Everything You Need to Know About Wallpaper Basics

Wallpaper is a great way to make a statement in any room, but if you've never hung wallpaper it can feel intimidating. Here we answer your most frequently asked questions about wallpaper basics.

Pink and white bedroom with delicate finishes

Anthony Masterson

Q: Isn't it easier to paint a room than to wallpaper it?

A: Although both wallpaper and paint liven up dull rooms, wallpaper has special advantages. It can camouflage flawed or damaged walls, soften rough or irregular architectural features, and unite awkward angles. Wallpaper also offers combinations of colors, patterns, and textures that would be nearly impossible for the do-it-yourselfer to duplicate with paint.

Q: Isn't wallpaper more expensive than paint?

A. Yes. One roll of wallpaper, which covers about 30 square feet, might cost around $35. For the same amount, you could buy a gallon or more of premium-quality paint, which would cover approximately 400 square feet. Consider wallpapering just one wall as an accent to keep costs low.

Basic Wallpaper Tips to Know

BHG / Michela Buttignol

Q. What are my options?

A. The most popular choices for do-it-yourselfers are vinyl and vinyl-coated wallpapers. They tend to be the least expensive, the most durable, and the easiest to apply and remove. There are other types of coatings -- such as foil, grass cloth, flocked, and embossed -- but these are more expensive and trickier to hang. In a high-traffic area, consider the "cleanability" of the paper. Washable papers can be wiped only occasionally with a damp sponge. A scrubbable paper can take more frequent and vigorous cleaning. Check the label and instructions for your paper.

Q. Should I get prepasted or unpasted wallpaper?

A. As its name suggests, prepasted paper has paste already applied to its back. To activate the paste, soak the paper in water. With unpasted wallpaper, you apply the adhesive yourself. DIY enthusiasts may also want to research peel-and-stick wallpaper which is easy to reposition.

Q. How do I know how much wallpaper to buy?

A. Calculate the room's square footage by measuring the length of all the walls, adding those together, and multiplying by room height (excluding baseboards and moldings.) Round up measurements and do not deduct for doors, windows, or other openings. This will allow leeway for pattern matching and trimming. Divide the room's square footage by the coverage of a single roll (normally 27-30 square feet, but check the figure for the paper you select). This will tell you how many rolls you need to buy; round up to the nearest roll.

Q. What is a repeat?

A. It's the distance from the center of one pattern to the center of the next. It could be an inch, a foot, or more. The size of the repeat affects how much wallpaper you'll need to buy so you can match patterns throughout a room. A large repeat (6 or more inches) may require extra paper, especially if you make some mistakes.

Wallpaper: Getting Started

Mix wallpaper with other wall treatments. The bottom half of the walls in this foyer are clad in board and batten with a lattice wallpaper above.

Q. Are some rooms easier to wallpaper than others?

A. Yes. If you've never wallpapered, start with a long hall or a square room with few breaks in the walls. Kitchens or bathrooms, though smaller, tend to have more twists and turns to paper around, making them more difficult. A bedroom is a good choice for a beginner.

Q. Can I paper over any wall?

A. Just about. Wallpaper will adhere to drywall, new and old plaster. You can find wallpaper for concrete walls, masonry, and paneled walls. You can even wallpaper over tile and other slick, nonporous surfaces, such as concrete block, or synthetic laminate paneling. On many of these surfaces, you'll first need to apply lining paper, which is a blank wall covering that provides a smooth surface for regular wallpaper. No matter what the surface, the key to success in wallpapering is proper preparation of the walls.

Q. How do I prepare the walls?

A. The wall surface should be clean, dry, and free of mildew, grease, stains, and loose paint. Close your eyes and run your hands along the wall. Any bumps you feel will show up after you paper, so sand them down. Repair small holes, cracks, and other blemishes with surfacing compound, then sand and wipe clean. If you face a lot of repairs, consider using lining paper. You'll also want to apply a wall covering primer/sealer -- preferably tinted to match the background color of the new wallpaper -- which will hide tiny gaps.

The primer protects the wall, helps the wallpaper bond to the surface, and makes it easier to move the paper into position. And if the day comes when you want to remove the paper, the job will be easier if you've used a primer. This is particularly true for new drywall that has been given only a thin coat of paint. If you don't prime properly, the wallpaper adhesive will bond with the drywall paper. Later, when you remove the wallpaper, you may pull away the drywall paper, too. Be sure to buy a primer specifically designed for wall coverings, not a paint primer.

Tips for Wallpapering

Use boldly patterned wallpaper in a room you don't spend a lot of time in and you won't tire of the pattern quickly.

Q. Where's the best place to start?

A. It's not where you start, but where you end up that's important. As you work around the room, you will eventually reach a point where the pattern between two strips won't line up. This is called the mismatch. The idea is to hide the mismatch by putting it over a door, in a corner, or in some other less-visible spot. This takes some planning. To find out where your seams will fall, go around the room with a pencil, marking the width of the roll as you go.

Q. What tools do I need to wallpaper?

A. Equip yourself with a long table or other large work surface, ladder, drop cloth, scissors, sponges, pencil, bucket, and utility knife (with plenty of extra blades). For prepasted paper, you'll need a water tray for soaking. For unpasted paper, you'll need the recommended paste, plus a paste brush or roller and tray for applying it.

Q. What's the first step to hanging?

A. Cut a length of paper that's about 4-6 inches longer than the height of your wall. This extra length will give you some leeway for matching patterns. Apply adhesive to the strip according to the manufacturer's instructions or by immersing prepasted paper in water. This is where booking -- a crucial wallpapering step comes in.

Q. What is booking?

A. Booking is a folding and resting process that lets the adhesive activate and the paper relax for easier handling. After you've applied the adhesive (or immersed prepasted paper in water), fold each end toward the middle, adhesive side in. Align the edges carefully so they do not dry out, and roll the folded strip loosely, as you would a newspaper. Don't crease it. Let it sit for the time recommended by the manufacturer.

Dining Room with pink Walls

Q. Where should I hang the first piece?

A. Hang the first strip along the plumb line and allow it to overlap onto the ceiling and baseboard. With a smoothing brush or plastic smoother, remove any air bubbles and check that the wallpaper adheres to the wall. Do not use excessive pressure. Using a broad knife to crease and a razor knife to cut, trim excess paper from the top and bottom edges. Wipe off excess paste with a sponge. Be careful not to squish too much out of the sides. This will cause the edges to curl.

Q. How do I hang it straight?

A. Draw a plumb line -- a straight, true vertical line -- at your starting point. A plumb line is essential to hanging your wall covering straight. To make one, draw a light vertical pencil line against a level, or use a plumb bob to make a chalk line. Align your first strip with the line.

Q. How close do I put the next piece?

A. Edges should be tightly butted, not overlapped or puckered. Be sure to match the pattern from one piece to the next. Set seams with a seam roller using light pressure.

Q. What about doors and windows?

A. Before wetting the paper, cut a rough opening for the door or window, leaving an extra 3 inches of paper on all sides. Wet the strip and hang it. Make diagonal cuts near the corners of the rough opening. Smooth around the frame, then trim. For outlets, turn off the electricity and remove covers. Position paper over the outlet and cut an X. Smooth paper into place. Trim flaps.

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