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All About Wallpaper

Wallpaper is like a shot of Botox for a tired-looking room. Sure, paint will perk it up, but paper adds more than just color; it gives walls character, dimension, and pattern.

Wallpaper has adorned American homes since colonial times, but after its heyday in the early 1900s, it had a hard time overcoming its connotation as something only for chintz-loving grandmas or high-end designers. These days, thanks in part to buying opportunities on the Internet, homeowners are discovering an exciting world of sophisticated patterns, improved materials, and easy installation methods. You can choose from beautiful papers made in the 18th-century manner, as well as 21st-century nonwovens, which are sheets of fused fibers that are a breeze to hang—and remove.

We'll guide you through the many types of wallpaper—including plain papers, vinyls, metallics, nonwovens, and grasscloth—and the essentials of buying and caring for them. Plus, you'll find useful tips on selecting a pattern, estimating how much to buy, and proper hanging technique. Once you see what paper can do for drab walls, you may reach for the paste rather than a brush the next time you need to freshen up a room.

Shown: Vinyl papers, such as this one, hold up in bathrooms that are well ventilated. Coral Gables in Aqua, textured vinyl on a fabric backing, $190 for a 61-square-foot roll; Thibaut for dealers

Vitals

Photo by Kolin Smith

What's it cost?

Retail brands are about $40 to $250 a roll, depending on the design, material, and square footage. Designer papers, typically custom orders, run as high as $500 a roll.

DIY or hire a pro?

Nonwoven and prepasted papers are homeowner-friendly. Hire a pro if a room's corners aren't plumb or the paper is high-end. Painting and decorating contractors charge $30 to $60 to hang a roll. Removing old paper is usually a separate expense.

Does it hold up?

That depends on the paper type and how much sunlight, moisture, and wear it gets. Most will last 15 years, but the trend is simple-to-remove papers so that you can update rooms more often.

How to clean?

Use warm water and a natural sponge; tamp dry with a lint-free cloth. For tough stains, use a mild detergent or rubbing alcohol. Keep grasscloth fresh by vacuuming it.

Type: Nonwoven

Photo by Ted Morrison

This stable, porous material, made of synthetic and paper fibers glued and pressed together, can be inked directly or covered with vinyl, metallic foils, grasscloth, or flocked patterns (shown). Easy to hang and strip.

Shown: Product No. 601-58477, $145 for a 56-square-foot roll; Brewster Home Fashions for dealers

Type: Embossed

Photo by Ted Morrison

Raised patterns pressed into vinyl or paper help to mask damaged or uneven surfaces and protect walls that get bumped.

Shown: Fern in Teal, vinyl on a paper backing, $75 for a 56-square-foot roll; Graham & Brown

Type: Vinyl

Photo by Ted Morrison

Durable sheets of rubbery plastic, laminated to a fabric, paper, or nonwoven backing, stand up to scrubbing, scrapes, and splashes. Good for hallways and kitchens.

Shown: Currents in Copper Bronze, on a fabric backing, $84 for a 61-square-foot roll; Warner Wall Coverings for dealers

Type: Metallic

Photo by Ted Morrison

Foils and metallized films, such as Mylar, are laminated to either paper or nonwoven backings. Metallics add shine to small spaces, though they tend to highlight wall flaws.

Shown: Maestro in White and Silver, metallized film on paper, $240 for a 61-square-foot roll; York Wallcoverings for dealers

Type: Paper

Photo by Ted Morrison

The original; it can be left as is or coated with a thin vinyl or acrylic film for better stain and moisture resistance. Uncoated papers are delicate and difficult to strip.

Shown: Denmark in Green and Beige, with vinyl coating, $138 for a 61-square-foot roll; Thibaut for dealers

Papers with Pedigree

Photo by Todd Hido

Historic wallpapers aren't found just in museums or old houses. They're still being made today for anyone who wants an authentic piece of the past.

These papers, from the likes of Adelphi Paper Hangings, Farrow & Ball, and Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers, use silk-screening or block printing —by hand or via mechanized rollers—to re-create the look and feel of coverings that date as far back as the 1700s.

Shown: Bradbury & Bradbury prints its patterns, such as the Arts and Crafts–style Lion and Dove frieze (shown) using silkscreens and for touch-ups, hand painting.

Historic Wallpaper

Photo by Nathan Kirkman

Such accuracy doesn't come cheap. Making these heritage papers is a slow, labor-intensive process, and hanging them usually requires a skilled professional. But once in place, it's easy to see why their rich colors and designs have maintained their appeal over the centuries.

Shown: Celtic Knot wallpaper.

Pattern: Gilded Birds

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: The rich coffee-and-gold branch print, on paper with a vinyl coating, needs room to show off its big pattern.

Name: Soraya in Metallic on Dark Brown

Price: $110 for a 61-square-foot roll; Thibaut for dealers

Pattern: Bucolic Scene

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: Tradition marries technology with this vintage-look toile printed on a nonwoven sheet.

Name: Product No. 283-45700

Price: $45 for a 56-square-foot roll; Brewster Home Fashions for dealers

Pattern: Wild Grasses

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: This naturalistic, block-printed grasscloth has a paper backing and uses water-based inks.

