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A guide to wall finishes: wallpaper, plaster, and more

Go beyond paint

Aubrie Pick

Bored with paint? Good news: There’s a whole world of wall finishes to explore. In 1996, Adrienne Wannamaker was working as an art director when she offered to help a friend finish a mural commission for a client’s master bathroom. The experience made her "fall in love with decorative finishes," she says.

After years of working as a faux and decorative painter for architects and interior designers, Wannamaker opened her Portland-based and online store, Brush and Trowel, to sell decorative finish products and teach classes in various techniques. She spoke to Curbed about her favorite alternative treatments and offered advice on when to not DIY.

1. Wallpaper

Wallpaper is a thick decorative paper applied to walls with glue. Modern designs have come a long way from their fusty predecessors, and these days, patterns and prints are plentiful.

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Whether you’re papering a child’s room with an artist’s bespoke drawing or covering an accent wall with a vintage-inspired floral, there is something out there for every taste and budget. When planning a potential project, know that rooms with higher humidity, such as bathrooms and kitchens, are generally not advised for wallpaper.

Repeated moisture exposure can damage the finish or make the paper curl or pucker. However, it will depend on your home’s exact conditions and ventilation, as well as the product.

Basic application: Be sure to read manufacturer instructions first, as they may vary. In general, after prepping walls, you will cut paper lengths to fit the surface. Apply paste to the wall or paper, and affix, being sure to maintain the pattern’s repeat while also taking shrinkage and stretching into account. Then use a brush or rag to smooth the surface.

Tools needed: Primer, cutting tools, a generous flat surface for unrolling, paste, roller, wallpaper, and brush or rags.

DIY Difficulty: "I would never take it on!" says Wannamaker. "But there are some people that are totally comfortable with it." She says that you have to be very precise and mathematical in the application, so assess your comfort level before diving in.

An ice cream print wallpaper by Andrea Lauren for Spoonflower. As featured in House Calls. Photo by Peter Hoffman

2. Stencils

Stencils are composed of a thin sheet good, like plastic or cardboard, that’s been perforated or cut with a pattern. This design is then transferred to a wall with the application of paint or product.

"You can do them with paint, textures, different sheens, and embedded stencils [in plaster]," Wannamaker says. She is a fan of wall stencils for this very versatility. "It’s really, really diverse and that’s what I love about stenciling," she says. "It’s like custom made wallpaper."

Stencils can go pretty much anywhere that will take paint. They can be used as accents or for full rooms, and on any wall or ceiling surface. Check out the Royal Design Studio blog for ideas.

Basic application: Evaluate your wall surface first, as its condition will affect how the final design looks. For example, orange peel finished walls are difficult for creating fine lines. Press stencil to wall and impregnate with paint or product.

"The key is to figure out how to not have any product seep under the stencil," Wannamaker says. She recommends dry rolling, so as not to overwork the design. "It’s always easier to add product than to take it away," she says.

Tools needed: Stencil, paint or product, brush or mini-roller, and tray. Wannamaker recommends buying two of the same stencil if doing a very large wall area. That way, when the first becomes saturated, you can clean it and have another on hand to continue.

DIY Difficulty: Easy

3. Lime plaster

Lime plaster has been around since antiquity, with examples of its usage dating as far back as 7200 BC. Natural lime plaster is often comprised of hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide), water, and aggregates.

The wet plaster hardens into a limestone finish that’s durable as well as breathable, meaning moisture isn’t trapped in the wall. Natural lime plaster has mold or mildew resistance, improves indoor air quality, and is close to carbon neutral, making it a popular choice for green building projects. Lastly, "Venetian plaster is a name of a type of finish," says Wannamaker, that’s typically associated with plasters that originated in Italy.

A lime plaster wall finish creates an unparalleled depth that is both rich and tactile. It’s available in a variety of colors and sheens, says Wannamaker, and it can go anywhere if sealed properly, including saunas, showers, and exteriors. "I would plaster everything," she says. "It ages gracefully and improves over time."

Basic application: This will depend on the product and the finished appearance you desire, but basic application involves traditional plastering techniques using a hawk and trowel, and applying thin coats.

Tools needed: Hawk and trowel

DIY Difficulty: Taking a class or practicing the plastering technique would really go a long way towards success for novices.

4. Concrete veneer

In its basic application, concrete veneer imparts a more modern and industrial aesthetic, although it can also be tinted with color and applied with stencils for an artistic effect. At her shop, Wannamaker sells SkimStone, a hybridized cement coating that works for residential and commercial settings, as well as interior and exterior applications.

It’s durable (although not structural at all) and as a water-based product, meets LEED criteria. Wannamaker has used it on walls, floors, and counters. She says that if applied over a SkimStone Bonding Primer, it can also cover wood, laminate, and tile, as well as the old concrete it’s intended to cover. She has used it wherever the look of concrete is desired, including bathrooms and kitchens.

Basic application: The manufacturer recommends applying 2-3 very thin coats with a trowel, followed by several coats of Protective Sealer.

Tools needed: Depends on desired aesthetic, but might require a trowel, brush, sponge, or roller, as well as primer and sealer.

DIY Difficulty: It takes some finesse when applying to walls, as it’s drippy and messy. For that reason, Wannamaker generally prefers horizontal surfaces.

5. Everything else

Ragging or sponging, glazing or washing, stippling or strie—the possibilities via various decorative finish methods are truly endless. "The sky is the limit here," says Wannamaker.

Create patterns, old world textures, or designs of your own making. Mimic a natural texture, such as wood grain or stone, invent a Trompe l’oeil, or gold leaf the ceiling. To get started, Wannamaker recommends finding pictures of rooms that you like on Pinterest, and then taking those images to a decorative finishes store like hers.

"Having those visuals is a really good spot for us to start to help people," she says. Use them in any room that you wish to create a dramatic, artistic, or truly personalized effect, or play around with accent walls.