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How to Remove a Popcorn Ceiling

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.


Removing Ceiling Popcorn

Popcorn ceilings were once very popular, but there are many reasons why more homeowners are choosing to remove the texture instead of painting it. For one, ceiling texture is outdated and can hurt your resale value, and second, it's a magnet for cob webs and dirt. Painting the ceiling is easier than removal, but unless you have a sprayer to apply the paint, using a roller can break off pieces of the popcorn and make it look worse.

Does Your Popcorn Ceiling Contain Asbestos?

With some elbow grease, you can remove your popcorn ceiling yourself and smooth it out through scraping and skim-coating, but before you do anything, it is critical to find out if your ceiling contains asbestos, or lead. Although the Clean Air Act of 1978 banned asbestos, this hazardous material still made its way into homes that were built in the 1980's.

To test your ceiling for asbestos, you can either hire an expert to do it for you, or you can do it yourself by carefully scraping off a few pieces of popcorn and having it tested at your local health department. To test your ceiling for lead, you can buy an inexpensive lead testing kit from a home improvement store. Lead and asbestos are both very hazardous and can cause serious health problems. Test your ceiling if your home's older than 1990.

In the unfortunate event that your ceiling does contain asbestos, you can either hire an abatement expert for safe removal, install a new ceiling over it, or you can paint the ceiling with a special vinyl paint to encapsulate the particles. Removal is the most expensive option, but eliminates health risks.


Cover the Walls With Plastic

Tools and supplies needed:

  • 12-inch taping knife
  • Step ladder
  • Pump sprayer
  • 3M hand masker
  • Painter's tape and plastic
  • Drywall mud
  • Mud pan
  • Sanding sponge

Skim coating and removing a popcorn ceiling with water are both extremely messy. Wet popcorn particles and drywall mud will get stuck all over the floors and walls and make a huge mess without protection. Take the furniture out of the room and cover the floors with a leak proof floor protector, or painter's plastic. Don't use drop cloths because dripping water will soak through the canvas onto the floor.

The best and easiest way to protect walls during the removal process is with a roll of painter's tape, 99-inch masking film, and the 3M hand masker. The 99-inch film unfolds and covers eight foot walls almost completely from top to bottom. The hand masker is an awesome tool for surface preparation. The tool allows you to stick tape and plastic onto the wall at the same time instead of having to do it separately. I use a masker all the time for my painting projects.


Wet the Popcorn and Scrape

The best way to remove a popcorn ceiling is by wetting it first with water and scraping off the particles with a large taping knife. Water reduces airborne dust and makes the removal easier. Most popcorn ceiling texture turns soft and mushy when exposed to water, even if it's painted.

Fill up a pump sprayer with warm water and lightly mist the ceiling, working in small sections. Do not blast the ceiling with heavy amounts of water otherwise you will damage the drywall and the joint tape underneath.

Allow the water to penetrate the popcorn for a few minutes and start scraping the ceiling with a 12-inch taping knife. Popcorn texture usually scrapes off pretty easily when wet enough, but if it's painted, you might have to reapply water and scrape over the same area repeatedly. Don't gouge the ceiling by scraping too hard.


Skim Coat the Ceiling

Even though you're scraping off the popcorn, sometimes a slightly bumpy texture can remain on the surface. If the ceiling is gouged and a little bumpy after removal, skim coating with drywall mud levels out the highs and lows so it's smooth. One coat of drywall mud usually isn't enough, but two coats should be fine.

Before skim coating the ceiling, make sure you've removed all of the popcorn texture so the surface is smooth, otherwise debris will get stuck in the drywall mud and ruin the finish. Sand the ceiling with a sanding sponge, or a pole sander, before skim coating.

The drywall mud I really like for patching and for skim coating walls and ceilings is the bagged Easy Sand from the Sheetrock brand. This is drywall joint compound that you mix with water. For skim coating a whole ceiling, use the version with the extended 90-minute dry time. Mix up the joint compound in a mud pan and start skim coating the ceiling with a thin coat. Once the first coat is completely dry sand it and apply the second coat.

After removing the popcorn and skimming the ceiling nice and smooth, apply one coat of water-based primer before painting. Joint compound is very chalky, but the primer will seal the surface so the paint dries evenly to a nice finish.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Matt G.