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Choosing the best wall finish

A comprehensive guide to help you make the best decision for your next project

The expansive offer of today’s wall finishes is truly overwhelming for architects, interior designers, business owners and homeowners, with the most popular options being paints, wallpapers, vinyl wallpapers, and fiberglass wall coverings. But which one is the right choice for you? In this article, we take a closer look at these finishes, along with their advantages and disadvantages, so you can make a more informed decision and receive the most long-term value.

wooman finding on mobile phone

Looking beyond price and appearance when deciding on your wall finish

Wall finishes are one of the best ways to instill personality to your space, helping to establish the style and atmosphere you’re trying to achieve. For many architects and design professionals, as well as business and home owners, price and appearance are considered the most important criteria in the selection process. This is perfectly understandable, but they don’t tell the whole story as to what will provide you with the best long-term value for your next wall finish or wall renovation.

When selecting your wall finish, it’s extremely important to look beyond price and appearance to help ensure you’re making the right choice, and ultimately, receiving the most value. Additional, important factors to consider include usage, location, wall preparation, application, durability, maintenance requirements and more.

For example, a low initial cost could mean that replacement or refreshment of the finish could come earlier or more often than a higher priced one, thereby incurring additional costs and labor over time. A finish that is more easily damaged, or prone to mold or mildew in humid spaces, could also impact the value of your purchase. Not to mention finishes that are more easily damaged by exposure to direct sunlight, high traffic, impacts, abrasions or fluctuating temperatures.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the different choices of wall finishes available to you, along with their various advantages and disadvantages.

Paints – The most well-known and affordable wall finish

Paints are normally first on the list when a finish is needed for new walls or for a wall renovation project. They are widely known and used for indoor and outdoor spaces, with most people having experience with them in one way or another. The two main types of paint for indoor walls are water-based and oil-based, which refers to the solvent that is used within the paint. It is the liquid component that dries after the paint is applied to the wall. The solvent in water-based paints is almost all water, while the solvent in oil-based paints is normally mineral turpentine. Each type of paint has its advantages and disadvantages, which we will now explore.

paints

Advantages of using paints

Paints are an affordable option that are easy to apply, require few tools, and come in an extremely diverse range of colors and finishes. In fact, paints allow for the highest level of color customization. Any color can be mixed in a short time and be immediately ready for use.  And if you wish to change the color in the future, you can just apply a new coat of paint over the existing paint. Depending on the type of paint, touch-ups are normally easy to carry out and cleaning can be done with a damp cloth.
Water-based paints are easy to apply by non-professionals and allow for easy cleanup of your paintbrush, accessories and rogue drops or splashes on the floor. The water-based solvent not only allows for painting on surfaces that may not be totally dry, but also makes these paints less susceptible to cracking if temperatures fluctuate. New types of modern water-based paints provide a harder surface once they dry, helping to make them more resistant to impacts and other damage, although saying they offer “protection” for your walls would be going too far.

Oil-based paints are a popular choice for professional painters, as they provide a smooth, rich looking finish on your walls that is hard, durable and water-resistant. Unlike water-based paints, they are not greatly affected by weather conditions. Higher or lower temperatures, as well as humidity, do not have a large effect on their drying times and long-term performance.

At first look, paints would seem to be a good choice for a new wall finish or renovation. But if you dig a little deeper, cracks start to appear in their armor.

Disadvantages of using paints

Although paints have many advantages, they also have an abundance of limitations. It’s true that application of paints is easy, but you should keep in mind that at least two coats of paint are required, which means that drying time between coats is necessary. Water-based paints require 4 to 6 hours between coats to dry adequately, while oil-based paints require about 24 hours to dry between coats. This translates into a longer time investment for application and double the work.

Even though both types of paints can be purchased in a variety of colors, a limited number of textures are available, and there are no options for patterns or designs right out of the can. In effect, you are mainly limited to colors and little more. Paints also have a short lifetime, normally from 5 to 7 years. In addition, reapplication every three years or so is many times required to maintain a nice appearance. If an oil-based painted wall gets dirty, harsh chemicals are required for cleaning.

