Paperhanger Tools. Wallpaper hangers share their thoughts on brushes, smoothers, cutting tools, seam rollers, adhesives, levels and more.
by Christina Camara
you believe your tried-and-true tools work just fine, thank you. Why change?
Chicago-area paperhanger Phil Curtis, CP, knows plenty of contractors who’ve been in business for 25 years or more and have changed tools only once.
“They get very comfortable with what they use and they don’t try anything that’s new,” he says. “If they don’t try anything new, how do they know what they’re missing? The best tip I can give you is that people should try just about anything that comes out on the market.”
For example, professionals have moved from the old sweep brushes, which work well on plaster and other uneven surfaces, to the unbreakable plastic smoothers, which are flexible enough to move around drywall corners smoothly. Curtis likes the WalWiz, a smoother/seam roller/trim guide by Zinsser that replaces tools that can scratch, stretch or tear wallpaper.
The WalWiz was based on the concept of “building a better mousetrap,” says Linda Mitchell, Zinsser’s brand manager for wallcovering products. “Some of the more basic commodity tools that have been on the market for a hundred years or more can create more problems than they solve,” she says. “They’re not necessarily designed to work with today’s wallpaper fashions.”
Zinsser recently added more than a dozen products to its line of paperhanging tools, and Mitchell designed them with the lessons of 15 years of professional paperhanging in mind. Constantly frustrated by the multiple steps involved to perform simple tasks, she knew the tools could be simplified, just as the WalWiz saved contractors’ time by combining three tools into one.
She experimented with old-fashioned paste brushes, applying adhesive to a two-by-two piece of wallpaper. It took eight dips into the bucket and 40 strokes to get proper coverage. She developed the WALWorks adhesive and stripper roller, which holds up to three times more product and provides good coverage in about 10 strokes — a big time-saver.
One of the biggest changes in the last five years or so has been the advent of laser levels, which can cost anywhere between $20 and $900. Self-leveling models will project a bright, perfectly straight line onto the wall, eliminating the need to measure, mark and chalk a line. Curtis says measuring tools are also available with a built-in calculator. Go for high quality, Curtis says. “I can understand the people who say, ‘I’ll get into the technology, but I can’t spend the money.’ Well, you really can’t afford NOT to spend the money.”
He adds, “Everything comes down to time versus money. Do you have the money to save yourself the time?”
Don Cummings, vice president of international sales at Hyde Tools of Southbridge, Mass., says paperhangers should not scrimp on cheap tools, especially blades.
“A true professional will take a single-edge razor blade, make that cut and turn it over and make another cut and then throw that blade away.” It’s very important to use sharp tools. “Don’t try to get a lot of use out of a blade. It’s not worth it.”
Contractors should look for top-quality products that perform consistently, save time and minimize problems. “You want to do the job right and do it right the first time,” Cummings says.
Finding the right cutting tool, with a quick way to change blades, is the Holy Grail of professional paperhangers, who buy blades by the thousands and burn through a hundred or more in a day. Bill Laramy, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Warner Tool Products, says his company is conducting internal tests on a new cutting tool that reloads blades with the click of a trigger.
Curtis says his wife, Jennifer, can change snap-off blades without looking. She uses the BladEater, a holster with a built-in blade snapper developed by paperhanger Mary Kay Hansen. Jennifer inserts the knife into the slot and twists. The used blade tip pops off, lands in the holster, and she continues on her way. She recently demonstrated the BladEater at a meeting of the National Guild of Professional Paperhangers. “Now it’s a hit with a lot of people because it saves time,” Phil Curtis says.
Some paperhangers glue a magnet to a two-inch Formica sample, which can be found at home improvement stores, lace it onto a leather string and drape it over their necks. That way, the paperhanger can snap the blade off onto the magnet, which holds the old tip in place. Paperhangers who prefer single-edge razor blades can store the blade there rather than holding it in their teeth.
Laramy says contractors often pick tools by “feel,” matching the seam rollers and smoothers to their particular work style, preferences and the type of wallcovering they’re working with. His company carries a dozen smoothers, for example. Some are flexible; others are stiffer. Fifteen kinds of seam rollers come in rubber, plastic, hardwood or steel.
Alan Rada, CP, a professional paperhanger from Brooklyn, has tested products for various companies, and while some have become part of his tool kit, he stands by the tools he inherited from his father. “They need a little WD-40 now and then, but the tools haven’t changed.” Manufacturers are making tools with softer grips that are easier to hold and reduce fatigue, but Rada doesn’t find them necessary. “I’m using tools that I’ve used for 30 years now.”
Sometimes, though, Rada adapts his tools to fit a specific paperhanging situation.
Rada and an apprentice came up with a way to avoid applying and removing blue painters’ tape when painting a clean line on a ceiling. He wraps blue tape around the edge of an Advanced Products tool — an eight-inch smoother for vinyl paper — and uses it as a guide. It makes a sharp edge where the ceiling meets the wall, and works very well if he constantly cleans the tool and replaces the tape. “It’s not practical in certain applications,” he says. “I wouldn’t use it for windows, but on ceiling lines, it just works perfectly.”
Rada also decided to create his own tool to win a job for a nature photographer, whose home was filled with about a dozen Mac computers and a delicate stereo system. “When I wrote up the estimate, I decided that I would make it my business to sand the walls without creating any dust.” At his local Sears store, Rada bought a variable-speed electric sander, and then found a canister vacuum with a nozzle that fit into the sander. He also decided he would use 4-mil plastic to enclose his work areas. “By asserting that this is how the job would be done, I got the job. No one else was willing to take the time and prepare the walls without allowing any dust into the premises,” he says.
Attending trade shows and conventions is a great way to see demonstrations of new tools and try them out, Curtis says, “By trying all of them you know what’s best for you, so why should you struggle with something that’s really not working for you?” He added, “What I do is I test for some of the companies and if I don’t like something, I give them my feedback and they take the tool back and try to improve it.”
Rada says contractors must remember that they’re craftsmen. “You can go into any home store or independent retailer and find all manner of tools, but for those of us in the trenches, the tools can only take you so far. You have to be able to take the tools and create the magic.”