The Best Way to Remove Wallpaper

Its an ugly job. We can't make it pretty, but we can make it easier.

Mental preparation

I’m not 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 wallpaper.

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 new wallpaper.

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Protect the floor and woodwork

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.

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Pull off the face

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).

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Apply hot water

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 remove it.

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 step.

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Scrape off the backing

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.

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Remove every speck of paste. Really.

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

Chemical strippers
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.

Scoring tools
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 stores.

Electric steamers
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.

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Repair, sand and prime the wall

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.

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