A Guide to Wall Finishes – Part 1

With the myriad of wall finishes available on the market today, KaSa Global Interiors thought that this guide (Part 1 of 2) would be useful for our readers. We have also included bibliographic information for each write-up so that you know where we get our information from.

This Part 1 covers five popular wall finishes:

Look out for Part 2 in a month or two!


Egyptians and Romans had the tradition of wall painting. Later, tapestries were popular in European palaces and castles and the homes of the wealthy for warmth and decoration.

Wallpaper itself began as a cheaper alternative to tapestries and paneling. In the 1500s, we see the use of brocades, velvets and even embossed leather to cover walls.

Some historians believe that the first wallpaper dates back as early as the 1400s. Introduced into England by Flemish craftsmen, small squares of paper with images printed by wood blocks and then colored in by hand were used to decorate wood panels

It wasn’t until the1680s that wallpaper, as we know it, came into existence. Individual sheets were joined together in groups of 12 or more to form a roll, enabling faster printing and complex designs.

Today, wallpaper offers an aesthetic impact and consistency in quality that rivals paint. Wallpaper has developed to deliver the look of paint – flat, textured or with faux finishes (eg. trompe d’oeil) that doesn’t require the time and skill of of woodblocking, stenciling or labor intensive means to execute. These also include your photographic and digital custom print wallpaper.

Wallpaper is also comprised of textile, leather, metal, wood, silk and other natural materials, all of which can enhance interior design styles. Imagine jute covered walls in an Asian or beach inspired interior or oxidized copper paneling in an industrial or turn-of-the-century interior design. When paired with batting, another benefit of these materials is that they help reduce ambient noise between rooms.

Nowadays, specialized wallpaper includes whiteboard, magnetic, cork, deodorising and even electromagnetic shielding options.

Yet another unique feature is that wallpaper is better at hiding damaged wall surfaces.

1From a design perspective, some spaces come alive because wallpaper can bring an element of warmth, surprise and luxury that given its aesthetic variety, rivals the impact of paint. For instance, a bedroom from Clontarf House by interior designer Greg Natale on the left makes use of a warm yellow and green bamboo motif against a bright pink background that is layered against yellow geometric wallpaper on the ceiling. All of this is balanced with simple, white furniture to keep the room light.

I love how this can be a cost effective option to bring to life a design style without having to buy expensive rugs and paintings or even lots of accessories.

Wallpaper has an “instant” designer look and feel that paint doesn’t have and can be applied to just one wall as a feature. Specific colors and flexibility can also be achieved with paintable wallpaper, which not only allows interiors to be changed but offers a myriad of textures, designs and effects.

However, wallpaper is more time consuming than painting to install and with the exception of paintable wallpaper, removing wallpaper requires some work.

In the long run, wallpaper is a cost effective option to paint. According to the latest Hite Report, developed for The Bell Systems by Jim Hite, shows wallpaper now lasts five times longer than paint, under normal usage conditions. Vinyl wallpaper can last 15 years compared to a painted surface, which would require repainting every three years.

Note: I visited several wallpaper suppliers in my hometown of Hong Kong. Lockhart Road is a treasure trove of building material and interior supply stores. The following examples are from Kinland Decor’s showroom:


Wallpaper with a raised textured pattern


Trompe d’oeil style wallpaper


My favorite – paper wallpaper with textured leaf-like pattern




Wallcovering Installers Association, “Why Wallpaper”, Available from http://www.wallcoveringinstallers.org/consumers/why-wallpaper/ [29 April 2016]

History Magazine, “Wallpaper”, Available from http://www.history-magazine.com/wallpaper.html [29 April 2016]

Natale, Greg and Anson Smart. The Tailored Interior. Print.


40,000 years ago, pre-historic man employed colored earth, soot and organic materials mixed with animal fat and blood to adorn cave walls.

In ancient Egypt, the brightly colored frescoes in the Dendera Temple Complex are a vivid testament to the enduring nature of this civilization’s wall treatment. By mixing oil or fat with lead, earth, animal blood, ground glass and semiprecious stones, a palette of white, red, yellow, green, black and blue was created – not dissimilar to the method employed by our pre-historic ancestors.

In the 1200s, we have house painters in England organizing themselves into guilds to protect their trade secrets of paint mixing and application.

