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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

a brief diversion into the world of wallpaper

Let's put on our learning hats and talk about wallpaper. First off, let me make this clear: I hate it. I think wallpaper is quite possibly a tool of the devil. My main interest in it is, in fact, how to get it off. But one must know one's enemy. Wallpaper was pretty popular for a long time. In some areas, it still is. If you're interested in the history of interior design and junk, Wikipedia's got a brief but informative overview of wallpaper's formative years. What they don't talk about is the fact that there are several different kinds of wallpaper. The ones you'll see most commonly are the surface-printed and vinyl coated kind and the actual vinyl kind.

Surface printed and vinyl coated are by far the most common. They're what you think of when you think wallpaper, the alarmingly sticky sheets that are a bitch to put up straight, the kind that people come to Home Depot with haunted faces desperately seeking a remedy for-- "Can I paint over it? There's got to be a way!" The kind that is, quite simply, the devil to take down. Problem is, you can't paint over it. Not in the long term. Sorry, Home Depot people. I always felt bad, standing behind the paint counter and breaking this news to hopeful yuppies. It doesn't work. Oh, it'll be okay for a little while. Longer if you get an oil-based primer and put that on first. But it'll peel. Eventually. And then you'll have to take it down for sure, only by then you'll have put all of your nice dining room furniture in there already and it'll be even more of a hassle and you'll curse out your husband for taking the easy way out when you could have just taken it down when you bought the house, eating pizza off of milk crates in the first flush of happy homeownership.

See, latex paint is water-based. That's good. You want it to be water-based, because it doesn't have toxic fumes, and if little Muffy accidentally gets a little on her lip it's okay, you won't have to rush her to poison control. Oil-based paint is bad. It's been mostly phased out. It's actually illegal for them to sell you oil-based paint unless you're planning to paint on metal, which needs it. Don't ask the paint counter people specifically for oil-based paint because you heard it works better. It doesn't. It just makes you ill. Anyway. The point is, however, that you can get oil-based primer still, and if you are so desperate to buy the matching dining room set, that's what you need to get in order to paint over the wallpaper, because the water in latex paint will interact with the glue in the wallpaper adhesive and make it start to peel. And we've been over that situation. Primer's purpose is to act as a sealant-- to make whatever's going on in your funky walls stay inside the walls and not seep over into the radiant new paint color you've chosen. Wallpaper is decidedly funky, and the adhesive they use for it is funkier still. Seal it up, baby. (In any other circumstance, however, use a latex based primer. Unless you've got bloodstains on your walls, in which case you need a lacquer based primer. I'm a font of useful information.)

But seriously. Don't paint over it. Take it down. It's labor intensive, yeah. It's not fun. But you've got to do it. Here's what you do. Get what they call a 'Tiger'. It's a little wheel thingy with a bazillion little teeth, and you wheel it over your wall in gigantic circles, making a sort of freeform art piece whose substance is fleeting just like our consumerist society blah blah blah. What does that do? Makes millions of tiny little holes in your wallpaper. Then you spray on a solution. You can either buy one of those big blue bottles of wallpaper remover solution, or you can get yourself a big blue bucket (I've got one, you can borrow it) and mix in one part vinegar to four parts water and stick it in a spray bottle (about a dollar, in the garden section). The solution, whichever one you're using, will seep into your freeform art piece-- I mean, your wallpaper-- by dint of those tiny holes. It'll loosen the adhesive. Here's the important bit: only spray it in about two-foot by two-foot sections. You don't want it to dry again, because then you've gotten the glue all excited, and it'll tighten up far more than it was when you started and be really hard to get off. So just do it in sections. Have patience. Invite your mother-in-law over, start her on the other side of the wall. You'll meet in the middle.

So once you've given the solution a couple of minutes to soak in, get in there with your putty knife. That's that wide, thin semicircle of metal with a handle on the rounded end. Looks kind of like a weird ice scraper. Don't worry about buying several-- they're cheap, and you can use them for like a billion things around the house. It's cool. Use it to scrape off the sodden, somewhat slimy wallpaper. It'll come right off.

Now spray, and repeat. Have a race with your mother-in-law (she'll win-- she's done this before-- but don't worry about it).

The exception to this treatise is if you've got vinyl wallpaper (not vinyl coated, but actually vinyl). This stuff comes off like a treat. Find a seam. Get your fingernail under there (or your ever-present putty knife). Pull. It'll peel off like your wall spent too much time sipping margaritas on the beach in Cancun and got the sunburn of a lifetime. That's just the top layer, though. Underneath it you'll find what looks like a layer of paper. That's the adhesive. When they put it on, they actually roll out this paper adhesive, stick that on the wall like double-sided tape, and slap the textured vinyl on top of it. The paper's easy, though. Get a big sponge (I like the kind you use for washing your car), get it wet-- not damp, wet-- and sponge down that wall. Soak the paper. You want to really wet it-- let it drip. Give it about thirty seconds, then start peeling. You might need the putty knife to clean up a few flakes, but most of it will come right off.

And please, for the love of God, don't put it back up. Just paint. With latex paint. That's the thing-- any look you think you're getting by putting up wallpaper can be gotten with paint. It's easy. It's called faux finishing, and it's actually kind of fun. There's a lot you can do with paint these days. And when you change your mind (don't kid yourself, you will-- I do, all the time), it's easy to change.

Just say no to wallpaper.


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Anonymous said...

Great article! My husband will love it as he told me when we put this darned paper up that he was almost sure that it is written somewhere in the Bible that wallpapering is a sin! Now if I can only find that little Tiger you described....