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How to Fix Bubbled and Cracked Paint Before Painting Walls

I have over 20 years of experience painting, including getting rid of old, cracked paint and making walls look like new. Here's how I do it.

Under this window, moisture damage ruined the paint and some of the plaster.

Under this window, moisture damage ruined the paint and some of the plaster.

Cracked Paint

Many older homes have been painted so many times that the paint becomes a series of thick layers. Humidity, moisture, and time have a way of causing these layers to separate and bubble, eventually leading to cracking and chipping. When this happens, removing the loose paint is a must, but the paint removal will leave the walls uneven. To restore your walls to a smooth, even surface, the damaged areas must be reworked.

This work is not hard, and the cost to do the job is minimal. When you do the repairs, it will add a professional quality to your finished walls, and you will feel good about the work invested.

How to Remove Old, Cracked Paint

  1. The first will be to clean out all the old, damaged paint and plaster that has come loose.
  2. The second step is to resurface the damaged area. I call this floating the wall or ceiling. This sometimes requires several applications of sheetrock compound which I will refer to as MUD.
  3. The last step will be to sand to a finish and apply a couple of coats of primer/sealer.

The final outcome will depend on the amount of care put into a relatively easy job. The problem comes with having the patience to take your time and do a good job of it. Read on for detailed descriptions of each of these steps.

Time to Fix Things Up!

Time to Fix Things Up!

What You Will Need

  • six-in-one tool
  • mud knife or straight-edged trowel
  • mixing bowl
  • spatula
  • sheetrock joint compound (this can be bought already mixed in small to large buckets or bags or you can purchase dry joint compound and mix it yourself)
  • sanding block
  • sandpaper
  • shop vacuum

What About That Joint Compound?

I like to buy it in dry form for two reasons. The first is that you mix only what you need and the remainder will last a long time as long as you do not get it wet. The second reason I would rather mix my own mud is that I can vary the consistency of the wet mud to utilize the product for different forms of application.

The dry compound also comes in different drying times. You can purchase a quick set that will begin to stiffen in as little as 20 minutes, or you can get a slow set that takes an hour to stiffen. I generally use the quickest set because I am usually in a hurry doing repairs. The slower-setting compound is best to use when you are working on larger areas.

6 in One Tool.

6 in One Tool.

Cleaned and scraped: ready for repair.

Cleaned and scraped: ready for repair.

Years of layered paint.

Years of layered paint.

Step 1: Remove Loose Paint and Debris

The first thing you have to do is get rid of all the loose paint and debris that is peeling from the wall or ceiling. I like the handy "6 in one tool" for this job. It has a couple of different edges on it that you can use to gouge, score, and scrape with. That is the perfect tool for opening up the bubbles and cracks.

You can use the flat edge to scrape away the loose paint and sometimes part of the plaster or sheetrock. Then you can use the pointed edge to pick in tight spots and gouge out small loose areas. This tool is also great when you come to old caulk because you can dig in and under with it and it takes care of almost everything you need to get removed. I usually take a grinder and use it to keep my "6 in one" very sharp. It makes the work go faster if the edges are honed down to a sharp blade.

When I have everything cleaned out with the 6 in one, I take a sanding block and speed over everything to ensure that all loose areas are gone. This does not require serious sanding, so just speed through. You should then use a damp cloth to wipe away dust. Now the area is ready for repair.

Step 2: Refloat the Wall

Now that the bubbles and cracks in your paint are opened up and scraped clean, it is time to refloat the wall. What that actually means is putting an even coat of mud on the holes so that the wall is smooth and back to the original flat surface. This is a little bit tedious, but I believe anyone can do it if they take their time and are careful.

I wrote a little about the sheetrock joint compound above. I am using this because I like the way it performs. There are other products that you can purchase for the same purpose but personally, I do not like them as much as the sheetrock joint compound. You can use Plaster of Paris. There are other name-brand products on the market. I know I have used everything they manufacture and I always go back to the joint compound. I always use the powdered form that you have to mix yourself. I told you why but let me expound.

