How To Stencil Your Subfloor

Operation Subfloor Stencil is officially complete! Remember when the floor in our master closet and vanity area looked like this?

And then we ripped up the carpet to reveal the subfloor and they looked like this?

Well, five hours and $24 later, it looks like this!

Our actual bathroom has tile (where the shower/tub/toilet are), but this is a separate vanity area along with an adjoining master closet – which both had old carpet that we couldn’t live with for one more day. So we yanked it up and decided to have some fun with the subfloor until we’re ready for a full scale renovation down the line (eventually we’d love to knock down the wall that divides the vanity from the rest of the bathroom and retile/renovate them so they’re one big spacious master bathroom).

We briefly debated peel and stick floor tiles or buying a large seagrass rug and cutting it to lay it wall-to-wall in both spaces for this interim step, but we decided that a stenciled and sealed floor (possibly with a few area rugs) will serve us well in the short term without being a whole lot of money/effort that we’ll later end up undoing.

And since our future tiling plans will require us to rip this stuff up and put backer board in its place anyway (you can’t tile over particle board since it’s not a secure base) there’s no harm in slapping some paint on it in the meantime.

My favorite thing about temporary (and affordable!) afternoon updates like this are that you can have a little fun and do something a little bolder than you might do if you were selecting something more permanent (like tiling a floor that you’ll have to live with for a few decades). Oh and don’t mind that vanity, we’re going to either stain it a deep ebony or charcoal tone or paint it a subdued dark color, so it should fit in a lot better with the rest of the tones in the space.

But let’s rewind a little bit (back to when the floors looked like this) and tell you about the process and some of the things we learned along the way.

To prep our subfloor, which is particle board (a very smooth and almost chalky surface) we used wood filler to make the seams between the different particle boards sheets less obvious. There were only three so it went pretty fast. Once dry, we sanded them down. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.

Then we primed it all with Aqualock water based primer (it was low-VOC but not no-VOC so John got that step done while I was outside playing with Clara). The purpose of the primer was to help the paint grab on for the long haul and block any stains/bleed-through that might occur from painting over such a porous surface like particle board.


For paint, we grabbed two $12 quarts of semi-gloss paint in the new no-VOC Olympic Icon line, matched to two Benjamin Moore colors: Revere Pewter for our base (same as the wall) and Gargoyle (for the darker stencil pattern). For the last few years we’ve mostly stuck with Benjamin Moore paints, but for temporary upgrades it’s nice to save a little money since we’ll be ripping out this floor in a few years and tiling anyway. We didn’t use an outdoor porch and floor paint (as you usually would in this scenario) because they’re all pretty fumey (usually oil-based) we wanted something no-VOC (this one’s for you, fetus) – but we think the combination of a good primer, some semi-gloss paint, and a nice thick coat of sealer will keep them in good shape for the next few years. We’ll definitely report back with photos over time to share how the floor wears.

With the primer dry, we could apply two coats of the base color. Since this was a no-VOC step, I could cut in while John rolled the rest (we just had to be mindful to paint ourselves out of the space). You can see from the picture below that the color matched Revere Pewter on the floor didn’t really turn out to match the real RP color on the walls as we planned (that’s always the risk that you take when you color match one brand to another), but it was still in the same color family, so we didn’t mind. We’re going for some pretty high contrast interest on the floor, but we thought it would stay sophisticated if we kept the palette sort of subdued (especially with a bold navy-ish tone in the bedroom along with a colorful rug/headboard/pillows/etc) so we were just glad they didn’t clash and still felt like they went together, even if they didn’t match perfectly.

Stenciling the floor is SO MUCH EASIER if you have two people on hand to tag team it. I did the office stencil project alone for the most part, and it took forever and I used a method I’d never use again (more on that in a minute) but this time around we both tackled it and it was a much simpler task. Oh and stenciling a floor is even easier than stenciling a wall since you’re not fighting gravity (a few pieces of painter’s tape hold it in place and then you can roll it without worrying it’ll slip down the wall like it might on a vertical surface).

