Wallpaper removal is possibly the single, most unpleasant task that house painters can undertake. It is certainly a messy job, involving slimy glue residue, wet drop-cloths and garbage bags full of the stuff. What probably scares us the most is the unpredictability of the job. Very often we don’t know the age of the wallpaper. There are times that the surface was not prepared well by the installers. You can certainly test a little corner but that is not necessarily indicative of how easy the wallpaper removal will be. Painting contractors will sometimes suggest to the customer a time & materials arrangement. This will go a long way in taking care of any difficulties and protect the contractor from any surprises.
Unfortunately some homeowners do not like paying based on time & materials. To some this has the same connotation as writing a blank cheque to a stranger. The customer will sometimes try removing wallpaper themselves to save money. It is difficult but certainly possible for a homeowner to do this. All it takes is some research, hard work and basic tools.
Find out what Kind of Wall is Behind the Wallpaper.
Is it drywall or plaster? Older homes have plaster walls, newer ones have drywall. If you are not sure, you can guess what they are by gently knocking on them. If you knock on the wall and it sounds and feels solid you very likely have plaster walls. If it sounds hollow, you likely have drywall.
Plaster walls are stronger and if they are in good condition, they will not be damaged. The possible drawback of working with plaster walls is their age. First, a safety concern: if the walls are very old, there may be asbestos in them. This work is very hazardous and better left for specialty professionals. In some homes it is possible to have multiple layers of wallpaper installed over each other. Our Toronto painters found that to be the case in older downtown neighbourhoods.
Drywall provides a more delicate surface to work with and you need to take care not to damage it. Many times an enthusiastic customer will remove the wallpaper for us, only to find out that the walls were severely damaged in the process. This happens more when the installer did not prime the walls properly before the installation. Repairing the damaged walls costs a lot of money. Sometimes considerably more than the money saved by “helping” with the removal.
Quick tips: do not use a steamer on drywall, and use putty knives with rounded corners.
Basic Tools for Wallpaper Removal.
Plastic drop-cloths. You will need a lot of plastic to protect your furniture and to capture some of the water with the glue residue. You will need a lot of it, so you might find it more economical to purchase a big roll.
Painters drop cloths or anything you can find to catch a lot of water. You need a lot of water for this project and you will want to capture most of it. If you don’t you will damage your floors or even the ceiling of the lower floor. In the absence of painter’s drop cloths, old blankets, sheets and towels will do the job.
Wallpaper removal solution. Some homemade solutions are fabric softeners, dishwashing liquid with water, or plain hot water. All of them can work when the wallpaper is easy to remove. If you want to make your life easier we suggest one of the commercially available products. They come premixed, concentrated or “gelled”. In our experience most of the work well if you follow the directions on the container. Ecopainting uses a solution we special order from the US. It is less harmful and is quite effective.
Bucket and a sponge to apply the solution to the wall. Alternatively you can apply the solution to the wall with a tray and a paint roller.
If there is a lot of wallpaper to remove, using a garden sprayer with a pump will make the job go faster.
A “paper tiger” or coarse sandpaper. Sometimes the top layer is waterproof vinyl that is difficult to remove. By using these tools you can score the vinyl surface to allow the solution to penetrate and reach the glue. Be careful not to damage the walls under the wallpaper. Drywall gas a delicate, paper thin surface, especially when it gets wet with hot water.
A wallpaper steamer. This was a popular tool when most of the walls were made of plaster. A steamer applies hot steam quickly to the surface and helps dissolve the glue. I would not recommend a steamer for drywall surfaces. It will damage the walls and create extensive and expensive wall repairs and plastering.
Strong garbage bags to collect the old wallpaper, and used plastic.
Putty knife or scrapers. To remove the paper and scrape the old paste off the wall. Round the corners of the scrapers to avoid damaging the surface. There is a specialty sharp blade made specifically for wallpaper removal. We find the blade to be too sharp for most of the jobs, except for hard and smooth plaster walls.
Removing wallpaper is a lot of work but a little preparation and good tools, can make the job easier.