Having recently revamped some bedroom walls, Kya deLongchamps peels away the layers on the most dreaded of all DIY jobs – stripping wallpaper.
NOW, I want you to relax and emotionally prepare for what I’m about to tell you. Taking down wallpaper is a soul-sucking, muscle-freezing, smile-paralysing nightmare. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either desperately trying to sell you last season’s wall coverings or is talking up this vortex of misery.
Just think this through. You’re taking paper off tender plaster aching to shatter into thin paint-swallowing divots or, even worse, lifting quite firm glue and paper off another PAPER covering on the plaster-board. This latter prospect should send you straight to the bottle.
Still, we’re going to bravely crack on. Give yourself a day to completely free even one large wall from paper. Plan prepping for painting for the following day (trust me, you won’t paper ever again after this job).
As a callused DIY columnist and recent strip-survivor removing flowery imaginings from a pouting teenager’s stud walls, I’m well qualified to get you through this.
First of all, why not just paper over another wallpaper? Well, it’s something of an unknown until you start, but the chances of the paper below bubbling and lifting are fairly high.
If the seams land in a different place in the new paper than the old, the result will be a ghastly grid of vertical lines. If you do want to go ahead, wipe the walls down with a soap solution, peel and sand back any damaged paper and allow the wall to completely dry. Choose a smooth, thick, quality product to cover. Don’t skimp.
Back to removing — what is the wallpaper comprised of? If you were very clever, five years ago you went for a wipedown vinyl wallpaper or one of the new digital murals designed to change with fashion. With any luck, a top or bottom corner firmly whipped out may be all you need to get this variety down with zero damage to the sub-strata.
Test. Take a sponge, squeeze most, but not all, of the moisture out of it and lightly wet an area in a corner.
After about ten minutes, give it a small tug to see if it lifts. If it refuses to move or peels leaving layers of product beneath, we’re into backing paper, traditional paste-the-wall or paste-the-paper wallpaper.
However you proceed in taking the paper down, there is going to be some sticky moisture involved, so protect the floor and baseboards with plastic taped in place. Watch the gap behind the baseboards as it can catch dribbling goo very effectively. If you’re working around a light-switch or socket, for perfect safety turn off the power to this and any other electrical outlet and cover them with a little clear plastic. If your paper is in two layers (a backing paper and facing paper) the decorative top layer may come off quite easily with a little wiggle of a putty knife and steady even downward pressure from a top corner. Otherwise, proceed straight to scoring.
Scoring allows the water-based solutions or steam to percolate through the wallpaper to break the bond of the paste to the wall. Don’t ignore this step. There are commercial scoring tools or you can use light criss-cross scratches with the edge of a pasting or putty knife. Dedicated scorers make hundreds of holes in the paper with every pass, so go easy on the paper if there is plasterboard beneath. Stanley offers a serious Orbital Scorer in carbon steel and a plastic grip for €20.99 (Argos or any good DIY outlet), useful if you have acres of walls to tackle.
Now, prepare to wet the wall area by area. Take a sponge and try pure hot water first. Dip the sponge and squeeze it out to use the minimum amount of wetting. This is especially important for plasterboard which is easily damaged by moisture and any gouging with tools. Wipe the dampened sponge over the scored paper and wait 15 minutes. You can use a handheld garden sprayer to soak the wall, but go easy, use a light mist.
Then, as with your test, try raising the paper at an edge or corner with a flexible blade with rounded corners. If there’s no joy or the paper comes off in shredding pieces leaving layers of material, try re-wetting. Still stubborn?
Move onto a proprietary stripper with added enzyme ingredients, or add some washing-up liquid to the mix. Follow the instructions with any commercial product to the letter and avoid letting the paper dry out before you attempt to lift it. Put on the radio or a podcast to retain your sanity. This process is slow and steady. It’s crucial to completely clean the wall.
Still having trouble? Some papers used in kitchens and bathrooms have a chemical layer intended to ward off moisture and mould. Try a solution of fabric conditioner to wipe this off before you start scoring. Steamers might seem like the easiest method to take down wallpaper, but they generally do take just as long as a repeated wipedown with water and washing-up liquid or shop-bought paper stripper. They are feted for flocked and wood-chip paper removal. To buy a unit with a 4-5l tank with an extra plate for corners expect to pay in the area of €30-€40, a little more than the price of hiring one for a couple of days.
The unit is made up of a steam plate, a hose and a tank of water. Ensure you have a safe surface on which to set the steamer between passes (a piece of OSB or plywood, for example).
The unit should never be left unattended when on. The steamer should be moved after no more than 10 seconds as it can damage even a plastered wall if held on one spot for too long. Just use pure tap water, nothing else in the machine or you will wreck it in an afternoon. Work up rather than down with the rising steam.
When the wall is fully stripped and dry, you’ll inevitably find specks of paste and paper on the wall. Use some wallpaper stripper followed by some 80-120 grit sandpaper when the wall is dry to work on the surface, giving it a final pass with a higher grit (gentler) to rub it completely smooth. Where there’s damage, your hand will find it as you glide over the wall. Do small repairs with something like Ronseal Multi-Purpose Smooth Finish Filler, followed by
sanding to level those small imperfections. If you’ve really made a mess of things, and there are large areas where the plaster or board is badly damaged and uneven, a complete skim coat might be in order as the wall may never look right otherwise.
Tip: Before painting your walls, have your primer tinted to as close to the top coat as possible. It could save you a third coat in a difficult colour.