To Silk or Not to Silk

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Ivaguely remember the last time I installed silk prior to this past autumn. It may have been 10 years ago on an expansive master bedroom wall, including wrapping two doors and door jambs. The instructions clearly cautioned against double-cutting, but, in my bravado, I thought there would be no problem since there was no ambient airborne moisture and by double-cutting I would achieve beautiful seams. The results were excellent but temporary. Ouch! I found out later that there had been several large patches done a few months earlier that had been primer-coated and painted over. The double-cuts went through both the silk and the blankstock, and in a matter of weeks, several areas on the seam had split and lifted where the patches were. My repairs were acceptable, but it was a painful, embarrassing lesson.

Let me mention here that I have been installing wallcoverings for 30 years and am self-trained. I have learned by trial and error and have come to respect any tips I receive from paperhanging colleagues. Still, I had truly hoped I would never again be asked to install silk. As a self-taught installer, there may be choices I have made with which other professionals (or manufacturers) may disagree. These techniques and products have produced beautiful results, and I stand by my choices. Perhaps in reading this you may find one or two tips that will serve you in the future. I hope so. But let it be said that I do not claim to be an authority on silk installation; this is simply my experience.

Five years ago, I turned down an invitation to bid on a hand-painted silk mural in a huge dining room with 11-foot walls. It was too daunting. I was asked back to the same estate a year later for a much smaller project and was shown the dining room installation. The owner would not say who completed the installation. At a glance the room was beautiful. Upon closer observation, the seams were speckled with all sorts of flaws, pulled threads, colored pencil shading and the occasional stain. The owner was clearly unhappy but had accepted the end result. I was greatly relieved that I had passed on this mural project and felt I had “dodged a bullet.”

Now fast forward to this past autumn. During a two week time frame, I was invited to bid on one silk powder room and two silk bathrooms – two different jobs, two high-end clients and two unrelated designers for whom I had never worked. I bid what I thought was accurate for silk with blankstock and was awarded both jobs. I anticipated both jobs with a fair measure of angst but, in this economy, was reluctant to turn down work. The first job was an unsealed Clarence House “Silk Weave” calling for 30 yards at 36 inches wide, including the ceiling in a powder room. The second job was a large master bath and a guest bath– walls only. I was to install 38 yards of a 36-inch wide, sealed Phillip Jeffries silk and abaca (Manila hemp) weave in the master bath and 25 yards of untrimmed 39-inch wide, sealed Weitzner 100 percent silk in the guest bath.

As the installation date approached for the first project (the unsealed silk powder room), I became increasingly anxious; the sort of worry that wakes you up at 3:00 a.m. An at-large Guild member since 2007, I decided to use the 2011 NGPP Member Resource Directory and made some phone calls. I wanted to know what tips other installers had regarding unsealed silk; I needed some serious hand-holding. I spoke with three or four Guild members and was directed to a couple of others who were thought to be accomplished silk installers. What emerged, as I took fast and furious notes, was a variety of tips, techniques, recommended adhesives and overall suggestions. Surprisingly, some of the information was contradictory. Some said, “Paste at the table,” while others said, “Dry-hang.” One said, “wheat paste and cellulose,” while others suggested, “heavy-duty clear.”

I was now headed in a more informed direction yet still had to find my own way. This is what emerged as I began the unsealed powder room silk. Of course, first and foremost was to ensure that the walls were smooth and well-primed. Since I am in Southern California, I prefer an acrylic primer manufactured by Frazee Industries (www.frazeepaint.com) called “Prime Plus.” It is available in California, Arizona and Nevada. It resists alkali up to pH 13.0 and has excellent adhesion with quick-drying properties, not to mention low odor.

I keep Cavalier wall liners in my arsenal. The heavy-duty paper wall liner is good but quite absorbent, so I decided to use the heavy-duty nonwoven wall liner under the silk. This worked beautifully and gave me the necessary time to lift and reposition strips as needed without the pressure of crucial seconds passing by. I let the liner dry overnight and then I was ready to install. I decided on my own hybrid mix of two-thirds Dynamite 111 Heavy Duty Non-Strippable Clay Wallcovering Adhesive and one-third Dynamite C-11 Non-Staining Ultra Clear. The clay was necessary for tack, and the clear added slip.

Prior to this decision, I did tests on a sample of the unsealed silk to see if there was any paste that would come clean if it landed on the surface. I applied small amounts of Dynamite 111, 234 and C-11. Using a light upsweep motion with a clean microfiber cloth helped (thanks for this tip, Elsie Kapteina, C.P.!). However, no matter which paste I tested, a stain remained. I also learned that even water alone would stain this material. Rubbing the surface was strictly out of the question since it changed the look of the nap and even lightened the color a bit.

