Wallpaper, Vinyl Wallcovering
Selecting the proper weight and thickness of vinyl wall covering is critical to installation and long-term success. Some standard wall coverings are manufactured with special coatings that are designed to address different performance criteria.
Not so, says Sacramento, CA-based Gary Thomas, a fourth-generation wall covering installer. The 48-year-old Thomas got started in the trade at age 15, when he served as an assistant to his father, Richard Allen Thomas, who picked up the craft from both his father, Ben L. Thomas—who learned at the side of his father, Lincoln Allen Thomas.
That Gary Thomas would succeed in the business was virtually preordained. Thus, in 1978, when the youngest Thomas began his own business, Star Wall Coverings, he focused his attention on vinyl wall coverings for schools, hotels, businesses, and medical centers. In this article, Gary Thomas shares his knowledge, experience and several handy tips with PaintPRO readers who want to learn more about the art – and the science – of installing vinyl wall coverings.
If it’s a question of durability, says Thomas, vinyl wall coverings are the answer. In high traffic areas where other wall coverings become dirty or damaged, vinyl manages to retain its good looks—for years. When vinyl does become dirty, it’s easily cleaned. Similarly, if vinyl wall covering gets damaged, it’s easily repaired. Its fire-retardant properties make it a preferable choice for schools and its ability to accept sterile coatings makes it particularly useful in medical centers.
According to Thomas, selecting the proper weight and thickness of vinyl wall covering is critical to installation and long-term success. There are three types to consider: Number 1 is commonly used in light-wear areas such as offices; Number 2 is a heavier, multi-purpose grade used in high traffic corridors, commercial buildings, and health care applications; and Number 3 is used where extreme durability is required.
In addition, some standard wall coverings are manufactured with special coatings that are designed to address different performance criteria. As an example, sterile coatings are most often used in hospital settings, where extreme cleanliness is necessary.
For most commercial applications, vinyl wall covering comes in 30-yard bolts of 54-inch-wide material. Residential wall covering is generally 27 inches wide, a dimension that’s more easily handled by the less-experienced installer, says Thomas. To determine the amount of vinyl needed for a job, the total square footage to be covered must first be calculated. As a rule, one lineal yard of 54-inch-wide material covers 13.5 square feet (4.5 feet by 3 feet). Dividing the total square footage to be covered by 13.5 will produce the exact number of lineal yards required for the job. However, Thomas notes that most contractors divide the square footage by 12 to allow for waste and any errors.
Since virtually all vinyl wall covering is a random match, it is not necessary to account for pattern repetition when calculating the required amount of material. And according to Thomas, even those few choices that are not random match have a small enough pattern, making it unnecessary to allow for additional material for matching.
It is important to note, says Thomas, that the cost of vinyl wall covering can vary widely. Typically, the cost per yard ranges between $3 to $33, but can sometimes top $160, depending upon the material selected.
The condition of the walls to be covered directly affects the finished wall. Thomas points out that many people are under the mistaken notion that vinyl wall covering will cover a bad wall, but, in fact, that is not true. Untreated bumps or craters in the wall surface will show through the vinyl wall covering, spoiling the finished look.
Since Thomas most often works new construction projects, his crews follow the drywallers and are generally not involved in wall preparation. But it’s a different story when he works in an existing building. If the wall already has a vinyl wall covering, Thomas notes that he prefers to remove it and prepare the wall before installing the new material. He explains that pulling off old wall covering at a 45-degree angle, either to the left or to the right, seems to work best, and is a method he finds more successful than pulling straight down. Once the old wall covering is removed, Thomas’ crew applies taping mud to the entire wall and then sands it, creating a clean surface for the new wall covering.
If the old covering cannot be removed without ruining the wall, Thomas will use a special covering primer over the existing material before installing the new.
The choice of adhesive is a matter of experience and personal preference and several good brands are available. Thomas reports that he often orders 500 gallons at a time.
Aside from the tools of the trade - rollers, putty knives, razor blades, and trowels - an essential piece of equipment is the pasting machine, says Thomas. The wall covering is pasted after it passes through an adhesive-filled trough, followed by rollers. The amount of adhesive applied to the covering can be adjusted and Thomas notes that it’s better to err on the side of too little adhesive instead of too much, since an excessive amount can be troublesome to remove, and can negatively affect workmanship.