If your walls need some form of protection, such as in high traffic areas or children’s rooms, paints are not your best choice. They do not protect against any type of damage, such as cuts, scrapes, chips or impacts. And if the wall cracks, due to settling of the house or building, so will the paints. Fading, flaking and cracking can also be experienced over time, as well as if the paints are exposed to direct sunlight or heat.

Although application of paints can be carried out by non-professionals, except in the case of oil-based paints, the walls must be prepared in advanced so they are completely smooth and without imperfections. Paints do not hide any rough patches, cracks, abrasions, blemishes or any other type of damage on the wall, no matter how small. It must also be mentioned that painting is a messy process, with any drops or streaks of paint from the paint brush or holding container staining nearby furniture, floors, ceilings or appliances. Everything must be covered before painting begins. The extra time for wall preparation and covering everything in the room, as well as the cost for plastic sheets, must also be accounted for in the painting process.

If you choose an oil-based paint for your wall, it is necessary to hire a professional for its application, as it is a very slow and difficult process. The rich sheen that oil-based paints have when first applied, gradually fades to a dull finish over time. And although oil-based paints have the advantage of being hard and durable, this can also be considered a disadvantage, as over time they can get dry, brittle and crack. They are also less resistant to heat and more susceptible to cracking if the space experiences fluctuations in temperature.

You must also keep in the mind that it is more difficult to clean up oil-based paints during and after the application process than water-based paints. And due to having mineral turpentine as their solvent, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted during and after application, which are associated with health risks in humans. This can be minimized or avoided with the purchase of low VOC or non-VOC versions, but these are 20% - 80% more expensive than normal oil-based paints, which severely impacts one of the main benefits of paints - cost.

Water-based paints do not look as nice and shiny as oil-based paints after application, but the sheen they do have lasts longer. Over time, though, their color can start to yellow, requiring you to repaint. They are also sensitive to weather conditions during the application process, as humidity and lower temperatures extend drying times, while higher temperatures can lead to quicker drying times. Both longer and shorter drying times affect the long-term performance of the paints.

Wallpapers – Excelling in design and customization

Wallpapers are a common alternative to paints as a finish on newly constructed walls or wall renovations. They are divided into three main categories based on their backing – non-woven, woven and fabric. The construction of wallpapers consists of three elements – backing, ink (color, pattern, design, texture) and ground coat. For application on walls, wallpapers come with pre-applied glue (peel and stick), water activated glue or without glue.

wallpapers

Advantages of using wallpapers

Wallpapers have many advantages over their paint counterparts, such as coming in a wide variety of patterns, designs and surface finishes. One of their main advantages is a lifetime from 10 to 15 years, which is more than twice as long as the 5 to 7 year lifetime of paints. They are also easy to clean with a moist cloth or towel, although this should be done sparingly.
It is necessary to prepare a smooth wall for their application, but it doesn’t need to be as smooth as wall preparation for paints, as any small imperfections or cracks that remain can be effectively covered up.  Wallpapers can also be applied on many types of walls, except for concrete or textured walls. Peel and stick type wallpapers are a convenient option, since they can be removed and replaced on another wall or section after initial application.

Wallpapers are purely decorative and do not provide protection against cuts, scrapes or impacts. Some varieties of wallpaper can be washed, which helps with maintenance.

Due to the wide range of patterns, prints, murals, textures and designs that are available, wallpapers can add more depth and impact to walls than paints are able to provide. Custom designs and murals can also be ordered on demand, allowing for a more personal touch. Other elements found on wallpapers are raised designs, glitter, embossed patterns, and more.

Wallpapers can be considered eco-friendly and are rated higher than paints in sustainability, as some are made from natural materials, such as paper and cotton textiles.

Disadvantages of using wallpapers

Wallpapers are more expensive than paints, thereby requiring a higher initial investment. They should not be applied in humid spaces, such as bathrooms or kitchens, as moisture can cause the edges to peel from the wall, making it necessary to reapply or reglue. Many types of wallpapers are not so breathable, which means moisture from the space or wall will allow mold and/or mildew to develop.

Application of wallpapers is significantly more difficult than paints, as a certain level of expertise and special tools are required to achieve a professional result. In addition to proper wall preparation for effective gluing, each piece of wallpaper must be cut to the exact length, applied vertically on the walls, and aligned properly to the piece next to it, especially if the wallpaper features a pattern or repeating design. This is very difficult to achieve for non-professionals.

