Friday, June 15, 2007

Stripping Wallpaper - the real deal!

Ever since my adventures with Ask This Old House, a number of people have asked me how I was able to remove 3 layers of wallpaper off my old plaster walls. In a number of nights and weekends working in my kitchen, I cobbled together a fairly decent process of removing wallpaper from plaster walls, which I wanted to detail here for posterity. WARNING: There are different techniques for removing wallpaper from drywall which I am not going to discuss here. You'll have to do your own research on the different techniques needed to remove wallpaper from drywall. Additionally, I was fortunate enough to have walls that had been painted with a primer prior to the wallpaper being put up. If you aren't as lucky, I feel sorry for you. Again, you'll need to read up on how to deal with this situation on This Old House or another home improvement site.


I read a number of articles on the This Old House web site and a great book called Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement. S&S isn't a home improvement book, but a collection of essays detailing the author's (mis)adventures renovating a 150 year old Connecticut farmhouse. Pages 36-37 detail his experiences in removing wallpaper, which I found to be really handy. The first two-thirds of the book are a great read if you're living in an old house, the final third details his experiences building a vacation home. I strongly recommend it.

Tools and Chemicals:

  1. After trying a number of different wallpaper removal solutions, I discovered that the enzyme wallpaper glue dissolver named DIF seems to work the best. You buy it in a small bottle that you then mix with water. This appears to be the most cost effecient solution - they also sell it pre-mixed, but that doesn't work as well, and is more expensive.
    While you're in the aisle with all of the wallpaper removal chemicals, you will be tempted to buy a bottle of DIF gel which is smurf blue. I didn't have great results with it; it also made a blue stain on the wall wherever I used it (nothing permanent, the blue residue washed off with hot water).
    If you've decided to mix your own solution, you'll need to buy a utility spray bottle. Ace hardware has one with measuring lines marked on it that you can use to easily mix the DIF with the water. It costs about $1.50, and is worth every penny.
    The bottle has a 24 oz capacity, you put in 2 oz of DIF and fill up the remaining 22 oz with tap water. Use hot water to mix up your DIF solution; the hotter, the better - hot water seems to make the solution work faster.
  2. In order for the the DIF solution to work, it needs to come into contact with the wallpaper paste. The paste is inconveniently located behind the sheets of wallpaper. I bought a little tool called the Paper Tiger, a handheld device that has three rotating wheels on it with lots of fine, sharp teeth used to make holes in the wallpaper. The holes will allow the solution to penetrate behind the wallpaper and get into contact with the adhesive. Because of this, the more holes in the wallpaper, the better.
  3. To actually remove the wallpaper from the wall, you'll need a wide-blade putty knife or a long-handled wallpaper scraper. You'll also need a narrow putty knife to get into small areas, like the edge of the door molding and the corner of the room.


  1. If you ignore the safety instructions on the DIF bottle and spray the solution in a poorly ventilated area (like my pantry, for example) it can actually make you light-headed (feel free to ask me how I know about this). Because of this, I really recommend buying some sort of breathing mask, or at least get a fan to pull air into your location.
  2. You should also wear eye protection and a pair of chemical-resistant gloves when you're spraying.
  3. Don't forget to wear your old painting duds too, since the solution smells a little when you're right on top of it.

My Technique, for what it's worth:

  1. Score the wallpaper with the Paper Tiger. Do it in lots of circles, and don't press too hard on the tool, the teeth are really sharp and will penetrate the wallpaper easily. If you push down on the Paper Tiger, you run the risk of making hundreds of pinpricks in the plaster - which you will then need to cover up with joint compound prior to painting.
  2. Mix up your DIF solution following the instructions above.
  3. Spray the walls! Since this technique is for plaster walls, make them really wet. The wetter, the better. Remember what I noted about having good ventilation in the area you're spraying.
  4. Spray one area at a time - no more than you can scrape off prior to it drying (meaning don't spray the whole room at once).
  5. Go and do something else for 15 minutes. The solution needs some time to soak in and start breaking down the adhesive.
  6. After 15 minutes, spray the area again. Go and do something else for another 10-15 minutes.
  7. Grab your preferred scraper and go to town attacking the wet wallpaper!!!!
  8. Depending on how many layers of wallpaper there are, you may need to repeat steps 1-7 a couple of times. I had three layers of wallpaper in some areas, I had to do some areas two times, others three. Your mileage may vary.
  9. When you're done scraping off all of the wallpaper, there will most likely be some glue residue left on the wall. Reapply more DIF, wait for it to work (only 2-3 minutes now since you're applying it directly to the glue) and scrape again.
  10. When you have all of the big bits of glue off, scrub the wall with a wet sponge to remove any leftover chemicals and glue residue (your results may vary, some walls are easier than others).

As you can see, removing wallpaper is a time-consuming pain in the butt. However, this is a good example of something you can do-it-yourself with a really low probability of breaking anything!
And don't forget the motto of the DIY-er:

There isn't anything you can do to your house that you can't pay someone else a
lot of money to fix.

So get scraping!


Here's some good articles from This Old House, my source for all things broken:

I also have a subscription to This Old House Magazine. Every issue is packed full of useful information.

1 comment:

Guff! said...

Dif works ok, but I've found that some white vinegar in water works even better. It took off some really stubborn wallpaper for me that I was having all kinds of problems with when I was using Dif. It's also waaaayyy less expensive.