If you’d like to see the rolling in action – with a few live-action tips in the mix – we made this video while applying another stencil to the wall for a book project back in 2011.

Since you usually want your pattern centered in the room, we started our first stencil to be right in the middle of the vanity. Here you can see what a single repeat of the pattern looks like. It’s the Suzani Silk Road stencil from Royal Design Studios. It’s $49, but we had actually ordered it back in 2011 to use for our book (but that project ended up getting cut), so we just had it sitting under the bed in our guest room for a few years, waiting to be used.

But back to that much easier stenciling method that I mentioned before. We learned back when we were shooting that wall-stenciling project for our book that applying a small amount of paint with a foam roller (not too much, or it’ll get gummy/bleedy) results in just as clean of a line as dabbing everything on by hand, which I did when I stenciled the office, and ended up with claw hands and lost 14 hours of my life. This entire thing only took us 5 hours and was SO MUCH EASIER thanks to a small foam roller with a nice thin application of paint. Hallelujah!

Once again, when using a large stencil like this, it’s so much easier with two people. Each stencil has registration marks around the outside that you line up with the previous stencil so you know where to place it, and if you have someone on hand to help you line up the registration marks and slowly lower it down onto the floor (especially when they’re large) you should have a lot less of an issue with smudging, which can happen if you place it and then slide it around to match the registration marks instead of using four hands to slowly lower it into the right place off the bat (one hand for each corner just seems to work best).

This room’s biggest challenge was that so many walls and corners meant lots of partial stencils, which meant lots of stencil bending (it’s made from flexible plastic that bends, but doesn’t crease, easily) and smooshing the roller into tight spots. We kept some spare cardboard handy (i.e. cereal boxes) to protect the wall from getting paint on it when we had to bend the stencil and it would have rested against the baseboard/wall. Between each placement of the stencil, John also held it up with two fingers with the back facing me and I used a folded paper towel to dab off any excess paint on the back so that the next time we placed it no leftover paint was lingering on the back (this can result in sort of a ghosted double outline, so the quick wipe down between each placement really seems worth the time).

When doing a floor you also have to consider your exit route. In a typical square space this is pretty easy to figure out, but there was no logical way for us to both keep an exit clear and be sure we were keeping our pattern straight/centered (we wanted to start in the middle of the vanity and work out from there, so we couldn’t start in the corner of the closet and stencil our way out because things wouldn’t have been centered on the vanity). For that reason, we decided up front that it would be easiest to paint across two days in smaller installments. We did as much as we could easily access the first day, then let those areas dry so we could stand on them to complete some remaining spots. Picture it sort of like a checkerboard… you can do a row, leave a row clear, and do as much of the other row that attaches to something else you have already done as you can – and then walk out using the clear row. The next day, just go back and fill in those missing areas when the surrounding rows are dry so you can stand on them.

After all of the stenciling was done, I used a small craft brush to get into the spots that needed some filling in. Initially I thought I’d touch up the entire perimeter by hand with paint to make it look flush to the wall (the rolling left about a 1/2″ gap)…

… but after stepping back we realized the small gap was so consistent around the room that it almost looked like an intentional border. So rather than risk making it look worse with my by-hand touch ups, we opted to keep it that way. You can see the slight border around the baseboard in the bottom right of this picture:

As our final sealing step, we plan to use SafeCoat Acrylacq (a non-toxic poly that we have loved since my pregnancy with Clara) to seal it to give it even more added protection. So we hope to get that done and report back on how it goes as well as finishing up a few more things in there.

So far even unsealed it has been holding up well for the last few days, and we’re SO much happier to see it when we walk in there to get dressed than we were to stand on that old carpet. And of course we’re psyched to watch our list dwindle down to just two bullets in here (which means I get to do a budget breakdown soon – yeah boyyyy).