Colors on wallpapers are not colorfast and can be negatively affected by light, including mismatched colors if some parts of the wallpaper are in lighted areas and others in the shadows. Some types of wallpaper are very fragile and can tear easily, which reduces their effective lifetime. If wallpapers are torn or damaged in any way, their repair requires removal and replacement, which is extremely difficult, time consuming and expensive. The challenge and expense of removal and replacement must also be taken into account when refreshing your walls with new wallpapers or an alternative finish. It’s a nightmare that won’t soon be forgotten.

If the wallpapers come without pre-applied glue or water-activated glue, the application process becomes almost as messy as painting, since glue needs to brushed on the back of wallpapers before application.

Vinyl Wallpapers – A durable choice that’s easy to maintain

Vinyl wallpapers consist of a backing, with vinyl either sprayed or laid on top. The three main types of vinyl wallpapers are vinyl coated wallpapers, solid vinyl wallpapers and fabric-backed wallpapers.

vinyl wallpapers

Advantages of using vinyl wallpapers

Vinyl wallpapers are available in a wide range of colors, patterns, designs and structures. In general, they are light, strong, durable, easy to maintain and flame-retardant. They are also scratch-resistant, impact-resistant, water-resistant and stain-resistant. They retain their color for an extended period of time and can last up to 15 years.

Application of vinyl wallpapers is normally easier than standard wallpaper, since they are most often self-adhesive, which allows for easy application and removal. Wall preparation is less labor intensive as well, as any small imperfections will be covered up by their slightly thicker construction compared to normal wallpapers. 

Vinyl coated wallpapers are considered a step up from normal wallpapers and are available in a wide variety of colors and patterns. They are easier to clean (although just lightly and infrequently), resist both grease and moisture, and offer a little more protection against staining and marring, although they should not be used in high traffic areas or rooms that experience a lot of wear and tear. Vinyl covered wallpapers are closer to normal non-woven wallpapers, as they do not have an artificial, plastic feel like solid vinyl wallpapers.

Solid vinyl wallpapers consist of pure vinyl laid on top of a paper substrate. They are water-resistant, scratch-resistant, tear-resistant and durable, although they are not as durable as fabric-backed vinyl wallpapers. You can even scrub them when faced with extremely dirty environments. Their solid vinyl layer allows for printing of a wide range of colors and patterns.

Fabric-backed vinyl wallpapers have a dense woven base, similar to normal woven wallpaper, and are suitable for high traffic areas. They are highly durable, moisture-resistant, washable, scrubbable and strippable. Due to the structure of their backing, they normally come in single colors, as printing designs or pattens on the fabric is very difficult.

Disadvantages of using vinyl wallpapers

The main disadvantage of all vinyl wallpapers is the price, as they are more expensive than paints and normal wallpapers. Another disadvantage is the use of synthetic man-made vinyl, which is made from crude oil and often emits formaldehydes. In addition to looking artificial, they are far from eco-friendly, unsustainable and gives walls a certain feeling of “cheapness”. They are also not breathable, due to the vinyl covering serving as a vapor barrier, so any moisture behind them can lead to the development of mold and mildew.

Vinyl coated wallpapers are the weakest of the three types. They tear and scratch much easier than the other two, which means difficult and expensive replacement. And due to their paper substrate, areas with higher levels of humidity, such as bathrooms and kitchens, should be avoided.

Solid vinyl (paper-backed vinyl) wallpapers are more robust and durable than vinyl covered wallpapers. They are also more tear- and scratch-resistant. But these characteristics come at a cost, as the solid vinyl layer looks cheap and plastic. As the solid vinyl is laid on a paper substrate, removal from walls is very troublesome, as the vinyl easily peels away from the paper. They are also not suitable for bathrooms or other areas with higher moisture content, as this will cause the vinyl layer to separate from the paper.

Fabric-backed vinyl wallpapers are the thickest of the three, leading to very difficult installation. Although the vinyl layer makes them highly water-resistant, this is also a disadvantage, as it is not breathable. As a result, moisture gets trapped between the wallpapers and wall, leading to a buildup of mold and mildew. And lastly, the appearance of the fabric backing makes them the most suitable for spaces with a contemporary style, thereby limiting their use.