In the 1600s, in the American colonies, the Puritans believed that painting a house was a display of immodesty and vanity. This idea was actually made into law with painting being considered a crime of sacrilege.

However, it is also during this time that we see both subversive homemade recipes for paint – lime and ground oyster shells to make “white wash” – and the distinction between house paint using either oil or water as a base depending on cost and durability.

Grinding pigment to disperse the color fully was also done by hand until the 1700s when awareness of lead poisoning began to take hold.   At this time, Marshall Smith invented a machine for grinding pigment.   However, it wasn’t until 1978 when the US prohibited the sale or use of lead-based house paint.

By the 1800s, white pigment made with zinc oxide was invented in Europe as an alternative to lead and linseed oil as an inexpensive binder allowed paint to be made in large quantities easily.   This is also when painting homes became the norm rather than the exception.

In 1886, Sherman-Williams was the first company to sell ready-to-use paints and later developed the reseal-able tin that is still used today. Major competitor Benjamin Moore started operations in 1993 and introduced the modern computerized color-matching system.

In the mid-20th century, with the scarcity of linseed oil, chemists made alkyds, or artificial resins, to create cheap, long-lasting and color-stable latex paint. However, these latex paints contained harmful volatile organic compounds or VOCs while milk paint and other water-based paints don’t.

The colors in water-based paints are subtler and over time, resist yellowing.

Both water based and latex paints dry faster than oil-based paints and resist cracking so it is used more frequently for walls.

Although oil based paint tend to run and may crack and yellow with time, they have an attractive gloss, good leveling and a hard, durable finish that is desirable for floors, doors, furniture or any surface that experiences high wear and tear and humidity.

Nowadays, there are also water borne enamels that offer the benefits of an oil-based paint but are water or alkyd based.

Other eco-friendly paints in the market today include clay and other water-based paints that use plant oils, natural resins and dyes. These paints are gaining popularity because they don’t produce strong odors associated with VOCs. Milk paint made from milk, lime, pigments and borax is an example. It is extremely durable, safe and made from all-natural ingredients. However, milk paint comes in a powder that needs to be mixed and keeps only for about six months. However, milk paint can achieve custom finishes that cannot be achieved with acrylic paints.


Distressing a wood surface after application of milk paint

Most paint come in finishes ranging from (ordered from least to most reflective) matte, eggshell, satin, semi-glass and gloss. The rule of thumb is that the higher the gloss, the more durable and easier the painted surface will be to clean.

From an interior design perspective, walls covered with high sheen paint can make a small space seem lighter, especially if there is a little natural light.   A simple textural look can also be achieved by painting a stripe of glossy paint over a matte wall.

Fresco Technique

With advances in paint technology and application techniques using sponges, rags, stencils and trowels, paints can now offer finishes that mimic fresco, suede, marble, stone, metal and sand.  For the fresco technique, one would layer a thick, dimensional basecoat in a sporadic manner, which is then evened out with a rounded trowel, followed by two coats of a matte basecoat, which is in turn finished with sponging on a glaze coat to reveal the texture.


This above technique is very time consuming and labor intensive given the different techniques, cans of paint and drying durations between each coat of paint.   That is why paint cannot rival wallpaper in the sheer breath of effects.

Examples of other paint finishes include:


Benjamin Moore’s textured sand finish paint



Painted chinoiserie wall by McGee Design


Sherwin-William’s Faux Impressions Leaf Finish paint

In general, paint is a relatively low-cost option for walls as it is easy to acquire and apply if you are talking about a simple finish. However, it typically lasts only between five and 10 years.

At the high end, paint costs between US$30 and US$60 a gallon, with a gallon covering about 400 square feet. The primer is an additional cost, coming in between US$7 and US$15 per can.   For Do-It-Yourself projects, the cost to paint a room of 10×12 feet in area thus averages between US$200 and US$300. The cost for a professional paint job averages between US$380 and US$790, not included ceilings, trim or the cost of the paint.


