How to Properly Remove Wallpaper

As a child, I can remember my parents hiring a painting contractor team to paint our new house. They did everything. One of the things they did for my parents was to hang rolls and rolls of wallpaper. There was a big patterned wallpaper in the entryway (which helped hide a hole I later created as a teenager), a grass cloth in the family room (which I later painted over), a small print in the powder bathroom, and many other patterns throughout the house. So, when I think of wallpaper, I think of the 80s. Lots of browns and flowers. Maybe you also have visions of wallpaper from the 80s.

Different Methods to Remove Wallpaper

As a paint contractor, I have learned how to remove wallpaper the hard way, by trying every method under the sun. While Walls by Design now strictly focuses on painting and no longer removes wallpaper, there are lots of techniques that I have tried and heard of. I would like to share my comments and experiences on a few of them with you.

Though there are some households/places that make use of strippable wallpaper, most people don’t use it. While a putty knife can also be utilized as a wallpaper stripper, it is, at best, too crude for the task. Additionally, painting over wallpaper is excessive and goes beyond simply removing it.


So here are some wallpaper removal tools that I know of that you can surely put to good use:

The Paper Tiger. 

You may have seen this tool. It looks like an oversized computer mouse that you roll over the wallpaper, and it creates a scoring pattern in the paper, much like a scoring tool would. The idea behind this tool is that it helps penetrate the wallpaper’s top layer, allowing water to get into the paper to release the glue. The problem with this method is that I found it damages the drywall too much. There is a balance between being aggressive with wallpaper removal and leaving the drywall intact. It is very difficult to avoid drywall damage with any of the methods, but in my experience, the Paper Tiger causes a bit too much damage.

Wallpaper remover solution.

There are different brands that make solutions that are supposed to break down the glue and make it easier to remove the paper from the wall. One I have used in the past is called Dif. I have always found this method to be too tedious and not very effective. If you want to use something, I would suggest trying liquid fabric softener. I have heard that this provides very similar results.

Wallpaper steamer.

This is the tool I have found to have the best and most consistent results: removing wallpaper with steam. Yeah, the one that uses hot water or warm water and evaporates it to make the wallpaper adhesive that’s used to stick the wallpaper to soften. Wallpaper steamers are not expensive, and if you have a lot to remove, you might consider renting a commercial-grade steamer, as most local rental stores will rent them for $20 – $40 per day. A lightweight residential version by Wagner can be purchased at Walmart for about $50. These have worked well for us in the past but can wear out after a dozen projects or so.

I like using a wallpaper steamer because it is predictable. It does take patience and can still damage the wallboard, but once you get a feel for it, it is easy to work with…boring, but easy. Wallpaper removal is not rocket science, and I think most people just get impatient with it. What makes it hard is working on large walls or above your head. Wrestling with the machine hoses can also be frustrating. Tight spaces between trim or walls and cabinets can be difficult as well, but usually, wallpaper installed in these areas does not receive as much glue and can usually be removed without too much problem. So those are some of the methods that I know of regarding wallpaper removal tools.

After the wallpaper is removed.

wallpaper removal

Once you are successful at removing all the wallpaper from the walls with some or all of these removal methods that I provided, you still need to deal with the residual glue.  You can do one of two things:

  • You can keep washing or steaming the walls, and try to scrape all the wallpaper glue off. This is usually a ridiculously laborious task, one that I would avoid like the plague.
  • The better option is to seal the glue in. Because the glue is typically water based, it would reactivate if you seal it with a water-based product.  My recommendation is to seal the walls with an oil based primer like Alkyd Fresh Start by Benjamin Moore.  This will seal the glue in and provide a good solid foundation for whatever you need to do from here.

Problems that will occur if you DO NOT seal or remove all the glue.

A friend of mine who lives on the East Coast emailed me a few weeks ago with a question. She wanted to know why her walls were bubbling in places after they had removed wallpaper. To which I told her she needed to seal her walls. What most people do after wallpaper removal is repair any drywall damage. Drywall compound is also water-based and will reactivate the glue. This causes the bubbles. I once walked onto a project where a drywall contractor had skimmed most of the house after removing wallpaper. Bubbles were created throughout the entire house. I had to tell the homeowner the best way to proceed was to oil prime the walls, then fix any of the bubbles. A costly mistake. Once the oil primer and drywall repair are done, a latex drywall primer can be used, and then a finish coat or coats can be applied.

So to recap, here are the proper steps for wallpaper removal:

  • Remove the wallpaper.
  • Clean off all the glue OR seal with an oil based primer.
  • Repair drywall damage.
  • Prime new drywall with a drywall primer.
  • Top coat.

With anything, people will try to skip steps and cut corners, and that’s where problems occur. Can you get lucky and skip to painting with no problems? Sure, I bet 1 out of 10 times you try it, you will escape with no problems, but it is usually because the glue that was used was either very lightly applied, or the project is so old that a different kind of glue was used. In that case, though, there are other problems that can occur.

Removing wallpaper can be a huge task. When we did it, we always gave an estimated range of the cost but never could give an exact number. The reason is, we never knew how easy it would be to remove. I have had wallpaper tear down in big sheets in minutes, and I have spent hours on just one wall. You can never know how it will go. Everyone always says, ‘I think they did a really good job during installation, so it should come down easy.’ Well, we will see. And even if one wall comes down easy, it does not mean all the wallpaper removal will go easy. I once worked in a dining room that started great – sheets were coming down with ease. Then we hit the second wall, and they installed the wallpaper right over raw drywall, and we spent 4 hours on a 6 ft. wall. So, you never know.

If you are looking to expertly remove wallpaper in Denver, and would like some assistance, please reach out to us, we would love to help.

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