About a week before Julia was born, I set to work on her first room in San Francisco. She was to be born in California, and our plan was to spend a month at our home there before bringing her back to New York. I wanted her first room to be cheerful, bright, whimsical and feminine, but still crisp and modern. Wide stripes for the walls seemed like a nice idea, but I wanted them to be uneven and light to avoid evoking a circus tent (or worse, a baby jail). Wallpaper wasn’t an option since I didn’t have time to order it, and I liked the idea that she would have something original, so I took my expectant father anxiety and channeled it into painting stripes. After some trial, error and a few outbursts wholly inappropriate to a nursery, I developed this quick, low-tech and nearly foolproof system.
Step One: Planning
Measure the walls to be painted and draw them to scale using a piece of graph paper. Roughly block out things such as windows, doors, significant pieces of art and the silhouettes of large pieces of furniture. Using a ruler and tracing paper (or just a pencil and a good eraser), design your striping pattern on the graph paper, adjusting things until you’re happy with the placement and scale of the stripes. Then, translate the width and spacing of your stripes back to the scale of the actual room. (Note that things will be far easier in the next step if you can design the stripes so that they’re whole numbers of inches or centimeters.)
Step Two: Measure and Mark the Walls
This is the hardest part. It is possible to do this with nothing but a good ruler, a long straight-edge, and a T-square and/or a good level, but getting accurate horizontal and vertical measurements to plot points on the walls, several for each stripe, and then connecting the dots with a long straight-edge is a fiddly, error-prone and time-consuming business that could drive you to drink before lunchtime. The new laser-guided measuring and leveling tools are an improvement, but they’re easier to use in theory than in practice, and the process still goes very very slowly.
An old, cheap (about $10), low-tech tool is your salvation, though. The chalk line is nothing more than a length of string inside an enclosed reel filled with colored chalk dust, but it makes drawing long, straight lines quite literally a snap.
To draw a vertical line of almost any length, measure off the width of the stripe on a horizontal axis, such as the top of the wall, secure the top of the line with a finishing nail and then unspool the string to the desired length. Let the reel dangle freely, allowing gravity pull the chalk-covered string into a straight line. Next, press the dangling reel against the wall to hold it in place and then pluck the string, which will snap against the wall, leaving a straight line of chalk dust where it made contact. That’s your line. It may take a few tries to pluck with the right amount of force, but it’s easy to get the hang of it. (This works for horizontal stripes too, of course — just stretch the line between two points measured on a vertical axes, such as the corners of the room, and pluck away.)
Step Three: Mask
Once you’ve snapped the chalk lines, masking is easy. Just apply painters’ masking tape along the line and wipe away the chalk with a slightly damp cloth. (Powder for chalk lines comes in different colors, each with a different level of permanence. Blue and white wipe away easily — use whichever you’ll be able to see best against your base color.) After you’ve placed the tape, go over it again with your fingertips, pressing the edge that will face the paint as firmly and thoroughly as you can to prevent seepage. Always use good blue painters’ tape. I’ve found the 3M brand to be the best, and I’ve been disappointed with others, so I’d recommend consulting with the experts at your paint supply store before using a cheaper alternative.
Step Four: Paint
Use a brush only for the very tops and bottoms of stripes and for the narrowest ones. Narrow rollers do a great job of painting stripes quickly and evenly and are probably less likely to work paint under the masking tape.
Step Five: Unmask and touch up.
As soon as the paint is dry to the touch, unmask, if you can. (With the excellent new low VOC latex paints such as Benjamin Moore’s Aura line, this will probably be in less than an hour.) If you need to wait longer, it’s not the end of the world, but while the paint is not fully cured, it’s easier to scrape off any seepage around the edges. (Often your fingernail, a plastic scraper or a butter knife will do the trick without damaging the underlying coat of paint.) If you need to, touch up the edges with a bit of the base color. Never leave masking tape up for more than a day or two, particularly the less expensive brands, as it can become stubbornly sticky with time.
The first few stripes will go slowly as you perfect your technique, but after that you’ll fly along, and you’ll be left with a truly original room, made with your own hands for the cost of a can or two of paint, basic supplies and a $10 tool.