Franklin Painting, A Brief History of House Painting, https://www.franklinpainting.com/blog/home/a-brief-history-of-house–painting/ [25 May 2016]

Shearer Painting, History of Paint, Available from http://shearerpainting.com/history-of-paint/ [25 May 2016]

Brewster Home Fashions, Wallpaper vs. Paint,

http://www.brewsterwallcovering.com/wallpaper-vs-paint.aspx [25 May 2016]

The Creativity Exchange, How to Use Milk Paint on Furniture, http://www.thecreativityexchange.com/2013/08/what-is-milk-paint-and-how-to-use-it-on-furniture-paint-it-monday.html [25 May 2016]

Elle, Five Major Types of Paint and How to Pick the Right One, http://www.elledecor.com/home-remodeling-renovating/home-renovation/advice/a2777/different-types-paint-finishes/ [25 May 2016

Popular Mechanics, Forget Ordinary Paint: Use These 8 Stylish Faux Finishes, http://www.popularmechanics.com/home/interior-projects/how-to/g1091/forget-ordinary-paint-use-these-8-stylish-faux-finishes/ [25 May 2016

Sherwin-Williams, Textured Fresco, http://www.sherwin-williams.com/homeowners/ask-sherwin-williams/faux-finishing/old-world-impressions/sw-article-dir-texturedfresco.html

http://www.sherwin-williams.com/homeowners/ask-sherwin-williams/faux-finishing/old-world-impressions/sw-article-dir-texturedfresco.html [25 May 2016]

Architectural Digest, 6 Unexpected Painting Ideas to Try Now, http://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/unexpected-painting-ideas [26 May 2016]


Hand-painted Tromp d’Oeil Wallpaper

Trompe-l’œil (French for “deceive the eye”, pronounced [tʁɔ̃p lœj]) is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. Trompe l’oeil dates from ancient Greece and Rome where wall paintings depicting windows and doors would suggest a bigger room or 360° panoramas.


Tromp d’oeil effects of a fresco in an entire room in the Villa of the Farnesia, Roma, early 1st Century BC

These wall paintings were composed of up to three layers of mortar, a mixture of lime and sand, or volcanic pozzolana, followed by up to another three coats of a mixture of lime and finely crushed marble, which was then polished to prepare it for painting. Paint added to such a wet surface is the definition of the fresco technique.  

Nowadays, instead of this painstakingly long process of plastering and painting, oil paintings are reimagined in the form of wallpaper. They are customized to suit a room –colors and scales are adapted accordingly to the client’s needs.

Recently, de Gournay introduced a new wall covering line, the Emperor Collection, which uses 18th-century techniques of watercolors on a silk or Indian paper background. Bleaching pigments develops the muted patina of an “old painting”.

2This example recreates Zhao Mengu’s 1287 AD piece, Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu, a part of the Asian Art Collection at the Princeton University Art Museum.  

3Another design inspired by the Song dynasty’s Wang Ximeng and A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, part of the permanent collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.

This type of wallpaper traverses the boundaries between wallpaper and paint, offering the best of both yet providing an instant impact for the mood and tone of an interior. The pricing of de Gournay’s Emperor Collection wallpaper is not cheap as it starts from $1,250 per 3-foot-wide panel. However, for Asian inspired interiors, this type of wallpaper on the scale of an entire room does more than suggest Asia, it transports you.   I believe that even the original paintings, the inspiration for these wallpapers (which would cost much, much more), can’t do this to an interior!


Ancient History Encyclopedia, “Roman Wall Paintings”, Available from http://www.ancient.eu/article/597/ [1 June 2016]

South China Morning Post, Lifestyle section, Hong Kong Edition, “Can’t afford 13th century Chinese landscape paintings? Get the wallpaper instead”, “http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/article/1900525/cant-afford-13th-century-chinese-landscape-paintings-get-wallpaper-instead [1 June 2016]


Wood Paneling


Just like hardwood flooring, wood paneling is associated with 17th and 18th century design and came into its own with British Victorian architecture. Paneling acted as a barrier to the cold that came with stonewalls. In the 18th century England, floor-to-ceiling coverage changed to covering only the lower half of the wall. This was the beginning of wainscoting.

Wainscoting got its name from a particular type of oak that was found in large, slow-grown forests and the boards were knot-free, low in tannin, light weight and easy to work with. In the 18th century, softwoods mainly pine and spruce became popular and nowadays, wainscoting can be made from any wood depending on the climate and desired color. The wood can also be painted or stained to match the décor.

Modern technology allows wainscoting to be produced in sheets, instead of single boards. There is also faux wainscoting made from vinyl, plastic, ceramic, embossed metal and other materials, which are durable, water, mold and mildew resistant, and easy to install and clean.

