Reproducing Historic Wallpapers

Wallpaper remains the quintessential room decoration. If you’re looking for a historic or specific wallpaper pattern, be encouraged.

I once rented a summer cottage decorated with quaint wallpapers printed in the 1920s or ’30s. The papers were in remarkably good condition, but the plaster underneath was water-damaged in spots, and bulging through the paper. I pondered the options, on behalf of the owners: should they lose the wallpaper to save the plaster, or let the plaster continue to crumble to keep the wallpaper?

Maybe the wrong question. As it turns out, a surprising number of wallpaper makers have the capacity to re-create period wall coverings using techniques as traditional as hand-pressed block printing, and as cutting-edge as digital printing generated by illustration software. Working from old photographs and fragments barely an inch wide, these specialists have produced astonishing results. While the cost of a custom reproduction isn’t cheap, it’s not as expensive as you might think.

Steve Larsen of Adelphi Paper Hangings imprints bright-green varnish on a roll of ‘Pineapples’, a wallpaper pattern discovered on a wood bandbox. The paper is festooned over sawhorses to dry.

Recreating Lost Designs

Most of the clients for this sort of work are, understandably, museums and historical institutions. Others are individuals who’ve lost period wall coverings in a fire or flood and have insurance to cover the cost of replacement. In a perfect world, the client brings in a section of the desired paper that’s not only in good condition, but also large enough to show the entire pattern repeat. A pattern repeat may be less than an inch, or up to the entire width of the wallpaper.

“If the original is in good shape and not attached to plaster, we can scan it, or maybe photograph or trace it,” says Steve Bauer, co-owner and lead designer for Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers.

If the sample can be scanned, it usually can be reproduced digitally, especially if the pattern is a simpler one with only three or four colors. Bradbury can do reproductions using the silkscreen method they use for Victorian-era reproductions, but digital is often less expensive and sometimes yields better results.

“So many papers have nuances that are hard to capture with silkscreen printing,” Bauer says. “Digital is faster, and it can be better to print it digitally from the beginning, whether from photos or a sample.”

At Adelphi Paper Hangings, new printing blocks begin with artist-drawn transparencies, one for each color in the pattern. The transparencies are sent to a company that laser-cuts every detail into fresh wood blocks.

When the sample is of poor quality, Bauer first turns to his in-house archive to look for the same or a similar paper. Matches turn up occasionally, as when a family in Kansas sent in a 1905 photograph of a dining room depicting a long-lost frieze. “An employee ran into the archive and found an original piece of the same frieze,” Bauer says. “It looked, from the black-and-white photograph, like we had it in the exact-same colorway.”

The sample from the archive was actually missing the top inch or so, however. “We were able to ghost artwork over the photo and digitally rebuild the top edge of the frieze,” Bauer says. “The family was ecstatic about it.”

Digital reproductions work best for machine-printed papers from the mid-19th century or later. For early or block-printed papers, pattern repeats are still re-created from remnants and/or old photos, but after that, the process is more old-school. At block-print specialist Adelphi Paper Hangings, an in-house artist draws a transparency from the historic document for each color in the pattern. The transparencies are sent with fresh wood blocks to a company that laser-cuts the pattern onto the blocks.

‘Rose Bouquet’ is one of two wallpapers, newly available from Red Disk Studio, that were designed by naturalist painter Charles E. Burchfield, who worked for M.H. Birge & Sons in the 1920s.

“The laser passes over back and forth in a straight line, and with each pass, it reads the patterns,” Steve Larsen explains. Where the transparency is blacked in, the laser cuts nothing at all; where it’s lighter, the laser burns away the wood. Once the blocks come back, there’s still a lot of work to do: a pattern with small, tightly packed details, or patterns with large open areas, will have to be carved out deeper by hand, so that the block picks up the paint correctly.

More problematic are papers that aren’t as crisp and precise as modern surface-printed papers (inexpensive or shoddily reproduced, in other words). Larsen recalls a border he re-created years ago. “The original document was sort of happy-hour printing—nothing lined up.”

The same was true of a paper done for the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts. On what was probably an inexpensive paper, the paint layer was thin and the print register wasn’t always accurate. That meant making a judgment call as to whether to make the block print as accurate as it should have been, or to give the museum curators a facsimile that looked as crooked and poorly printed as the original—something Larsen calls “sloppy authenticity.”

The 1869 Wise House museum in Colorado had a machine-printed 1930s kitchen wall-fill paper that contained real flecks of mica. 

