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A messy business
Set aside a full weekend to get the walls cleaned up and ready for a new wallpaper or paint.
going to sugarcoat it.
Removing wallpaper is a messy,
time-consuming and tedious job. I
wish I could tell you there’s a nifty
new product that will make the
whole thing easy. But there isn’t.
And if you don’t know what you’re
doing or you start to get frustrated,
you can damage your walls or stop
before the job is done. The tips in
this article won’t make the job fun.
But they will help you do it more
efficiently, without damaging your
walls. They’ll also show you how
to get a wall perfectly clean, ready
for a fresh coat of paint or new
Do yourself a favor and take a full
weekend to do the job right. Attack
the messy and hard stuff (Photos
1–5) on day one and use the second
day to prep the walls for paint or
Protect the floor and woodwork
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Photo 1: Keep the floor and trim dry
Tape plastic to the baseboard, allowing it to overlap the floor
about 2 ft. Press hard on the tape to create a watertight seal.
Cover the draped plastic with more plastic and top that with
towels to absorb the water as it runs down the walls.
Everything is going to get wet and sticky, so carefully protect
the floor, furniture and woodwork. Take everything off the
walls, including vents, outlet covers and switch plates, and
mask the openings with plastic and tape. Turn off the electricity
to the room at the service panel and use high-quality
work lamps on extension cords to light your work area. If
possible, remove the furniture completely. If not, move it to
the center of the room and cover it with plastic.
Glue and water are going to run down the walls, so you
want to protect the floors and prevent the water from running
behind molding, baseboards and chair rails. Do this by
creating a plastic “gutter” to catch it. Top the plastic gutter
with more plastic and then cover that with towels. Replace
them with dry towels as necessary.
Pull off the face
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Photo 2: Tear off the facing
Start at a corner near the ceiling or under a switch plate, where the
paper tends to be loose. Use a putty knife to lift the edges of the
facing, then pull the facing off the wall using steady, even pressure.
Do this step without using any water. The point is to remove
the top layer of paper and leave the backing on the wall.
That way, the backing will easily soak up water, making the
rest of the job faster and easier. Use a putty knife to get the
edge of the paper started, if necessary, and pull the paper
back slowly at a 45-degree angle, applying moderate pressure.
You can sometimes pull down entire sheets of newer
wallpapers with this technique.
But the longer the
paper has been up, the
more likely it is to come
off in smaller pieces (or
not at all). If you just can’t
remove the facing at all,
use a scoring tool before
moving on to the next step
(see “Tough Tools for
Tough Situations,” below).
Apply hot water
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Photo 3: Soak backing to soften the paste
Apply water to the backing using a sponge or floor mop. This lets you control the
amount of water you're applying each time. Let the backing absorb the water for up to 15 minutes. You may have to apply water several times to soften the paste.
Apply the hottest water you can tolerate (wear gloves!) to
the wallpaper backing and the remaining facing to soften
them and the adhesive underneath. The hard part is doing
this without damaging the wall surface. Plaster walls can
take a lot of hot water without a problem. But drywall has a
paper surface that can be damaged by prolonged contact
with water. It’s OK to moisten drywall, but don’t keep it wet
for longer than 15 minutes at a time. Work in small sections
so the backing doesn’t dry out before you have a chance to
Apply the water using a sponge (or a floor mop for the
high spots). Let the backing absorb the water until it starts to
pull away from the wall. When the backing softens (use your
fingernail or a scraper to check), you’re ready for the next
Scrape off the backing
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Photo 4: Scrape off the backing
Use a metal spatula or putty knife with a flexible blade and rounded corners to scrape the backing off the wall. If you don't have a rounded putty knife, file the corners. Don't be too aggressive with the scraper or you’ll gouge the wall.
Use an old, very flexible metal spatula or putty knife with
rounded corners to scrape the backing and remaining facing
off the wall. Don't use the spatula too aggressively—the drywall
might be soft in spots and scraping too hard can easily gouge it. Using a flexible blade is key
because it won't dig into the drywall
as much. Plastic spatulas or scrapers
don't work—they're too thick to get
underneath the backing.
