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No-fuss wallpaper removal

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Posted: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 10:00 pm

Q: Do you know the best way to remove wallpaper that's about 20 or 30 years old? I just bought a house that has old-time country wallpaper in the kitchen, and I really don't like it. Besides, they didn't do a very good job putting it up in the first place.

I've tried some over-the-counter spray that's supposed to work, but it only succeeded in having me put a bunch of little holes in the wallpaper. My dad suggests I just cover it up with drywall, but then the wall would be sticking out beyond the kitchen cabinets and I would need to redo the trim. I just want to remove it and put some paint in its place. The kitchen is not very big, and there's not a lot of wallpaper to remove. Any suggestions?

A: Wallpaper of this vintage is probably vinyl on a paper backing. The vinyl prevents the spray you bought from penetrating the wallpaper to the glue. We assume the little holes in the wall are from your attempt to score the paper so the solution could penetrate.

Don't abandon the job. You just need to tweak your method a bit. Follow these steps and you should have the offending paper off the walls lickety-split.

First, prepare the area. Shut off all circuit breakers that control the kitchen outlets and lights. Remove covers from outlets and switch plates, and keep them and their screws in a safe place. The job will require fairly significant amounts of water. You don't want to fry your electrical system or yourself.

Put drop cloths over anything you want to protect. Old wallpaper and glue get everywhere. And once it dries on the floor, it's a pain to get off. Tape plastic sheeting to the cabinets. Use cloth on the floors. The drops on the floor will move, so be careful.

Next, slide a metal putty knife under the edge of the wallpaper. Odds are some of the seams are loose. Take the edge of the paper and peel it back. The vinyl face should separate and expose the paper backing. Peel as much of the vinyl off as you can.

Fill a bucket with water as hot as you can stand. If you are using commercial stripping solution, mix it with the water according to package directions. You can also get good results with a 20 percent solution of vinegar in hot water or a 50-50 mix of fabric softener and water. Use a paint roller to get the hot-water stripping solution mix on the wall.

Apply the solution liberally. The idea is to saturate the paper and the glue holding it to the wall. Do an area only as big as you think you can strip in 15 minutes. Any longer and you risk the paper drying out.

The wallpaper darkens as it gets wet. Let the solution set for a few minutes to thoroughly saturate the paper. Now start peeling. We like to use a 4-inch drywall knife for this part of the job. It's small enough to maneuver, yet large enough to take big pieces of paper off at a time. Have a big garbage can nearby to contain the paper.

Once all the paper is off, you'll be left with little specks of wallpaper residue on the walls. A Scotch-Brite pad dipped in stripping solution will take care of the stragglers.

The solution mix will cool down or get contaminated with old wallpaper glue. When that happens, dump it out and make a new batch. Don't dump it into a sink or tub, as this may make your drains go slower. Dump it down the toilet - don't worry about clogging - or outside if you are using nontoxic substances.

For larger jobs, rent a wallpaper steamer. This is a metal plate connected to a tank by a rubber hose. The tank contains a heating element. When plugged in, water is heated to create steam that escapes through holes in the metal plate. The advantage is that the water never cools, making the job go more quickly.

With clean walls, a little spackling, priming and painting will make your kitchen look like new.

***

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