Say goodbye to tacky wallpaper

By Tom Seymour | Feb 21, 2021

Wet and scrape, wet and scrape. That was the way my grandpa, a professional painter and paperhanger taught me. As a youth, I was grandpa’s assistant and one of my jobs was to — with a pail of warm water and a wide paintbrush — saturate old wallpaper in order to loosen it before attempting to scrape it off.

This was a miserable job and not one I would recommend to anyone. Also, the heavy saturation meant that the old, usually ancient plaster walls, would take almost forever to dry. And walls need to be dry before hanging new wallpaper or painting.

Sometimes, especially in very old houses, the walls would have many layers of wallpaper. This was because in the past, people were reluctant to apply the elbow grease needed to remove the old paper and simply papered over the existing stuff. The end result was a nightmare to remove. Layer by layer by reluctant layer, the layers would little by little succumb to wetting and scraping.

In extreme situations, grandpa would rent a steamer, a device with a water reservoir that acted something like a steam iron. Steaming old wallpaper was a tough, unpleasant job, but it did manage to fully saturate all those layers of old paper so they could be removed.

Today, wallpaper is different from in the past. In fact, walls are different. No more plaster mixed with horsehair, as in the old days. Wallboard, or sheetrock, comes in smooth, paper-faced sheets and removing wallpaper is relatively simple.

Wallpaper Stripper

Modern wallpaper stripper requires neither brush nor water bucket. Just spray it on and wait. If the top (and hopefully, the only) layer of wallpaper does not readily peel off, it may help to score it to allow the stripper better penetration. This can be done in any number of ways and there is even a commercial product called Paper Tiger that accomplishes the task wonderfully. Most of the time, you won’t need to score the paper.

To begin, buy wallpaper stripper in concentrate form. DIF makes a good one. One 22-ounce container makes two gallons of stripper, which is ample to remove wallpaper from a 12- by 24-foot room.

To apply, use a garden sprayer, the kind that accepts concentrates, and you add water. These use a little built-in hand pump to get up to pressure. A sponge will suffice and for wide areas, a paint roller works handily. Common spray bottles, as long as they are not set on fine mist, will work too. Set the nozzle on wide stream rather than mist.

Spray the mixed solution on the wall, making sure to get even coverage. It is not necessary to completely saturate to the point of dripping. Rather, just wait a minute or so and the paper will begin to blister. Let this sit for 15 minutes and scrape off the loose wallpaper.

Some people may worry that wallpaper stripper uses harsh, perhaps even dangerous, chemicals. But DIF uses enzymes rather than harsh chemicals. It helps to wear a mask…we should all be used to wearing masks anyway, by now, just to be completely protected. The stuff has a sulphury odor, but it isn’t toxic, as in the case of chemicals.

If any old paste lingers beneath the now-removed wallpaper, just spray another coat of stripper and use the same process to remove it.

Instant Change

Having recently moved into a new (for me) old house, I was faced with the most tacky, cheesy-looking wallpaper imaginable. This was in the bathroom and it made me cringe every time I saw it. While there were, and are, lots of more important things to address, the wallpaper was just too much and so I gave it high priority.

The DIF wallpaper stripper worked great. The bathroom itself is now free of tacky paper, although some remains on the outside wall, which in short order, will be removed.

So what was next after getting down to bare walls? Lots of durable wall coverings are available, but I chose paint, white paint in a satin finish. This doesn’t shine like a gloss finish, but it does reflect light well, something important for a room where the wall-mounted mirror is used to apply eye drops and to shave. Also, the satin finish is washable.

The bathroom redo also entailed hiring an electrician to remove an old, candelabra-style ceiling light and install a modern florescent fixture. This makes the now-bright room even brighter.

Sometimes the most difficult part of any project is just to get started. If you have put off a similar project, wait no longer. Removing wallpaper is, if not exactly fun, no problem at all.

Tom Seymour of Frankfort is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, Registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist and book author.

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