Working with Textile and Specialty Fabric Wall Coverings
Almost all fabric and textile wall coverings have their own quirks. The first rule of thumb for an installer is to examine the material and find out as much about it as possible before handing in a bid.
by Robert Simpson
but silk, polyester, or olefin on the designer’s spec sheet causes alarm for some installers. Few installers have a reliable familiarity with all of the new textile wall coverings—the design industry places a premium on originality, and if a specifier can find something new and unique to use, they will.
Textiles and fabrics are chosen because of the additional texture and uniqueness they provide to a project. “Fabrics offer softer textured surfaces which can provide a higher-end look,” says Marty Gurian, Senior Manager Technical Services for New York-based DesignTex. Many designers seek exotic, one-of-a-kind fabrics for the higher-end custom jobs. Architects and designers are always looking for that distinctiveness in a project, and they often turn to wallcoverings.
“Almost all fabric and textile wall coverings have their own quirks and no two installers approach them the same way,” says Jeff Keelan, Director of Technical Services for William Zinner Company. “The first and most important rule of thumb for an installer is to examine the material and find out as much about it as possible before handing in a bid. It is important to note that a fabric can be anything from a cotton sheet to a piece of oriental silk, and because of the installation will need to be treated somehow to be a wall covering. The first thing I do is establish if the fabric or textile was designed as a wallcovering product. As a commercial contractor when I hear the word fabric, my first question is ‘whose product is it?’” says Keelan.
While Keelan prefers a cautious approach, Gary Thomas, the owner of Star Wallcovering in Granite Bay, California is more adventurous. “There are so many types of fabric available we generally don’t know anything about the product until we open it at the job site. It is rare if we even read the manufacturer’s instructions. We do so many installations that we are able to take a look at the fabric and know from experience how it should be hung,” says Thomas.
“The importance of following manufacturer’s instructions varies between installers. It really depends on the manufacturer. Many wallcovering companies don’t provide tips for installing their products, leaving the installers to use their own common sense and adapt to the materials. It always comes down to the installer,” says Keelan.
But Thomas says “I seldom read the manufacturers recommendations. I can look at a material and decide by its weight how I will make the seams and install the fabric.”
Manufacturers are themselves ambivalent about the installer’s need to follow the installation instructions. “DesignTex includes instructions in every roll and provides specific instructions for different types of wallcoverings such as paperbacked textile, acrylic backed, woven vinyl, vinyl, and fabric backed. While very skilled installers may choose to pursue their own procedures contrary to our recommendations, the instructions are especially directed at installers seeking our recommendations. Following the instructions may also affect any settlement of claims,” says Gurian.
Once on the job site Keelan recommends a test patch be made. “This test patch will provide some indication of how the material will perform in the particular application. If the manufacturer’s instructions are followed and the fabric does not perform properly, then get back on the telephone. It makes you look smarter and not dumber,” says Keelan. For many installers, the test patch is the way to conquer the material.
Good wall preparation is one principle which makes all textile installations go smoother. Using a wallcovering primer is always recommended. When installing fabric or textiles, poor wall preparation will result in visible seam splits, gapping at the top or bottom, or background colors showing through.
This can be avoided by proper surface preparation. On previously decorated surfaces, making sure that the wall is clean is not enough. Porous surfaces, glossy surfaces and old wallcoverings—especially vinyls and foils—all present different problems. If new drywall is involved, the facing paper should be protected so it will not be pulled off when you remove strippable wallcoverings at some later date. “Using the proper wallcovering primer can eliminate all of these problems,” says Keelan.“There’s no question that if we had our way we would have every installation primed with the proper wallcovering primer. Products such as alkyd primers, shellacs and pigmented stain killers are only part of the original surface preparation. When all is said and done, these surfaces need to be primed with a wallcovering primer. A wallcovering primer is specifically geared to set up a surface for the starch molecules of a wallcovering adhesive to form a good bond,” says Susan Burbacher, Sales Training Specialist, for Winsburg, Ohio-based Gardner-Gibson Inc.
Thomas agrees. “Wall preparation is key to any job. But the key to installing fabrics is the proper use of adhesives.”
“We always like to talk about the installation of wallcovering as a system. That system includes the original wall surface properly prepared and primed, and insuring that the wallcovering is hung with the correct adhesive,” says Burbacher.
The adhesives now on the market are so varied that the shear abundance creates confusion. “Adhesives can be broken down into either clear or clay products and we suggest that installers follow manufacturer’s instructions. Installers are creatures of habit. The main thing is that they be aware of the products available that have good open time, wet tack and positioning characteristics, and can still be put on the wall and stay tacky long enough for the fabrics to be dry hung,” says Burbacher.
