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Wallpaper removal

QuestionWe recently bought a 50-year-old house but donít like its wallpapered walls. The departing owner told us the wallpaper was glued directly to the sheetrock. Apparently it's a single layer, installed about 40+ years ago (probably commercially available wallpaper).

My wife discussed this with a neighbor who had chosen to remove her wallpaper years ago. She discovered the situation I described because, according to her, pieces of the underlying sheetrock peeled off right along with the wallpaper.

What should we do? Should we use the best available tools and chemicals and give it a shot, or just paint right over the old wallpaper so as not to damage the sheetrock.

If you believe painting over the wallpaper is the best option, how should I prepare the surface to get the best results? Should I use some surface preparation (primer)? —Thanks for your help.

AnswerIt sounds like you've got quite a project! First check to see how bad the walls really are. If they are in bad shape, then consider installing new wallboard over the existing. The reason I suggest this is because most likely the walls are lath and plaster, which is a real mess to tear into. It is possible, though, that you have rock plaster. I'm just questioning whether or not you have traditional 4x8 wallboard underneath the wallpaper. However, before installing new wallboard, you will have to do some prep work. Be sure to fix any protruding areas on the wall, and be aware that all the electrical switches and outlets will need attention. You can install mud rings over the outlet boxes or purchase longer screws for the outlets and switches in order to extend them to the depth of the new wallboard.

If the walls are OK, then you need to decide whether you want to apply new wallpaper or paint. At this point, and, of course, depending on the texture of the wallpaper, your decision will dictate your next move. The quick and easy way out (and if the paper is tight) is to prime the walls with a good oil base primer, which will prepare the surface for either wallpaper or paint. However, professionally speaking, I find it best to remove the paper for the best overall final result. Start by going to a seam, outlet, or inconspicuous corner (behind a door) and try to peel off the existing wallpaper with a 1" putty knife to see how difficult it is to remove. If it removes easily, then you will have an easy go at it; if not, plan to spend a few hours.

The best way to attack this project is with a bucket or garden sprayer and lots of warm water—after you turn off the breaker to the room you plan to work in. I found that using TSP (trisodium phosphate) in the water works great. Be sure to check to see if you can use such a product in your community. It should be available at your local paint store or home center if it has not been banned. Be sure to wear rubber gloves. If TSP is not available, use a chemical wallpaper remover or wetting agent. Apply to the surface by spraying or with a sponge. Let the water soak in for about 30 minutes. Test the wallpaper by scraping it with your thumbnail. When it seems ready, use a 2 1/2- or 3-inch putty knife and, at a 30-degree angle, start peeling the paper from the bottom up. The secret is to use plenty of water. You should be able to grab the loosened strip with your other hand and pull steadily upward. If the paper won't absorb water, you will need to scratch the surface with coarse (50- or 60-grit) sandpaper to allow the water to get behind the paper.

There are some products by Wm. Zinsser & Co., Inc., I would like to recommend. Zinsser's Shieldz White Wallcovering Primer adheres to wallpaper in good condition and is a perfect base for either new wallpaper or paint. It's high-hiding and can be tinted by retailers to match the color of the finish paint—this will help save some time in the long run. It was designed for exactly this kind of situation—if you can't decide whether to paper or paint in a certain room. If the paper on the wall has any type of metallic ink in it, then you would want to use their B-I-N Paint Primer-Sealer instead, as the shellac resin in this product will seal off and block this out so it doesn't show through when repainting. B-I-N will bond to the old wallpaper and create a sound, stable surface for paint.

If the wallboard facing paper becomes damaged, their new product, GARDZ, is a drywall sealer specifically designed to seal torn, damaged drywall and prepare the surface to accept any type of skim-coat repair. The manufacturer tells me this product eliminates those annoying paper bubbles and blisters that occur if you try to apply skim coat directly over torn facing paper. Moreover, you can apply GARDZ to the skim coat when dry and it will serve as a primer for either paint or wallpaper. I should point out also that they make a wallpaper stripper in a gel called DIF GEL, which can be applied by brush or roller. Zinsser also offers a good paper scraper with a unique non-razor, edge-hardened steel blade to prevent wall damage. Check out their web site at www.zinsser.com.

Remember to just take your time—and good luck. Let me know how it turns out!

Copyright © 1999 & 2006 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved.
Question answered by Leon A. Frechette.

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