The Best Way to Remove Wallpaper Without Losing Your Sanity

These wallpaper removal tips (secrets!) turn the worst gig in DIY into a no-brainer.

Image: Kranenburg Painting Inc.

What would you do to avoid removing wallpaper? Probably whatever you could, judging by the stories of woe we found on the web.

DIYer Rachel Meeks wrote in her “Small Notebook” blog that she was so overwhelmed by the prospect of removing 40-year-old wallpaper from several rooms that she actually knocked down a couple of walls rather than spend time scraping. That fear and dread are also palpable in online forums on the topic, where many people strongly advise: Get a pro to do it. (Subtext: Have a cocktail instead.)

Can’t argue with the cocktail idea, but here’s a fact that will come as a huge surprise to many DIYers: With a little bit of know-how, removing wallpaper just isn’t that hard. If you want to save a few hundred bucks on a pro, it’s actually a fairly simple DIY project — as even Meeks later found out — so long as you have the right info, tools, and expectations. (It’s gonna take some time!)

First, Check to See If Your Walls Were Primed

Anyone who’s managed to remove wallpaper lickety-split likely (and luckily) had walls that were sealed with wallpaper primer before they were papered, says Geoff Sharp, owner and founder of Sharper Impressions Painting Co., which operates in several cities including Atlanta and Indianapolis.

Priming, which became more common in the 1990s, prevents the wet glue from soaking into plaster or drywall and forming a tough-to-break bond. Loosen a corner or seam with a putty knife and pull. If it peels off in a sheet, you got primed!

Being able to peel off wallpaper in complete or partial sheets after lifting the corners with a putty knife is called dry stripping. With well-primed walls, dry stripping should work for the entire job and you could finish a room in a couple of hours at most.

Trust in the Power of Water

Not primed? No worries. Removing wallpaper — vinyl, foil, or paper — comes down to high school chemistry. (See, it does come in handy!) “Wallpaper glue is water based, so water is a super-efficient remover,” says vlogger Chris Berry, known as The Idaho Painter, who owns B&K Painting in Boise. “It works so well, we use it instead of chemical wallpaper strippers on both drywall and plaster.”

Here’s what to do with water:

  • Score or perforate the paper and its backing in sections so water can soak through and loosen the glue. The pros recommend a scoring tool called the PaperTiger (under $20) because it doesn’t harm the wall.
  • Douse the perforated paper with hot water using a pump or compression sprayer (under $50). OK, wallpaper-phobics, here’s where the myth that DIY removal is the worst gets legs. The big mistake most people make is using a regular old spray bottle or damp rag to wet the paper. This leads to hours of fruitless scraping (and griping) because the paper and its backing don’t get sufficiently saturated. The sprayer, on the other hand, gives you the firepower to really soak the glue.
  • Let the paper soak for about 15 minutes and scrape it off with a putty knife.

We won’t pretend this process is quick, even if it is easy. It could take you six hours for an average room, but that’s way better than the days of effort it could take if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Another option for harnessing the power of H20 is steam. Wallpaper steamers, which you can rent from home improvement or hardware stores, are effective and “much neater [than water] because you’re using moist heat,” says Jason Stratos, owner of Stratos Painting Co. in Springfield, Mass. But they can be tough for steamer newbies. They’re bulky and awkward to use (Done an upper body workout lately?)and it’s possible to burn yourself, warns Gina Paris of Gina Paris Design in Conneaut Lake, Pa.

So if all this sounds like a hassle, stick with a compression sprayer, which is easier to manage.

Tip: Scoring, soaking, and scraping are still the best technique even with dense, woven grasscloth. But factor in the extra, painstaking step of tearing off as much of the top layer as possible to expose the backing first, because “the material rips off in thin, stringy shreds,” says Berry.

Tip: Walls with wood paneling are the one exception to using water, since water and wood don’t mix. In that case, use a gel chemical stripper that won’t penetrate the wood.

Decide If Chemical Wallpaper Stripper is Right For You

If water is so effective, why does stripper exist? Some pros prefer it because stripper dissolves glue faster than water. But it likely emits low-grade VOCs, or toxic chemicals. And water is cheap. So why not go au naturel? By the way, if you use stripper, the pros recommend DIF Ultra Concentrate (pricing varies, ranging from about $5 to $35 online).

Don't be Fooled by the Urban Myth of Fabric Softener

Through the interweb grapevine, you may have heard that fabric softener (diluted with water) is a brag-worthy way to remove old wallpaper. But we couldn’t find a single expert who agrees.

“Fabric softener just makes the process more complicated, smelly, and even messier than using just plain old water,” says Berry. You end up mixing glue with the chemicals from fabric softener. In addition, Berry says fabric softener may harm drywall.

So when it comes to removing wallpaper, the happiest journey (assuming your walls aren’t primed) involves water — and patience.

Christina Hoffmann contributed to this article.

Related: Rather paint that paper walls? Get pro secrets in The Paint-with-Confidence Guide