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Removing paper-backed vinyl wallpaper can be a two-step process

QuestionMy husband and I are stripping vinyl wallpaper that I put up several years ago and we are having some difficulties. Our house is a 1910 Craftsman with plaster walls. We have rented a steam machine but it came with minimal operating instructions and no technique advice. What's the best way to proceed?

AnswerSolid vinyl wallpaper is pretty easy to remove because it just pulls off the wall. Pry up a corner with a putty knife, grab it, and pull it away from the wall until two corners are free. With a corner in each hand, pull until the whole strip comes off the wall. Professionally speaking, I prefer to work from the top down rather than from the bottom up because the leverage is better. You'll have to decide which approach works best for you.

If you are experiencing difficulties, most likely you have paper-backed vinyl or washable wallpaper. The top wear layer on paper-backed vinyl wallpaper typically separates from its backing. Washable wallpapers have a plastic film that protects the paper underneath but makes the wallpaper hard to remove because water or steam cannot penetrate the surface.

The protective wear layers make these papers similar in character so the same removal techniques could be used. If you were able to remove the top surface of paper-backed vinyl and the backing remained attached to the wall, then you can remove the backing in the same manner as plain wallpaper, i.e., to soak or seam the surface and then strip it, a two-step process. If you were unable to penetrate the surface of your paper with the steam machine you rented, then you need to break the surface using a wallpaper scoring tool.

Zinsser makes the "Papertiger," a wallpaper scoring tool that comes in both single head ($16) and triple head ($24) designs. Designed to not damage the wall surface, these tools score (perforate) the wallpaper so water or steam can penetrate the adhesive underneath. If you go this route, be aware that if you press too hard on the tool, there is a possibility that you may damage the wall's surface. Fortunately, your lath and plaster walls have a harder surface than wallboard.

There are many solutions on the market to help remove wallpaper and wallpaper adhesives. Although I have not tried any of these, the simplest solution is to add a tablespoon or two of liquid dishwashing soap, liquid fabric softener, or white vinegar to warm water in a sprayer bottle to soften the wallpaper and adhesive.

I prefer to use TSP added to warm water. Wearing gloves, I start at the top of the wall and apply the solution with a sponge to moisten the wallpaper, backing, or adhesive. Both techniques—spray bottle or sponge—are messy.

Zinsser also sells DIF, a wallpaper stripper that can be used for both the wallpaper and any residual adhesive. It comes as a concentrated liquid, a ready-to-use liquid, and a ready-to-use gel for those who don't want water to run down their arm. To learn about any of the wallpaper products Zinsser offers, go to www.zinsser.com.

With any of these wallpaper products, it's important to break the surface using some type of wallpaper scoring tool. The holes allow the solution to penetrate the paper and adhesive. Always start at the top and work in a small area you can comfortably handle. Remove as much of the loose wallpaper as possible.

Don't be stingy with the removing solution—reapply as often as necessary to keep the paper wet. Wet paper will come off easier than paper that has been allowed to dry even a little bit. If you are attempting to remove paper-backed vinyl wallpaper and the first layer comes off leaving the backing, there's no need to use the scoring tool again. Just apply the removing solution, allow it to soak in, and start peeling the backing by hand or with the aid of a wall scraper or wallboard knife.

When everything has been removed, wipe down the walls with a sponge soaked in the removing solution of your choice to remove any remaining adhesive. This will be a messy project so take care to protect the base molding and flooring below. Good luck with your project!

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

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