  • Powdered joint compound will keep for a long time, like several years if you keep it dry. It is not like the premixed bucket product for a couple of reasons. They must put some kind of stabilizer in the premixed mud. It does not feel the same when you are working with it. Also, after the container is opened the product starts to dry. It first dries around the edges of the container that it comes in. No matter how hard you try to keep it covered it will begin to dry the second it makes air contact. Most repairs of any size will require more than one application.
  • Each time you open the container you are exposing the premixed mud to the air. About the third or fourth time you open the container you start to get crusty, semi-dried pieces of the joint compound falling down off the edges of your container and right into the good mud. Now when you are trying to carefully spread an even layer of the mud onto the wall and a hunk of the crusty stuff gets into the good mud, it drags a hole in your wet work area. This will make you crazy as you will have to stop and pick out the little dry hunk and then try to refloat your work. It is just too annoying for me.
  • The other thing about the premixed joint compound is that it is in a container that costs more to package and you will pay two or three or even four times as much for the premix. Know what are you paying for besides convenience? The answer is water. That irks me too. So the fact is that you are better off purchasing the powdered compound and mixing up what you need.

Step 3: Add Sheetrock Mud to the Damaged Areas

Now that you have your compound mixed, you can start to float the new finish. The first application of mud will not do the job. It usually takes two, three, and sometimes four applications to get it right. That is why I like the fast set formula. You can start in one area and apply the first coat and move on to other repair areas. By the time you have the entire first application in all the damaged spots, it might be dry enough to start sanding. I always make sure to put the first coat on thin not more than 1/8 of an inch thick. This is a good way to keep the sanding to a minimum.

I also like to use a fan or portable heater to finish the drying toward the end. This will help ensure that you do not hit soft compound. Pay close attention to the color of the sheetrock compound you applied. It will be gray when it goes on but then it turns white as it dries. Soft spots that are not completely dry will not be ready to sand and they will still be gray in the deepest areas. Make sure it has all turned white before you sand. You can see in the adjoining photo how the edges are starting to turn white. Make sure to watch for soft gray spots.

Sand with fine sandpaper on a sanding block. Then mix more sheetrock compound and add another thin layer of the mud to fill deep areas and do the same as you did in the first step. Apply a thin coat on everything and wait for it to dry. The sanding should only be done to the point where the new mud is level with the existing walls. Do not sand too deep. Run your hands over the areas you have worked to feel for imperfections and also visually inspect your work.

This repair required five applications of sheetrock compound to get it back to the same as the original wall. It becomes a smaller and smaller amount to fill as the layers of dried mud build to form your new wall surface. It is not really hard work it just takes time. Make sure to have adequate ventilation when you are doing this kind of work. You should always wear a mask over your face to prevent as much inhalation of the sanded dust as possible. The better the quality of the mask the better for your health.

I always vacuum in between sanding to help keep the dust to a minimum. The less dust, the better. I go through shop vacuums pretty regularly. The fine dust is hard on the motor of the vacuum so you can imagine how hard it can be on your lungs. It is smart to use the best filters for your vacuums too. The better ones cost a little more but the benefits for you and your machine outweigh the expense.

Kilz is my favorite sealer/primer.

Kilz is my favorite sealer/primer.

Step 4: Seal, Prime, and Paint

The wall should feel nice and smooth and you should not be able to feel a difference in the level of the wall. If you feel a hump, you need to sand down. If you feel a dip, you need to fill it with another application of sheetrock compound. When you are satisfied with the way it feels and looks, you are ready to finish with a sealer/primer. I always use Kilz brand primer because it has always done me a good job and I have been using it for over 20 years. There are other primer/sealers on the market, but Kilz is my go-to product.

I always apply two coats to the entire wall. The first coat will seal the new repair and the second coat will give you a nice even wall that is uniform in color and ready to paint. It is a good idea to wipe down the walls before you apply the primer. I do this with a dry clean cloth and I also run a vacuum over the walls and everything around the work area. The less dust, the better the paint job. It is better for your health too.