The five types of wainscoting are:

  1. Raised panel, with panels being in front of the styles and rails so the panels look raised (associated with colonial styles)
  2. Flat panel, with panels being behind the styles and rails and with no beveled edges, the panels look recessed (associated with Arts and Crafts and Mission styles)
  3. Beadboard wainscoting, with thin, individual boards placed directly next to each other and fitted with a tongue and groove system
  4. Overlay wainscoting, a combination of flat and raised paneling, with a sold wood overlay centered between the rails and styles of a flat panel and glued in place and applied molding adding to the effect.
  5. Board and vertical batten, which is flat paneling with vertical boards used to cover the seams.

In interiors, wainscoting adds interest and texture, even without color. It creates architectural interest by splitting walls into two parts.   With its straight lines, wainscoting produces visual depth, thereby expanding or making the space feel more intimate. The upper line of the wainscoting can also be designed as a display shelf or it can simply hide utility access panels.


Wainscoting makes the entry hall more intimate

Wainscoting instantly communicates a timeless look. Beadboard wainscoting, in particular, is associated with traditional colonial, farmhouse or cottage styles. However, there are modern wainscoting designs that add impact to a contemporary style.


Jauregui Architect’s contemporary entrance for the Lake Austin Retreat project


Designers can also play with the height of the wainscoting, layering one type of wainscoting over another, installing the wainscoting horizontally instead of a traditional vertical layout and using deeper and more detailed overlays.  More options come from adding a contrasting wall color with either paint or wallpaper to the portion of the wall that doesn’t have wainscoting.


Combining beadboard and flat panel wainscoting for a contemporary take

On a practical note, wainscoting can protect the drywall from scrapes, bumps and marks in heavy transitional areas or active rooms.


With its origins also in the 17th and 18th centuries, the carved wood panels of boiserie with its painted or gilded mouldings are associated with the French Baroque style embodied in the Palace of Versaille during the rule of Louis XIV and Classicism from the late Italian Renaissance period. Not only were these panels used to ward off the cold but they were also taken one step further than wainscoting. Sculpting the wood panels, particularly when they are installed from the floor to the ceiling, brought a sumptuous grandeur that defines the Classic style.

By definition, boiserie is very orderly but can range from the traditionally ornate to a more contemporary clean look.


In the more antiquated approach, paneled ceilings match the wall panel ornamentation but follow a rectilinear pattern. The curvilinear elements of pediments, cornices, balustrades and banisters further adorn and add contrast to the straight lines. While gilding also enhances the impact, the entire effect remains harmonious.

In a more contemporary approach to boiserie, a linear pattern remains at the forefront of the design.   Ornamentation is pared down to suggest the Classic style (above left) or done away altogether for a style grounded in this century (above right).


As with wainscoting, interior designers can play with boiserie wood panels. For example, a single wooden wall in a linear pattern amid concrete walls can an industrial style adding warmth. Choosing a wood depending on its color, sheen and grain can confer a rustic, country feel or create a mid-century modern look, as the panels of the room on the left does.

Depending on the artisanship required, the initial outlay for boiserie can be expensive but like wainscoting, it is durable and requires no repainting or refinishing. This is particularly true with the solid timber and elaborate finishes of the more ornate installations.


EliteMouldings Store, “Wainscoting Panels”, Available from http://elitetrimworks.com/wainscoting_panels.html [June 4, 2016]

This Old House, “Wainscoting Designs, Layouts and Materials”, Available from http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/photos/0,,1563982,00.html [June 4, 2016]

REMODELaholic, “The Ultimate Guide to Wainscoting: 25+Stylish Wainscoting Ideas”, Available from http://www.remodelaholic.com/25-wainscoting-ideas/[June 4, 2016]

Jaugerei Architect, “Completed Projects”, Available from http://www.jaureguiarchitect.com/portfolio#austin-lake/26 [June 4, 2016]

 Architectural Digest, “10 Rooms That Take Wood Paneling to the Next Level”, Available from http://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/wood-paneled-rooms-slideshow/all[June 4, 2016]

Minimalista, “‘Turati Boiseries’ for the Ultimate in Traditional Sculpted Wood Paneling”, Available from http://www.minimalisti.com/architecture/interior-design/08/ultimate-traditional-sculpted-wood-paneling.html[June 4, 2016]




Stone is simply the most luxurious natural material for walls and flooring. Made by slicing or splitting boulders and slabs of rock into thin squares and rectangles, stone has been used in home interiors for thousands of years. Perhaps even more than wood, stone denotes permanence, character and lasting elegance.

