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. says

    I LOVE this floor!!! Hands down one of my favorite projects you’ve ever done. It just has such big impact I can’t get over it. Now I’m wondering which floors I can stencil – the front porch, the garage floor, both?

  2. erika m says

    I love the stencil! I have a question maybe you guys can help out with. I have a small kitchen floor that has sheet vinyl that butts up to refinished hardwood floors, when we did the hardwood, we had to pull back the vinyl a bit and so it is cut back a little to reveal the paper backing/glue etc. Underneath is a tile like floor consisting of peach tiles that look like the tiles you see in schools-they are very hard/durable-not sure of the material? Anyway, we have 2 options: rip out the school tile-replace the subfloor and put any floor down. Right now, the vinyl needs replaced and I would love to paint/stencil the floor in the interim(our phase 1). MY QUESTIONS ARE-do you have any experience removing the paper backing/glue from the floor? I can scrape it away…but it comes off in tiny tiny bits-but it is smooth after the paper is scraped off-do you think if I can get all the paper removed and down to the tiles that I would be able to get paint to stick/stay/endure for a year or so? I checked your forums but didn’t see anything there.

    • Elizabeth T. says

      I don’t know how old your home is, but those old-timey tiles underneath sound like asbestos. I think from your post you’re planning to leave that layer, but just be aware in the future you have to be careful/take precautions when removing the old asbestos tile. (If it is asbestos!)

    • says

      Kind of an idiot and don’t really comment that often, I just aimed a comment at you downstream that you will probably never read or see ;p

      If your house was built before 1978, and/or the tiles are 9×9, I would seek professional advice before removing, disturbing, or doing anything else to crack or break them. When we renovated my mother’s house, 9×9 asbestos tile was under ALL OF THE FLOORS. Apparently covering it over with other flooring is an acceptable abatement measure? My eyes twitch a little when I find tile under other flooring.

    • erika m says

      well I am glad I asked because after googling tiles with asbestos…the tiles look eerily similar so everything is halted. Will be planning a course of action with it…thanks for your help!

  3. Laura says

    Wow- that’s fantastic! Are you going to put a throw rug in front of the sink, to help protect the highest traffic areas, or just leave it open?

    • says

      I think I might drop a little sheepskin for softness underfoot like we had in our last house’s vanity nook, but the poly should protect the floor (the old house’s floors were unsealed pine and this area used to have carpeting so neither of them are waterproof and the sink nook did ok with them :)


  4. Emily says

    My mother stenciled the subfloors in the family room many years ago. They’ve since put down hardwood floors to match the rest of the house, but the sealed paint and stencil job she did lasted 10+ years with high traffic and heavy furniture repositioning. Love the look of your ‘new floor’ . Its a great transition to a possible bold tile pattern when you remodel.

  5. says

    A modest proposal: When the time comes to redo this entire room, save the stenciled floor, or at least any sections of it that are still in good shape. I’m thinking a big piece or three might look nice hung on a wall in some otherwise blank space–like maybe in the unfinished storage area when it gets turned into a room.

  6. says

    What a gorgeous floor! I’m tempted to pull my bedroom carpet out and get a little crafty…Convincing the hubby may be the hardest part. We cleaned the carpet (twice) and are still not happy with it. It really just needs to come out, but we aren’t ready to put new carpetting in…the bathroom remodel is in full swing. No point in putting new carpet down to have the handy men track dirt on it!

  7. Amy T says

    Looks great!!!!! Have you thought about removing the little back splashes like you did with the other bathroom? That might help with minimizing the counter in there until you do the full reno.

    • says

      Sadly this sink has a curved attached backsplash along the back (it’s all one piece instead of an added slice of material they glued on later) so it can’t be removed without tearing out the whole sinktop.


  8. Nathalie says

    Hi! I love the floor. Quick question on the paint- do you know if the colorants added are no VOC as well as the paint? Google is not helping me. I am also pregnant and have some furniture to paint, and am trying to decide what to use. I don’t know if I love the furniture enough to splurge on Mythic but Ive heard the BM Natura line has some issues with being stinky. Anyway, I hadn’t heard of Icon before so just wanted to check!

    • says

      We have used Mythic, Olympic Premium, and BM’s Natura since they all are said to be VOC free (even the colorants). From what I understand, Behr is not. If you want to save the money, I’d go with Olympic (this new Icon stuff is the same as their premium line so it’s no-VOC and had zero odor!).


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