How and When to Paint Over Wallpaper

Removing wallpaper can be a big chore. Learn how to tell if your wallpaper can be painted over and find tips on how to prep before painting.

The act of painting over wallpaper is — without a doubt — one of the most regularly proclaimed “no-nos” in home improvement. In many cases, I’d be right there with the majority, recommending that you remove the wallpaper for the sake of achieving the best possible painting finish. But here, this situation’s a little bit different, and if you’ve been thinking about simply painting over existing wallpaper, well, who am I to judge? Just maybe it’s the right course of action for you too.

My kitchen, caught up in the 1950s, is the space that I committed to making over this year. Its textured wallpaper is decades old (possibly not ’50s, but certainly something that has faded with the age of the house). It’s not a decor choice that I would be thrilled to live with for years, yet I have a hard time pulling the trigger and removing it all prior to painting because my husband and I envision being able to a total remodel in a couple of years. For us, painting over the wallpaper is a big, temporary cover-up.

Painting over wallpaper can look really bad. No, like, really, really bad. If you have long edges of wallpaper unrolling or air bubbles beneath the surface, you will be better off removing it completely. But if not, with a little wallpaper preparation and a few tricks, you can be left with a finished result that you’re happy with. Here are my best tips for you.

Clean up loose corners and edges. If your wallpaper is as old as mine, you’re bound to find a corner here or a seam there that isn’t attached as well as it should be. This shouldn’t be enough to deter you entirely but should be handled carefully. I recommend using a strong adhesive to re-affix those pesky corners. Allow the adhesive to dry before you paint.

Clean the walls well. There are lots of general cleaning tips for keeping your wallpaper in prime condition.

  • Vacuuming is widely recommended for all types of wallpaper. You’ll want to remove as much dust as possible from the surface of the wallpaper before painting.
  • Check to see if your home has a coated wallpaper. You can find out whether or not your wallpaper is coated by getting it lightly wet in a hidden area to check if the colors bleed or moisture is absorbed — if it’s absorbed or bleeds, it’s likely uncoated.
  • If your home has an uncoated wallpaper like grasscloth, wallpaper dough should be your go-to.
  • Tips for using wallpaper dough: This product is sold at many home improvement and paint-supply stores. I haven’t had the pleasure of testing it out, but have heard that it’s best for getting stains and residue off uncoated wallpapers. As the outer side of the dough ball gets dirty, knead it until the outer edge is once again fresh. Reuse to your heart’s desire.
  • If your wallpaper is a coated texture, you can wash the wall with a damp sponge.
  • Tips for washing the wallpaper with a sponge: Use a damp (read: not drippy) sponge and dishwashing detergent that has grease-cutting power to clean the walls. Avoid wiping horizontally, because the sponge will be more likely to catch on any loose vertical seams. Try with all your might to keep moisture from getting into the seams.

Once the walls have been glued, cleaned, washed and have air-dried, you should be set to begin testing paint. You might want to start in a hidden wallpapered area (for me, this was behind the fridge) to get a better sense of how the paint is going to look over the wallpaper and also to observe how many coats of primer and paint will be necessary.

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