How to stencil a tray with an Early American design (1950)

Vintage craft - How to stencil a tray with an Early American design (1950)

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Vintage craft project: How to stencil a tray with an Early-American design

by Carolyn Wilkinson

Until Mrs Roberta Ray Blanchard of Winchester, Massachusetts, showed us how to stencil a tray, we had no idea that such effective decoration could be accomplished so easily.

Mrs Blanchard, author of How to Paint Trays (Charles T Branford Co, Boston), designed for Woman’s Day the stencil for the tray pictured.

In the photographs below, we show you how to decorate a tray like this one; a pattern and additional directions are in the How To Section (below).

How to stencil a vintage tray

We stenciled an inexpensive tin tray, thirteen by seventeen inches; but any similar metal tray would do. As only minute quantities of the bronze powders and paints are needed, the smallest amount sold of each is enough for several stencil decorations.

The stencil can be used for decorating boxes, canisters, and other objects. If you plan to stencil more than one article, it will pay especially to buy a good varnish brush. The artist’s brush may be inexpensive since it is used only for flowing on transparent color. A good striping brush should be bought in any case.

Early-American-style tray stencil design

How to stencil a tray: Step-by-step

1. After rubbing tray lightly with fine steel wool, dust it, and apply a coat of flat black paint. Wait 24 hours; then apply a second coat.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 1

2. While tray dries, make stencils. Place tracing linen or oiled paper over pattern; mark around each segment. Work out from center, to prevent smudging.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 2

3. Start cutting by piercing center of segment with fine-pointed scissors; then cut along the penciled outline. For accurate results, use the tips of the scissors.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 3

4. Flexible, double-edged razor blade is fine for making straight cuts, thin lines. to protect fingers, cover one edge of blade with adhesive tape.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 4

5. Make small holes with punch. Teardrop cutouts can be made by punching hole, then shaping with scissors. Finish the stencil cutting before proceeding.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 5

6. Thinly coat well-dusted tray with varnish. Test in half an hour. When nearly dry, but sticky enough to hold the fingertip slightly, stenciling can begin.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 6

7. Center stencil on tray. Dip velvet-covered finger lightly in bronze powder; rub over cut-out spaces, from edges to center where possible.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 7

8. Lift stencil with care. Stray powder flecks can be removed with wet cotton. After stenciling is dry, touch up any smudges with black paint.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 8

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9. Start border right after finishing center stencil, while varnish is still tacky enough to receive powder. Work from middle toward corners.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 9

10. Let the tray dry for 48 hours; then wash carefully under cold-water tap, rubbing off loose grains of powder with a small piece of wet cotton.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 10

11. Tint design with transparent oil colors, using the photograph for a guide. As colors won’t show over black, wash paint over entire flowers.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 11

12. Paint stripe. Dip quill brush to ferrule in paint; then stroke on paper before applying to tray. Use little finger for steadiness, as shown.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 12

13. When everything is dry (the longer you wait, the clearer the outlines will be), apply a coat of varnish. Wait 24 hours, apply second coat.
Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 13

14. For a smooth, even finish, rub the tray gently with cotton pad dipped in water, then in rottenstone. Wipe carefully; polish with paste wax.

Vintage tray art craft project how-to step 14

MORE: Decorate your home with stencils & save (1975)


Assemble materials, and cover table with thick pad of newspapers. Prepare surface of tray. If new, rub with fine steel wool to dull finish sufficiently to make good base for background paint.

If an old tray is used, first remove all rust, dirt, damaged old paint, etc. Then give it a coat of shellac. Let dry before new paint is ap-plied.

Thoroughly mix flat black paint and strain through piece of old nylon stocking. Give tray 2 coats of paint, allowing at least 24 hours between coats even though paint is dry to the touch in several hours.


Lay tracing linen or oiled bond paper over patterns (center of Diagram 1, and one-quarter of border design — Diagram 2, shown full size).

Making certain that it does not shift, trace designs. Note: If you are unable to buy tracing linen, thoroughly grease both sides of heavy sheets of bond paper, using any unsalted fat or oil. Border design, as given, is for corner and half of two sides. It may be used in this way or cut apart in pattern units.