Remove every speck of paste. Really.
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Photo 5: Use gel stripper on stubborn paste
Spray any remaining paste and backing with gel stripper and let it
sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Scrape off the gel and paste underneath
until all the paste is completely gone. Rinse the wall with water
until it's smooth.
This is the most important step, but
the one that typically gets short
shrift. There’s going to be a lot of
paste on the wall once the backing is
gone, and it’s going to take a lot of
effort to get it all off. Scrape off as
much of the glue with a putty knife
as you can. Then wash the walls
thoroughly with a sponge and water.
OK. This is the moment when
most people drop the ball. You’re
tired, the wall looks clean and you
just want to be done. So the temptation
is to call it a (very long) night
and “not see” the paste that’s still
there. Paste has a dark sheen to it and
the wall will still feel sticky. Spray a
light mist of water on the “clean”
wall. Hold your work light parallel to
the wall and you’ll see the paste that
remains. If you don’t get it all off,
when you paint the wall, the paint
will eventually flake and crackle.
Wallpaper that’s applied over it will
bubble or fail to stick properly.
Use a gel stripper (see “Tough
Tools for Tough Situations,” below) to
get the last bits of stubborn paste and
backing off the wall. You won’t need
a whole lot, so it’s not going to break
the bank. Since the gel clings to the
wall, you can scrape off the gel and
the paste at the same time with minimal
cleanup. After the paste is completely gone, rinse the wall with water until it’s smooth
and squeaky clean. Now go to bed.
Tough Tools for Tough Situations
Some chemical strippers work as wetting agents that prevent
the water from evaporating while you remove the paste.
Others have enzymes (check the label) that actually break
down the molecular structure of the paste, making it easier to
remove. You can buy premixed liquid, powdered or gel chemical
wallpaper removers at home centers and paint stores. Strippers can get pricey
on big jobs. To save money, use hot water to remove most of
the paper and glue and then apply a small amount of the gel
at the end to remove the most stubborn paste and backing.
A scoring tool punches hundreds of tiny
holes in the wallpaper facing so the water
can penetrate the backing. If you can pull
off the facing, you probably don’t need to
use one. But if you have a waterproof facing like
a glossy paper or vinyl, a scoring tool can really help. But use
it carefully. Plaster walls are impervious to abuse, but scoring
tools used aggressively can easily punch tiny holes in drywall.
You can find scoring tools at home centers and wallpaper
Steamers are the tool of last resort. They’re messy, difficult to
work with and time-consuming to use. But in truly stubborn
cases, they’ll get the job done … eventually. Steam removal is
more dangerous than other methods because you can burn
yourself, and you can also damage the paper drywall surface
if you hold the steamer on the wall too long. But if nothing
else is working, rent a steamer.
Repair, sand and prime the wall
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Photo 6: Sand walls smooth
Patch any gouges or damage to the wall with joint compound.
Sand the wall using a hand sander and 120-grit drywall sanding
paper to smooth rough areas and remove any remaining backing
or paste. Then prime the walls with an appropriate primer.
The next day after the wall has dried thoroughly (and you’ve
had a good night’s sleep), prep the wall for paint or new
wallpaper. Patch large gouges or holes from the scoring tools
with joint compound. If you have really banged-up walls
over a large area, trowel on a 1/16-in.-thick skim coat of joint
compound over the entire wall.
Once your repairs are dry, sand the wall until it’s smooth.
If you plan to put up new wallpaper, use an acrylic primer
that’s formulated for wallpaper applications (available
at home centers and paint stores) to make removing it easier
the next time around. If you’re going to paint, use a
primer designed for that purpose. Always prime a wall,
even if it’s painted, before putting wallpaper on it. If you
don’t, you might remove the paper surface of the drywall
when you try to remove it.