Its naturally cool, durable surface is ideal for warm climates and does not harbor dust or allergens. In cooler climates, stone can be cold and slippery and I have described the tapestry/wallpaper and wood paneling choices above that mitigate this characteristic.

Stone exists in an incredible range of colors and patterns with rare colors and patterns costing the most. Given that walls can be uneven as a tactile point of interest (which is more of a concern with flooring), shape takes on prominence.   Pebbles with its organic roundness and dry-stone and free form walling in which granite, limestone or slate pieces are split on the face create a rugged, rocky look. For a flatter finish, stone can be split on all faces evenly to create a paved, tiled look.

Besides split facing and splitting on a natural fault (natural cleft), stone can also be finished as follows which determines the texture, colour and maintenance:

  1. Sandblasted for a smooth abraded texture
  2. Polished for a shiny, rich look bringing out the full color and character of the stone
  3. Honed by buffing to a smooth but dull appearance.

This can make the stone look “greyed out” especially on darker stones. Honed finishes also need to be resealed more often as flaws show up more readily in this matt finish.

  1. Flamed by firing an intense flame at the stone’s surface causing it to burst and become rough, resulting in a slip resistant finish.

This cannot be applied to all stones, only granite and hard limestone.


Flamed and Brushed is an even more technical treatment entailing the use of a blowpipe that passes a high-temperature flame over the surface. Not only does this confer a rough finish but also fades the color which hides defects and tone variations. Oxidation of iron in some stones will also cause yellow materials to become orange or red.

  1. Rigato, a machine finish in which a linear pattern is cut onto the stone
  2. Bush-Hammered by a stone-working hammer whose head resembles a meat tenderizer to achieve a smooth surface with small indentations.

While time intensive because the head of the hammer is usually only 1-2 inches square in size, this technique can be applied to most stones.


Bush-Hammered and Brushed uses a multi-pointed tool that creates grazes of different depths, making the surface rougher and the color lighter. This expensive technique has mostly been replaced with flaming and pressure water finishing.

  1. Leathered, a relatively new technique of texturing granite or marble to appear less glossy and more textured while retaining its natural color. The sheen is soft, less shiny than the gloss of polished stone.

Leathered granite hides fingerprints, water spots and smudges well so it is easier to maintain.

Stone is not only a relatively expensive material but it is also hard to install because it requires a substrate and movement joints. However, stone clad walls can provide a captivating focal point for interiors to create a timeless yet on-trend design. Besides the oft-associated stone fireplace, backsplashes in kitchens, bathroom walls or even a feature wall in a living area is a design highlight.

In the Madison Street project below by Michael Abraham Architects, the stone in the exterior of the house is repeated as feature walls in the interior to bring some natural warmth to a contemporary interior design.   I particularly like the feature wall in the dining room as a counterpoint to the painted walls, wood floors and doors and steel and glass furniture. 

Another one of my favourite uses of stone was in the remodel of a 1980’s house by Furman + Keil Architects. In Art House, the architects cleverly re-imagined the house as a museum. While there were structural additions of a canti-levered entrance and light shaft in the entry, the use of stone throughout the house is a surprising textural element that also subtly enhances the grandeur of the house.



Stone Surfaces, “Surface Finishes”. Available from http://www.stonesurfaces.ca/4-surface-finishes.html [June 14, 2016]

Pacific Shore Stones, “Stone trends: polished, honed or leathered finish?” , Available from http://www.pacificshorestones.com/stone-trends-polished-honed-or-leathered-finish/ [June 14, 2016]

Stone and Tile Company, “Latest Trends”, Available from http://www.stonetilecompany.co.uk/latest-trends [June 14, 2016]

Michael Abraham Architecture, “Portfolio”, Available from http://michael-abraham.com/portfolio/ [June 14, 2016]

Furman + Keil Architects, “Art House”, Available from http://www.fkarchitects.net/art-house [June 14, 2016]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s