Removing Wallpaper – Maybe This Was a Bad Idea

Wallpaper, like many building materials has made some significant strides in design and application within the last few years. Wallpaper has gone through the traditional cycles of:

  • Birth as a new idea – being that cool new thing (long time ago)
  • Adolescence – not having a good time in the market, consumers begin to form negative opinions about the product.
  • Rebirth – new designs and applications helping it become a viable option once again

Whether you like wallpaper or not, there will come a time when you will want/need to remove it – what will you do? Keep in mind these basic truths about wallpaper:

  1. Most processes will require some degree of physical scraping, be careful when scraping not to gouge the wall as this will create the need for drywall repair.
  2. Liquid based applications (including steam) will soften the surface of the wall, making it that much more susceptible to gouging.
  3. Often times there are multiple layers of wallpaper.

The strategies for dealing with wallpaper basically fall into either of two categories, removal or covering. I have compiled a list of those basic strategies with what I have experienced as the upside/downside associated with each.

Removing Wallpaper:

There are several topical and chemical treatments that claim to be the cure all for removing wallpaper. These products seem to offer that you can spray this liquid on and within a short period of time the wallpaper will get the hint, back up its bags and basically walk itself out the door. How nice it would be if it were that simple but it rarely is.

Some have claimed that water alone will do the trick, I’ve never found this to be true unless it was an unsafe (from a potential water damage standpoint) amount of water. It may be worth a try, especially if your wallpaper is already peeling, just be careful not to wet the surface beyond what can be dried relatively quickly.

Steam processes can be helpful, which will require either purchasing or renting a steaming unit. A common problem that I have found is that many of the cheaper units don’t emit enough pressure or hot enough steam to disengage the wallpaper. To date, the right steaming equipment, hot steam (300*F) at a decent pressure (up to 75psi), has been the most effective tool that I have used when removing wallpaper. Using a wide head with a towel wrapped over it delivers the right amount of heat, pressure and moisture.

Covering Wallpaper:

Sealing/priming the wallpaper, I know of contractors who do this and have claimed that it works pretty well. I don’t recommend this route as I think it is a short term solution and in the long run could end up causing more work and cost. If you are going to seal the wallpaper:

1) Make sure that the wallpaper is in good shape – good bond with no bubbling;

2) Check the seams of the wallpaper, these can often telegraph through paint, use light coating of joint compound to conceal these before priming;

3) Use an oil-based sealing primer.

Some claim that they like to skim coat the wallpaper, using a topping compound to cover/seal the wallpaper and then apply texture. The problem with wallpaper is that the compound might not bond with the wallpaper or the moisture from the topper or compound may cause bubbling behind the wallpaper.

With the addition of better products and more contemporary design, you may be able to resurface your wallpaper with an updated version. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations for the product, but if you existing wallpaper is in good shape it may be a good candidate for recovering. Newer wallpapers offer a host of color and even texture options.

If you are handy with drywall or have someone that can install it within your budget, ¼” drywall can used to resurface the area. This may cause some concerns for the base, window and door trims of most walls, but may be effective for certain areas.

If the wallpaper is only on the bottom half of the wall, you could install wainscoting cut to height and trimmed with a chair rail. Another option would be to use ¼” drywall instead of wainscoting, the drywall could be adorned with picture frames constructed out of more drywall or wood trim, or just finished with a nice chair rail. Whenever you divide the wall into two sections, utilizing a different color can make for a nice touch of design, whether you use a shade darker or a complementary color.

In my experience, the most effective method for dealing with wallpaper is to remove it. Removing the wallpaper takes the risk of bubbling or texture/seam transfer out of the equation. Proper removal is often tedious but can be done effectively and in a reasonable time frame.