How to Remove Wallpaper From Plaster Walls

Removing wallpaper

 

PavelRodimov / Getty Images

Project Overview
  • Total Time: 3 - 5 hrs
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $25 to $75

Wallpaper on drywall walls is tough enough to remove. But wallpaper on plaster walls can be far worse. While wallpaper removal from plaster is difficult, there are a few methods you can use to minimize damage to the walls.

Before You Begin

Carefully consider this project before you begin. Removing the wallpaper from your plaster walls might cause more damage, and much of it may not be your fault.

Old plaster and lath walls often have several layers of wallpaper that have accrued over the years. One reason for these multiple layers is that removing wallpaper before applying new paper was viewed as unnecessary and too difficult by previous owners. In other words, a situation similar to the one that you're facing.

But there may be another reason: multiple layers of wallpaper may have been added in an attempt to hold together crumbling plaster walls.

So, you may find that your home's previous owner applied wallpaper to crumbling, cracking plaster walls chiefly as a method of holding the plaster together. 

Using a Wallpaper Steamer

You can purchase or rent a wallpaper steamer. Steamers liquefy the dry wallpaper paste, loosening it and aiding in removal.

Steamers come with large, flat pads that are meant to be held against the wall for about 30 seconds while the steam is activated. Using other attachments will not concentrate the steam enough; you must use a wallpaper pad.

Safety Considerations

Paint applied before 1978 may be lead-based paint. Lead-based paint has been shown to cause birth defects and affect development in children. Lead-based paint should not be inhaled or ingested. With plaster walls, there is a high probability that the walls' paint contains lead. Be careful when working with lead-based paint.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Wallpaper steamer
  • Wallpaper steaming pad
  • Putty knife
  • Wallpaper scoring tool
  • Plastic sheeting

Materials

  • Clean water for the steamer

Instructions

  1. Protect Walls and Floor

    Lay plastic sheeting on the flooring and on adjacent walls to protect them from steam and water.

  2. Score Wallpaper

    Use the scoring tool to create light abrasions on the wallpaper. Do not press hard on the scoring tool.

  3. Attach Steamer Pad

    Attach the large wallpaper steaming pad to the end of the hose. Make sure that it is tightly attached and that the hose is securely attached to the steamer.

  4. Prepare Wallpaper Steamer

    Fill the wallpaper steamer with water. Do not overfill. Make sure that the steamer is turned off and is not plugged in when filling water. Securely close the reservoir cap. Turn on the steamer and let it fully charge up. Most steamers have indicator lights that will let you know when the steamer is ready to use.

  5. Steam Wallpaper

    With the water fully at boil in the machine, apply the steaming pad to a loose section of wallpaper. Press the trigger to let steam flow out. Leave the pad in place for about 30 seconds.

  6. Scrape Wallpaper

    Remove the steamer and quickly begin scraping with the putty knife. Start at the loose end and gently pry the wallpaper up and away. If you have a large section that appears to be holding together, you can try to peel it up by hand.

  7. Steam Again

    If the section you are working on becomes difficult to remove, apply the steamer again for a few seconds to liquefy the wallpaper paste again. Work section by section. Aim to keep wallpaper together as much as possible instead of shredding it up into small pieces.

Tips For Removing Wallpaper From Plaster Walls

  • Directing steam on the wallpaper for too long (over 1 minute) may cause the plaster to crack.
  • Don't waste too much time after steaming the wallpaper before you begin scraping. Steamed wallpaper cools and dries quickly.
  • Several layers of wallpaper will bind cracking plaster. Eventually, whatever is happening to the plaster will transfer to the wallpaper. So, plaster cracks will mirror themselves on the wallpaper.
  • Before attempting to remove wallpaper from your old plaster and lath walls, be prepared for possibly having to pull down all of the plaster. If you manage to remove the wallpaper and the plaster hangs together, consider yourself lucky. 
  • In most cases of multiple wallpaper build-up, though, the plaster will be a lost cause. Pull out all remaining plaster and lath and re-build the walls with drywall or, to be historically accurate, plaster and lath.

When to Call a Professional

If removing the wallpaper from the wall threatens to dislodge large amounts of plaster, it's time to call a professional for help. Wallpaper technicians and some painters are skilled at removing wallpaper from loose plaster.