, think about its long history.

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Earl Barnes