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`Wall Wizard' takes fear out and puts fun in decorating

The "Wall Wizard," Brian Santos of Tampa, Fla., was painting his front hallway a few days ago. He wanted to finish before hitting the road again to share his magic tricks for applying wallpaper, paint and window coverings with home-show audiences around the country.

"I'm making the two-story hall a deep taupe shade at the top, a coffee color in the lower entry, with stark white trim. It's three shades deeper lower down because I want it more intimate. There's lots of light up above," says Santos during a phone interview, as he takes a break from holding his paintbrush."Deep browns, beiges and metals are hot decorating trends you'll see in the next year and a half," he adds. "And jewel accent tones will be important, not the pure colors recently popular, but pearlescent or luminescent details with an aged look to add gleam. There'll be lots of flowers and plants in our entry hall, too, for softening the look."

Santos had just returned from a home show in Fort Worth where he'd performed his paint-and-paper demonstrations. He had two days at home to paint, then it was back on the road again.

"It's exhausting, but I love it," he says, claiming to learn as much from audience questions, and the problems they pose to him, as from being a fourth-generation painting and wallpaper contractor.

"I've been doing this stuff since I was 8 years old," Santos says. "People are way too timid when it comes to decorating their own houses. I take the fear out and put the fun in."

While imparting useful tips and funny quips, Santos goes out of his way to demonstrate that anybody can do great decorative effects for little money, using ordinary household tools.

He uses "tools" in the broadest sense of the word, having accomplished his wall effects with crumpled garbage bags, a toilet brush, window squeegee, rags, a hair clip to hold a sponge, a flyswatter . . . even barbecue tongs. The wizard uses 20 tools for 200 decorative effects.

Some celebrity walls he's had his hands on include those of Doris Day, George Lucas and Joe Montana.

But the wizard advocates do-it-yourself decorating, as long as people are kind to one another.

He cites home improvement as "the No. 2 reason for divorce." According to the statistics he's using, home improvement is also No. 3 on the list of most stressful things people can do together.

"The hugest mistake for couples is to take it out on each other (when something goes wrong during a decorating job). Why abuse your lover?," he asks. "It's sad. Be kind to each other."

The most-asked question he gets as he travels around the country performing any of 24 one-hour shows is "How do I strip off old wallpaper?"

The wizard has his own magic recipe that's wetter than wet. It clings, soaks through and dissolves the old wallpaper paste.

"With just one application of my recipe, I was able to strip off 100 years of wallpaper layers in a San Francisco home. It was 3/4-inch thick, 13 layers. I stripped it all in one day," he says.

Here's the formula for the Wizard's Wallpaper Remover: 3 gallons of hot water, 22 ounces of wallpaper remover ("this is the enzyme that eats the starch"), 1/4 cup liquid fabric softener ("a surfactant that makes water wetter"), 1 cup white vinegar and 2 tablespoons baking soda ("the vinegar and soda together make the mixture pop and fizz").

This mixture is good for 15 minutes, he says. "It will attack the wallpaper paste."

The wizard said there's a lot of misinformation out there.

"You've heard that old advice about filling wall cracks and holes with toothpaste?" Santos asks. "That's a Martha-ism (Stewart). Well, don't do it before wallpapering or you'll soon see little white spots coming through the paper. The toothpaste, apparently, whitens and brightens paint, too."

Another bit of advice he's heard is that painters can save their brushes between breaks or day to day by wrapping them in plastic and foil and putting them in the freezer.

"Don't do it," he shouts. "Do you know what ruins paint in a brush? Cold. Do you know what cracks the nylon? Cold. Do you know what can corrode stainless steel? Cold. And a good paintbrush made of basswood will crack from the cold."

Santos, though, is bigger on the dos than the don'ts.

"I'll encourage people to make mistakes. They shouldn't be afraid to fail; no one ever taught them how to do this stuff."