Name: Grasses in Blue

Price: $252 for a 72-square-foot roll; Thibaut for dealers

Pattern: Gingko Leaves

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: Metallic ink, on paper with a vinyl coating, gives these leaf silhouettes a silvery shimmer and retro appeal.

Name: Leone

Price: $146 for a 61-square-foot roll; York Wallcoverings for dealers

Pattern: Floral Damask

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: Busy botanical patterns, like this print on paper with an acrylic coating, have been in vogue since the 1600s.

Name: Bali

Price: $138 for a 61-square-foot roll; Brewster Home Fashions

Pattern: Tidy Stripes

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: This paper with an acrylic coating can be hung horizontally or vertically for a contemporary or traditional look.

Name: Resort Stripe

Price: $138 for a 61-square-foot roll; Brewster Home Fashions for dealers

Pattern: Textured Leaf

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: The skeletons of real magnolia leaves are laminated onto paper.

Name: Natural Leaves

Price: $460 for a 72-square-foot roll; York Wallcoverings for dealers

Pattern: Mod Branches

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: This temporary, repositionable peel-and-stick vinyl is ideal for renters and trend followers.

Name: Edie Spanish Moss

Price: $85 for a 56-square-foot roll; Tempaper

Pattern: Golden peony

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: This cheery floral, printed on vinyl with a paper backing, is washable and strippable.

Name: Marianna

Price: $138 for a 61-square-foot roll; York Wallcoverings for dealers

Pattern: Silvery Chintz

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: This nonwoven has a blue-and-white floral design printed in metallic inks.

Name: Metallic Floral Fantasy

Price: $45 for a 65-square-foot roll; Lowe's

Pattern: Deco Glam

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: The bold Art Deco pattern, embossed onto vinyl with a paper backing, repeats every 12½ inches.

Name: Glamour (in Black & White)

Price: $75 for a 56-square-foot roll; Graham & Brown

Pattern: Arts and Crafts

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: An earth-toned botanical print, silk-screened onto uncoated paper, captures the early-1900s Craftsman style.

Name: Ruby Honeysuckle

Price: $77 for a 34-square-foot roll; Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers

Pattern: Colonial Vine

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: This circa 1795 botanical stripe is block-printed by hand onto uncoated paper.

Name: Concord Stripe and Vine

Price: $340 for a 57-square-foot roll; Adelphi Paper Hangings

Pattern: Lacy Lattice

Photo by Ted Morrison

Highlight: Block printing with old-fashioned machines gives this floral, uncoated paper its traditional look.

Name: Toile Trellis

Price: $245 for a 57-square-foot roll; Farrow & Ball

Shopping Help

Photo by Erika Larsen

Browse patterns on manufacturer websites, then order samples, rolls, and swatch books to feel the paper's texture and test its color in your rooms.

Some makers sell directly to the public online. Others refer you to third-party online boutiques, such as Walnut Wallpaper; interior-design showrooms; or paint shops, such as Sherwin-Williams.

Big-box stores, like Lowe's and The Home Depot, sell select papers in stores but put the lion's share of their offerings online. Target sells only via its website.

Most sites provide interactive software that allows you to visualize how a paper will look on your walls and to calculate how much you'll need. Wallpaper rolls vary in width and length, so you have to find the square footage of each roll in order to compare prices and buy the right amount.

How Much to Buy

Determine the square footage of your walls, and subtract any double doors or large window openings. Divide this number by the roll's square footage, reduced by a yield factor. This factor accounts for the waste, which increases as the pattern repeat gets bigger.

If PATTERN REPEAT = 0-6 inches, YIELD FACTOR = .83

If PATTERN REPEAT = 7-12 inches, YIELD FACTOR = .73

If PATTERN REPEAT = 13-18 inches, YIELD FACTOR = .67

If PATTERN REPEAT = 19-23 inches, YIELD FACTOR = .60

Healthy Choices

Photo by David Prince

In response to concerns about indoor air quality, wallpaper companies now offer products and manufacturing methods that are friendlier to your lungs—and the planet. Here are some things to look for.

Acrylic coatings. These replace vinyl coatings, which can off-gas VOCs and plasticizers and may contain trace amounts of heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium.

Water-based inks. Oil-based ones contain VOCs.

Greenguard certification. This means that a paper or an adhesive has been lab tested and shown to have little or no formaldehyde, VOCs, respirable particles, heavy metals, or toxic additives. Some vinyls do meet Greenguard's stringent standards.

Adhesive Options

Photo by Kolin Smith

Wheat paste The traditional choice: You or your pro mix a flour-based powder with water and apply it to the paper's backing. Good for historic uncoated papers and grasscloth.

Premixed vinyl Sold in buckets, ready to apply. Clear premixes work with most wallpaper types. Some metallics, vinyls, and vintage papers require a clay-based premix.

Prepasted No worries about uneven coverage or missed spots; it's factory applied. Activate the glue by soaking the paper briefly in warm water, and it's ready to hang.

