Interior Design: Painting Stripes

September 9, 2009 · 18 comments

Julia's Room SFAbout 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.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily February 19, 2010 at 12:45 am

Curious about the great day bed – is it West Elm?


cnordquist February 19, 2010 at 7:24 am

It’s actually from Room and Board.

LiaYayDIY February 19, 2010 at 9:39 am

Thank you for this amazing tutorial! I actually want to do this in the living room of my new apartment and was terrified of trying to figure out how to get the stripes straight. Now I’m not quite as nervous! So incredibly helpful. Thank you!

cnordquist February 19, 2010 at 9:43 am

You’re very welcome. After you do the first couple of stripes, it actually goes pretty quickly. Good luck with your project. DD

Jen February 19, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Curious where the paiting is from?

cnordquist February 19, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Hello, Jen.
The painting is actually a piece of fabric from the Finnish design house Marimekko. The pattern is called Unikko — one of their classic designs that I’ve always loved. I bought the yardage online at and stapled it to a stretcher frame that I bought at an art supply store.

Kathleen February 19, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I would like information on the rabbit figures on the shelf. And thanks for the tips on a project that I have not had the courage to try on my own. I have wanted to try stripes since we built or new home and my husband is sure I will make a mess. Now I know how to tackle this

cnordquist February 19, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Hello, Kathleen.

Thanks for your message. I love the rabbit figures — I bought them the week Julia was born. They’re made from vintage Japanese klmono. I got them at a shop called Laku in San Francisco that sells handmade toys, hats, slippers, blankets and clothes for babies and children. Laku is located at 1609 Valencia Street in San Francisco and online at

Ginger February 20, 2010 at 1:42 am

Very beautiful. I am notorious for remodeling and/or painting inside. I love to change the look pretty often. I have a question concerning the stripes and future painting. Will the stripes be visible as I paint the walls solid. Will the painted layer of the stripes be visible? I realize the new layer of the stripes are so minutely different in thickness as opposed to the original layer of paint. I hope I was clear with this question, I feel as though I may have not been. I just want to know if the lines are going to be visible when a solid coat is applied.

Thank you so much for the tip….awesome.

cnordquist February 20, 2010 at 7:23 am

Thank you, Ginger. I’m a serial painter too. (I think I’m done for a while, and then I fall in love with some color . . . .) Your question is a good one, I think. I’ve never had trouble with stripes’ paint lines showing when I’ve covered them with a solid paint scheme, at least when the stripes were made with flat paint. Two coats with a 3/8″ nap roller seemed to do the job. (Of course, if the color of the stripe is highly saturated, you may need a coat of primer to completely cover any “shadows” of the stripes lurking under your new paint scheme.) Once I painted over semigloss stripes, though, and I needed a coat of primer to create a uniform surface under the topcoats.
I hope this answers your question.

suzanne February 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm

What a labor of love. Truly you are are great dad. Just beautiful.

Samantha September 18, 2011 at 10:22 am

I was wondering about the shades of paint and how you decided on them. My husband and I are expecting our first in April and would like to paint the nursery a very neutral stripe color. Like yours! We are then going to antique the room with the furniture and accents and I will add gender specific stuff after we find out if it’s a boy or girl. We are struggling with paint shades though. It looks like you did a cream and a beige. How did you come up with those colors? Thanks!!

cnordquist September 18, 2011 at 10:39 am

Hello, Samantha. First of all, congratulations. I wish you all the best — you’re going to have the time of your lives. Paint colors can be tough. I chose the cream and light beige to keep the room warm and light, and to provide a nice backdrop for pops of primary colors and black and white, which, I think, infants find particularly stimulating. (I also makes it easier to adjust the color scheme later as your child’s preferences change.) When painting stripes, I think it’s usually best to keep the contrast low to avoid the “jailhouse” effect. Cheers. DD

home painters March 15, 2012 at 5:58 am

It’s very easy to change the mood and style of any room simply by painting stripes on walls. Choosing paint color is the first and important thing to tackle for painting stripes on walls. Thanks!

Michele May 15, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I love this room! It has inspired a few different projects in our new mid-century modern home. Curious where you got the rug? I have some Marimekko going on now since I fell in love with it on your website — I noticed the rug looks black and white but the Marimekko pillows I have are red, blue, white and orange. Does the blue go ok with the black and white? Thank you so much.

cnordquist May 15, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Thanks, Michele! I love this room too — Julia’s first. I got the rug at West Elm, and it is black and white. I think the blue in your pillows could be fine with a black and white rug, so long as it’s not navy and the dominant color. (Navy and black can work together in clothes, but I think it’s a tough combination in an interior.) I love Marimekko too. Julia’s current room in New York (on the blog) features a pink and yellow pattern, and I’m using the Melooni pattern in our master bedroom in Southampton now. Cheers. DD

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