How to Restore Antique Wallpaper

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Antique wallpapers may look beyond saving, but there are a number of ways to bring them back to life again. The reasons for restoring them are important--keeping original materials in the historic home, the owner's affection for their historic damaged wallpaper, or because the wallpaper was created by a famous designer and is valuable. It's important to use archival materials whenever possible when restoring antique wallpaper.

Things You'll Need

  • Sponges, various sizes and types
  • 1 gal distilled water
  • 2 1/2 gal. plastic bucket,
  • Paint scrapers, various sizes
  • 1 qt. oil primer sealer
  • 1 qt. plaster patch
  • Japanese paper, as needed
  • Scissors or paper cutter
  • Utility knife
  • Archival wallpaper adhesive (wheat or cellulose)
  • Watercolors, various color tubes
  • Brushes, various sizes, soft & stiff bristle
  • 1 set pastels

How to Restore Antique Wallpaper Properly

Carefully study your antique wallpaper and look for areas that need restoration work. Typically this will include problems such as paper lifting, cracked plaster and wallpaper, or torn and missing paper and stains. Purchase materials that apply to the specific problems confronting your particular situation.

First, clean the wallpaper with a large damp sponge dipped in distilled water, being careful to not disturb areas that are cracking or torn open. Move the sponge gently across the wall, first diagonally in one direction, and then repeat diagonally in the other direction.

Scrap away any loose plaster and apply a coat of oil primer seal to seal these areas. Smooth on a skim coat of plaster patch to fill the holes from the scraped plaster. Apply a second coat of oil primer seal to create a sandwich effect. This will restore these areas to a smooth surface.

Plaster patch any cracks on the wall that have caused the wallpaper to crack apart. Cut the Japanese paper to overlap areas where the wallpaper is cracked. Apply the archival adhesive to the paper, place it on the wall, and smooth out the area that is being mended. The Japanese paper is very thin and when smoothed out, will be virtually invisible. Any small seams lines or white plaster areas that show at this point will be covered up during the painting restoration stage (See Step 7).

For pieces of loose wallpaper that are still intact, remove any plaster pieces from the back of them. Apply the adhesive to the backs of these pieces, press them against the wall and smooth the surface. Clean up any excess paste.

Touch up the smaller areas of the damaged wallpaper design with the watercolor paints. For larger sections where custom color paint will have to be ordered, consult with a painting expert to match the sheen of the wallpaper with the paint sheen, so there will be no shine where the restoration painting was done on the surface.

Hand paint colors back into large areas of the wallpaper that have become worn or faded. Apply the colors lightly, first with a small sponge filled with diluted paint followed by a larger sponge with less diluted paint. Be sure to paint over spots in the areas where the Japanese paper was applied (See Step 4).

Use a medium-sized sponge to soften any stains on the wallpaper by gently blotting these areas with thin layers of matching paint. In difficult water stain situations, add pastel colors over the top of the blotted surface.

Tips & Warnings

  • The purpose of a wallpaper restoration is to rejuvenate the paper to its original state so that people can enjoy the wallpaper as it was when it was originally installed in the historic home. Some wallpapers in America date back to the 1700s, when colonists were importing papers from Europe, particularly France. Prior to wallpapering their homes, Americans painted walls with mixture of water and clay, and added painted stencils to duplicate the effect of the more expensive European wallpapers.
  • A wallpaper restorer will tell you that there are two very important factors regarding restoration--a successful restoration and reversibility. The first has to do with pleasing the homeowner. The second means that if at any time in the future, the homeowner wants to reverse the restoration work, it can be easily removed and started over again.
  • Study the history of wallpaper to learn more about what is available if you are considering wallpapering a room with original or reproduction historic designs. Experts consider early French and Chinese wallpapers to be the most outstanding designs.
  • Sometimes a homeowner will discover old rolls of antique wallpaper in their attics. If you ever find any, handle them with extreme care and contact a restoration firm or antique auction house, as they are often quite valuable.
  • If you have rare antique wallpaper with scene paintings on it that have been damaged, consult with an expert.

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