Rockin the Removal

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As wallcovering professionals we are often called upon to be proficient in all of the three “R’s” – removal, repair and rehang. If the first two are not in your skill set, you could be missing opportunities for more work. But it’s not just about working more – working smarter is the key. It is possible to be efficient enough that removal becomes almost…enjoyable. The foundation for a professional job is knowledge, and that information flows freely among members at the conventions and workshops of the National Guild of Professional Paperhangers.

A few years ago at an NGPP National Convention, Mike Zekich, member and owner of the Safe and Simple removal solution, taught a seminar on efficient methods. Hopefully by using some of the following points, your next job will be pleasurable instead of painful.

Know what you’re up against: It is important to properly identify what’s on the wall, because the technique you’ll use to remove it depends on what you’re stuck with. (Absolutely no pun was intended!)

Fabric-backed vinyl: You’ll need to pull it off first, then spray the wall to remove the residual adhesive. The key here is to use a low angle pulling it straight back on itself, not 90 degrees to the wall, which creates too much stress and can result in a lot of drywall damage.

Solid paperbacked vinyl: These can have the face removed dry in full sheets, then the backing paper is soaked, scraped off and the residual adhesive removed (tips on that later). Mylars are removed similarly.

Vinyl-coated papers: You know you have that type when you try to pull the surface off and it comes off in tiny shards. There are a couple of options: You can spray the surface and wait, and then it will often peel in full sheets. Then respray the backing to remove the paper and adhesive. The other option is to use a wallpaper shaver to take off the vinyl surface, exposing the paper and then spraying.

Foils: These are tough. The surface won’t peel or shave, and it is impervious to moisture, so it must be broken through to allow the moisture to get to the backing paper beneath. The most effective way to do that is to use a palm sander loaded with coarse sandpaper (30 or 60 grit, used for sanding hardwood floors) to break through the finish surface. The removal solution will then penetrate, enabling you to go back to the usual soaking, scraping and adhesive cleanup.

Pulp papers: If heavily inked, they can be sanded to make the moisture penetration quicker and more effective. They usually absorb a lot of moisture and may need repeated passes with the sprayer before they are scrapeable.

Strings and grasscloths: You can tear the fibers off dry, but it’s usually faster to soak and scrape. Let the removal solution do the work for you. If the paper isn’t coming down easily, either it has not been sprayed enough or you’re not waiting long enough. That is often the case with gel-type removal solutions; they simply don’t wet out the paper sufficiently to make removal easy. There’s no sense working harder than you have to – respray and wait longer. One area where gel solutions work great, though, is when you are doing a border removal. Pull the vinyl face off (if applicable), paint a heavy coat of gel on the border and cover with a strip of painters’ plastic cut to width. That holds the moisture in and prevents the problem of overspray running down the wall. After about 20 minutes, it should come right down.

Now, once you have your general plan of attack determined by what’s on the wall, it is time to master the other processes involved in making the job trouble-free.


Your goal here is twofold: to prevent any damage to existing flooring, fixtures or woodwork and to make the cleanup process quick and easy. You’ll need plastic sheeting (I prefer the fan-folded variety that comes in a box, as it’s easier to work with than the kind on a cardboard tube is), 2-inch-wide high-adhesion masking tape (regular painter’s tape rewets and loses its bond too easily), a pump sprayer, a long-handled razor scraper/wallpaper shaver, a joint knife, a large 3M scrub pad, a squeegee and garbage bags. Protection starts by taping the plastic to the baseboard. If you are working over a hard-wood floor, tape a drop cloth to the baseboard first and then the plastic above that. The next step is to run another layer of tape 1 inch above the baseboard, spanning the joint between it and the wall, preventing water from going in behind and soaking the wood – especially important if it’s MDF (i.e., spongewood). Score the paper just above that row of tape so the removal of the face paper doesn’t dislodge it. If you have a fabric-backed (commercial) vinyl or solid vinyl, you can opt to pull the face off prior to putting the tape on if the wallcovering doesn’t go in behind the baseboard. If it does go in behind the baseboard, then tape and score as described.

Protection of outlets, switches and fixtures is next. Lap rows of masking tape to seal them off, wrapping any that protrude with plastic and tape to prevent water from running in. The last area to seal off is windows and doors. Do so by taping plastic flat to the casing, and finish by taping a strip across the header of each door casing to prevent water from going in behind.


Now that you have all the prep done, it’s time to actually start working! Mix your removal solution of choice – mine would always be Safe and Simple – and begin spraying at the point farthest away. You will be working yourself around and back out of the room. Make sure the sprayer is set to a heavy mist, not a stream, and use a spray shield to protect textured ceilings, working one wall at a time. Once the wall is saturated, if the wallcovering had paper backing, you are ready to scrape it off and let all the pieces fall on your well-protected floor. Spray the residual adhesive, and when it has soaked enough that you can easily scratch through it to the wall surface, you are ready to scrub the adhesive into a slurry and squeegee it down onto the floor.


Roll up the plastic encasing all the debris and wipe the baseboard. That’s it, really. OK, well, you have to put the fittings and fixtures that you removed back up, but you’re done. Now that was easy, wasn’t it? APC

The Bokstroms are members of the National Guild of Professional Paperhangers, a professional trade association representing the artists of the craft of wallcovering installation. For more information on the National Guild of Professional Paperhangers, visit our website at, email or call the National Office at (800) 254-NGPP.


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