So there you have it. This work can be accomplished by anyone willing to take the time and effort and it will save you a bundle compared to hiring a professional. Good luck on your repairs.

The finished product.

The finished product.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2009 C.S.Alexis


tawd on October 10, 2019:

Heyyy, so my crackling paint situation resides on a brick wall, at least one layer under the top one, in the bathroom of my 1930's cottage.

Obviously I can't skim coat brick, so I was wondering if you had any thoughts?


Kat on September 10, 2018:

Pakistani repair/maintenance guys here in Dubai should learn this. Their work are below tolerable!

Kelly B. on August 09, 2018:

I just wanted to tell you how incredibly helpful this article was! These old houses can be bears to work with but knowing other people do it, makes me hopeful! Thank you!!!

NYC D on July 14, 2018:

Hi, does everything in the article above apply also to concrete / "plaster" walls? That's what we have--concrete aka plaster aka masonry walls. (At least I *think* all those phrases mean concrete. In any event, our walls are definitely not drywall/sheetrock.) So do any of the steps you list NOT apply to our walls? In any event, thanks for the great write-up!

Traycee on March 25, 2018:

This is exactly my problem. I noticed a small bubble on wall. I scraped it thinking it would be a small quarter size repair. It turned into a large area of paint that was loose. I am going to attempt to repair that section of the wall. Is the mud applied over the entire section where the paint came off OR just around the edges? Thank you

Lorenzp on March 17, 2018:

we call that tool a 5-in-1,not 6-in-1

midori on December 26, 2017:

Thank you for taking the time to craft such a detailed explanation. Very helpful and much appreciated.

Sharon Whittington from Labarque Creek, MO 63069 on November 13, 2017:

Wow! Cool:)

PATRICIA on August 18, 2017:


Bishop55 on June 24, 2013:

Great hub! Voted up!

C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on October 20, 2011:

I have no suggestion other than to do some research so that you do not create unsafe work conditions. Better to take time to find out than make a mistake.

Chris on October 19, 2011:

So what are you suggestions for fixing a wall that potentially has lead based paint?

philipandrews188 on August 31, 2011:

Very very useful hub.

C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on November 18, 2010:


We had the same situation. The damp wall on this project was being caused by water running off the roof. The gutters had to be repaired outside. It is best to find the source of the dampness before doing the repair or it will come back on you.

The wall can be dried out after the source has been repaired using a dehumidifier and a fan. This may take a few days, but it is worth it to make sure there is no dampness before repairing your wall.

mommyofalot on November 18, 2010:

The wall in my bathroom looks alot like your wall originally did. And you did a WONDERFUL job fixing it< which motivated me (since you added step by step instructions). The weird thing though is the paint originally bubbled so I used a mud knife to scrape and removed the paint and damaged parts off of the wall. Now that I'm ready to fix it the wall it damp to the touch so I dont know what would cause that. When we moved in 3 years ago the house was inspected but im wondering would wet walls be something that is checked for. Do you have any suggestions on what I can do to dry the wall and keep it dry before I repair it.

C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on October 25, 2010:


No damper at all. In fact i should have mention taking precations for a lead based paint. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Peter from Australia on October 25, 2010:

Hi C.S. you sure know your stuff and I do not envy anyone the job of repairing plaster walls. From the pictures in this Hub you have done a great job.

One word of warning which should be spelled out in loud words is the fact that a lot of the old paint contained a very dangerous metal called 'lead' and if this is in the paint that is being sanding the results could be quite disastrous for the painter and and children that breathe in this dust! Modern paints these days do not have 'lead' in them!

Sorry to put a damper on such a wonderful Hub !

Morris Streak from UK on May 10, 2009:

I agree. Maintaining one's house can be a pain, especially when one doesn't have the patience to fix it. Good hub. You certainly know what you're talking about. Plus, the photos document well the point you were getting across. In a a way, I'm into house repairs myself.

