Some people think quality means expensive but that's not necessarily true. Some of the most expensive wallcoverings are the least desirable from a functioning standpoint.
By Stacey Enesey Klemenc
. Today’s wallcoverings are made out of everything from vinyl and fabric to foil and grass, as well as paper from pulp, rice and other materials. At the very high end, hand-printed wallpapers — delicate to the touch and delectable to the eye — easily run $200 a roll. Machine-printed residential wallpapers are far less expensive-the average costing less than $20 a roll — much more durable and more widely used.
Most wallcoverings have three layers. The decorative layer, usually the thinnest layer, is the ink. This is applied on top of the intermediate layer, also referred to as the ground, which provides the background color. The third layer, the substrate or backing, goes against the wall. To improve durability, the decorative layer may be protected by a polymer, an acrylic-type vinyl or a polyvinyl chloride coating. Many different types of materials are used as grounds and substrates, too many to list here.
Some people think quality means expensive but that’s not necessarily true. “Some of the most expensive wallcoverings are the least desirable from a functioning standpoint,” says Roy Ritchie Jr., vice president of Roysons Corp. in Rockaway, N.J., a company that manufactures and distributes both commercial and residential wallcoverings. “For example, there are certain papers and fabrics that don’t pass the Type II performance standards. They don’t function as well as others, which do pass and are far less expensive.”
Type II commercial wallcoverings — for use in high-traffic areas like hallways and lounges — have a solid vinyl surface laminated to a woven substrate of fabric or a nonwoven synthetic substrate. Comparatively, Type I — typically used in hotel rooms and offices — weighs less and isn’t as durable.
Commercial wallcoverings, specifically made to be used in hotels, apartment building, office buildings, schools and hospitals, must meet or surpass certain physical and performance standards set forth by Federal Specifications CCC-W408. These guidelines focus on flammability, tear strength, abrasion resistance, washability, scrubbability and stain resistance.
Although residential wallcoverings don’t have to meet a certain code like their commercial cousins, manufacturers note their characteristics on the products’ packaging, as well as in sample books, mainly to note their durability. Most wallpaper will last seven to 10 years.
According to John Fitzgerald, president and general manager of FSC Wallcoverings, a division of F. Schumacher and Co., a contractor can determine the quality of wallpaper by knowing the manufacturer, substrate and printing method. His division manufactures five different residential wallpaper brands, using myriad printing processes to produce different looks.
Aaron Kirsch of Astek Wallcovering Distributor in the Los Angeles area, whose company does a lot of work for movie studios, believes “The big new thing coming out is digital printing, although it’s not quite perfected for wallcoverings. We’ve been digitally printing wallpaper for movies and TV shows for some time now.”
“Right now, we do short customized runs but, personally, I think it’s the wave of the future,” Kirsch says. Imagine the possibilities. People could come in with their own design or they could manipulate an existing design. They could choose what colors they wanted and could reduce or enlarge any part of the design.
Although Astek digitally prints on water-resistant material and often laminates it to make it more durable, “It looks great but it won’t last long,” he concedes. And it’s not cheap either. “Let’s say an average price for wallpaper is $25 a roll. For digital, it would be $180.”
There are several companies nationwide that offer digital printing services.
At the high end, the company often uses hand printing, silk screening and surface printing (the print design coincides with raised areas on a roller). The majority of the other papers are machine printed, using flexographic (similar to surface printing except the print cylinders are flexible) or gravure printing techniques (similar to the method used to print magazines, providing great detail and many nuances of color).
The New York-based company’s top-of-the-line Schumacher brand features large-scale designs and interior decorator colors. “This brand,” Fitzgerald says, “is oriented to a higher-end market, one that would hire an interior decorator. It has strong support from coordinating fabrics and borders. A designer would use a wallpaper, border and two to three beautiful fabrics that would pull the whole [room decorating] package together.”
The Village brand, on the other hand, is geared for the do-it-yourselfer and is available at paint and wallpaper stores, as well as chain stores. “This is a great wallpaper that is colored, designed and appropriately priced for the mass market and, as such, wouldn’t have coordinating fabrics in the line,” but does have matching borders and self-stick wall appliques. “It also has a vinyl coating that gives it great durability.”
Both brands are quality products made from quality paper, Fitzgerald asserts, they’re just geared to different segments of the population and retail channels.
“A contractor should look for good fidelity of printing,” advises Ritchie, whose company manufactures products for J.M. Lynne and MiraSepc, among others. “The print should be clear with good registration and free of side-to-side shading.” And first impressions count, beginning with how the goods are packaged. “If a product is not packaged properly it might be an indication that little care was taken in manufacturing the product as well.”
Contractor Gary Thomas, owner of Star Wallcovering in Granite Bay, Calif., has been hanging wallpaper for the past 34 years. Whereas he rarely has to select a wallcovering for a job because an architect or a designer specifies the product, “There are times designers will call us to ask if this product or that product will show a seam,” he says. “A real light-colored, lightweight or fine fabric wallcovering usually makes a seam that shows more. So do tighter knit fabrics and some loose-knit ones.”
Adhesive is a major factor in any wallpapering job. “If you put too much on, you’ve got a mess. If you don’t use enough, you’ve got a mess. Each material has a different weight and texture and you have to decide how much paste to put on. It has to be just right,” Thomas says.With too much adhesive, the surface will be bumpy and the seams will open up when the material starts to dry and shrink. “Everywhere you touch, it’ll show a mark,” he adds. The brand is important, too. “I’ve used the same clay adhesive for the last 20 years. I’ve tried other things and they’re just not the same.”
Robert M. Kelly, publisher of Master Paperhanger Magazine and a paperhanger since 1976, agrees, “A lot of installers prefer clay with its low water content. It increases the tack and dries quickly. Sometimes a clear adhesive can be too full of moisture, which can cause problems like bubbling. Clears are probably the most popular adhesives but they’re not better than clay.”
Thomas typically works with 54-inch-wide vinyl wallcoverings, but has handled fabric coverings as wide as 66 inches. He estimates his business is 50 percent fabric, 50 percent vinyl, but he hangs other materials as well. “Lately, we’ve been hanging cork in offices and putting the wallcovering on top of that so folks can push pins through it.”
As for how to install a certain product, experience is key. “There’s nothing carved in stone that says you should hang this fabric this way and that fabric another. The manufacturer’s recommendation is usually not the way to go. To be a good installer, you have to know how to adjust your technique to fit the material. For example, if a fabric wallcovering has a wave, you can’t trim it straight. You have to trim with the wave.”
With a lighter material, he says, “We double cut right where it sets. If you’re not experienced and cut too hard, the Sheetrock will open up.” A double cut, Thomas explains, is when you leave, say, “a 3-inch overlap. You make a cut down the middle and remove the 11⁄2-strip on top. Lift the paper and remove the 11⁄2-inch strip underneath. And what you end up with is a perfectly matching seam.”
When it comes to priming, Thomas is not like most commercial contractors. “We only prime a wall when the wallcovering is very light and you can see through it. Otherwise it doesn’t make any difference in the finished look. The only benefit to priming a wall is if you plan to remove the wallcovering later on.”