Fortunately, the powder room ceiling was only 7 feet high. The room was roughly 6 feet by 8 feet with no windows, one halogen ceiling spot directly over the nickel-plated basin and two decorative sconces. In my zeal to succeed with my new assortment of tips and techniques, I carefully pasted the first ceiling panel and immediately watched the edges curl as the paste soaked in (this was after table-trimming the extra thin untrimmed material). I frantically wiped my fingers clean and succeeded in keeping the curling edges from touching the silk surface. With blood pressure rising, I was beginning to hear the theme from Jaws in my head. I carefully brought the booked panel into the room, opened one end and began to smooth the panel into place. Before I knew it, there were at least three significant paste fingerprints on the surface, not to mention some hairline wrinkles that were the result of stretching the material. By the time the panel was in place, it was unacceptable, and any attempt to remove the fingerprints was useless. I stopped immediately, removed the panel (fortunately, I had extra material), cleaned the blankstock and spent the rest of the day calling around to find a helper.

Next morning 3:00 a.m.: eyes wide open! The wife of a friend was available this morning to assist me. I carefully explained what had to be done and she understood. Having pasted the replacement ceiling panel, we walked ceiling panel one into the room and I was able to install it successfully. Using the table pasting technique once again, we walked the second and final ceiling panel into the room. It went up fairly well; however, intermittently along the seam, there were small areas where the paste had oozed. Due to the subdued sconce lighting and the deep bronze color of the silk, I decided to let the panels dry before making any attempt to improve the seam. I felt I could manage the walls on my own, so I sent my helper on her way.

At this point, I had a big decision to make. The walls surrounding the bombe-style vanity would be brightly lit when the halogen ceiling spot was on but soft and subdued when just the sconces were on. I couldn’t run the risk of having any paste oozing at the seams…no matter what. I decided to dry-hang the rest of the room. Wanting to maximize adhesion and minimize water content while installing, I elected to coat all of the remaining blank-stock with a thin layer of my paste mixture. I utilized two fans, and the walls were dry in about two hours.

After rereading the instructions that accompanied the silk, I did a test with blue tape along the edge of a scrap. When I carefully lifted the tape, the outermost fibers of the silk began to fray; the blue tape was out. For double-cutting purposes with woven or delicate materials, I have grown to rely on 3M 695 Post-it removable labeling tape (white paper tape 2 inches wide by 36 yards roll), available online from www.uline.com. It releases easily and cleanly. I pressed a length of white tape along the edge of my sample; it held nicely and released without any fraying. However, I was not going to use this white tape for double-cutting (I learned my lesson when the bedroom wall backfired years earlier). I wanted to use it to protect each previously installed wallcovering edge while installing the subsequent panel. As it turned out, this worked quite well. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Using a tip from a fellow installer, I covered one edge of my pasting table with a strip of 6-inch-wide aluminum flashing, available from building supply companies. It was secured on all edges with blue tape and made an excellent surface for trimming. Before beginning this installation, I replaced the old flashing with new to ensure straighter trimming.

With the ceiling finished, I was ready to install the walls. I proceeded very slowly and methodically, grateful that the house was quiet and the owners were away. This job called for total mindfulness and focus. After engineering the walls, I cut my first wall panel and carefully table-trimmed it. Since the ceiling was already installed, I placed two lengths of 2-inch white tape side by side on the ceiling to protect the silk, providing 4 inches of protection. Using a 3/8-inch roller, I applied a thin, even layer of paste on the surface where my panel was destined. Carefully using a 2-inch throwaway brush, I applied the paste along the ceiling line and at the baseboard. This activated the now-dry sizing coat and gave me enough working time without being too wet.

Returning to the table, I carefully moistened the back of the silk panel with water using a damp sponge, being sure to cover the entire area. As expected, it started to curl but not severely. The curl began to relax as I let it sit. I booked only the top half of the panel so that I could easily carry it into the powder room and not run the risk of having the bottom half brush up against the pasted wall. The wall at this point was fairly tacky but not too wet. Once again, the C-11 provided added slip.

Using my laser level, the first panel went up nicely. I smoothed it with a clean and soft smoothing brush. I gingerly ran my seam roller along the outer seam to lay it down flat, but rather than rolling straight down the edge, I angled the roller just a bit so that it was constantly moving away from the edge. That eliminated the potential problem of the roller contaminating the surface of the silk. I had to stop every 18 inches or so to clean the roller and then resumed the process. This technique secured the edge of the seam from ceiling to baseboard. In all instances, I never pressed too hard with the roller, so I could avoid crushing the fibers and/or creating sheen along the seam.

Moving onward, I repeated all of the same steps for the second panel with one exception. Before wetting panel number two, I carefully ran a strip of 2-inch white tape on the edge of panel number one. I let it overlap about 1/16 inch beyond the edge of the silk. I used my fingers to press it down evenly and firmly so that the edge was completely sealed. Next I masked off my ceiling silk as before and applied a thin, even coat of paste over the entire area of panel two, except I stopped about 1 1/2 inches away from the vertical white tape and switched to a 3-inch foam roller. Using this roller, I applied a thin, even coat all along the area adjacent to the previous silk edge. For safety’s sake you could use two strips of white tape to provide more protection.

