How to Remove Wallpaper from Lath and Plaster Walls

How to Remove Wallpaper from Lath and Plaster Walls

Someone I know bought a house and asked me how to remove the wallpaper. I googled and found directions that varied from way more work than it has to be to directions that will damage the walls. So, these directions are for you and anyone else trying to remove wallpaper. I’m starting with lath and plaster, since that’s what she found. I’ll try to get around to other kinds of walls and papers later.

First: Should you remove the wallpaper? Usually the answer is yes, whether you want to paint or hang new wallpaper.

Why wouldn’t you want to remove the wallpaper?

Look! They got the wallpaper off! And the plaster came with it.
Photo by Scott Harn

Lath and Plaster Walls

If your house is old and the walls are made of lath and plaster, you can make the plaster dissolve and fall off the walls if you try to remove old wallpaper. Sometimes those layers of old wallpaper are the only thing holding the walls together.

If you try to get all of the wallpaper off the walls, you may pull the plaster off the walls, too. (If the plaster is really loose, cracked and falling off the walls, these instructions are not for you.)

There is an alternative at the bottom of this page.

Things you will need:

  • Rags
    Synthetic sweatshirts make really good rags for this because they are easy to rinse. Cut them to manageable sizes. If you don’t have any, thrift stores sell old sweatshirts cheap. Don’t bother with the cotton ones. The synthetic ones really make the job easier.
  • Mr. Clean and a bucket
  • Drop cloths
  • A ladder or step stool high enough to reach the top of the area you are working with
  • Primer
    Use wallpaper primer if you are going to hang wallpaper, paint primer if you are going to paint.
    I like Zinsser.

Things you probably need:

  • Sandpaper
  • Plaster or Shrink-free Spackle and a plastic smoother
  • Shot needle to put glue into bubbles
    Flavor injectors work great for this. They have a pointy tip and hold enough glue.

(I would turn this job down. Or hire someone to prepare the walls for me.)

The other side of a lath and plaster wall
Photo by Asmithmd1

How can you tell if your walls are lath and plaster? If the house isn’t old, it’s really unlikely. If there is a way, try seeing inside the wall. Take off a switch plate cover and shine a flashlight into the wall. If there is a medicine cabinet installed in the wall, take it out and look.

If the walls are lath and plaster, feel over your walls and see if the wallpaper is on tightly.

Unless you don’t care at all about the floor, lay down drop cloths. Keep your work area picked up. It’s easy to trip over piles of pulled off wallpaper.

If there are a lot of layers, see if some of it can be stripped off. Tear off anything that you can just tear off. But if it is really stuck, don’t gouge the walls to get it off. Either glue back or lift off loose pieces. Make sure you get behind any switch plate or outlet covers.

Pour some Mr. Clean into a bucket of cool water and wash the walls thoroughly. Hot water is more likely to melt the glue. Don’t soak the wall. You are trying to clean the wall, not remove the paper. Go back and rinse until the rags rinse clear.

Wash everything. Don’t hang wallpaper over dirty, oily walls. Don’t just paint over it. Really don’t try to paint over old wallpaper glue. It is really likely to peel off and then you have a REALLY hard job getting the peeling paint and glue off the walls. Wash any trim as long as you are at it.

Watch for places that bubble up as you are washing. Is it just little spots? Or are there big places? Is it loose wallpaper? Or is it just absorbing water? If it is soaking up water, wait until the walls are dry again before you move on.

OXO Good Grips Flavor Injector to push glue behind loose wallpaper
They sell injectors for glue, but these work the same and are easier to find.

You may want to inject a little glue if there are loose spots. If the spots are really small, you probably don’t need to. To inject glue, don’t stab it in at a 90 degree angle. Slide it under at an angle close to the wall, so you are just going under the paper, not into the wall.

Give things time to dry. This is a good time to clean the area you are working in, throw all your rags in the washer and take a break. Take a shower, wash the glue out of your hair. Take a nap. Come back to it tomorrow.

DAP Fast ‘N Final Spackling is easy to apply, but doesn’t sand smooth, so do it right the first time.
DAP Patching Compound takes longer to dry, but can be sanded smooth.

Once the walls are dry again, lightly sand down any bumps that are going to show. Use some spackle to smooth things. If you are experienced, you can use shrink-free spackle. If you aren’t, you are probably better off using plaster you can sand.

Wait for the plaster to dry.

Paint on primer. Use wallpaper primer if you are going to hang wallpaper, paint primer if you are going to paint. Take note of any areas that puff up again. Be sure that as the primer dries, they tighten up again. If these areas are large or near an edge, glue them down securely.

Once the primer is dry, look for anything that is going to show under the new wallpaper or paint. Use plaster or spackle to smooth the walls. Then prime again over these areas.

Once everything is dry, you can paint or hang new wallpaper.

Don’t rush this. Make sure things have time to dry. Keep your work area clean and safe.

Alternative

There is an alternative. You can replaster the walls. Or you can put new drywall over the walls. Screw on a layer of thin drywall, tape, sand… the whole thing. Hopefully there is enough wire to move the outlet boxes out… Wait for it to dry. WAIT FOR IT TO DRY. Prime. Wait for it to dry. Then paint or hang wallpaper.