Open Your Mind to the Wonders of Peel-and-Stick Wallpaper

Yes, removable is the easy way out. But before you slap a sheet on your wall, bookshelf, or TV tray, there are a few logistics to consider.
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The most intimidating decorating choices are the ones that have to last. You can always switch out photos in frames or change which trinkets you put on which shelf, but when it comes to things that cost a lot (like big pieces of furniture) or take a lot of effort to change (like wall colors), there’s a lot of pressure to nail it. After all, it’ll be that way for a long time. Right?

Not necessarily. A cheap and reversible way to make your mark, even on a large scale, is peel-and-stick wallpaper. Perhaps you’re a renter who can’t make any permanent changes to your apartment, or perhaps you just want to decorate your walls without getting paint on your sweatpants. With a little bit of planning, a removable wallpaper can transform dull spaces—without losing your security deposit.

A quick primer

Peel-and-stick wallpaper differs from traditional wallpaper in that it’s meant to be removable without damaging the walls. Regular wallpaper is meant to last, so it’s glued to the walls with a paste strong enough that removing it will almost certainly damage the drywall beneath. Peel-and-stick is just what it sounds like: It comes with an adhesive backing, like a huge sticker. (A few removable wallpapers come pre-pasted with adhesive that you need water to activate; peel-and-stick is a much simpler, less messy option.) Peel-and-stick wallpaper can be made of a number of different materials, from vinyl to paper to luxurious textiles like linen or grasscloth. The last term you need to know is ‘‘repeat,’’ which refers to the space covered by a pattern before the design starts again. (For example, a 24 inch repeat means the pattern begins again every 24 inches, which helps you figure out how to line it up.)

Assess your space

Before you get too far into the project, take a look at your walls. Are they textured? If so, you’ll have trouble getting that peel-and-stick paper to do its job, which is to stick to the wall. Aaron Murphy is an interior designer with a small firm in Cedar Rapids, and he told Dwell that "you need a smooth surface," which is "terrible if you have textured walls and are looking for an easy fix." If you have that classic ’70s popcorn wall, it won’t work. (But that doesn’t mean you can’t find other uses for removable wallpaper, as you’ll see below.) If your walls are just a bit textured, you could apply a skim coat of drywall to it beforehand, though this isn’t easy to do well, and you might want a professional’s help.

Another important factor to consider is the type of paint on your walls. The paint on my rental apartment’s doors and cabinets, for example, is desperate to escape; it comes off if you just look at it wrong, let alone if you try to stick a whole sheet of adhesive to it. If you have a type of paint that’s easier to clean and low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), it may be harder to get your paper to stick. Peel-and-stick paper adheres more easily to glossier paints than matte paints, too. Making sure the surface is super clean and then wiping it down with a mix of isopropyl alcohol and water can help secure the paper.

This is where samples can come in. Many stores sell wallpaper samples for cheap—at Rifle Paper Co., samples are just $3. Tape these up in the space you’re planning to cover to see how it looks, or apply them to an inconspicuous area and check how they’re holding up after a week. Just make sure you have a sense of whether the pattern is scaled down to sample size. A friend of mine, Sarah, used removable wallpaper for the powder room of her beautiful old house in Salem, MA. Sarah told me she "probably ordered 25 samples from five or more companies and stared at my top ten for hours before picking one." As a homeowner, Sarah went with removable wallpaper over traditional wallpaper because she read that the walls under wallpaper in wet or humid spaces can develop mold. Peel-and-stick wallpaper is much easier to remove for cleaning every few years.

Choosing your paper

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My go-to site for browsing removable wallpaper is Etsy. There are seemingly endless options on the site, many of which are from sellers with thousands of positive reviews. (I’ve personally purchased from GreenPlanetPrint and found the quality to be excellent.) Some of the patterns available on Etsy look very similar to more expensive (but high-quality) options from companies like Chasing Paper or Wallshoppe. On the other end of the budget spectrum, Target sells removable wallpaper under its stylish Opalhouse brand, and Wayfair, World Market, and Amazon have many affordable options, if you’re willing to gamble a bit more on quality. A good seller will tell you the size of the repeat and answer your questions; Sarah told me that talking to customer service representatives was "really helpful" in figuring out how much to order. Many sites also have tools to help you calculate exactly how much you need.

A note on quality

Murphy told Dwell that the quality of paper you use is more important for high-traffic uses, like "to line a tray, or cover up a kid’s table." Murphy recommended a thicker vinyl paper, which has the bonus of being "waterproof, and more tear resistant." The downside is that these papers are pricier, "as high as $20 or $30 per square foot." For lower-impact areas, Murphy said you can get away with "any peel-and-stick or temporary paper."

