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WALLPAPER REMOVAL IS MESSY,
TIME-CONSUMING, AND IRRITATING!

That's why you want to do it right... the FIRST TIME!!

Wallpaper removal is fairly easy, but quite messy. There are two ways to remove it, aside from ripping it off the walls with your bare hands. Don't laugh... I have seen wallpaper that would fall from the walls with a sideways glance. However, if yours was that easy, you would be practicing an icy stare instead of reading this article!

All kidding aside (never), if you can get under a corner of the paper, try to tear it off dry. If it works, it will save you loads of work. In some cases, everything but a small amount of paste residue will remain. You can clean it off with some wallpaper stripper and a sponge. In other cases, the facing (on vinyl papers, primarily) will come off and leave a paper backing stuck on the wall. This backing will be easy to get off with method 2.

Method 1 - Use A Wallpaper Steamer

Wagner Wallpaper SteamerThe first method is using a wallpaper steamer, a piece of equipment that can be rented. You can also buy less powerful homeowner-sized wallpaper steamers at many home stores, such as the Wagner unit (shown left). Wallpaper steamers send steam through a hose to a flat metal plate similar to an iron. Pressing this plate on the wall forces steam into the wallpaper, which softens the paper and paste.  This allows you to easily lift off the wallpaper with a wide putty knife.

If the wallpaper is heavy "strippable" vinyl, you'll need to peel off the top layer of vinyl before steaming.  Slide a fingernail or utility knife under any corner and pull.  If the vinyl comes off easily, it is strippable.  If it simply shreds or LAUGHS AT YOU... it isn't strippable.  For light vinyls and heavy papers, you'll need to score the wallpaper to allow the steam to pass through to the glue.  This can be done with a stiff wire brush or a specialized tool... the Paper Tiger (graphic and explanation below).

This method harkens to the days of plaster walls, still in abundance in older homes but a relative rarity in the last twenty or thirty years. Unfortunately, aggressive steaming  can damage paper-faced wallboards, especially if the wallboard wasn't fully sealed prior to wallpapering. In new construction, walls that are going to be papered are often not primed with paint, but just coated with sizing.   The sizing seals enough to allow the wallpaper to stick, but offers little protection to the walls otherwise.  So steaming these walls may damage them.  Sorry.

Overall, steaming is a lot quicker than chemical removal and less messy, so I don't discourage trying it, especially if you have lots of wallpaper to take down. 

This leads us to Method 2...

Method 2:  Use a chemical wallpaper stripper

The second method involves the use of a chemical agent that is added to hot water. This chemical is an enzyme that soaks into the paper and dissolves the paste. It takes a little longer than the steamer, but does a fine job and may be  less damaging to the walls, especially walls that have not been properly primed before wallpapering.

  1. Cover the floors with plastic tarps and put newspapers on top to absorb excess spray and to collect the old paper.  As necessary, take up the top level of newspaper to keep the work area neat, and add more if needed.
  2. If the paper is strippable (keep reading), get your fingernail or a utility knife under a corner and tear the facing off.  If the facing doesn't come off, it's NOT strippable paper!  Most heavy vinyl papers are strippable, which makes removal easier since only a thin layer of paper and glue remain.  Some thin vinyls are not strippable so you'll need to do Step 3.
  3. Paper tiger wallpaper scoring toolScore the face of the wallpaper to allow the chemical to pass through the face and reach the glue. (This isn't necessary with strippable wallpaper.)  You can do this with a still wire brush, or use a specialized tool such as the Paper Tiger (graphic right).  Moving the Paper Tiger over the wallpaper causes a small roller with pin-like protrusions to perforate the surface of the paper, leaving the wall underneath undamaged.
  4. Wallpaper stripper is applied with a sprayer, either a hand-held trigger spray type for very small jobs or a pump-type pressurized garden sprayer for entire rooms.  It will drip.  That's why we had Step 1.
  5. Allow the chemical to do its work... do not to rush into scraping too soon. The paper should be kept wet with the chemical until the paper is loose enough to scrape off EASILY.  As you work, if areas begin to dry out, apply more chemical.  You can also spray under the paper as you lift it off, if necessary to dampen dry spots.
  6. As waste accumulates, throw away a few layers of newspaper and put additional paper on the tarps.
  7. After the paper is removed, you can remove small amounts of residual paste using hot water and just about any wall washing detergent, or you can use the wallpaper stripping chemical as a final wash.  If there is lots of paste left, though, you may need to respray the walls with the chemical stripper to soften it. Then, use a scraper or putty knife to remove the residual glue, followed by a final rinse with a sponge dipped in the stripper.
  8. If you are going to wallpaper again, your prep is almost done.   Just give the walls a light sanding to remove any roughness and clean up all the dust before beginning the wallpapering process.
  9. If you are going to paint, prime the walls with one coat of a sealing/stain killing oil-based primer. You must prime because there will be residual paste on the wall, no matter how much you try to remove it.  This leftover paste will bubble up if you apply latex paint over it and make your wall look like it has acne! 
  10. If the walls feel a little rough (like sandpaper) after you prime, you should sand the walls again. (The roughness is caused by that leftover wallpaper paste I told you couldn't get completely off!). PLEASE SAND IT OFF. If you skip this step, it will be difficult or impossible f to remove the roughness later!  (5 minutes of work now will save you 10 or more hours of work later.)
  11. Clean up all the dust, and then apply one or two coats of any paint your heart desires!

Enjoy your like-new walls!!

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Jerry Alonzy, the founder of Naturalhandyman.com

Written by Jerry Alonzy

Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a. the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation.

As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites. His material appears widely on the web, but primarily on his website... The Natural Handyman. You can also find him on Google+.