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Question on painting kitchen opens up can of worms

QuestionWe plan to paint my mother's kitchen walls but they are currently covered with a thin wood paneling from the 1970s that has vertical grooves every 6 inches. We cannot remove the paneling because it is glued to lath and plaster—the house was built in the 1940s—and I don't want to deal with the mess. What, if anything, can we put over the paneling to make it smooth? Also, should I wash it down with TSP or with ammonia water?

AnswerThanks for sending the photos because they clearly show the natural birch wood paneling with dark crown molding. My first instinct is to apply drywall over the existing paneling, but one of your photos shows a popcorn ceiling, which brings up alert flags for the possible presence of asbestos.

The addition of asbestos in the popcorn mixture was banned in 1978, but many popcorn ceilings installed before the 1980s contain up to 8 percent asbestos, and it has been found in ceilings installed as late as 1986.

Intact and undisturbed, popcorn ceilings pose no health risk, but when asbestos-containing material deteriorates or is damaged or disturbed, its minuscule fibers become airborne. Even roller painting the ceiling may disturb fibers or weigh down the popcorn, which may cause it to delaminate from the substrate. Once the fibers are airborne, it takes careful cleaning with appropriate equipment to decontaminate a home.

Disturbing the ceiling in any fashion opens this can of worms. I suggest that you contact your building department, air pollution control authority, and state regulatory offices for information and/or literature on how to properly deal with a popcorn ceiling to protect yourself, family members, and whoever else might be involved in your project from asbestos exposure. Finally, have the ceiling tested to ensure there's no asbestos present before you move forward with your project.

If the test determines that no asbestos is present, I strongly recommend that you remove the popcorn ceiling. During the removal process, the ceiling will be damaged, so you'll need to tape, mud, and sand. You can finish the final process with primer and paint.

If asbestos is present, I encourage you to check out my 8-page article "Asbestos in Popcorn Ceilings" and bring in an abatement contractor to remove the popcorn. Its removal offers several tangible benefits: you can creatively finish the ceiling without the worry of disturbing asbestos fibers, future work can be done without worrying about asbestos, and it will enhance your home's value.

A certified asbestos contractor will charge roughly $8 per square foot to remove the popcorn, but you will have peace of mind knowing the job was done both correctly and safely. Sprayed-on popcorn ceilings don't belong in a kitchen!

If you decide to remove the popcorn ceiling, then consider encasing the paneling with 1/4-inch drywall. This will require 1/4-inch door and window jamb extensions as well as spacers and longer screws to pull out switches and outlets to match the new wall surface.

If you rule out the drywall idea, you might want to paint the paneling. The first step is to clean the walls thoroughly using 1/2 cup of ammonia in 1 gallon of warm water. If necessary, you can increase the ammonia to perhaps a 50:50 solution.

While TSP is a good cleaning product, it's not the best for interior use. It's difficult to flood interior wall surfaces with enough water to rinse away the residue that could interfere with paint adhesion.

After cleaning, apply a high-quality primer, such as "Bulls Eye 1-2-3" from Zinsser, a 100 percent acrylic primer sealer (www.zinsser.com).

For the best finish, prep the surface before priming, even though Zinsser's primer is formulated for superior adhesion to any surface, no matter how slick it is, without sanding. I suggest that you sand the paneling prior to priming and then sand any surface imperfections after the primer dries using 3M's 220-grit white TRI-M-ITE sandpaper. Follow it up with a second coat of primer. Use a 3/4-inch nap lamb's wool roller to give texture to both the primer and finish wall coatings.

There's not much you can do to cover up the V grooves in the paneling. The time involved would be considerable and there's no guarantee that the filler product you use will provide a permanent solution.

If you want to achieve a standard wallboard surface without applying drywall, then you may want to research a couple of products by Flexi-Wall Systems. Both could be used in your situation. In general, applying a Flexi-Wall finish is similar to standard practices for installing conventional wall covering material.

Plaster In A Roll is a one-step, crack-proof wall covering available in three decorative textured weaves. It covers walls and ceilings in one easy step with little or no preparation and can bring a low-stress, sound-absorbing atmosphere to new or existing interior spaces.

The second product, Faster Plaster, is a two-step upgrade to most finishes. Install this versatile underliner and then apply your preferred final finish: paint, vinyl, plaster, or paper. This product also allows you to upgrade cinder blocks, wallboard, paneling, or tile for a fresh, modern look. To learn more, call 800-843-5394 or visit Flexiwall at www.flexiwall.com. You can also read more about the product, along with construction notes and how long it will take to install the product, from my book, Build Smarter with Alternative Materials.

Since you have few walls to work on, first remove any casings (moldings) around door(s) and window(s) and the crown molding. After the wall covering has been installed, you can reinstall the trim around the doors and windows and then paint it.

Rather than reinstall the crown molding, attach the wall covering as close as you can to the popcorn ceiling. Along with a lighter color of paint, this will help make the room appear larger.

Copyright © 2005, 2006, & 2007 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved.
Question answered by Leon A. Frechette.

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