Vinyl Wall Coverings Provide Durability & Offer Many Design Options

Whether in an office, restaurant, retail shop, or family den, a room’s walls experience constant abuse. While paint is a versatile decorating tool and establishes a decent defense, this type of finish cannot always succeed in armoring a room’s interiors against the constant pounding (and denting, marring, and banging) of human traffic. This is where the specification of a vinyl wallcovering can help.¹

The first recorded use of vinyl wallcoverings dates back to Egyptian nobles and costly, decorative papyrus. It is theorized commercial vinyl wall covering applications began in 14th-century Germany, when the invention of the printing press made manufacture more viable. As one might expect, the technology behind vinyl wallcoverings has continued to improve over the last 700 years, with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic lending its attributes of durability and ease-of-maintenance to these plastic products.

In particular, since vinyl wall coverings can be washed or scrubbed, they can be easily kept clean and disinfected–an important consideration for healthcare projects where the spreading of germs and bacteria must be minimized.

Getting what one pays for
At a glance, vinyl wall coverings can seem more expensive than paint. However, for commercial spaces and high-traffic areas, vinyl wall coverings clean far easier and retain their appearance far longer, which can make them more efficient in the long run.

Depending on exposure to wear and tear, many paint finishes often remain only about three or four years before requiring reapplication and touch-ups. Vinyl wall coverings typically last about a decade (if not longer) and can be better equipped to sustain abuse. In most cases, paint inevitably reveals every ding and scratch on a wall, with marks standing out like rust on a car door. Vinyl wall coverings do not usually reveal similar damage, and are better suited for hiding common wear and tear.

Of all the types of wallcovering materials, vinyl can be versatile and durable. Additionally, strong and scratch-resistant vinyl wall covering products are continually becoming easier to apply, partly due to better pastes. Ideally suited for high-traffic areas, vinyl wallcoverings come in a wide variety of price and design options, and are also arguably the easiest wallcoverings to hang. There are three kinds of vinyl wall covering:

  • a vinyl sheet attached to a paper back;
  • a vinyl sheet attached to a cloth back; and
  • vinyl-impregnated cloth attached to a paper back.

Selecting a wallcovering
Several factors should be considered when comparing specific types of wallcovering against one another. However, the visual design of a building rarely determines the kind of fabric or vinyl one chooses. With advances in technology and design, vinyl wall coverings can mimic almost any material. For example, vinyl wallcoverings can duplicate the more expensive, natural, textured look of other styles of wallcovering so flawlessly, it becomes almost impossible to tell the difference.

While there is a wide array of vinyl wall covering options to choose from, it is important to select a color suitable for its environment. Generally, darker or more neutral colors diminish visible wear in high-traffic areas, while lighter hues—though more susceptible to aging— brighten a room.

Although patterns can be more challenging to install than solid colors, they can be ideal for aging buildings or spaces with dent-riddled walls—a soft but distinct design successfully masks unsightly marks.

One of the most popular commercial wallcoverings, vinyl accounts for roughly one-third of the more than $400 million of wallcovering materials sold annually (with an even higher degree of popularity in the commercial segment).

When installed with a tight seam, vinyl wallcoverings create a nearly impermeable seal against moisture, protecting walls from splashes or spills. (This makes them especially well-suited for bathrooms, kitchen areas, and healthcare facilities.) The surface of vinyl wallcoverings also usually holds up to washing and a thorough scrubbing.

Installation/repair considerations
Prior to installation, as with most wallcoverings, it is important to have substrates such as gypsum wallboard primed properly so a vinyl wallcovering’s future removal does not leave the walls in a damaged condition. Vinyl wall coverings are built to last and sustain damage, which can make it a greater challenge to remove them, compared to simple wallpaper or paint products. The best way to avoid these potential drawbacks involves a little preventative purchasing.  Fashions always change, so whenever one applies a vinyl wallcovering, it is prudent to keep at least an extra 10 percent of the same style on hand to facilitate an easier time performing any necessary patchwork on the material.

It is likewise important for vinyl wall coverings to be installed or repaired before visible signs of damage to a wall’s surface appear. The gradual wear an undercovered wall suffers can eventually hinder the application of a vinyl wallcovering. Preparation and application can become more difficult as walls build up dirt and grime, inhibiting the smoothness of the wall and effectiveness of the wallcovering paste. As such, when selecting an installer for a vinyl wallcovering project, the team should find one who remembers the importance of surface preparation.

Routine maintenance procedures prolong the life of a vinyl wallcovering so the material can sustain its original beauty and extend its usefulness. Washing the walls at least every two years (depending on the amount of wear and tear they suffer) helps keep vinyl wallcoverings looking fresh.

With routine maintenance and care, a vinyl wallcovering can outlast virtually any paint job. It helps give a building’s interior the protection it needs, not to mention the possibilities for a beautiful, lasting interior space.

About the Author

John Jacob is the commercial sales manager for Hester Commercial Painting, a division of Hester Decorating Co. He attended Chicago, Illinois’ Washburne Trade School, where he was a National Wallcovering Panel Contest winner.


1 For more information on the various wallcovering materials, see “The 411 on Wallcoverings” by this author, which appeared in the November 2003 issue of The Construction Specifier.