What’s the difference between spray paint stencils and dabbing stencils?

What is a dabbing stencil and what is a spray stencil?

A dabbing stencil is one where you physically touch the surface with a brush or sponge or roller. On the contrary, with a spray paint stencil you never touch the surface because you are spraying the paint at the surface with a spray can or paint sprayer.

Spray stencils and dabbing stencils have different bridge widths

Typically a spray stencil has thinner bridges, for two reasons:

  • since you’re not touching the stencil with a brush, and because you’re probably not cleaning it each time you use it, you can get away
  • Because it’s harder to fill in the gaps left by bridges with spray paint, you want the bridges to be as thin as possible. With dabbing stencils, you can use a small brush to fill in bridge gaps, and it’s no trouble.

Recommendation: for spray paint stencils that you aren’t going to clean between applications, you can try down to a .02 inch bridge width with 5-10 mil mylar. But for a dabbing stencil, use .05 inch bridge width with the same material to make the stencil more durable during contact with brushes / sponges, and while cleaning.

Spray stencils and dabbing stencils both want perpendicular application

With both spray stencils and dabbing stencils, you want the method of application to be perpendicular to the stencil, never at an angle. With spray paint, if you spray at an angle any gaps between the surface and the stencil will take that extra paint. Likewise, if you lather on paint with a brush using back-and-forth strokes, you’ll leave lots of excess paint at the stencil edges–or worse–underneath the stencil.

All stencils want to be in close contact to the surface

From the above, you can conclude that if there are no gaps between the surface and the stencil (like might be the case with a one-time-use vinyl adhesive stencil), then you don’t need to worry about the angle. So in order to reduce the chances of getting paint underneath the stencil, it’s best to use a repositionable adhesive to temporarily stick the stencil to the surface.

Flat, smooth surfaces work best for both types of stencils. One of the ways you can get finer details with a brush stencil is that it’s easier to work one part of the stencil at a time. For example, if your surface has an irregularity in it, you can stencil adjacent parts, applying paint just through the part of the stencil that is in direct contact with the surface. Then you can ‘rock’ the stencil into place over the irregularity so that it’s flush with the surface there, and continue painting. With spray this is a little more difficult because of the diffuse radius of the spray area: you just can’t control where you’re applying the paint as well.

Spray stencils are often used on rougher, outdoor surfaces while dabbing stencils are more often used indoors on smooth surfaces

It’s a generalization, but we dabbers are often homemakers and crafters. We stencil on walls, doors, cabinets, floors. These are surfaces we can sand and clean and smooth until they take the paint just the way we want. So the stencils can be thinner, while still being stiff enough and durable enough to hold their shape. They can get really flat against a smooth surface for high-accuracy dabbing.

On the other hand, spray paint stencils are often used on concrete, tarmac, metal, even grass or bark. Having a thicker stencil is usually a good idea if it will be used in a rough environment. The stencils used to paint street markings, for example, are cut from flat metal plates. The expectation for the esthetic is different for these rugged stencils because of where they’re used.

Recommendation: for indoor stenciling, you can use 2-5 mil mylar up to about 12 inches across. Larger than 12 inches, and you want to go up to perhaps 7-10 mil. For outdoor stenciling, you start at about 7 mil mylar for a 2ft x 2ft stencil, and go up from there as your stencil gets larger. You want the thickness and strength of your stencil material to scale with the size of the stencil, basically.

With dabbing stencils, you’re going to be cleaning up more often–so plan for that

A stencil that has a lot of detail and a lot of bridges is going to accumulate more paint around the edges–especially when you’re using a brush or sponge or roller to get the paint right up to the edge of the stencil. As a result, you’re going to want to clean and dry thoroughly between applications, to ensure that the paint that sticks to the edges of the stencil doesn’t blot and rub off onto your surface as you place the stencil.

If you have a big vat of soapy water, and a power washer you’re going to be ahead of the game, and in that case you’re set up to re-use an intricate stencil many times in one session. But if you’re trying to get the paint out of all those sharp angles on a large, intricate stencil at a bathroom sink, you’re just in for a lot of frustration.

Check out our tips for cleaning your stencils.

If you don’t have an industrial clean-up routine, and you’re dabbing, stick to simpler stencils.

With Bay Stencil DIY downloads, you choose the thickness, size and bridge width of your stencil.

You choose the thickness of your stencil material because you buy and cut the material yourself. Here are some places where you can custom order your stencil material.

And with the DIY download, you can also choose to break the stencil up into multiple panels. That enables you to work with whatever size material your cutter accommodates. You also choose the width of the bridges, so that your stencil is tailored for the right application: whether spray paint or dabbing.