SuperiorInteriors from San Diego, California on March 17, 2009:

My Landlord has had the bathroom repaired improperly in the past and it was subject to an almost complete deterioration. After removing the old garbage, I relaized the whole basically went clear through to the houses exterior. Well patched that one up and my next plan is to find a new landlord.

Good advice and very useful hub.

C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on February 12, 2009:


The thing to do is if you can use the paint do not put it on the same wall as anything you have already painted with this color. If you can start a fresh wall with it and the remaining paint is not full of lumps I say use it. The difference in color will not be noticeable enough to matter because a different wall will be picking up a different angle from the light. I would not use it for touch up on anything that you painted 2 months ago. More than likely it will not match.

Samanta on February 12, 2009:

Unfortunately a container with full of icidulux 3 in 1 wall paint remained open for 2 months. As a result a thick hard layer has formed. Can anybody suggest me whether I can use the rest paint below the thick layer? Is there any reaction with air under such condition? Whether the color will remain same or not?

SweetiePie from Southern California, USA on February 06, 2009:

Today I had to put in a new doorknob and spackle the cracks around the where the old knob had been. It is not exactly painting, but this hub was helpful because spackling needs to be done in layers just like painting.

C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on February 05, 2009:


I am blessed to have a few skills so I try to make the most of them. Thanks for reading my hub.

HoopSkirtMan on February 04, 2009:

I envy you ingenuity with being able to use your skills that way to make extra money. Good for you!

C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on February 04, 2009:


I have about thirty years of experience, my life has revolved around a paintbrush and yes it does pay very good for physical labor. Guess that could be the next "How to start a business" hub. My oldest son is a union painter. He said he did not want to learn to paint and I told him he had to learn when he was 19 years old because, then he would have a skill he could always fall back on for work. I know because I do it all the time.

Last month I did two small jobs and the Art Studio Rent is paid up through June, It is a good skill to know. I have made an extra $2100. this year, 2009, painting part time.

SweetiePie from Southern California, USA on February 03, 2009:

Just a thought, but have you ever considered offering your services as painting peoples' houses? Some how I think people would pay some what good money to do this because many do not want to take the effort to paint.

C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on February 03, 2009:

Thanks Zsuzsy! Yes the sanding is messy but when that is done the worst is over, right?

Zsuzsy Bee from Ontario/Canada on February 02, 2009:

C.S. Great demonstration. I hate the sanding part with a passion

Super duper hub again

regards Zsuzsy

C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on February 02, 2009:


Thanks for reading my latest. my photos were stuck in my camera for over a week. This is where I am going to put my art studio. So far so good. Just thought I would write the hub as I worked on the place. I actually wrote the hub before I started working because I knew what I had to do. My nails look like the cracked paint and no time for polish,LOL. I keep hoping to get moved in and then something else comes up. The weather has been a big, slow me down, factor and, they are calling for 5 to 8" by tomorrow night. Guess God and Mother Nature have their feet on my tail huh?

SweetiePie from Southern California, USA on February 02, 2009:

Wonderful hub! I love to paint and the description of the cracked paint reminds me of my nail polish. It looks good for the first two days, then I add a layer because it begins to crack. Two more days it lasts, but by the fourth or fifth day it is time to start over again. Nice demonstration with photos by the way.

C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on February 02, 2009:

Wow BK,

1851 is really an old one. I would try to fix it up if the foundation is good. There is a lot of labor that can go in to renovations but it is worth it especially if you love the old stuff. I sure do. Thanks for sharing and reading my hub. C.S.

BkCreative from Brooklyn, New York City on February 02, 2009:

This is timely! My building was built in 1851 and frankly I had decided to give up. But now with a little guidance I may tackle some of what remains standing.


C.S.Alexis (author) from NW Indiana on February 02, 2009:

hot dorkage,

Yes it can if you let it. I just think of it as another work of art and it usually comes out pretty good. Thanks for commenting!

hot dorkage from Oregon, USA on February 02, 2009:

very useful. Mudding up a wall drives me nuts!