Types of Wallcovering

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Types of Wallcoverings

Almost all wallcoverings that are used in homes today fall into these six categories:


  1. Fabric-Backed Vinyl
  2. Paper-Backed Vinyl
  3. Vinyl Coated Paper
  4. Plain Pulp Paper
  5. Non-Wovens
  6. Grasscloth & Natural Fiber


After reading this short buyers guide, chances are good you will know more about them than the person selling it to you.

A Removability Index is provided for each material type with 10 being the easiest and zero the worse. The numbers are subjective and are based on my own wallcovering removal experiences. Also of note: These ratings are based on removability from a properly primed wall. Without a properly primed wall all removal bets are off. When shopping for wallcovering, you will be way ahead of the game if you are familiar with these material types and how they can best be used to your advantage. You can get the perfect look....just be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of these material types so the perfect look stays perfect through the years. 


Fabric Backed Vinyl 

Fabric Backed Vinyl gets an A+ for durability, scrubbability, and its ability to hide the surface imperfections of walls in older homes. If you want a problem-free material for a steamy shower bath, high traffic hallway or kitchens where people cook a lot this is the material to get. 

Fabric Backed Vinyls traditionally were wallcoverings with a thick (usually textured) vinyl surface backed by a canvas-like fabric. Those are still widely available but some newer types can have a backing that is a smooth, non-woven synthetic sheet. The smooth, non-woven backings are usually seen on wallcoverings that have a shiny/smooth pattern side because if they were backed with canvas the texture of the canvas would show through on the pattern side. Here is a photo of both types side by side.

The traditional type with the canvas-type backing does a better job of covering up walls that have a rough surface--especially if you look for one  that has a lot of embossed texture on the pattern side and better still with a  flat/matte finish. Many Fabric Backed sample books  give the buyer the option to order the same pattern  in either 27 inch width (that's residential width) or  54" wide (commercial width.) If this is an option it usually says so on the spine of the sample book expressed as "27/54"

The walls in kitchens, baths, and hallways take the most beating in a home—food and grease, steam from showers, and banging from suitcases or vacuum cleaners can quickly take their toll if the material chosen is not up to rugged standards. Choosing a fabric-backed vinyl is your best assurance that the installation will look great in 10, 15, even 20 years in areas that get wear and tear. When the time comes to remove this material, fabric-backed vinyl is the easiest to remove from a properly primed wall. Walls in older homes can have problems that range from stress cracks and leaky areas, to multiple paint layers of questionable quality. Fabric-backed does the best job of handling these problems because it is flexible and it takes little effort to remove one strip for a quick repair. If fabric-backed vinyl is so wonderful how come it isn’t used all the time? Mainly because it’s harder to get delicate prints on this material, although manufacturers are getting better all the time at making really fashionable looks in fabric-backed.

Fabric backed removability difficulty rating 8 to 10: Material is pulled from the wall in one piece---no soaking is required. To achieve this, Fabric-Backed Vinyl should be hung with pre-mixed adhesives that have the designation "strippable" on the label,  See how easy (and not messy) it is to remove fabric-backed vinyl in this video I did a while ago.

Paper Backed Vinyl

Paper Backed Vinyl is suitable for most areas in the home. For the past few decades this material was mostly pre-pasted and was quite popular, But now the trend is towards non-wovens instead. If you still see any paper-backed vinyl it is often unpasted.

Paper-backed vinyl is scrubbable and will handle general "wear and tear" almost as well as fabric-backed vinyl. The only area of usagle that may be questionable is in a frequently used shower area without an exhaust fan. Seams there can have a tendency to show in a year or two in this kind of bathroom when paper-backed vinyl is used. In excessively moist rooms the paper backing wicks up water at the seam degrading the paste bond to the wall or in some cases the paper and vinyl sheet can separate from each other in a process known as delamination. If you want your new wallpaper to look great for many years  use paper-backed vinyl in baths which are used less frequently and have a good exhaust fan to remove shower steam or in baths that are just so large that steam never builds up in them.

Paper-backed removability difficulty rating  5 to 7: Vinyl top-sheet must be pulled off and then the backing must be soaked (or steamed)  and scraped. This is called "wet stripping" as opposed to the "dry stripping" (or mechanical stripping) of Fabric Backed Vinyls and Non-Wovens. Difficulties arise with Paper Backed Vinyl when the vinyl top sheet is so thin that only tiny pieces pull off from the paper backing--that can result in added removal time. Here is video which shows that nastiness.

Anytime the words "scraping", "soaking". or "steaming" are used, the messiness gets factored into the removability difficulty rating.  

Vinyl Coated Paper

Vinyl Coated Paper is exactly that—a paper that is coated in some way with a vinyl  or plastisol film. This type is also being replaced by non-wowens and plain pulp papers. The majority of these types sold in past decades were pre-pasted too. I might as well mention here that pre-pasted materials are generally going the way of the dodo. Don't worry, paperhangers are not crying about it--prepasting paste was often crappy and helped DIYers hasten the decline in the use of wallpaper in the late 20th Century.  