Ken Noble

“There are all different ways of doing it,” says David Berman of Trustworth Studios. “I did papers for a house in New England where they wanted it to look like it hadn’t changed in 200 years. So I created the patterns, and then I distressed them digitally.”

A digital artist like Berman can add in as many layers for a paper as can a block printer. He just creates them on a computer in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, instead of pear wood. “You create a base layer. Then you build your layers on top. To suggest wear, you can abrade any layer. Each one is a separate working plate.”

Take ‘Blossom’, for example, a C.F.A. Voysey design Berman re-created for the Glessner House in Chicago. “When I drew this, I thought, there’s so much going on, I’m going to have to draw each element. Every color has a separate block.”

Berman can add different effects to each layer, including some surprising ones. For instance, he can make it look as though the design is printed on laid paper (a high-cotton paper with a mesh grid embedded in it to give it texture), or that it is embossed, or even flocked (a method of adding chopped fibers over the design).

Bradbury & Bradbury used both silkscreen and digital techniques to reproduce paper from the 1869 Wise House museum.

Ken Noble

Once all the layers are sandwiched together, Berman prints completed rolls on a digital printer, using latex inks. For most custom reproductions, the bulk of the extra cost is in the design work: the amount of time it takes to scan and manipulate the pattern, or to draw it from scratch. It usually costs between $500 and $2,000 to create a custom pattern, he says. Then the paper is printed at the same cost as other papers he offers: $210 per roll. “I usually estimate high and pride myself on coming in under estimate.”

At Adelphi, non-digital replication includes a custom pattern and block fee, plus the cost of printing, which varies with complexity. Each block costs $1,400 including transparencies. So a custom reproduction requiring three blocks would cost $4,200 before the first roll was printed.

Reproduction makes sense for historical institutions and clients with rare wallpapers, but not every paper made before 1950 is worth reproducing, Berman attests. “Just because it was once in your house doesn’t make it special,” he says; “there are lots of ordinary papers out there.” You might just look for a paper similar to yours.

Historic Paper Made New

When David Berman of Trustworth Studios was asked to re-create the dining-room paper at Ragdale, built by architect Howard Van Doren Shaw in 1897 as his family’s summer retreat near Chicago, he was given a sepia-tinted photo of the room and a few “flitters,” Berman’s term for remnants, found behind mouldings. “It’s not very much to base a repeat on, but I could see the superstructure from the photograph,” he says. Berman was able to interpret what kind of leaves and blossoms were in the pattern. As he patched together a full repeat—the overall pattern that “repeats” and can be matched up on the wall as the paper is hung—“a leaf on a flitter would in fact align with the pattern. The end result is credible and looks good.”

Refreshing a Flocked Paper

An artist at Adelphi Paper Hangings prepares to match a repeat on ‘Chestertown Vine’ with a freshly inked block.

Adelphi Paper Hangings reproduced ‘Chestertown Vine’ from a discolored fragment found in an 18th-century building in Chestertown, Maryland. Rather than flock the dominant floral pattern as in the original—a time-consuming and messy process—Adelphi opted to print it as a tone-on-tone design. The reproduction is printed the traditional way, with wood blocks in a press.

A Mixed Media Dilemma

The original plaster walls in the living room in our 1908 Foursquare had been covered with a thin layer of drywall. Poorly installed to begin with, the drywall was held in place by a handful of drywall screws. As we broke it out, we exposed layers of wallpaper and paint over the original plaster scratch coat, which was in good shape. No finish coat had ever been applied.

Plaster “cream”— the wet and smooth byproduct of working the plaster after spritzing with water—is great for filling in the little gaps and voids left from the first pass.

Courtesy Wendy & Alex Santantonio

Alex Santantonio applies the finish coat to newly refreshed plaster walls. The process results in a silkysmooth, almost shiny, paint-ready finish.

Courtesy Wendy & Alex Santantonio

After a long and messy wallpaper removal and patching process, we were left with a very irregular surface of about 80 percent plaster and 20 percent drywall. We decided on this approach: 1) a base coat embedded with fiberglass mesh over existing rough plaster and patched drywall; 2) a second coat to cover the mesh and produce a flat surface; and 3) finally a finish coat for a smooth and paint-ready surface. We’d arranged to use products from Master of Plaster, but at their recommendation used Structo-Lite, a modern mix-type base-coat plaster, as our base coat. Unlike traditional plasters, Structo-Lite is gypsum based so it won’t breathe the way a lime-based plaster breathes. (If we’d been in a house where maintaining the original plaster was important, we’d have used an all-lime plaster.)