Tech solutions

One techy way to save yourself from making a big mistake is using photo editing software—I use the free, browser-based service Pixlr—to simply plonk your wallpaper options into a photo of your space and see how it looks. The lighting might be slightly off, so take your results with a grain of salt, but using a photo editor can give you a rough idea of what a pattern would look like. (I got this tip from Dwell contributor Veronica de Souza, who uses it for buying rugs, and whose impeccable style elevated my apartment decorating game.) Some sellers, like WallPops, have their own tools to do this, and it’s also just a fun way to spend an evening.

Our friend The Computer can also help you narrow down your pattern choices. In decorating my apartment over the last year, Canva’s color wheel tool has been indispensable. I don’t always abide by its advice, but it’s very helpful to know what theoretically looks good together. Using another tool like Color Picker, you can import your photo of your room and identify and copy the hex code for a color in the photo, like in your couch or a rug, and paste it into Canva’s tool. This will show you the exact colors that will work with what you already have, which will help you pick a wallpaper pattern. Murphy said that he usually tells clients to look at the artwork and throw pillows in their space to find their colors. Or, do it the other way: Take a color from the wallpaper patterns you’re drawn to and see if the color wheel tells you it’ll go with what you’ve got. (Or you could be like me: Start out with a color scheme in mind, then sort of lose track of it and end up with a kooky rainbow look. It’s maximalist!) Once you’ve narrowed down your colors, you can sift through the options more easily.

Pattern picking

Wallpapers, even for a single accent wall, will obviously take up a lot of visual space, so choosing the right print is important. Patterns that are too intricate or detailed can look busy if they’re covering a big space; patterns that are too big condensed into a small area might look cramped. Heather Goerzen, managing editor of design content at Havenly, said she personally leans "towards smaller motifs in smaller spaces: like a powder room, mudroom, or butler’s pantry." For bigger spaces, you can scale it up: "bigger botanicals, scenes, and even murals." There’s certainly no end of beautiful floral and botanical prints available right now. Don’t get too stressed, though: Have fun choosing your favorite prints! This is the best part, apart from the satisfaction of seeing it on your wall.

 Getting it right

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You’ve picked your wallpaper, checked out a sample, and made sure it’ll stick to your walls. All that’s left is to actually put it up—and this part is definitely the scariest. Murphy said the best thing you can do is "practice, practice, practice." If you can afford an extra roll to practice with and see how the repeat lines up, do it. There’s nothing like just having a go to help you figure out what you’re doing. If you make a mistake, you can usually make minor adjustments while you’re applying it, but you don’t want to look at it the next day and realize you messed up.

There are many guides online to the actual application process, and most sellers offer their own how-tos for their specific products. They all boil down to the same basic advice: Make sure your wall is clean and smooth; measure and mark where each piece will go before you start; go slowly but confidently. You’ll want an x-acto knife or similar very sharp blade (be careful, I hear my mother saying) to trim the edges, and a squeegee or a plastic bench scraper can help with smooth, even application. If there are switch plates or outlets in the way, remove those first. A level tool will help you line everything up, too.

Your best bet for applying it right the first time is to have a partner or friend help you. It’s much easier to line up the corners and remove the backing carefully with someone else. The old "help me paint and I’ll provide the wine and/or pizza" trade works just fine here, plus there’s no danger you’ll knock a can of paint over on the rug after two glasses of Beaujolais.

Beyond your walls

If you aren’t ready or able to cover a whole wall, there are many other great uses for removable wallpaper. In my apartment, I used peel-and-stick wallpaper to decorate a big, empty space behind our king-size bed, since finding a large enough piece of art seemed daunting and expensive. I cleaned, sanded, and painted a large, empty frame I found on the street, measured the opening, and requested a custom-sized peel-and-stick wallpaper from an Etsy seller. If you go for something similar, make sure to measure the frame and to check the repeat size on the wallpaper pattern, to make sure you’ll have enough coverage. Vintage and estate sales often have old frames that you can repurpose, or you could even do a gallery wall of wallpaper samples behind IKEA frames for just a few bucks each, for maximum-maximalist style.

Another option, also widely available on Etsy, would be to buy an arch-shaped vinyl decal to replace a headboard; Murphy said those are very popular. He’s seen some creative uses for peel and stick paper, from covering a fridge to the inside of a lampshade. Covering a kitchen backsplash is also a great way to spice up your kitchen, with many prints available that mimic tiles. (You can cover tiles in peel-and-stick paper, too.) Both Goerzen and Murphy mentioned stair risers as a trending use for paper. But, Goerzen cautioned, don’t worry too much about what’s popular: "Go with what you love, not just what’s trending. You’ll be much happier after the fact."

Once you open your heart to removable wallpaper, you will start seeing every smooth, flat surface in your apartment as a potential home for a beautiful print. The drawers of a credenza, the back of your bookcase, or the walls of a closet will start to look bare and plain. The only limit is your imagination.

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