How to get that darn paper off the wall

By Allen Norwood

It’s the home chore that everybody hates most. I see that on the TV how-to shows, read it on umpteen do-it-yourself sites. Nobody likes removing wallpaper.

A friend shared a horror story on a hike. That proves (a) that we need better stuff to talk about on hikes and (b) he really, really hated removing wallpaper.

I certainly don’t have any advice that makes it a pleasant chore. But if you’ve resolved to tackle the job this year, I can offer a few tips that will help things turn out well.

The most important: Always prime the stripped, cleaned wall with oil-based primer. Because even if it looks as if you’ve removed every tiny trace of old adhesive, you haven’t.

Every wallpaper removal job is different, depending on the paper, the wall, the adhesive and how long the paper has been up. Some comes down pretty easily. On the other hand … Years ago, a co-worker and I spent an entire day – a full day! – removing paper from a single kitchen ceiling.

Don’t automatically reach for a tool to score the paper, or a wallpaper steamer. You might not need either. And they can damage the wall if you’re not careful.

To get started, grab a loose corner and tug. If the vinyl face peels off the paper backing, terrific!

That paper backing is absorbent, which means hot water can penetrate quickly to the adhesive. Add wallpaper remover or a little fabric softener, but hot water is the key. If you’re very, very lucky, that paper backing might peel off in big swatches after you wet it.

Apply the water with a sponge mop or spray bottle. For larger jobs, try a low-pressure garden sprayer.

Wet an area, let it soak, work at it before dries out.

Scrape with a flexible, wide-blade putty knife. To prevent nicks in the wall, choose one with worn, rounded corners, or just file the sharp corners down.

If you can’t pull the face off the paper, try wetting the surface. If the water just won’t penetrate, it’s time to reach for a scoring tool.

Score the paper, following directions, then wet an area and let it soak. Scoring allows the water to penetrate the paper’s outer coating and soften the adhesive. Wet, soak and scrape a manageable area.

If you’re removing wallpaper from drywall, especially if it wasn’t primed properly, you’ll probably ding the surface up. Be careful – and be prepared to patch.

Zinsser makes a scoring tool called PaperTiger, as well as gel wallpaper remover. On the company’s website,, you’ll also find a downloadable brochure with instructions for removing wallpaper.

Allen Norwood writes on Home design, do-it-yourself and real estate for The Charlotte Observer. His column appears each Saturday.

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