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Should you remove wallpaper -- or just paint over it?

Think you're ready to paint? Not so fast. You may have to remove the wallpaper first.
Think you're ready to paint? Not so fast. You may have to remove the wallpaper first.
©iStockphoto.com/kutaytanir

Many homeowners love the look of wallpaper. It covers wall imperfections, adds unique textures and patterns, and creates a finished wall surface that's difficult to replicate with paint. Quality vinyl wallpaper that's professionally installed can last up to 15 years with little maintenance [source: NGPP].

For some people, wallpaper's durability can be a problem. Designs and patterns chosen decades ago simply don't work with a more modern decor. Homeowners who like to change the look of their home from time to time typically prefer paint, which is cheaper and easier to apply and can be changed up in a fraction of the time that wallpaper changes would take.

If you've had enough of your old, outdated wallpaper, it can be tempting just to paint right over it. After all, we've all heard horror stories about wallpaper removal, ranging from drywall that crumbled as the paper was removed to homeowners who peeled away dozens of layers of paper only to find more underneath. According to most home improvement experts, as well as the National Guild of Professional Paperhangers, wallpaper should be removed before painting whenever possible, as you'll experience better results and fewer problems down the road [source: NGPP].

For some people looking to replace their existing wallpaper with paint, stripping the paper simply may not be an option. They may find their walls are not in good enough shape, and that removing the paper causes more problems than it prevents. If you think this is the case in your home, you may be right. In this case, painting over wallpaper may be the best choice.

So how can you tell whether you should remove your paper or simply paint over it? There are a variety of factors to consider, from the condition and look of the wallpaper to your future plans for the space. To help you decide whether to paint over your paper or strip the walls, check out the tips and tricks in the next section.

When to Remove Wallpaper

In general, removing wallpaper from your walls before painting will provide better quality and longer-lasting results than simply painting over it. Before deciding to remove your paper, here are some things to consider.

Wallpaper is generally applied in rows, so when it's painted over, the seams where these rows line up will often show through the paint. In addition, most wallpaper is textured, some quite noticeably, and the patterns and textures in the paper may show through the paint. Finally, the moisture in the paint can loosen the wallpaper's adhesive, causing sections of the paper to bubble or detach from the wall [source: Austin].

Of course, there are potential problems to removing wallpaper. First, the work may be difficult and time-consuming, depending on how and when the paper was applied. Those with older homes may find half a dozen layers of paper or more, and each one will likely be more difficult to remove. Finally, there's the potential for unexpected surprises once the paper is removed. The drywall or plaster underneath could be crumbling or damaged, with the wallpaper being the only thing that has held it together up to this point.

Paper that's loose, ripped or has holes should always be removed before painting, as these are signs that the paper is beginning to fail. By painting over it, you're investing effort and money into a project that won't last.

Finally, consider your future plans for the space. Wallpaper that has been painted over is notoriously difficult to remove [source: Thomas]. While it can be removed with a lot of extra effort, you will likely remove sections of drywall or plaster with the paper. If you plan to stay in your current home for a long time, you'll be better off in the long run if you simply remove the paper now instead of creating problems for yourself down the road.

There are many methods available for removing wallpaper and prepping your walls for painting. For an overview of these methods, check out this article on How to Remove Wallpaper. Remember to remove one layer at a time to avoid damaging drywall or plaster.

Read on to the next section to learn how painting over wallpaper may be your best option in certain scenarios, and how to ensure you get good results.

When Painting Over Wallpaper is the Better Option

While it may not be ideal, sometimes it just makes more sense to paint over wallpaper.
While it may not be ideal, sometimes it just makes more sense to paint over wallpaper.
©

While it's usually better to remove your paper before painting, there are some cases where painting over wallpaper may actually be beneficial. First, and most importantly, the drywall or plaster walls under the paper will remain intact. Removing old paper, or many layers of paper, often causes unexpected damage to walls. By leaving the paper in place, your walls will stay in their current condition. Second, leaving the paper in place will allow you to paint your walls much more easily and quickly. Removing paper is difficult and time-consuming, so many people are eager to skip this task.

If you decide that you're going to go ahead and paint over your wallpaper, it's important to prep your walls carefully to ensure the best results possible. Start by securing the paper. Remove and replace damaged sections and add adhesive to loose pieces to minimize the chance the paper will fall. Add a thin line of clear caulk around the perimeter of the walls, at the joint seam where the paper meets the floor and ceiling. This will help seal the edges and keep the paper from peeling after you've painted [source: Schunck].

Next, prep your walls carefully. Cover heavily textured paper with a thin coat of joint compound (spackle). This material will help smooth out the surface so that the texture won't show through the paint. Gently sand down the seams of the wallpaper so they're not as noticeable. Apply a coat of oil-based primer to the entire surface of the walls before painting. This helps seal the adhesive in the paper away from the moisture in the paint. Moisture from paint can often loosen wallpaper glue, causing bubbles or peeling. In addition to applying a primer, try to use oil-based paints to minimize the impacts of moisture of adhesives [source: Heavens].

Now you're ready to make a decision about your walls. But before you do, read some of the information on the next page. It may help you with this decision or some others that may come up in your renovation project.

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Sources

  • Austin, Gene. "Tips on Home Cooling, Painting Over Wallpaper, and Deck Fasteners." Seattle Times. July 12, 2008. 5/20/09. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/homegarden/2008047257_doityourself12.html
  • Thomas, Steve. "Painting Over Wallpaper." This Old House. Date Unknown. 5/22/09http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/asktoh/question/0,,192918,00.html
  • Heavens, Al. "Painting Over Wallpaper is Doable, but It's Tricky." Philadelphia Inquirer. Feb. 6, 2009. 5/19/09.http://www.philly.com/inquirer/columnists/al_heavens/20090206_Your_Place__Painting_over_wallpaper_is_doable_-_but_it_s_tricky.html
  • National Guild of Professional Paperhangers. "Can I Paint Over Wallpaper?" Date Unknown. 5/20/09.http://www.ngpp.org/consumers_wallpaper_faq.php
  • National Guild of Professional Paperhangers. "Why Wallpaper?" Date Unknown. 5/20/09.http://www.ngpp.org/consumers_why_wallpaper.php
  • Ratcliff, David. "Painting Over Wallpaper." Realty.com. Date Unknown. 5/22/09.http://www.realty.com/resources-services/painting-over-wallpaper/
  • Schunck, Rebecca. "Can I Paint Over Wallpaper?" Wallpaper Installer. 2008. 5/19/09.http://www.wallpaperinstaller.com/wallpaper_faq.html#11