Peel-and-stick Does away with the drippy application or soakings that are needed with wet-pasted papers. To reposition or remove these vinyl coverings, just pull them off the wall like giant decals.

Hang It Right

These are the hallmarks of a job well done:

Smooth walls. Fill nailheads, nicks, and cracks, then sand flush; or hang thick white liner paper. Really rough surfaces may need bridging liners. Run both liners on the wall horizontally.

Balanced layout. Make a plan that keeps patterns intact next to doors, windows, and the ceiling. Hold a strip against the wall to determine its best top-to-bottom position. Then mark out on the wall where each strip will fall. Adjust the layout from side to side as needed. At the seams, make sure patterns, particularly those at eye level, are properly aligned.

Straight strips. Mark the starting line with a plumb bob or level, and check the edge of each strip whenever you turn a corner.

No bubbles or wrinkles. Flatten freshly installed paper with a plastic smoothing tool, not a brush.

Tight, butted seams. Edges that overlap leave bumps. To get tight seams, push strips together, then go over them lightly with a smoothing tool, taking care not to squeeze adhesive out of the seam. Liner paper helps seams stay tight and flat.

Wrapped outside corners. To prevent peeling, wrap paper over projections, such as a chase or bumpout, so that seams land at least 6 inches from outside corners.

Tidy inside corners. Cut the wallpaper strip so that about ⅛ inch covers the adjacent wall. Butt the edge of the next strip tight into the corner; an overlap here is acceptable.

Aligning patterns from strip to strip helps hide seams.

Shown: Loopy Lines in Rock-a-Billy Blue, on paper, $85 for a 56-square-foot roll; Graham & Brown

Room: Kitchens

Vinyls stand up to grease, moisture, and repeated cleaning better than uncoated paper or grasscloth. Here, a solid neutral tone with a woven texture makes the white cabinets pop.

Shown: Granada Weave, vinyl on paper backing, $158 for a 61-square-foot roll; Thibaut for dealers

Room: Bathrooms

Photo by Simon Whitmore/IPC Images

An ideal spot for bold prints, such as this botanical, that might overwhelm in a large dose. Nonwovens, paired with a mildew-resistant adhesive, are the smart choice because they're breathable. Just be sure to always run the bath fan to whisk away steam.

Similar to shown: White Orchid in Aqua, nonwoven, $72 for a 56-square-foot roll; Warner Wall Coverings for dealers

Room: Entry Halls

Two good options for these busy areas are embossed vinyls, which shrug off bumps and scuffs, and nonwovens, which are easily stripped if damaged. The historic-reproduction wallpaper shown here was popular in early-19th-century entries because you could cut out damaged areas and patch in individual "stones."

Shown: Marble Ashlar, uncoated paper, $445 for a 51-square-foot roll, Adelphi Paper Hangings

Room: Dining Rooms

Photo by Helen Norman

Depending on the room's size and formality, you can use wallpaper as a continuous background, as a decorative accent on just one wall, or above a chair rail, as shown here. Because durability is less of an issue here, consider a delicate flocked or historic paper.

Similar to shown: Red Majestic Damask, nonwoven, $45 for a 56-square-foot roll; The Home Depot

Room: Bedrooms

Photo by David Parmiter/IPC Images

No worries about wear here, so this is a good place for grasscloths and velvety flocked papers. If you want a serene effect, go with subtle patterns and cool or earthy colors.

Similar to shown: Grass Wallpaper in Green, on a paper backing, $64 for a 72-square-foot roll; Lowe's

New Ideas: Room within a Room

Photo by Dan Duchars/IPC Images

An eye-catching print on a patch of wall can designate a portion of a room for a distinct task. Here, it's a home office for computing in a bedroom.

Similar to shown: Lacework in Ocean, nonwoven, $85 for a 56-square-foot roll; Graham & Brown

New Ideas: Panel Insert

Photo by Erin Kunkel

Highlight a recessed door panel with a whimsical strip. Choose small patterns for multiple panels, large ones for single panels like this.

Shown: Family Tree in Petrol, nonwoven, $110 for a 57-square-foot roll; Ferm Living for dealers

New Ideas: Colorful Walk-Up

Photo by Erin Kunkel

Papered risers draw attention to this seldom-noticed feature. Because stairways are wider than rolls, choose a pattern that can run horizontally.

Similar to shown: The Ringwold Papers, uncoated paper, $245 for a 57-square-foot roll; Farrow & Ball

New Ideas: Easy Wainscot

Photo by Russell Sadur/IPC Images

Paper beneath a chair rail creates low-cost wainscot. Embossed types hold up well in high-traffic zones, such as stairways.

Similar to shown: Peony in Black and White, embossed paper with a vinyl coating, $60 for a 56-square-foot roll; Graham & Brown

New Ideas: Bright Backdrop

Photo by Jon Day/IPC Images

Paper inside a glass-front cabinet or open shelving adds an inviting depth as it highlights the contents.

Similar to shown: Tropical Birds, paper with a vinyl coating, $88 for a 61-square-foot roll; York Wallcoverings for dealers