“Clear adhesives are often recommended for fabrics and stain sensitive wallcoverings because of the minimization of the staining process. It dries clear and if there is a slightly exposed seam, the color of a clay-based adhesive is not evident. In some cases, stains result because of the pigmentation in the clay-based adhesives touching the face of the wallcovering,” says Pomplun.
Most manufacturers have come out with heavy clear adhesives with additional tack, wet time and improved flow in the last few years. Gardner-Gibson introduced three clear adhesives at the National Hardware Show in 1999—the Dynamite 234, 785 and 780 line of products.
These are heavy-duty clear adhesives and all are capable of hanging a wide range of fabrics and textiles. Dynamite 234 is a premium, clear adhesive that provides maximum wet tack. Though it also has the highest solids, the bond is still strippable on new wall surfaces. Dynamite 785 has many of the same features but is stepped-down from the 234. Dynamite 780 is a heavy-duty, clear non-strippable product.
Clears are in no way replacing clays, though. Many installers still prefer clay for all of their adhesive needs.
“Ninety-nine percent will recommend using clear adhesives, and I think using clear adhesives is an alternative for anyone who isn’t really knowledgeable or careful… and most aren’t. We never use clear adhesives because they do not have the bond that clay adhesives do. We take the extra ten minutes to make sure the clay adhesive is on the wall correctly. Then, after waiting the correct amount of time for the clay to dry before hanging the fabric, we never have any problem with paste coming up through it,” says Thomas.
“What I find is that people who use clear adhesives tended to be more sloppy because it is difficult to see from straight on. If we use an adhesive that stands out like a sore thumb when it gets on the fabric, installers have a tendency to be more cautious. With clay, mistakes can not be made,” says Thomas.
Timing is everything when working with clay adhesives. “We let the clay dry just to the point where it will not squeeze through the fabric. To be very good with fabric, timing is everything. We have two guys on our crews—one to keep the adhesive at the right texture, and the other following behind putting up the fabric,” says Thomas.
Fabrics and some other products such as acrylic-backed textiles are generally not pre-pasted, and require pasting to the wall. Other products like paper-backed textiles can involve table pasting to allow the backing to expand.
The safest way to work with fabric is to trim it on a table and then butt it on the wall “By trimming the fabric on the table, the installer is not touching the wall and the potential for scoring the wall is eliminated,” says Thomas.
But the best seams are made from overlapping the fabric and double cutting it on the wall. “If the double cutting is not done properly it can spell disaster. We usually practice cutting a few inches of the fabric to get a feel for how hard to push in order to cut it but not score the wall,” says Thomas. The less the fabric is moved from the table to the wall, the less chance it will fray.
An important aspect of working with fabrics is to do so with care. “Keeping the fabric clean is very important. It is imperative that adhesive, grease, dirt and moisture is kept off the fabric,” says Keelan. Dirt and even the oil from the installer’s hands can harm delicate fabrics. Some installers wear clean gloves; Keelan suggests using a low-tack tape to help move the sheets of fabric and keep a supply of cornstarch nearby to keep hands dry and oil free.
Another factor installers should keep in mind is that fabrics have a tendency to have more defects than other wallcoverings. “When we order fabric we always order a few extra strips for the job. If I were doing a wall with three strips, I would order four because of the potential of having defects. We don’t take a chance. If we see a defect we take it off right away, because to go back later after it has dried is not good,” says Thomas.
When working with fabrics, both Thomas and Keelan prefer to dry hang, applying the paste to the wall. “You have to be careful to keep the contact with the material broad. Do not put pressure on the wall with a fingertip or tool point because then you will have adhesive bleed through at that point,” says Keelan, who advises using a piece of sandpaper to grab and move the textile on the wall.
Coatings that protect fabrics from stains and damage are most often applied at a finishing facility before installation, but sometimes are applied satisfactorily in the field after installation. “These coatings include soil and stain repellants, and permanency of these repellants is best achieved by a finisher who can use heat to cure the product,” says Gurian. On site, stain repellants such as ScotchGaurd® can be used around light switches and in high traffic areas.
The backing on a fabric is critical. Without backing, materials are difficult to work with and don’t have a lot of structural stability. When unbacked, thicker is better. Unbacked products have a tendency to shrink or stretch. “Some products will shrink more than others, and that is what the test patch will show,” says Keelan. In cases where there is shrinkage, installers may have to order up to seven percent more fabric.
Mildew can be a problem when working with fabric, particularly in buildings that have water leakage or moisture transfer problems, as well as installations in more humid environments. “In these circumstances using the correct wall primer and adhesives with mildicides are very important. Proper sealing techniques are also critical,” says Gurian. In high-risk installations natural-fiber content fabric it is not recommended.
“The wallcovering supplier cannot assure the elimination of mildew problems when we do not control the site conditions or preparation and choice of adhesive. So installers should take the time to understand mildew,” says Gurian.
For installers who do their homework up front and understand the nature of fabrics and adhesives, every job can look great and put money in their pocket.