Fiberglass Wall Coverings – The pinnacle of long-life, strength and stability

Fiberglass wall coverings are made 100% from natural materials, consisting of molten glass threads that are woven together into a high strength, fabric-like material. Today’s fiberglass wall coverings come in many innovative versions for architects, interior designers, business owners and homeowners who are working on a wall renovation project or need a finish for a newly constructed wall.

The extremely wide range of fiberglass wall coverings include paintable versions, such as woven, clean air, mold-resistant, extra impact-resistant and textured (for cracked and damaged walls), as well as ready-to-use painted versions and other versions with a range of decorative designs. Even magnetic fiberglass wall coverings are available from some manufacturers, which turn walls into magnetic boards.

fibreglass wallcoverings

Advantages of fiberglass wall coverings

Fiberglass wall coverings have an effective mechanical lifetime of up to 30 years, which is 6 times longer than paints and twice as long as wallpapers. This long life is due to many factors that include the extremely high tensile strength and durability of their fiberglass construction, as well as their ability to be painted, and repainted, up to ten times. This allows for infinite color options and the ability to change wall color quickly and easily.

The extremely long life of fiberglass wall coverings makes them an especially good choice for architects and interior designers, who want to design and equip buildings and other spaces with lifetime performance in mind. A long-term investment that provides higher value to their clients than any other wall finish. Fiberglass wall coverings are also made from non-toxic materials, making them VOC-free and extremely air-friendly. They even have an A-rating for emissions output.

As these wall coverings are constructed from fiberglass, they are impact-, abrasion- and fire-resistant, making them the best choice for busy traffic areas that experience high levels of abuse, such as hotels, restaurants and schools. Examples include hallways and spaces that are subject to impacts and abrasions from chairs, wheeled equipment and toys thrown around the room by children.

As they are washable and up to 10 times repaintable, as well as some versions coming pre-painted in colors that don’t fade over time, fiberglass wall coverings are able to maintain an attractive appearance much longer than other wall finish options. Additional costs, labor and worry for the long-term are almost completely eliminated, ensuring greater long-term value for architectural and interior designer projects, as well as for buildings and homes.

Due to the specific properties of the glass fibers, spores and mold are not able to live and feed on it, making fiberglass wall coverings highly hygienic and anti-allergenic. The glass fibers also contribute to the high water-resistance of fiberglass wall coverings, allowing for the quick and easy removal of dirt and grime, as these materials slide off the slick surface of the glass.

The high tensile strength of fiberglass wall coverings helps reduce building maintenance costs by reinforcing walls, thereby fending off unplanned repairs and other maintenance duties. In fact, some versions are made specifically for wall reinforcement. An additional advantage of their rigidity is easier application on walls, as they don’t fold in on themselves during application and are easier to apply on inside/outside corners than wallpapers.

When applying thicker woven fiberglass wall coverings, or those with 3D patterns, only a simple, rough preparation of the wall is required, as any small defects will be effectively covered up, saving you both time and energy.

Unlike other wallpaper types, fiberglass wall coverings are dimensionally stable and do not shrink as the glue dries, which ensures more trouble-free installation. Joints between different segments of the wall coverings are also more easily hidden, allowing for a smoother, more professional appearance on walls. They are also fire-resistant, which makes them a great choice for public buildings and other areas where the public gathers.

Disadvantages of fiberglass wall coverings

Their biggest disadvantage is cost. Compared to paints and other types of wallpapers, a higher investment is required. But this cost is offset by their amazingly long mechanical service life of 30 years and the many additional benefits they provide that go far beyond what is offered by paints and wallpapers.

An informed decision is always the right decision

When choosing a finish for your future wall renovation or new, high-profile development project, it’s worth exploring beyond the surface considerations of price and appearance to ensure that you or your client makes the wisest investment, and ultimately, receives the most long-term value.

 

Summary table

  Paint Wallpaper Vinyl Fiberglass
Design ●●● ●●● ●●
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Cleaning ●● ●●● ●●●
Hygienic properties ●● ●●●
Application time ●● ●●● ●● ●●
Tools, materials required ●● ●● ●●
Expertise required for application ●●● ●● ●●
Price €€ €€ €€€