I Wallpapered My Bathroom—Learn From My Mistakes
Pros weigh in on how to make it right.
Published Dec 9, 2023 1:00 AM
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If you thought it was antithetical to wallpaper a room filled with heat, humidity, steam, and water splashes, think again. Covering your bathroom in wallpaper is possible, but you’ll need to adhere (literally) to some guidelines to ensure its integrity over time. I learned the hard way when I revamped my beach cottage bathroom and didn’t do any research prior to starting the job—let’s just say I’ve got my fingers crossed some of the mistakes I made don’t come back to haunt me. To save you the headache, I followed up my DIY by asking wallpaper pros to share their top tips for a successful outcome.
Mistake No. 1: Not Choosing the Right Wallpaper
Experts stress vinyl wallpaper is the best choice for a bathroom, followed by a fabric-backed vinyl paper known as type II. I chose a traditional wallpaper for my recent remodel because I fell in love with its tropical design and I’m not a fan of the subtle shine that sometimes comes along with vinyl treatments. “The fact is, moisture, mildew, and bacteria won’t degrade vinyl,” says Frank Vega, a manager at Waldwick Wallpaper & Paint. “If you’re not going with a vinyl-based wallpaper, at least opt for one where the manufacturer has incorporated water-resistant materials to help the paper hold up to moisture.”
Considering using a removable wallpaper? “Unfortunately, peel-and-stick’s low-tack adhesive can be susceptible to steam, which can warm and loosen the paper,” says Vega. It can also be more difficult to install because it doesn’t slide into position. “You have to line things up carefully even before it touches the surface, which can be tough in bathrooms, which tend to have a lot of tight spaces,” notes Timothy Whitaker, vice president at T. Whitaker Painting, Inc.
Mistake No. 2: Not Prepping the Walls
People like to use wallpaper to hide the sins of their walls—like cracks, holes, nail pops, or rough textures—and while that can be a smart tactic, you’ll still most likely need to do some surface prep like spackling or skim coating. “You can’t just stick wallpaper up over any old wall,” says Vega. “Especially in a bathroom where there’s always going to be moisture and steam at play and where surface imperfections will allow that steam an entry point to lift your paper.”
Mistake No. 3: Not Priming the Walls
I never asked my installer what type of primer he was planning on using (here’s hoping he primed at all!). Looking back, I would have made sure he was applying a mold-resistant wallpaper primer. “This type of primer allows the wallpaper glue to do its job rather than be absorbed by the wall’s pores,” notes Whitaker. “Unlike regular paint primer, wallpaper primer is made so it won’t soften while the wallpaper paste is drying, which could result in lifted seams.” If your shower gets a lot of use, consider using an adhesion-promoting primer in conjunction with a wallpaper primer. “You apply it two hours after your regular wallpaper primer,” Whitaker explains. “The adhesion promoter keeps seams from coming loose in moist situations and stays tacky, allowing the wallpaper to slide into position. The downside is it can be messy to work with.”
Mistake No. 4: Not Installing an Exhaust Fan
At the moment, I have a vintage pendant lamp hanging from the center of my circa 1924 bathroom ceiling, but after researching for this article, I decided to do the prudent thing and replace it with an exhaust fan—an important addition, especially if there are no windows in the room. “Steam is one of the best ways to remove old wallpaper, so you can see why it’s important to control the level of heat and steam in a bathroom,” says Vega. “A high-velocity bathroom exhaust fan or a dehumidifier will extract excess moisture from the air so it doesn’t settle on the paper,” he says. “It’ll also prevent mold and bacteria from growing.” Whitaker suggests connecting the fan to the light switch to ensure it always goes on when you’re in the shower.
Mistake No. 5: Wallpapering the Area Between the Ceiling and the Shower
Vega notes most homeowners (like me!) instinctively want to paper any visible drywall up to the ceiling for a uniform look. “Yet it’s just above the showerhead where steam and heat are at an all-time high and where you’ll see wallpaper degrade the most,” he says. “Consider tile or a shower surround that goes to the ceiling, or cover the area in a mildew-and-moisture-resistant paint, in a color that complements your wallpaper.”
Mistake No. 6: Not Turning Down the Heat Setting on Your Water Heater
My three kids weren’t too happy when I turned the temperature on our water heater down to 120 degrees, but doing so reduced the amount of heat and steam in our bathroom, saving not only the wallpaper but also a few dollars on my energy bill. Will that reduction solve my moisture problems and eliminate the need for an exhaust fan? “Nope,” says Vega. “But it will help.”
Mistake No. 7: Not Sealing the Wallpaper’s Edges and Seams
Sealing a wallpaper’s edges is one of the best ways to prevent water and moisture from sneaking behind your paper. Here’s one thing I did right: My installer applied a beading of clear silicone to the areas where my wallpaper meets the tile. “You can also add silicone around an unprotected vanity to keep any splashes from loosening your paper,” notes Whitaker.
Mistake No. 8: Not Creating a Buffer for the Wallpaper at the Sink
If you’re renovating your bathroom, creating a buffer between the splash area around the vanity will help prolong the life of your wallpaper. “I suggest nonporous glazed tile,” says Vega.
Mistake No. 9: Not Picking the Right Glue
Opt for a commercial-quality clear paste that won’t degrade early or reveal itself if you don’t line up your paper perfectly. “The thick adhesive in a heavy-grade paste can also bridge minor gaps on the wall’s surface, such as roller stipple or a less than perfect spackle repair,” says Vega. Another option: a vinyl-over-vinyl adhesive (VOV). “Unlike most regular wallpaper adhesives, this one isn’t water soluble and has the added advantage of being stickier,” says Whitaker. “The installer would lay out the room, marking where every seam would fall, then brush a 1-inch-wide line of VOV on the wall behind every seam and around the edges to guarantee nothing will ever come loose.” There is a drawback to this adhesive, namely it makes wallpaper removal more difficult down the road.
Mistake No. 10: Not Cleaning Your Wallpaper
Between toothpaste splatter, hair spray, and makeup powder residue, bathroom walls can get dirty fast. “Give traditional paper a cleaning with a soft microfiber cloth or dry sponge,” says Whitaker. “For vinyl wallpaper, dip a microfiber cloth in warm water and dish soap and gently wipe.”
Mistake No. 11: Not Keeping a Backup Supply of Wallpaper
Life happens and bathroom walls can get damaged. “I had a customer with a burst pipe who had to re-wallpaper her entire bathroom because she didn’t have a spare roll and her wallpaper was discontinued,” says Vega. “I had another who got hair dye on her wallpaper yet wisely had an extra roll, and her fix was minimal.”