What's the best way to remove wallpaper from plaster walls?
August 9, 2009 6:53 AM   Subscribe

I'll be spending this coming weekend removing possibly several layers of painted-over wallpaper from 70-year-old plaster walls in my new house. Got any tips, tricks, secrets, or advice?

So we bought a house -- yeah! -- but the previous owners (and perhaps beyond) lovingly painted over what I'm anticipating to be several layers of old, thick wallpaper. Naturally, I'd like to start fresh and do this correctly, but I need your advice.

I've a ton of different guides on the Internet, many with bits of conflicting information; I'm looking for your anecdotal advice! What methods worked the best for you? What's the One Thing I should definitely do? How bad is this really going to be?

posted by nitsuj to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Okay, this stuff (WP Chomp) is amazing in removing wallpaper. You can get it at a Home Depot-type store. We removed the painted-over wallpaper that came with our house and tried several different methods, but this stuff worked best. There is something really satisfying about gently puuuullllllling it off in huge chunks. And it smells good and doesn't have nasty chemicals.
posted by jschu at 7:02 AM on August 9, 2009

i've done this and it was quite the project - much more difficult, time-consuming, and messy than I realized. Getting industrial gloves and using Strip-Eez definitely helps. I should have hired help.
posted by mrmarley at 7:16 AM on August 9, 2009

The old fashioned way is to steam it off, much like steaming envelopes open. (The steam penetrates the paper, melts the glue, and you can peel it all off in large sheets.)

It definitely works, I remember doing that for three large rooms in my grandmother's house, but be prepared to sweat a lot while working over a kettle or humidifier.
posted by rokusan at 7:17 AM on August 9, 2009

Paper tigers work pretty well for scoring it, allowing the liquid (hot water, wallpaper stripper) to penetrate. It's pretty good to have one person score, one person spray, and a third person to scrape. Be patient and let the water really soak in before you try scraping. Use a rag to get off the last little slimy bits. You should probably put a drop cloth down. Use masking tape to tape it to the baseboards all the way around the room (you don't want any gaps. Trust me, if it gets on the floor, it isn't coming off...). Be prepared to sweat and hate life for at least one whole day. Probably a weekend if it's a big room.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:48 AM on August 9, 2009

If it's several layers, you might need a combination of tools. When I was a teen my mother and I removed self-stick wallpaper that had been applied with real paste as well, which I imagine would be similar to your layers and age combo. Scoring the paper, applying some sort of stripper to soften it up, and if needed steaming (we rented an actual wallpaper steamer from the local rent-all-tools place). With the stripper alone we could get the paper off in pieces the size of your hand, with the added steam we were able to get to large, newspaper-sized pieces.
posted by pupdog at 8:01 AM on August 9, 2009

There are giant spiked pizza cutters around, that help you puncture the old wallpaper so that steam and/or sprayed on soapy water can penetrate the stuff and then you scrape it of with a big spatula / a stripping knife for wallpaper (just a sharpened spatula).
But what's more important: what kind of material is the wall made of? If its just drywall or wood you might not want to get it too wet.
It is definitively easier with more water/steam and sharper scrapers, but it is always miserable work, because of the high humidity and warmth that you deliberately have to create yourself to loosen the wallpaper.
But maybe you get lucky and the whole thing can be pulled of as one sheet of a giant paint/wallpaper sandwich. Have you tried that?
I never tried jschu's chomp stuff, but it seems to be made of bacteria/enzymes that eat the wallpaper glue (Methylcellulose, also found in processed foods and cosmetics, yum), that sounds very interesting and seems to be an improvement on the just soapy water method.
posted by mmkhd at 8:02 AM on August 9, 2009

Whatever method you choose, have lots of ventilation and wear a dust-mask.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:15 AM on August 9, 2009

I'm seconding the tiger cutters and combining it with heavy duty steamers and a few glasses of wine and some great music. Take a break every half hour so you don't feel like your arms are going to fall off the next day.
posted by banannafish at 8:28 AM on August 9, 2009

The difficulty level will depend on the type of wallpaper that is up. If you have the paper-backed kind, the steam can make the wall paper seperate from the backing, which is then huge pain to remove. Just make sure you anticipate taking a lot more time than you expect.
posted by kenliu at 8:35 AM on August 9, 2009

One more thing - IMO removing wall paper is a good learning experience...you learn you never want to do it again.
posted by kenliu at 8:36 AM on August 9, 2009

Chiming in to agree with those saying that it can be time consuming. What you find underneath can be an unpleasant surprise too. When I was in that situation I ended up having the room replastered (just what they call a skim where they put a thin layer over what's already there and patch the holes where the plaster has gone bad/come away). It wasn't expensive and resulted in a much nicer look of freshly painted smooth plaster.
posted by merocet at 8:54 AM on August 9, 2009

I just did this to a bathroom, in bits and pieces, over the span of several months. I would budget more time than a weekend. Whatever you spray on -- Dif worked here -- needs time to penetrate, and your arms will only be able to scrape so much without falling off...