For long sides of tray, center flower motif with a circle-and-leaf strip, on each side. For shorter sides of tray center the circle, of the circle-and-leaf strip, with the rest of the motif on each side. A circle is used at each corner.

Points of scissors are used to cut small motifs. For narrow, straight lines, stems, etc., place stencil flat on paper-padded table. Hold razor blade so that bottom edge is about 45° angle from paper and press down on corner just enough to cut stencil.

If any of the bridge ( connecting) lines are cut by mistake ( or stencil is ripped ), mend by pasting Scotch tape on both back and front and recut through double tape.

How to stencil a tray with an Early American design (1950)


Before applying stencil, place varnish and tray in a warm. oven ( with heat turned off ), for a few minutes. Warm varnish applied to a warm tray will result in a smoother finish.

It is impossible to say exactly how long it will take varnish to dry, but it is best to do the job on a clear, dry day. Test for correct degree of dryness by touching tray lightly with finger. If there is a slight resistance, and varnish seems to “click,” it is right for holding bronze powders.


Center flower and basket stencil on tray. The slight stickiness of the varnish will hold it in place. Shake the bronze powders into small piles on a 6″ square of velours or velveteen.

As the powders are extremely light, only a heavily napped surface will hold them. With a 4″ square of silk velvet or chamois over the index finger, spread on the bronze powders. (These materials will best pick up the powder.)

SEE MORE: Classic vintage stencil designs you can download & use

Follow color key on stencil patterns for placement of gold leaf and aluminum bronze powders and go over entire stencil design. Use the smallest quantity of powder possible as just a few grains will cover a cut-out. It is best to take up too little until you get used to patting it on.

Stencil border designs. If the varnish dries too much to hold the powder, stop for at least 24 hours, revarnish, and then continue stenciling when the varnish again reaches the “tacky” stage. Always clean stencil on both sides with cleaning fluid before moving to new position.

Stencil pattern design from 1950

After stencil design has completely dried (about 24 hours), prepare transparent colors. Squeeze 1/2″ or so of paint from each tube on a disposable jar top or small dish.

Using the tip of the water-color brush, mix each color with small amount of varnish and a drop or two of turpentine, until it has the consistency of thin syrup. Follow colors in picture on page 57 or vary them to your own taste.

With a watercolor brush, spread transparent paint over stenciled motifs. Striping, while not necessary, does help set off the design. The paint is laid on with a quill brush which may be used with or without the stick handle.

Squeeze about 2″ of chrome yellow paint and a tiny bit of burnt umber into a jar top or dish. (Burnt umber dulls the yellow and gives the same tone found on Early American trays of this type. )

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Thoroughly blend 1 teaspoon of varnish and teaspoon of turpentine with paints, and mix to the consistency of thick cream. Holding quill brush as you would a pencil, place little finger against outside edge of tray as a guide to keep line straight. Always turn tray so that stripe is pulled toward you.

Keep the amount of pressure on brush even, making strokes as long as possible. Use only the tip of brush for rounding corners. If you make a mistake, or _are not satisfied with the first attempt, wipe off stripe with turpentine. The bronze powders must be absolutely dry (at least 24 hours) or they will “float” when the final varnish finish is applied.

Make sure that tray is dust-free, then apply two thin coats of varnish, with plenty of drying time between, rather than one thick coat. Let dry where dust cannot easily settle on it. (Allow 48 hours after second coat.)

Rub to a soft, smooth finish with a cotton pad dipped in water, then in rottenstone. Wipe carefully. Apply thin coating of paste wax, and polish.

Bonus stencil pattern from Click Americana: A Victorian-era pattern

Antique Victorian stencil pattern

MORE: Old-fashioned ways to decorate your home with traditional stencil patterns

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. Hello – My 93 year old mother has a collection of antique stencils that my grandmother used starting in the 1940’s to paint wooden and tin trays (similar to the one you pictured). Could you suggest where she could donate the stencils so that they might find a good home before she passes? They are organized into two notebooks and sorted by animals and plants. Thank you!

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