Manufacturers tend to print intricate multi-hued florals and deep colored backgrounds on this type of paper. This type differs in construction from the other two types in that there is no sheet of vinyl laminated to a backing. Without a backing this wallcovering type doesn’t do as good a job of covering up the wall’s inherent surface imperfections. If walls are rough, blankstock paper lining can be used to correct the problem. In darker patterns—forest green, navy or cranberry, for example— the vinyl-coated type often has an annoying tendency to burnish or become shiny in spots where you wipe with a damp rag or where kids love to drag their hands when they go up and down a stairway. You will notice that many juvenile papers are vinyl coated, since manufacturers assume you will change the paper within a few years. Do yourself a favor and don’t even consider this type of material for areas that get traffic or are exposed to water or grease.

Vinyl coated removability rating 3 to 7: Usually these types must be soaked or steamed but you can get lucky sometimes and pull the sheets off dry dry. Vinyl coateds differ in how much vinyl was applied to the paper and this can result in very different soak times from brand to brand.

Plain Pulp Paper

Plain Paper....or what many people in the trade call "Paper Papers."  Some call them "Britpulps"since these are mostly British imports nowadays. They are matte in finish and there is no vinyl at all to them so, watch out, they can be as delicate as snowflakes. They have no protection against staining and they are to be avoided where there is water or steam as in a shower bath . Most of them require a blankstock paper liner to prevent paste staining (among other reasons) which can come from behind the paper. There's no doubt these papers are beautiful...just know in advance that they are delicate. 

You can spot these papers by the ampersand "&"
The manufacturers are mostly from the UK with brand names like:
Farrow & Ball
Cole & Son
Cowtan & Tout
Colfax & Fowler
Osborne & Little
and Sanderson, Zoffany, Wm Morris.


Plain Paper removability difficulty rating 3 to 6: It must be soaked and scraped (or steamed) but usually they accept removal spray quickly. The problem arises when these were hung on a blankstock liner and that can make the job go much more slowly.

Non-Wovens

Originally conceived as the magic alternative to plain papers, the newer Non Wovens (NWs) were produced to get the look of plain paper without the disadvantages of plain paper in terms of removability. The #1 selling point to them is that they are strippable in the same way that Fabric Backed Vinyls are strippable....you pull on non wovens and you have stripped the room of old paper very quickly. Or so it is advertised.

Everybody loves a strippable wallcovering. It's true the NWs are more durable than plain paper and more washable than plain paper. They are also being sold as "mildew resistant" since they breathe extremely well, but his mildew resistance remains to be seen. We'll just have to wait a few years to see how the non wovens handle mildew. Just be aware that there are two varieties of non wovens (but unfortunately sample books don't help you differentiate between the two)--Unsealed Nonwovens (without a vinyl top sheet that are very porous) and Solid Vinyl Non Woven (a non woven sheet with a watertight vinyl sheet on the surface). The first type NW can be actually MORE delicate than a Plain Paper, yet the second type NW mentioned is almost as bullet proof as a ultra-durable Fabric Backed Vinyl;

Be advised that when you shop for NWs the marketers do not help the consumer by labeling how resistant the the different NW materials are to staining.  The ultimate RealityTest in terms of durability in a bath, kitchen or hallway consists of putting a drop of cooking oil on the pattern side to see how well they can handle it without permanent staining. Here is a quick test for grease staining I did on on a poorly sealed NW to show just how easy it is to ruin a NW that has no vinyl top sheet protection.

For Baths and Kitchens I strongly recommend that you look for a  heavily inked or vinylized Non Woven. Unsealed Non Wovens are actually more absorbent than plain paper and they are just not good candidates for any area that will be exposed to grease or moisture.

I know it is confusing thanks to the marketing people that some NWs have a thick solid vinyl sheet on the  patten side and appear to be just as durable as the traditional canvas-backed Fabric Backed Vinyl which can last decades--- yet an unsealed Non Woven as seen in the test above could last just minutes around a three-year-old with greasy hands.


One last thing about NWs:  Avoid natural products like linen or silks backed with NW backing----reach for the traditional ones that are paper backed.


Non-Woven removability is guesstimated to be around 5 to 10.  The reason for the guessing is that they are too new to have a solid record of removability. Unlike hefty, very removable fabric backed vinyls, some of these NW offerings are pretty thin and flimsy so they can tear as you pull on them to remove them. To get this dry strippable effect (no misting or steaming) these should be hung with pre-mixed adhesives that have the designation "strippable" on the label,
Even though these are supposed to be dry strippable you may want to mist the more unsealed ones with removal solution if there aren't stripping off dry and in one nice piece.

Grasscloth & Natural Fiber

Grasscloth has become a "catch all" term for any wallcovering that uses natural fibers like sea grass, hemp,  recycled paper paperweave, jute and raffia. They have been around for a very long time but the current resurgence can be traced back to the LEEDs standards for healthy buildings since there is no vinyl used in their manufacture and many times the inks are vegetable dye.  They are almost all backed with a plain paper backing and most have no sealing whatsoever--hence the warning on them to "vacuum only." 

To the list of "the naturals" we can add linen and silk. So far mostof these products are backed with a rice paper and I hope it stays that way after seeing some of the problems caused by backing them with super-moisture-transmitting NWs.

Grasscloth and the Naturals removability rating 5 to 8: As long as the manufacturer sticks with all-natural ingredients like plant fibers these can be pretty easy to remove since they soak up removal solution very well.

WARNING .But BEWARE of a very large potential problem when installing natural material mated to paper-backed metallic foil laminates.  These types should be tested for good water infiltration for later removal. Otherwise they may possibly be considered "not removable" and the removability rating would be 0 to 1. Here is a video I did on that...sorry about the audio.