Removing wallpaper before painting is a tough job, but it doesn't have to be terrible. Learn how to make it go quicker and easier—and how to make sure you end up with walls that are smooth and clean.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 stores.
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.
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.