  • remove the carpet
  • paint and hang a larger window-like mirror (more on both of those steps here)
  • paint the trim
  • paint the walls and ceiling
  • replace all of the outlets/light switches (more on all three of those steps here)
  • stencil the floors
  • seal the floors and add some better storage solutions to the closet
  • paint or stain the vanity, add new hardware to it, and add some built-in shelves to make the empty space under the counter on the right side more functional

Is anyone else stenciling the walls? How about a ceiling or a floor? Or furniture? Do you use a small foam roller or the claw method that I outlined here (for the love of wrist sustainability, USE A ROLLER!).


  1. Brittany says

    Oh wow guys! that looks awesome! I’ll admit I was a little skeptical about it when y’all were first talking about it but I LOVE IT! Seriously considering a stenciling project now!

  2. Lindsay says

    When I scrolled to that first finished pic my jaw literally dropped! LOVE LOVE LOVE! The color is amazinggggggg!

    Will you come do this at my house? :)

  3. Audrey says

    That floor just looks GORGEOUS!!! we had mostly wall to wall carpet, but I HATE CARPET!! so after ripping it all up myself… I just bought some peel and stick tiles, which actually looked a lot better. but i’ve only managed the living room and most of the hall way. I wish we had subfloor instead of a slab, because your floor just looks beautiful!!!

    • says

      I’ll also attest that it is possible to paint a slab. I was completely stumped about how to deal with the floor in our laundry area. It was sloped towards a drain in the floor, so tile was out of the question, and it looked awful because of some peeling laminate. We ripped up the laminate, cleaned the floor, and painted the floor with some porch paint. It looks awesome now and it’s a cinch to clean!

  4. says

    What a fun project! The color is so bold. I wonder with 2 very differently spaced sinks do you use both? His/hers or the primary and backup perhaps?!

    • says

      We both tend to always use this one, although I wonder if once we do a Phase 1 in the actual bathroom (where the tub/toilet is) if we’ll use that one. It has a tiny mirror so we can’t really see more than our noses in it. Haha!


  5. Christina P (NS) says

    Looks amazing, I have been looking for a temporary solution for our kitchen until we do a major redo – I think I may have found it!
    As always, thanks for the inspiration!

    • says

      Thanks Julia! I think it looks nicer in the pics than real life (it’s a little gnawed on around the bottom) but we’re definitely considering re-staining over painting it. I agree that some wood grain might break up all the painted areas for some nice diversity/warmth, although that would be less fun for me since John would have to do it all while I hide somewhere and try not to inhale- haha!


    • Sarah H says

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes the wood tone! Though I imagine if I lived downstairs in your house most of the day I would be completely over it by the time I went upstairs to bed. And we just got done stain matching the woodwork in our 90 year old house (14 coats!) where we opened up the wall between the dining room and kitchen. I don’t wish that on you.

    • Mia B says

      We are in the midst of selections for our DIY flooring project (1500 sf of Elastilon and unfinished engineered oak), and have found a no-VOC stain & finish one coat product we are considering. I am going to order some sample colors today and they are pretty inexpensive. It’s very matte finish, so don’t know if you’ll like that look, but it might be an option that’s fetus-approved! Looks like the sample bottle covers 9 sf so you may only need a sample if you want to do your vanity. It’s called Rubio Monocoat. I’m also considering another product called Pallman’s Magic Oil but I think it is only low-VOC, but also much less toxic than a traditional stain. Good luck! And the stencil looks awesome!

    • Lauren says

      I agree! I actually really like the warmth of the wood. Some new hardware and it would look awesome :)

    • Annie says

      We used the clear Rubio Monocoat on our new butcher block kitchen counters and love it! It’s a very matte finish (just looks like wood, no shine) and seems to protect very well. It smells kind of like a strong, weird vegetable oil. It’s not too bad, but definitely has an odor. As a fellow due-in-April DIY’er, I didn’t worry about having it in the house.

      And the wood looks gorgeous–try to keep it!! An ebony stain would be beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *