Removing Painted-Over Wallpaper


Dear NH,
We have wallpaper on our walls that was painted over by the former residents. I would like to know if there is an easy way to remove it.

Dear LB,
It is always difficult, and sometimes impossible, to remove painted over wallpaper. That is why the number one choice is to just leave it on the walls. With the proper repairs, all but the most awful wall surfaces can be restored to their original smooth glory!

The general procedure is to cut out all loose areas of paper and level the walls with wallboard compound, as if you were fixing shallow holes. You can similarly cut back loose seams and fill them. Once you do all the repairs, a coat of an oil-based primer is required to seal the walls. If you use a water-based primer, you may cause more of the wallpaper to release where you don't want it to! Also, though water-based primers have really improved over the last 20 years, they still tend to dissolve stains and carry them to the surface of the paint, leading to possible bleed through into your finish coat.

Removal of the paper is another more serious and more difficult task. Paste dissolving chemicals and/or a steam wallpaper remover will be your tools of choice in this endeavor. Of course, for the chemicals or steam to get to the adhesive beneath the paint/paper collage, you must somehow mechanically pierce the paint film. One old-time method is to use a stiff wire brush to abrade the surface of the paint and paper. Fast forward to the 20th Century... there is a retail product called the Paper Tiger that does this a little more neatly and easily. The Paper Tiger is a small hand-held tool that has hundreds of small pins attached to wheels. Rolling it over the surface of the wall introduces hundreds of small holes, usually deep enough to penetrate the surface but no so deep that you will require extensive wall repair afterwards. This product is commonly available at paint stores. The only drawback is that it may not fully penetrate through multiple layers of paint.

One you have sufficiently scored the paint film or paper, you can begin stripping the paper. You have two options. You can use a chemical wallpaper stripper, available at any paint or hardware store, which is mixed with hot water and sprayed on the surface of the wall. The chemical dissolves the paste and helps lift the paper from the wall. Your second, more severe option is to use a steam wallpaper stripper. Many paint stores and rental centers have these available, and will provide instruction in their use.

If the above methods fail you, the final and least desirable method would be to use a chemical paint stripper. Because these products are very toxic and possibly damaging to many other surfaces (including your body), I list this as a last resort when other less dangerous remedies have been ruled out!

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