It is messy. Mine did not stick to the floor like Green Eyed's, though.

Be prepared for cracked walls underneath, and baseboards and windows that're no longer where they should be relative to the wall when you've taken off all the layers.

If you find yourself nicking the walls (plaster?), use a plastic scraper instead of a metal one.
posted by kmennie at 9:33 AM on August 9, 2009

Buy a wallpaper steamer. It does the best job IMO.

We've been renovating an old house for years now and use steam to remove wallpaper, paint, glue, anything. Much better than nasty chemicals, but keep everything well ventilated and obviously allow everything to dry before painting over it etc.
posted by stenoboy at 12:22 PM on August 9, 2009

I'm in the middle of steaming off a couple layers of wallpaper using a cheap clothing steamer; the kind with a long hose. Definitely worth a try because it pulls off the wallpaper and most of the glue, and the paste left behind is very moist from the steam and easily wiped off. Metal spatula helps to get the first edge pulled up.
posted by variella at 12:45 PM on August 9, 2009

It may sound like you're getting contradictory advice, but from (lots of) experience, you're not.

I purchased a house a few years back in which every room was covered with thick (metallic and/or fuzzy) wallpaper. That used heavy, heavy paste just poured on.

Plan for it to be a bigger pain in the butt, take longer, be messier, and possibly mess up your floors.

Cover your floors well - more than if you were painting.
Get a steamer - rent an industrial one from Home Depot Pro or buy one. The pro seemed slightly more powerful, but not significantly so and was heavier.
If it's thick vinyl wallpaper, puncture with a paper tiger, then steam, but don't go nuts with it at first. You just want to allow the steam to soak under. if you perforate too much of the paper, you'll be pulling off little strips, rather than huge sheets.
We alternated between DIF and the steamer. Some areas worked better with one over the other, and we could never predict which it would be. I'd imagine it was due to the level of paste.
Use PLASTIC putty knives or similar to scrape. Your drywall is already going to be screwed. Don't make it worse with gouges.
We put large trash bins under everyone who was helping us so they could just fill the bins with the soggy, horrible mess.
We had four people working for three days to do one living room. Me by myself did a tiny kitchen in a week. This was just to remove the paper.
After all the paper (even the white fuzzy stuff) is off, TSP everything. Wash the heck out of it to remove the residue.
Then patch. Then reprime. Then paint.
Do a section first. If you discover that your drywall is in such horrible shape, you may want to consider redoing the drywall rather than going through all the hassle and *then* redoing the drywall. (This happened to us in the bathroom. Whoever renovated the house used standard drywall, not green board, in the bathroom and so, of course, we had mold. I was Furious that I had done all the work only to watch the newly clean walls get demo'ed out.)
And after that, you will never, ever entertain the idea of wallpaper ever in your life. And you will hate people who do.
posted by Gucky at 1:29 PM on August 9, 2009

If the paper is very thick, plasticky or fabric, you may be able to just peel it away and then TSP wash or skim over the residue. If the paper is papery, and the type that can be easily soaked (i.e. when sprayed with a spray bottle, the spray doesn't just run down the surface), then DIF is your friend. Readily available at Home Depot, rated pretty safe (1/0/0 MSDS), and super effective at dissolving the glue without turning it into something that will cement to your baseboard and/or floor. With the Dif, you will want to buy a scorer (in case it isn't soaking in enough) and a scraper (I would recommend metal if you are prepared to do some minor repair after the paper is removed).

1903 Foursquare here, 8+ rooms of wallpaper of varying types removed in one very hot August of 2004. Walls washed, skimmed, primed and painted, no looking back!
posted by iscatter at 5:43 PM on August 9, 2009

What's the wallpaper made of? I lived in a place that was paint on top of wallpaper, but the bottom layer of wallpaper was this amazing vinyl fabric (or something) stuff that just peeled off like a band-aid. It was amazing!

Most of me hopes that you're so lucky.
posted by that girl at 6:43 PM on August 9, 2009

We did two big rooms in a weekend with a hired steamer. It was easier than I thought it would be, and when I say we, it was mainly me with the occasional spell from my then pregnant wife. We had a layer of vinyl paper on top, then two layers of paper only below. In most places I just started at a seam and slowly peeled it back as the steamer soaked through. Needed to scrape a bit as it came off.
We found a signature and date of the original painter decorator saying 1912, which was a couple of decades older than we had been told those rooms were, which was nice.
I hate wallpaper and all those who sail in her.
posted by bystander at 3:27 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

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