How to Remove Wallpaper

How do you remove the wallpaper without damaging the wall – or yourself? Use these tips to help you decide which option will work best.

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Gerald Bishop, a wallpaper contractor, demonstrates the proper way to remove wallpaper in his own kitchen. He recommends using a chemical mixture that you spray onto the wallpaper. Here he removes the top layer. (SHNS photo by Diana Baldrica / The Fresno Bee)

After what’s felt like an eternity pretending not to see it, you’ve reached the point where you can no longer ignore that ugly wallpaper the previous owners put up. Yes, indeed, this wall covering must come down. Now.

The problem: How do you remove the wallpaper without damaging the wall — or yourself? There are several options, including steaming or spraying with chemicals, but you'll have to decide which one will work best for you and your wallpaper.

"People usually have no clue on how to strip wallpaper," says Gerald Bishop, owner of Wallcoverings and the Fresno Wallpaper Design Warehouse in Fresno, Calif. "It's not that difficult. But it takes a lot of patience, and there's an art to stripping wallpaper."

Which method you use to take down the wallpaper will often depend on the product. Some wallpapers can be stripped dry, while others will need a removal solution. And then, any damage to the wall will depend on how the wallpaper was installed.

"Every job is different," Gerald says. "It all stems from what the contractor did before." For example, if the wall wasn't sealed with a primer before the wallpaper was put up, removing the wallpaper can cause some damage to the wall's texture or the drywall.

Using a steamer to remove wallpaper isn't as popular as it once was. "We used to use them 25 years ago, and they were (heated with) propane," says Larry Meacham of Larry's Painting and Decorating in Fresno.

These days, steamers are electric, he says. "They may work for some people, but I don't use them. It works, but you end up scalding your hands. It also takes twice as long to strip the wallpaper."

Instead, Larry and Gerald like to use a concentrated remover solution that is mixed with water. The solution dissolves the adhesive wallpaper backing, making it easy to take off. Before starting, gather the right tools and do some basic preparations. Tools you'll need include: one or two 3-to-6-inch broad knives, a ladder, a scoring tool and a garden sprayer, such as a 2-gallon plastic pump.

You'll need a plastic sheet or a drop cloth to cover the carpet or floor. Take down outlet covers, then mix the solution and hot water together. Larry and Gerald like to use DIF by Zinsser, which is available at home-improvement stores.

Next, test a small area of the wall, about a 3' x 3' section, by lifting an edge of the wallpaper. "You have to determine what the grain is," Gerald says. "It can be stripped left to right, up and down, or more."

If the wallpaper doesn't come off easily, spray the remover-solution mixture on the area and let it soak into the wallpaper. You may need to apply it several times.

Next, try stripping the wallpaper by hand. The backing will be left, which you can scrape off with a broad knife.

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If the mixture isn't penetrating through the wallpaper, use the scoring tool in circular motions to make tiny punctures into the material. This will allow the mixture to saturate the wallpaper and its backing quicker.

Gerald cautions, however, to use the tool as a last resort. "You have to do it with the right pressure and not gouge the drywall," he says.

As you take off the wallpaper, you may find more underneath. "No matter what the manufacturers tell you, you can only take down one at a time" without risking damage to the wall, says John Franke, an interior design expert with the Comfort Council, an advisory board of design and lifestyle experts.

Once the wallpaper and its backing are removed, spray the wall with the mixture one last time and scrape off any missed spots. Then, wipe down the wall with a moist sponge and let it dry for a few days.

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