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Tips for Removing Old Wallpaper

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

Time for a change?

Time for a change?

What's the Best Way to Remove Wallpaper?

Old wallpaper—older than twenty years—is usually made of vinyl with a paper backing, which is more difficult to remove than newer, non-vinyl wallpaper. The vinyl layer on top prevents water and stripping solution from penetrating the glue and backing underneath, slowing down the removal process.

Removing old wallpaper is a time-consuming process, no matter what removal method you choose, but there are a few ways to speed up the process.

3 Ways to Remove Wallpaper

1. Use a Wallpaper-Removal Steamer

Using a steamer is a very effective method for removing old wallpaper that won't come off from scraping alone. If you've already tried soaking and painfully scraping the walls over and over, unsuccessfully, renting a steamer is your best bet.

With a wallpaper removal steamer, you won't have to soak the walls constantly like you would using the hot water method, and you won't have to puncture holes in the wall with a scoring tool. Using a steamer still involves scraping to remove glue and backing, but the process is less messy than using water alone.

A wallpaper steamer is equipped with a heating pad that you hold against the wall, and the continuous heat loosens the glue. Once the heated wallpaper begins to bubble and lift from the surface, use a scraper to remove the material underneath. Steamers work great for removing wallpaper, but it isn't a quick process.

2. Remove Wallpaper With Hot Water

Wallpaper removal stripper can be useful, but these products are expensive, and sometimes hot water actually works better. First, shut off the power to the outlets so you don't get electrocuted. Use a work light and an extension cord, plugged into another room, for a light source while working.

Soak the walls with a sponge and hot water until the paper shows signs of bubbling. If the top layer of the wall-covering is vinyl, hot water might not work without scoring the surface first. If needed, use a wallpaper scoring tool to puncture the surface with tiny holes so the hot water can seep in.

Wait about ten minutes for the water to penetrate and bubble the wallpaper. Try peeling off the top layer, starting at a corner, or seam. Keep soaking the wall with hot water to keep the surface wet for easier scraping. Removing old wallpaper with plain old hot water has worked surprisingly well for me several times, but sometimes chemicals are best.

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3. Use Fabric Softener and Wallpaper Stripper

I always try hot water before resorting to chemicals, but if water alone isn't doing the trick for you, try the fabric softener from your laundry room. Fabric softener dilutes and loosens wallpaper backing so the glue is easier to scrape off.

The best way to remove wallpaper with fabric softener is to mix it with hot water in a cheap garden sprayer and mist it onto the wall. Score the wall first if necessary. Give the fabric softener solution time to penetrate before scraping. Repeated applications might be necessary.

Wallpaper stripper is another solution for removing old glue from the wall. Mix the stripper with hot water in a garden sprayer, applying the solution in the same way you would the fabric softener. Carefully rinse the walls with clean water before painting the room. Chemical residue can cause adhesion problems with paint if it's left on the wall.

The Paper Tiger, wallpaper scoring tool. This tool comes in handy for removing old wallpaper.

The Paper Tiger, wallpaper scoring tool. This tool comes in handy for removing old wallpaper.

Why Do You Need to Use a Wallpaper Scoring Tool?

A wallpaper scoring tool is a small hand-held device used for perforating the surface so water can penetrate the backing underneath. With vinyl wallpaper, water won't be able to penetrate the backing underneath without scoring the surface first.

Do you always need to use a scoring tool?

A common mistake people make is using a scoring tool when one isn't needed. Sometimes you can simply soak the top layer of wallpaper with hot water, peel off the top layer from a corner, and then soak and scrape off the backing layer underneath separately. This isn't always possible with older wall-covering, but you should always try do it that way first.

The problem with scoring tools is they easily damage drywall if you push too hard. The tiny spikes on the tool puncture holes everywhere, and the holes need to be patched before painting. These tools are effective though for thick wallpaper that won't allow water to soak behind it. The scoring tool I've used several times for removing old wallpaper is the Paper Tiger from Zinsser. The tool fits in the palm of your hand.

Painting Over Wallpaper

If you've tried everything, but removal seems impossible, consider painting over the wallpaper instead of causing further damage from repeated scraping. Painting over wallpaper should be the last resort, but you can do it without any problems if the material on your walls isn't loose or bubbled.

Last Resort: Replace the Drywall

In an older home with extremely old wallpaper that won't come off no matter what, another option is to replace the drywall. Excessive scraping and repeated water applications can severely damage drywall. Sometimes it's easier to remove the drywall and start over.

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.

© 2018 Matt G.

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