How to Separate Wall Paper and Paint from Old Plaster Walls

Jim Mallery

You want to repaint the walls in your old house, but there's a problem.

Once upon a time those wonderful lathe-and-plaster walls were covered in wallpaper, and thereafter, it seems like a new layer of wallpaper was added over all of the previous ones about every five years or so for the next half-century.

Once wallpaper went out of style, it was painted over countless times--first with an oil-based paint, and then with latex paint--the last time in psychedelic orange!

The original, charming plaster walls of your old house are now a mess of buckling wallpaper, its seams still visible, under layers of paint. How are you ever going to restore the plaster walls to their former beauty and give them a fresh coat of paint in a color that reflects the times and your taste?

It probably won't be easy, but it will definitely be worth the labor. Here what you'll need to do.

Separating Wallpaper and Paint from Plaster

  • Remove the glue. Any wallpaper removal requires first softening the glue, and then pulling and scraping the paper off. It's always messy, so drop cloths are a must. There are various ways to soften the glue that is holding the wallpaper to the wall, and most methods are environmentally friendly. You may have success with simply spraying hot water on the wall and pulling and scraping. Surprisingly, spraying a liquid fabric softener, mixed 50-50 with hot water usually is very effective. You can also buy commercial wallpaper remover. But to really bring the moist heat to the glue, you may want to rent or buy a steamer.
  • Perforate the layers of paper and paint. Scoring the wall with a tool that makes small perforations in the paint and paper--letting the moisture reach the glue--helps considerably. Zinsser makes a popular scorer called the Paper Tiger that makes performations as you roll it over the wall. As you pull and scrape the wallpaper off, layers of paint will probably chip away, creating a huge mess on your floor--hence the need for drop cloths. Exercise care as you lift the paper from that wall: Don't pull the plaster with it. If you meet a section that is not coming free easily, reapply the moistening agent.
  • Repair the plaster. Once the wallpaper is removed, you undoubtedly will have some plaster repair--cracks, chips and even holes. Usually, repair can be handled by simply spackling and sanding. For serious flaws, consult a professional on how to proceed with your particular type of plaster. Repairs can get quite involved.
  • Wash the walls and prime. When it is finally time to paint, make sure you have washed the walls thoroughly. Get as much glue and spackling dust off them as possible. Make sure the repairs are fully dry, so that your paint adheres well. Apply a good oil-based primer to cover any spots of glue residue left on the wall. Tint the primer to your final color to give the final coat better coverage.

Removing those layers of old paper and paint from your plaster is labor intensive, but you and your old house will appreciate it. Just think of it as a labor of love.

About the Author

Jim Mallery, a semi-retired journalist and onetime registered contractor, has extensive experience remodeling, repairing, and rebuilding homes.

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