Finally ready to tackle that ugly old wallpaper? The first thing you should know is that if you’re dealing with wallpaper that has been in place for years, or possibly decades, you’ll need to have patience.
Advice on how to remove wallpaper from old walls can vary. Some will present it as a veritable cinch; others as a laborious process. The reality is probably somewhere in between. Depending on the type of wallpaper you’re working with, it can take up to a day per room to remove. If you’re up for taking on the challenge yourself, then keep reading.
Know the wallpaper you’re removing
There are three main types of wallpaper, according to Kristen Chuber, a certified color consultant and senior marketing director at Boston-based home-painting company Paintzen: peel and stick; vinyl (traditional); and coated backing/adhesive. Peel and stick is the easiest to remove, vinyl a little more difficult, and coated backing/adhesive the hardest.
How do you tell the difference? Chuber breaks it down (though you may have to tug a bit at the edges to discover what you have):
- Peel and stick replicates the feel of contact paper and is easy to remove.
- Vinyl paper will most likely come off in a full sheet. It also feels a little plastic-y to the touch.
- Pre-pasted paper will come off in chunks.
Homeowners can remove peel and stick by simply pulling it off without any special tools or water, Chuber says. For vinyl wallpaper, it’s a little trickier because of the adhesive and/or because that adhesive frequently becomes one with drywall. “The best way to get this stuff off is to use a wallpaper removing solution, such as DIF,” Chuber says.
As for coated backing/adhesive wallpaper, it’s meant to be washable and impervious to water, “so you have to perforate the paper before you can strip it.” Chuber adds that coated backing/adhesive wallpaper is not only difficult to remove, but you can expect damage to the wall after removal, which will require repair or skim coating. Chuber says homeowners may want to hire a professional for this type of removal.
Know the wall too
The paper and the wall are together for a long while—and the wall type determines whether or not the breakup will be especially messy. There are two basic types of wall: plaster and drywall. To find out which one you have, look to the age of your home.
Plaster walls are found mostly in homes more than 50 years old; they are more solid and sound dull and dense if you knock on them. Drywall is more commonly found in younger homes, and is much more hollow and potentially more delicate. So, if you end up using a scraping tool to remove wallpaper on drywall, be careful.
Once you know the wallpaper type and wall type, prepare for removal. Remove everything on the wall—paintings, pictures, bric-a-brac, etc. Pull furniture back from the wall toward the center of the room, and cover if possible.
Then remove all of the wall plates from electrical outlets and light switches, and tape over the outlet and switches themselves, per Chuber. This will stop water and moisture incursions, she says. Also, tape any floorboards and wainscoting to prevent damage, and throw down a drop cloth on the floor to catch wet wallpaper and towels on the baseboards (if necessary) to do the same.
Removing peel and stick wallpaper
“Newer wallpapers are strippable, which means they can easily be removed without water or chemicals,” according to Lowes. To see if you’re dealing with peel and stick, pry a small corner loose with a putty knife. If it comes away from the wall easily, then just peel.
Pull slowly at an angle, though, rather than holding it straight or yanking it off. “This will minimize damage,” Chuber says. “If you hit any snags, then we recommend that you continue working around the problem area and then switch over to the techniques for removing traditional wallpaper or laminate wallpaper to finish getting rid of any remnants.”
But that’s it, really: Peel the paper as you would a sticker (only in this case it’s a sticker covering a wall).
Removing vinyl—a.k.a. “traditional”—wallpaper
Things get a little more complicated with traditional wallpaper. Pro tip, per Chuber: Get a clean, garden sprayer, the kind for spraying water or Miracle Gro and fill it instead with a mix of water and wallpaper removal solution. Then spray a segment of the wallpaper that you can remove in no more than 15 minutes, to minimize damage to the wall. Then let it soak for another 15 minutes or more.
After that, start gently pulling away the wallpaper with your hands. “It is definitely important to avoid any scraping because that will damage the wall beneath,” Chuber says. “We suggest that people remove only the paper that comes off easily. Those drop cloths that I mentioned earlier will come in handy as you start to notice wet plops of paper hitting the floor!”
Removing coated back or adhesive wallpaper
This is the most stubborn sort of wallpaper to remove, as it’s generally built to be waterproof (and it’s therefore the one that homeowners may not be able to handle solo). You can start with the same wallpaper-removal solution in the garden sprayer for the vinyl wallpaper removal. Be careful again not to cover too much ground at once.
There’s an extra step as it dries. You’ll want to use sandpaper or a scoring tool on sections of the wallpaper to further loosen it. Then hold a wallpaper steamer against sections for 15 to 20 seconds. After that, begin lifting the wallpaper away from the wall with your hands while it’s loose and coming off more easily.
Okay, the bulk of the wallpaper is gone. Now for the cleanup. Chuber says wait a day, and then repeat the above tactics to remove any larger remaining pieces. Smaller remnants or wallpaper glue can be removed with trisodium phosphate (though there are environmental and health pros and cons to working with such a strong cleaning agent). You’ll want to wait another day or two to paint or to make any repairs to the wall.