Wallpaper hints from Steamboat’s Tom Williams
Tom Williams moved to Steamboat Springs in 1979 to hang wallpaper. On a fluke, while visiting a friend, he went into a paint store to find out what he could charge to hang wallpaper, finding it to be more than double the rate he charged in North Carolina. So that weekend, he changed his life plans (which he admits weren’t much) and moved here to hang wallpaper for “as long as he felt like doing it.” Forty-one years later, that plan is still in effect. “Although I am retired, I still hang wallpaper, but am just a little more discerning one what and where I install it,” he says. “Through the years, my service-oriented businesses have come and gone, but wallpaper installation remains — at least, as long as I feel like doing it.” Here he shares a few tips from the trenches.
“In my 41 years of installing wallpaper, I have gained a lot of experience, which means I have 41 years of making mistakes. I keep thinking I’ve made every mistake in the book, but sometimes I add a new page. Here’s how to avoid them in your book.
- Read the instructions. This sounds basic, but many people, including me, hate actually reading instructions. While you’d think skimming them should be sufficient, it’s not; one instruction says to paste the material, while the other says to paste the walls. That is a big difference. Some paper materials need to relax and stretch when pasted. If the walls are pasted and you dry install the material, they’ll still stretch and then pucker and bubble on the wall. Then you will have a real problem pulling the material off the wall and doing it right. It’s always quicker and easier to the job right once. Read the instructions, even if it means finding some reading glasses and better light.
- Put the top side up. While this may seem obvious, some materials may look good either way, until someone notices in the wallpaper book that the material is upside-down. Once I installed a material that looked like valleys to me, but they were really mountains. Oops. Make sure to look at the wallpaper book or arrows on the back of the material. Most materials have the top at the front of the roll, but not always.
- Don’t work with your spouse. Everyone has a different opinion on how wallpaper should be hung and look. One of the best ways to start an argument is to work together. Is that tear significant enough to be noticed? Should the strip be replaced or worked with? I knew a couple that hung wallpaper together and were divorced and remarried three times. Unless you have a super relationship with you or your spouse calling the shots, work alone.
- Always paste the backside of the material. Again, this should be obvious, until the backside looks better than the front side. I once had a material that had a cloth backing. Many materials have cloth on the front side. After inspecting a very small picture of the material, I found what I thought was a defect on the cloth side, which I pointed out to the decorator. After close examination of a larger picture, we realized I was looking at the backside. At least I never got to the point of pasting it. The owners have since requested the material be taken down and another material installed. Apparently, they didn’t like the front either.
- Don’t step in the paste bucket. Some tall walls require one to use an extension ladder. Usually I use a five-gallon bucket to paste out of and I like to leave it close to the ladder for convenience. Once, while coming down the ladder, I stepped right into the bucket up to my ankle. Yuck! And what a mess. I had to hop on one foot to the bathtub. I only made this mistake once. Don’t set the paste bucket out of sight and near the bottom of the ladder.
- Don’t skim on prep work. Use a wall covering undercoat that is specifically designed for wallpaper, not paint nor paint primer. Wall covering undercoats allow the material to slip into place and grip the paste when dried. More importantly, they allow the wall covering to release when it is time for it to come down. As much as you think you will never take the material down, someday in the future you probably won’t like it. Without proper undercoat, the paste will soak through the paint primer and bond to the sheetrock. When you try to take it down, it will shred the sheetrock. With a proper wallcovering undercoat, soaking it with a garden sprayer over 30 minutes should allow the material to be removed easier.
- Mistakes vs. perfection. This is a subjective subject. When I hear someone say he or she is a perfectionist, what I hear is, “I am very difficult to please.” Installing wall covering is a handcrafted ability and humans are prone to making mistakes. Some materials are weak when pasted and prone to tearing. You’ll have to decide what level of perfection you can live with. Usually I step back three or four feet and look at an area of concern. Does it jump out at me? Is it at eye level or near the ceiling or floor? If I come back in a few days, will I be able to find this again? Only you can decide what your level of perfection is.
- Watch out for sink drains. They’re a black hole notorious for swallowing your last switch plate screw. Always cover the sink drain before you handle screws. There’s nothing worse than losing your last screw down the drain — unless, of course, you forget to close the toilet lid.
- Be careful with razor knives. They can cut more than wallpaper. I still have a six-inch scar on the inside of my left arm from 35 years ago. Above all, don’t bleed on the front of the material (the back side is okay, but only if you wipe it up immediately).
- Sign and date your walls after priming but before installation. The date you installed the material now becomes a mini-time capsule. Years from now, your kids (or grandkids) will remove the material only to find your name and date when you installed it and say, “Wow, you put this up 20 years ago?” I have been dating my material for over 30 years. Every once in a while, someone will come up to me and say, “I took some wallpaper down and your name was on it. You put it up in 1991.” A true mini-time capsule.
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