Wall Finishes, Stucco or Wallpaper — Pros and Cons

When compared to your floors or ceilings, your collective walls will most likely have the most surface area — unless your home is just one massive room. Because of this, choosing the right wall finish — color, material, pattern, etc — is an extremely important part of the interior design.

There are a variety of wall finishes available, but today we’ll be focusing on 2! — Wallpaper and stucco. These 2 finishes are the most common here in Japan, although the former is far more common than the latter boasting 95% of all residential houses!

Rustic Nurikabe

This of course doesn’t mean anything other than that wallpaper is comparatively cheap, quicker to install, and has good aesthetics (when new and done well). This may be all or more than many people are asking for, but for folks who aren’t quite satisfied or who like a more rustic/western look, stucco may be for you.

Stucco Pros

  • Stucco ‘breathes’, so will regulate smells and humidity as well as inhibits the growth of mold.
  • High alkaline environment also contributes to mold-resistance.
  • Doesn’t emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds), as VOC-containing adhesives used for wallpaper installation are not required for stucco.
  • Fire resistant.
  • Depending on the thickness of application, it offers some sound resistance. – Can be significant when compared with wallpaper.
  • Some drywalling flaws that wouldn’t be tolerated with a wallpaper finish, are often ok with stucco (within reason) due to its thickness and pattern.

Stucco wall with sink

Stucco Cons

  • In a word — COST! Stucco may cost an average of 3 times more than its flimsy plastic counterpart. The main reasons are the required time and the material cost itself. As with painting, all bordering frames, trimming, etc, must be masked off, including the entire floor if it’s already been done. Also, time is needed for drying between primer and finish layers.
  • It’s not waterproof, and will stain if coffee for example, is spilled on it. It’s advisable to seal walls that are in close proximity to the kitchen, sink, dining table or other areas that may fall victim to spills and splashback. Just don’t overdo, as sealed stucco won’t breathe and may also look different/glossy when compared to unsealed stucco.

Wallpaper Pros

  • In a word — CHEAP! CheapER that is. As I mentioned above, wallpaper can be done for about a third of what stucco costs, and can be done faster as well.
  • There is no doubt more variety when it comes to certain patterns that can’t be practically achieved with stucco, such as color combinations, wallpaper depicting objects, etc.
  • Waterproof. Although this introduces other problems (see below), it works well for the purpose of preventing stains.

Wallpaper Cons

  • Doesn’t breathe, and can mold easily if subject to damp or unventilated conditions.
  • Adhesives used to install wallpaper contain VOCs such as formaldehyde, which is a known human carcinogen, and also thought to contribute to (SBS) Sick building syndrome.
    Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk
  • Certain phthalates contained in plasticizers used in the wallpaper itself is also a source of ongoing concern due to recent research highlighting it also as a very probable carcinogen, as well as links to developmental health. Although it may not be much of an issue in very small doses, the entire square footage of your interior walls and ceilings is not exactly a small dose when you consider how much time you spend in your home.
    Phthalates are everywhere, and the health risks are worrying. How bad are they really?

Sick building syndrome Illustration

In conclusion:

To be honest, I’m a little biased in favor of stucco. But I believe it’s for good reason, and that I was still objective overall. In conclusion, whether to choose stucco or wallpaper comes down to 2 main things (ignoring the time and health issues): budget and aesthetic preference. The former because we don’t all have dat dough to choose quality over affordability, and the latter because in the end, it may just be a simple matter of preference.

Additional reading and references:


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