How to Buy Parking Lot Stencils

Tips and insights to consider when buying pavement stencils

When buying parking lot stencils, there are three things to look for: the material that the stencil is made from, the thickness of the stencil material, the edge distances (often referred to as the overall height or overspray) that the stencil offers. (This is important.)

Let’s take a closer look at each of these stencil attributes.

Parking Lot Stencil Material

I've seen parking lot stencils being advertised as "made from quality" followed by a fancy word for cardboard. I've also seen them made from "countertop" material.

But the best material for parking lot stencils is Low Density Polyethylene Plastic (LDPE) not High Density Polyethylene (HDPE). LDPE is the favorite material among parking lot striping companies. Here's why:

* It's strong, unlike cardboard. It's more flexible, unlike countertop material

* It’s also very easy to clean. When you spray the stencil you'll have a bit of overspray on the stencil itself. Simply let it dry, then bend the flexible LDPE and the dried overspray pops off. You can even peel it off and it looks like a giant potato chip. Now your stencil is "like new” again.

If you spray a cardboard stencil, the overspray soaks in; You can’t clean it easily.

If you spray a stencil made from some type of countertop material, two things might occur:

* It's too rigid to bend. If you do try to bend it be ready for it to break.

* If the countertop material is rough, instead of smooth, the overspray will grip it tightly and won't let go, meaning you can’t clean it and get it back to "like new.”After a while the overspray will build up and affect the quality of your work.

Bottom line? Buy stencils made of LDPE. It's more flexible than HDPE, it'll lay to the contour of your parking lot surface, it'll last, and it’s very easy to clean.

Parking Lot Stencil Thickness

While I've seen stencils in 10 mil thicknesses and 30 mil thicknesses I prefer 60 mil (1/16 inch) and 125 mil (1/8 inch) There are four things to consider when determining which thickness to buy:

* If the stencil is too thin it might not stay where you need it to. (I hope the wind doesn't blow!)

* When the paint actually hits a thin stencil be prepared for the stencil to "flutter" and/or simply move. It's not heavy enough to do the work.

* Also, 10 and 30-mil stencils just aren't heavy enough to lay completely flat on the pavement. If they're "wavy" at all that indicates they do not possess the weight needed to simply lay flat. Paint will spray under the areas that are above the pavement and affect the quality of your work.

* If you have to slide a stencil made of thin material out from under another stencil, the small "bridges" that hold the letters or symbols to the surrounding plastic will eventually snag onto something and tear. This makes for more trouble. I've done it. Be careful.

So the best two thicknesses are 1/16 inch (60 mil) and 1/8 inch (125 mil).

Parking lot stencils 1/16 inch thick are great for occasional use. Schools that stripe or paint their own stencils can use these, for example. A part-time parking lot striping company or the maintenance department of a shopping center or hospital also will find that these are fine. Just take care of them. Try to store them flat or hang them -- but not from the letters themselves. Drill two well-placed holes and hang them.

Stencils 1/8 inch thick are for the professional parking lot striping company. Let the overspray dry, then peel it off. The bridges are tough. This thickness will last, seemingly forever. Mine have, for 17 years. 

Parking Lot Stencil "Edge Distance"

This feature is also known as "overall height" or overspray, and there's also the "overall width" to consider.      

First I'll talk about the height. Let's say the stencil is a NO PARKING stencil with 12-inch-tall letters. Let's say the "overall height" is advertised as 16 inches. That means there's only 2 inches of plastic above the top of the lettering and 2 inches of plastic below the bottom of the lettering (2 inch edge distance on top + 12 inch lettering + 2 inch edge distance on the bottom = a 16 inch overall height).

I like an 18-inch overall height. Here’s why: It's not just about overspray protection, it's also about strength.

  • If you're not too confident about spraying the stencil a 2 inch edge distance is scary. A 3-inch edge distance isn't as scary. On a 12-inch NO PARKING stencil the overall height would be 18 inch, not 16 inch There would be 3 inch of edge distance above the 12 inch lettering and 3 inch of edge distance below the 12 inch lettering (3 inches + 12 inches + 3 inches = 18 inches).
  • If you want these stencils to last any amount of time a 3 inch edge distance offers much more strength than only having a 2 inch edge distance.

Once you’ve decided on material, thickness, and edge distance take a look at the lettering. Make sure the lettering is as wide as you want it to be and also make sure the "brush stroke" is as wide as you expect. 

If you're about to choose a 24-inch STOP stencil, how wide are the letters? I've seen some listed as 9 inches wide but I prefer a 12-inch width for a 24 inch height. And how wide is the brush stroke? I've seen a 2-inch brush stroke on stencils of this size but I prefer a 4-inch brush stroke on a 24-inch STOP. I like the balanced look of it. It does a great job.

Once you’ve examined these four aspects of stencils then and only then compare pricing. It’s important but selecting the wrong stencil for the work you do can cost you on every job you do.

Dan Zurcher, owner/operator of American Striping Company, Columbus, OH, is author of “How I Stripe a Parking Lot…16 Years…By Myself.” He will make his first National Pavement Expo presentation, “Improving Efficiency on Your Striping Jobs,” on Thursday, Feb. 16 in Memphis. Dan has produced numerous “how-to” striping videos, offers his “Mr. Box” Kit for stripers, and distributes stencils and other striping-related products through For information on NPE including a description of Dan’s seminar visit