Decorating Items with Paper Napkins Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Decorating Items with Paper Napkins

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A mirror decorated with paper napkins.

Decorating items with paper napkins is affordable, pretty, and easy to do.

Do you enjoy giving your family and friends home-made presents? You like decorative items but don't want to buy the typical things in shops? Do you enjoy being creative but your painting skills are not so great? Then this is the right Entry for you.

If you follow the instructions below, you can make pretty things for any occasion: birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day or any other holiday. You can decorate almost any item you want: flower pots, mirrors, picture frames, even old furniture. This decorative method also works on many materials, whether it is wood, cardboard, polystyrene, plastic or pottery. All you need to do is to glue your chosen paper napkin1 design onto the object you have chosen, with the technique described below. This way, you can make your own decorations that complement the interior of your house in colour and design, flower pots that suit the flowers, holiday decorations that suit your style and any other accessory that you can think of.

The general idea is very easy: instead of painting a design yourself, you simply choose a paper napkin that has the style and colour you want to use, then glue selected parts of this onto any item of your choice. This technique is a kind of decoupage2 that is simple for everybody to do and is very popular in Germany3. Most children aged eight and above will be able to do this with a little help from an adult.

What You Will Need

  • an item to decorate
  • colourful paper napkins or paper tissues consisting of several thin layers of paper
  • white (or cream coloured) acrylic paint
  • water-based transparent varnish
  • some cheap, soft paint brushes that you don't mind ruining4

The Basic Technique

A plain undecorated mirror.

First of all, choose the item that you'd like to decorate and one or more napkin designs which you want to use for the surface decoration. These could have abstract patterns, flower designs, animals or whatever appeals to you. Then, place your chosen napkin onto the item to see how the colours harmonise and also check that the size of the design is suitable.

The item you want to decorate must be clean. It also needs to be a pale colour, either white or a pastel shade that tones with the design; if it is not already this colour you'll need to start off by painting it. Strong colours will show through the surface decoration and make it look strange. Let the paint dry for a good few hours or overnight.

Now you have two options:

  1. Carefully peel the coloured layer of paper off the paper napkin; the top layer is the part you will be using, and it's best to start at a corner. Then carefully tear the design out of the napkin – there should not be any straight edges when you have finished. If you have napkins with flowers, for instance, you can carefully tear them out of the napkin. If you have abstract patterns, you can either use certain parts or just tear through them irregularly, but make sure that you do not make the pieces too small.

  2. Your second option is to cut out the designs with small scissors; this will make the result look more tidy. You should not peel off the coloured layer until after you have cut out the design because cutting one thin layer will not work well. While you're cutting, the layers will peel apart anyway.

Put the napkin design on your chosen object in its final position, with the coloured side facing upwards. Take your time finding this exact position! Then, start covering the napkin design with a thin layer of varnish with a soft paintbrush. The size of your brush depends on the size of the decoration, smaller or narrower bits need smaller brushes. You should start by applying varnish in the middle of the design, or start with one of the bigger parts of napkin, slowly stroking outwards to smooth out any wrinkles. Do not apply too much varnish at once. If you are not careful enough in this step, you risk ripping holes in the napkin. If this happens, you can try to carefully stroke the design back in place with the paint brush. Be particularly careful to cover all the edges of the napkin design with varnish.

If you chose an irregular pattern design, it is best to let the pieces of paper napkin overlap slightly – you don't want to leave any uncovered spaces showing on your finished object.

Some people prefer to give the chosen object a coat of varnish and then put the napkin on top of it. While this may seem easier, it gives you little chance of correcting the placement of your design should you want to adjust it.

Once you have completed the whole design, let it dry. Then apply a second thin layer of varnish over the whole surface of your item, because if you only cover the design the surfaces will be different, which makes the end result look odd.

Further Advice

A mirror with scissors, varnish and paper designs.

The size of your pieces of napkin depend on the item you want to decorate. Flat surfaces allow bigger pieces while rounded surfaces cause wrinkles in bigger pieces of napkin. You will never be able to avoid wrinkles completely but you can keep them as few as possible this way.

If you want to decorate a terracotta flower pot, be sure to cover the inside of the pot and the inside of any holes at the bottom with varnish as well. It may even be worth applying several layers of varnish, otherwise water will soak through the pot, if it is later used for plants, and ruin your design.

If you tear the design out of the napkin and the colour of the item you want to decorate is the same as the background of the napkin, the contours will be hardly visible. If the background of the design is too dark for this, you can also add a layer of paint with this colour after applying the design, covering the edges of the napkin. Put varnish over everything once the paint is dry.


A mirror with the design laid out.

If you have more time, you can also use crackling varnish on your design item. This will cause the finish to be covered in tiny cracks, giving your item an 'old' or 'distressed' look.

First, paint the object with a strong colour of your choice. Once the colour is completely dry, apply the crackling varnish by always stroking in one direction with your brush. The varnish has to dry completely5 before you apply a second layer of paint in the usual light colour, also always applying the brush strokes in one direction. Be sure to do this quickly and apply enough colour on your first stroke because this technique will hardly allow you to make any corrections. The paint starts to crack almost immediately and going over it again will ruin the final result. Depending on the thickness of the varnish and the paint, the light paint will start to crackle, forming large or small gaps as it starts to dry, revealing the first paint colour between the cracks.

If you use this technique on an item that is not flat, you may do all this in different steps, for instance using crackling varnish and top layer of paint first on one half of a ball and then on the other.

Once everything has dried thoroughly, you can apply a napkin decoration as before. Depending on the colour of the design, the crackling will be visible through it.

Transparent Items

If you want to decorate transparent eggs, plastic bowls or any other shape that can be divided into two halves, start by applying your napkin motif on the inside of the item, facing outwards through the transparent material. Cover it with varnish and let it dry before covering the whole inside of the transparent shape with paint. From the outside, the decoration will be clearly visible against the background colour of your paint. If you want to go a step further, you can apply crackling varnish after the varnish on your motif is dry. On top of the crackling varnish, you use light paint, then let it dry again. Afterwards you can use any darker paint on top of the cracked light paint. From the outside the darker paint will now be visible between the cracks in the light paint.

Applying Motifs to Unusual Surfaces

There is a special 'medium' available for applying motifs to textiles, candles and glazed ceramics. Textile medium usually has to be fixed by ironing once the motif has been applied. Ceramics have to be heated in a domestic kitchen oven. In both cases the heat makes the design resistant to hand washing.

1These are often called serviettes in the UK.2Decoupage is a craft which decorates objects by gluing cut out pictures onto them.3In German it is called Serviettentechnik.4Even if you wash your brushes after using them, you will never get out the varnish completely. After using them a few times the bristles will become stiff.5This may take almost an hour. Check it regularly; your finger should not stick to it, but depending on the shape of your object, a few sticky drops could be unavoidable.

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