Once I used my 2-inch brush to finish pasting the ceiling and baseboard (carefully, of course), I then removed the white tape running from ceiling to floor and left the white tape on the ceiling for now. Since the seams were so crucial, I patted the upper one-quarter of the panel into place with clean hands and then slowly worked the midsection of the panel toward the previous edge so that it butted up nicely. Once satisfied, I used my seam roller to very gently apply more pressure and lay the seam down flat, with no visible oozing along the seam. This silk was extremely thin, and stretched easily, so utmost care was needed not to stretch it and create smoothing issues. If bubbles remained, I would smooth them using a 4-inch rubber linoleum brayer available at art stores (a terrific way to work air out of problem areas or smooth seams where pressure with a regular seam roller might crush the material or leave sheen).

Before trimming the ceiling line and the baseboard line, I creased the material firmly with the curved edge of a 3-inch broad knife and trimmed using single-edge blades. I placed my 6-inch broad knife against the silk to protect it from the wet sponge while I wiped away any excess paste from the woodwork. Since this silk was unsealed, there was a tendency for it to wick water from the baseboard if my cleaning sponge was too wet; therefore, constant attention was needed to keep the sponge clean and wrung out.

These are the steps that evolved for me and worked well. The crucial thing was to mask off any installed silk with white tape, using as much as needed to protect the surrounding area before installing the next panel. When removing the white tape, it was critical that care be taken not to let the pasty white tape touch the silk. I used up a lot of white tape, but it was worth it.

As mentioned, this particular unsealed silk was completely unforgiving, and somehow I got one small spot (3/8-inch round) on an area that was at eye level when sitting on the toilet. I worked on this spot for up to an hour, dabbing it gently with my microfiber cloth, lightening it slightly (and very carefully) with white chalk (sometimes this works). While it would improve under sconce lighting, once the halogen ceiling light was lit, it would broadcast. It was exasperating, but in the end, I could do nothing about it. I mentioned it to the designer and demonstrated on a scrap how unforgiving this particular unsealed silk was. More than worrying about that one spot, she became very concerned about the fate of the wall-covering around the basin and toilet, where water was sure to eventually land.

Thankfully, I never heard another word about my stubborn little spot. I put the designer in touch with the local franchise of Fiber-Seal, which I had used on some powder room grasscloth and linen installations in the past. Typically the owner comes to the job site after the installation and applies his product. I took a large sample to him and he sprayed his coating on one-half of it. The difference was remarkable and did not change the look of the silk at all. Wanting to stay out of any liability issues related to this coating, I showed the results to the designer and she hired him independent of my business. She was completely satisfied with the results obtained (www.fiberseal.com). Interestingly, the Fiber-Seal owner told me that if I were to pre-cut my panels in the future, leaving extra for trimming, he could seal them before I installed them. I found this an intriguing option because when I contacted a laminating and applied coating company in Los Angeles prior to the powder room installation, they said they were unwilling to coat the unsealed silk, since there was too great a risk of staining it.

The two subsequent silk bathrooms went well, although the silk was factory-sealed in advance. This meant that while I still had to be careful not to get paste on the surface, as it would leave a faint stain, it was more forgiving regarding water, and any water spots could be dabbed dry without any lasting effect.

While I used the identical installation technique as I used on the powder room silk, the material was a bit heavier and the white tape would not adhere, most likely due to the factory coating. However, blue tape worked just fine and I could remove it from the panel edges without any fraying or problems.

Looking back on these three bathrooms, I cannot help but wonder why the silk manufacturers do not routinely seal their wallcovering. The difference for the installer is enormous in my opinion, not to mention the life span of the installation. Regarding future requests to install silk, I personally do not want the stress of working with unsealed silk. I will request that it be factory-sealed or perhaps sealed in advance by a company such as Fiber-Seal. Since the installations were successful, I now have two new interior designers who have indicated that they will gladly use my services on future projects.

One difficult lesson was that having bid the powder room and the two bathrooms before I installed any of them, my bids were quite low given the amount of time each room ultimately required. I learned that to do it well, either the installation should be done on an hourly rate or the bid should be substantially higher. Installing silk is not for the novice, the impatient or the faint of heart.

I would like to especially thank the following NGPP members who were very generous with their time and advice: Elsie Kapteina, Barry Blanchard, Shawn Lawler, Chris Murphy and Eunice Bokstrom. I invite any and all feedback on this article at info@goodseams.com. APC


Gary James is a member of the National Guild of Professional Paperhangers, a professional trade association representing the artists of the craft of wallcovering installation. For more information on the National Guild of Professional Paper-hangers, visit our website at www.ngpp.org, email ngpp@ngpp.org or call the National Office at (800) 254-NGPP.

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