August 17, 2014 in Features

Ask the Builder: Hanging wallpaper

Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

DEAR TIM: I’ve decided to install some wallpaper. It’s a small room, so it shouldn’t be too hard. Since I’ve never installed wallpaper, I’m filled with anxiety about how to cut and trim the wallpaper where the paper stops at the ceiling. Can you demystify the process? What other tips can you share with the beginner who desires success and not a rerun of “I Love Lucy” trying to wallpaper? – Sharon P., Dayton, Ohio

DEAR SHARON: Wallpapering is a true craft, and no matter what anyone tells you, it’s not as easy as it looks. Professional paper hangers will tell you that it can take hundreds of hours of practice until you become fairly proficient.

I admire people like you who accept a challenge, attempt to do their due diligence, and then jump in realizing a mistake or two is possible. What’s probably going to happen in your case is you’ll make some mistakes, but any friends or relatives who see the completed job will not be able to find them.

Let’s start with the tools. Fortunately, you don’t need many tools to wallpaper. You’ll need a retractable razor knife outfitted with the blades that snap off exposing a fresh point. These knives come in different sizes, and you want one that’s medium or small size to fit into tight places. The long blades that come with these tools are about three-eighths inch wide and 4 inches long.

I prefer to use a 5-inch-wide flexible drywall taping knife as a trimming straightedge. Be sure you take a metal file and slightly round off the tips of the knife. Failure to do this will cause you to tear the paper as you slide the taping knife along the paper as you trim up near a ceiling or along vertical pieces of woodwork.

Get a special short-bristle wallpaper smoothing brush. Some hangers prefer to use a plastic smoothing tool, but I feel rookie hangers can push out too much adhesive by pressing too hard with these tools. Go with the brush to start.

You’ll also need an accurate 4-foot level, a tape measure, step ladders, a folding table, a bucket or two, a new grouting sponge, paint roller and pan and a paint brush. You might already have many of these common tools.

You really can’t trim wallpaper until it’s up on the wall and in contact with what you’re going to cut against. To ensure the wallpaper stays on the wall and looks good, let’s discuss some basics.

The walls need to be as smooth as glass, they need to be clean, and you should apply a special paint that’s made as a wallpaper primer. Don’t use regular paint. These new wallpaper primers take the place of old sizing. The special primers block the water from leaving the adhesive, allowing you lots of time to position each piece of paper as you hang it. This is very important.

For this first project, buy pre-pasted paper and use a clear gel paste activator to make the paper sticky. The paste activators can be applied with paint rollers or a brush. Once you apply the activator, you must allow the paper to relax. The paper starts to swell once wet with the activator. You simply fold the paper back onto itself so the back of the paper is completely in contact with itself. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to peel it apart.

I’d wait at least 10 minutes for the paper to expand and relax. Failure to do this will create bubbles and blisters in the paper! Wallpaper needs to be hung plumb. You can create a very accurate plumb line using your 4-foot level. Make a very faint pencil line 1/8 inch away from where you want the first piece of paper to start. Don’t hang the first piece of paper on the pencil line, especially if the paper background is white. You’ll end up seeing the pencil line in the seam when the paper dries.

Trimming and cutting paper is an art. The easiest cuts to make are at the ceiling and along long vertical cuts where door and window woodwork touch up against a wall. To make it easy to cut, only allow the wallpaper to lap up onto the ceiling about 1 or 2 inches.

The trimming process begins by using the short-bristle brush and carefully pressing the paper as tight as you can into the corner where the top of the wall meets the ceiling. Then use your fingers to press the paper into the corner. Place the drywall knife tightly up into the corner at a 45-degree angle. Use the razor knife to slowly cut the paper with the blade running across the edge of the drywall knife. Slide the drywall knife along the paper and continue to trim.

Tim Carters’s columns are archived at You can also watch hundreds of videos, download Quick Start Guides and more.

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