How to Remove Painted-Over Wallpaper

How to Remove Painted-Over Wallpaper

Imagine walking into your “new” fixer-upper house, walking through the unfamiliar hallways and rooms that you now call your own and imagining the contemporary farmhouse colors you will shortly paint on the walls. You think it will be an easy job, just washing the dust and cobwebs from the walls and protecting the trim with painter’s tape.

Then, you walk into your guest bathroom. After a closer inspection of the stark white walls, you realize that it’s not just paint on the walls….it’s wallpaper, and the that wallpaper is painted.

Dear god.

My hopes and dreams for a quick, easy guest bathroom upgrade were dashed. There was no painting over this wallpaper again. The corners of the wallpaper were beginning to peel, and it was a little bubbly in some spots. It would have to be removed if I wanted to refresh the space.

This is a photo from the original listing of the toilet and shower.
And here is the vanity and old light fixture from the original listing.

As you can see from the above photos, you can barely tell that wallpaper lives below this white paint! It was only after I had a chance to really inspect the walls after we moved in that I realize there was wallpaper in this bathroom.

I decided to put the guest bathroom’s makeover off for a bit after my realization, but I finally tackled the project last weekend. I’m glad I did because it taught me quite a bit about wallpaper removal, knowledge that I would need for two other spaces in my home that require some TLC. I am also happy to share my process (mistakes and all) with you!

How to Remove Painted-Over Wallpaper

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • Spray bottle
  • Water
  • Dish soap (I used regular Dawn dish soap)
  • Wire brush, or other abrasive material
  • Scraper (I just used a putty knife, ha)
  • Spackle

First, fill your spray bottle with water and add about 1 tsp. of dish soap. This simple solution helps disintegrate the adhesive used to attach the wallpaper to your wall, and it peels off sooooo much easier. There is no reason you need to go out and purchase expensive products when you likely have all the ingredients in your kitchen.

Full disclosure, the wallpaper on my walls was so old much of it peeled off without me needing to spray it. It’s likely original to a house built in 1978. Forty-one year old wallpaper! I only sprayed in spots that were stuck a little better and let it soak for a minute.

This is one of the areas where the wallpaper was beginning to peel. Start in one of these areas, if you can.

If your wallpaper is stuck better than mine, you will want to use your wire brush or other abrasive material (sandpaper works, too, but the wire brush holds up better) to scuff up the paint and wallpaper beneath. Lightly spray on the soap and water mixture and let it soak for a minute, then peel off. You will want to work in small sections, because when the soap and water dries it’s still difficult to get wallpaper off. Wet peel is best!

You can use your scraper as an aid, but you want the soap and water to do most of the work for you. You want the sheetrock to receive as little damage as possible from the scraper, so use it sparingly.

Airplanes. Airplanes in the bathroom. Although, we did find out that this bathroom used to be an office, so perhaps it makes more sense.

If you find that the sheetrock’s facer paper is peeling away with the wallpaper, stop peeling! Scuff up the wallpaper a bit more and spray more of your soap/water mixture on it, let it soak, and then try again. I made the mistake of just ripping and not caring what came with it, but it will save you a ton of work if you try to damage the sheetrock as little as possible! If you find that the wallpaper still isn’t un-sticking, add a bit of fabric softener to your solution. Just a teaspoon!

If you do damage the sheetrock, you will need to fix the spots with spackling, wait for them to dry, and then sand them down. The bigger the spot, the more difficult it is to make it look smooth and seamless, as if there was never wallpaper on it at all! There are a number of spots on my poor wall that were pretty badly damaged, and if you look closely you can see the unevenness where I tried to fix it. With wall decor it will barely be noticeable unless you know it’s there, but I would have rather started with a perfect wall!

The less sheetrock you damage, the less of this you have to do. Be gentle!

Once all wallpaper is peeled away and any holes or rips are repaired with spackle and sanded, it’s time to clean! If you had to sand, make sure to vacuum the dust off the walls and the floor. Using soap (Regular dish soap will work) and water, scrub your naked walls! I actually use a clean mop to wipe walls down because it’s faster and easier than using a rag. I have been using and loving the O-Cedar EasyWring Microfiber Spin Mop.  It’s been great for both floors and cleaning walls, and I just throw the head in the washing machines when it gets dirty. I found some areas needed a more thorough scrub with a rough cloth, so keep one handy.

After your first wash, you might find that your walls feel slimy, or maybe even sticky. That’s likely the wallpaper adhesive. You should wash your walls again before they have had a chance to fully dry, running your hand over them to make sure you’ve removed all adhesive. Allow the walls to dry for a few hours before painting.

I recommend a good paint no matter how simple the job, but for walls that were previously wallpapered I feel like it is even more important. Don’t get cheap paint. For this guest bathroom, I used Behr Marquee Interior Semi-Gloss Enamel in Graceful Gray. Normally, this type of paint is in the $40 per gallon range, but I purchased this paint at Home Depot for $9 on the mess-up rack! That is a heck of a deal! If you’re patient and have time to run to the store and check for mess-ups a couple times a week, you can get really awesome paint in trendy colors for super cheap.

Semi-Gloss is highly recommended for rooms that are high traffic, are prone to moisture and grease, and receive a lot of abuse in general. It is quite shiny, so if you don’t like that you can probably get away with a Satin finish. I used to have flat paint in our previous home’s bathroom, and it really didn’t clean up very well. Toilet splatter and other mysterious stains were an issue, guys. Go with a flatter, less shiny finish if you like, but be prepared to touch up often because those stains don’t scrub out. If you try to scrub, it usually takes paint with it.

The Great Transformation

Doesn’t this bathroom look so much better with a color refresh? Some other updates we completed were:

  • Replaced the vanity light fixture
  • Cleaned and spray painted the ceiling light fixture with a metallic oil rubbed bronze paint
  • Removed the disgusting shower door and replaced it with a simple curtain
  • Removed the non-functional towel rack over the toilet
  • Replaced the ivory outlet/switch covers with new white covers and paddle rocker switches
  • Cleaned and spray painted the ceiling exhaust fan white
  • Replaced the old shower head with a new shower head

The cost of all of this? Around $200, and the light fixture and new shower head was the majority of that cost. I already had a spare shower curtain, and tension rods are cheap. Spray paint is around $5 to $10 a can depending on what you get, but it can be used for multiple projects. Never underestimate the power of a good clean and spray paint! I swear I washed a whole nest of bugs and an inch-thick layer of grime out of this light fixture, and it took me two minutes to spray paint!

In the near future, we will be painting the trim, doors, and vanity cabinet white, and replacing the vanity top and faucet, as well as updating the cabinet hardware and door handles. Later on once we have saved up some money, we will replace the toilet and install a new shower, but those things are still in good working order despite their ugliness so can wait a few years!

Although removing painted over wallpaper can be a hassle, anyone can do it with the right time-saving combination of household items and a free weekend. Don’t be afraid to tackle a project like this yourself!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Deb

    so proud of you Kelsey! lots of good info you have. Oh how beautiful it looks now. Keep up the great work and love reading your page and info.

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