After applying that base coat, we hung fiberglass mesh to bridge any cracks and gaps. Master of Plaster’s lime-based wet-finish plastering product (the second coat) took some getting used to. We learned to use more plaster in thicker coats and a very low trowel angle to apply it.

Working from the top of the wall down, we applied a finish coat in sections of about 4′ x 4′ and immediately circled back with a spray bottle to spritz it and smooth out imperfections. Loading less material on the trowel, applying it, then immediately reloading the trowel proved most effective. Where the wall meets the ceiling, we applied a little bit of material in an upwards motion, followed by quickly inverting the trowel and applying it to the wall from the top down.

Stripped of wallpaper and patched or secured with washers, the walls were ready for the plaster base coat.

Courtesy Wendy & Alex Santantonio

As the partially cured plaster is worked, it slowly transforms into an almost perfectly smooth surface with a little bit of coarse tooth to it. It may be left as a slightly rough finish, or a finish coat may be applied. We were thrilled that our finish coat required no sanding at all. Continued troweling and spraying refined the surface so much that it shines—just like real, historic plaster. —Alex Santantonio

Standen Meets Digital

Three colorations of ‘Mallow’: an example of the most faded original paper, and another that suffered less light exposure, juxtaposed next to the newly installed paper.

Courtesy of Morris & Co.

Designed by Philip Webb and completed in 1894 as a summer house for the Beale family, Standen is probably the most intact Arts & Crafts dwelling in the United Kingdom and one of the most popular National Trust sites. The original owners lavished the walls with Morris & Co. papers, including areas normally only seen by servants; notably, ‘Mallow’, a Kate Faulkner design from 1879, was hung along the servants’ staircase.

Over the years, the ‘Mallow’ paper—once pale cornflower blue—had yellowed to a soft green. In need of a replacement, the trustees asked today’s Morris & Co. to reproduce new paper for the light-damaged areas. A section of the wall, original paper intact, was removed and shipped to the Anstey factory for color matching.

“There were actually two slightly different shades of the same colorway on the wall, so the question was which color to match to,” says Alison Keane, PR manager for Sanderson Design Group, the official home for six British wallpaper and fabric brands, including Morris & Co. “To have matched to either one of these would have changed history, as we knew they had faded. So we matched back to the color in the production log books.” The re-creation is faithful to the color of the paper as it was installed in the 1890s.

The Morris & Co. ‘Mallow’ design of 1879 was re-created digitally, with the use of samples of the original wallpaper and careful comparison of colors to the original production log books.

Courtesy of Morris & Co.

Although ‘Mallow’ was originally a block print, this time the paper was digitally reproduced. New separations were produced at the factory and colors carefully matched. Two small areas of faded wallpaper remain.


wall coverings/custom
Adelphi Paper Hangings Block-printed histo-rical wallpapers

Bolling & Co. Original vintage papers, custom digital reproduction

Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers Silkscreen & digital restoration

Burt Wallpapers Custom silkscreen reproductions from samples &photos; period-inspired designs

Mason & Wolf Arts & Crafts, Aesthetic, late-Victorian papers

Red Disk Studio Silkscreened papers, including early-20-century Charles E Burchfield designs for Birge

Trustworth Studios Specialist in Voysey designs; digital wallpaper re-creation

Related Resources

Finest Wallpaper Morris & Co., scenic & other British wallpapers, shipped free to the U.S.

Morris & Co. William Morris wallpapers from the historic archives

Thomas Strahan Period wallpapers since 1866

Wallpaper Direct Papers, murals; embossed Anaglypta, Lincrusta

Waterhouse Wallhangings Authentic reproductions of papers 1700– 1895

plaster prep Abatron Nu-Wal and Krate Kote plaster restoration & crack repair kits

Big Wally’s Plaster Magic Repair adhesive for cracked plaster walls

Brewster Home Fashions Wall liners, wall patch past, tools

Larsen Products Plaster Weld bonding agent

Master of Plaster Lime plaster finishing system

Modern Masters Venetian plasters & coatings

Paper-Hangings Acid-free lining paper, blankstock, paperhanger’s canvas, wallpaper tools

Roman Adhesives Wallpaper adhesives, primers, wallpaper removal products

Specification Chemical Nu-Wal elastomeric wall repair preparation kits

Tags: OHJ June 2020 wallpaper

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