The Best Way to Remove a Popcorn Ceiling

Asbestos and Lead Paint May Be a Concern, so Be Sure to Check

Removing Popcorn Ceiling
Removing a Popcorn Ceiling Is a Messy Job. Chad Jones/Flickr/CC BY-SA 4.0

If your home has a popcorn acoustic textured ceiling, you may want the texture removed. With their sharp peaks and valleys, these ceilings were not much loved even when they were introduced in the 1960s.

Painting these ceilings is difficult and requires thick-nap roller covers and much paint. Dust-catching textured ceilings are difficult to clean. They make a room look smaller because the peaks create dark shadows.

As if that wasn't enough, many popcorn ceilings contain lead-based paint or asbestos, a mineral that is linked to asbestosis and mesothelioma.

One way to deal with the problem is to cover up the ceiling. Another way is to ignore it. As long as asbestos fibers are not released, they are safe. But many homeowners want the ceiling removed for decorative reasons or because they do not want asbestos in any form in their home. Currently, no federal law prohibits homeowners from abating asbestos non-commercially in their own homes. However, check with your local air and environmental quality agencies, as well as your permitting office.

Tools and Materials Required

  • Scrapers: You can purchase a tool such as the Homax Ceiling Texture Scraper, which includes an armature for attaching a plastic waste bag. Alternatively, you can use a 10- or 12-inch drywall knife. It also helps to have a narrower scraping tool, such as a putty knife.
  • Garden Sprayer: Because you will be spraying water upwards, pump-handle spray bottles will not work. Instead, purchase an inexpensive 1-gallon sprayer with a hose. Do not use one that has been previously used for pesticides or herbicides.
  • Plastic Sheeting: You will need both painter's masking film for the walls and thicker 6 mil plastic sheeting for the floors. Do not use fabric or canvas drop cloths.
  • Spackle or Drywall Compound: These products will be used to patch the damaged ceiling.
  • Painters Tape: This low-stick (though pricey) tape will not mar your walls upon removal.
  • Ladder or Step Stool
  • Sandpaper
  • Contractor Bags

1. Test for Asbestos and Lead Paint

Two separate issues may affect older homes: asbestos within the texture product (the popcorn) and lead within the paint covering the texture product. 

  • Asbestos: You can purchase a home-based asbestos testing kit that allows you to scrape off a small section of the texture product and mail it to a lab for testing. Results typically take two weeks after the lab receives the sample. Or you can hire an asbestos remediation professional to do this for you. Make sure that the lab is accredited under the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP).
  • Lead Paint: Homes built before 1978 may contain lead within the paint. When this paint is disturbed and becomes airborne, it can be ingested and may lead to severe health problems. As with asbestos, inexpensive lead paint testing kits such as 3M's LeadCheck allow you to self-sample by scraping away flakes and then crush them to a fine powder. Many of these home-based lead paint testing kits produce results in less than a minute.

    2. Cover Walls and Floor

    Popcorn ceiling removal creates a great amount of waste. Consider any exposed surface to be a potential recipient of wet, goopy texture product. With that in mind, you may want to remove all lightweight furniture from the room and cover remaining items.

    Attach plastic painter's film to the walls, running the masking tape edge along the juncture between the walls and ceiling. Cover the flooring with the thicker 6 mil plastic sheeting.

    3. Spray the Ceiling

    Fill the sprayer with warm water and pump it to raise the pressure. Lightly spray a 4-foot square test area of the ceiling and let it sit. If your ceiling only has texture product but no paint, it should readily absorb the water and be ready for scraping in about 15 minutes. If your ceiling was painted with a coat of flat paint or ceiling paint, the water will take longer to absorb and may require multiple light soakings.

    4. Scrape off the Popcorn Ceiling Texture

    After the water has absorbed, scrape away the texture product. Use the wide scraper at first. Push into the softened texture until the edge of the blade touches the drywall. Then tilt the scraper up to a low angle. Scrape forward. The texture product should now have the consistency of cottage cheese and should easily come off and fall down. If great force is needed, wet again.

    If the sample area removes easily, you are good to go with the rest of the ceiling. Work in similar small areas that are between 4- and 16-feet square. Do not wet the entire ceiling at once, as sections will dry before you can get to them. The narrower scrapers work best along the edges and in corners.

    5. Let It Dry

    Because you have introduced moisture to the drywall and the room in general, a significant amount of drying time is needed. Drywall has a paper backing and a gypsum core that both hold water for a long period of time. Increasing the temperature and the air ventilation will help speed the drying process.

    6. Fix the Gouges

    Gouges, scratches, and shallow holes are an inevitable byproduct of ceiling scraping. Clean your scraping tools and use them to apply Spackle or dust-control drywall compound to these areas. Sand smooth with #100 or higher fine grit sandpaper. Wipe clean. The ceiling is now ready for priming and painting.

    7. Dispose of Waste

    If the debris does not contain hazardous materials, you can dispose of it in contractor bags in your home trash pickup.

    If it does contain asbestos or lead-based paint, you cannot dispose of it with your regular landfill waste. You will need to obtain a permit and dispose of it separately, typically within a narrow window of time (up to 30 days).