Pasting machines can be either manual or motorized units. These machines feature custom gears to enable faster pasting and prices can range from $2,500 to $8,000 or more. But price isn’t the only key consideration. Thomas says installers must also pay attention to the anticipated level of use and the weight of the machine. If most projects are single-installer jobs, a machine that requires two people to lift and maneuver it is obviously impractical.
Even in the same production run from the manufacturer or when the bolts are applied in sequential order, color variations can occur from bolt to bolt. Thomas says that he used to notice color shading variations whenever he started a new bolt. However, he notes that one day, about five years ago, he opened the first bolt of wall covering and noticed that it had an unusual cut on the outer edge, which he trimmed without thinking—until he saw the second bolt, which had the same unusual cut. At that point, Thomas says, he figured out why he was seeing shade differences.
When the wall covering is manufactured, he explains, the first few feet of the production run are rolled into the center of the first bolt. The section that matches the outside of the first bolt is then rolled into the center of the second bolt. This process continues through the remainder of the production run of bolts, with the outside of each bolt matching the inside of the subsequent bolt.
Thomas realized that when he was installing the first bolt, he was beginning with material that was produced some 30 yards into the production run, and would be working backward until he reached the inside of the bolt—or, the start of the run. At that point, notes Thomas, he realized that he was beginning with the outside of the second bolt—or, the 60th yard of the run—and finish at the inside of the bolt—the 31st yard.
The easy solution for correcting such shading discrepancies, Thomas says, is to start with the last bolt and apply the bolts in reverse order.
Assuming a three-bolt job, the outside of the first bolt matches the inside of the second, while the outside of the second matches the outside of the third bolt. By beginning the job with the outside of the third bolt, the last sheet of the bolt (the inside) matches the outside of the next bolt—or, the second bolt. The end of the second bolt, says Thomas, will match the outside of the first bolt. And, when all of the first bolt is applied, the installer will be at the start of the production run. Thus, Thomas explains, color shading from bolt to bolt will be consistent and shading variations not as obvious (See diagram).
On a typical job, the installer will paste the entire 30-yard bolt before installing it on the wall. After two pieces have been applied to the wall with a 2- or 3-inch overlap, the installer makes a double cut, says Thomas. The top cut piece is removed and the overlapping sheet is peeled back to remove the cut piece from the bottom sheet. It is important to be careful about scoring the wall during the cut. Some types of wallboard will pull apart if they are scored, and a special knife—like a hook knife— with a protective guard must be used on those jobs.
When the top sheet is laid back down, the two sheets butt together. Troweling it down and wiping off excess adhesive finishes the seam, says Thomas.
Temperature can play a role in this process. According to Thomas, when the temperature is high, there isn’t as much time to cut a seam, so installers must move more quickly and may find that it’s not wise to paste an entire bolt at once. In cool or humid conditions, installers will have more time since the paste won’t dry as quickly. Many of the architects that Thomas works with specify that the wall covering must be applied at a 70-degree temperature.
On a typical job, Thomas most often has two or three crew members, although he says that it’s not unusual to have just one person working a job. Some jobs require as many as six to nine crew members. Depending on the layout of the walls, an experienced installer can install about three bolts of wall covering in a day, and sometimes, can do as many as five.
According to Thomas, there are several “signs” that an installer will be good at the job. Attention to detail is a critical trait. A perfectionist streak helps too, as does patience. Because the work is physically challenging—lots of reaching, stretching, bending, and squatting—a certain degree of agility is a factor.
When he is asked what advice he would give to someone who is thinking about entering the vinyl wall covering field, Thomas hesitates first, but then explains that he thinks working with an experienced installer is a solid first step toward learning the basics. As he points out, because mistakes can be costly in terms of both budget and reputation, just “picking it up” probably isn’t a reasonable expectation—or a smart approach to getting into the business. Thomas says that at least once a week, one of his crew is referred to as a “prima donna.” But, he points out, that sort of name is probably accurate since he and his crew are determined to do the job right, without skimping on quality. No doubt, Thomas’ great-grandfather would be proud.