One thing we knew from the second we peeked through the windows of our house for the first time was that the previous owners——or some previous owners——had a serious affinity for wallpaper. With all the other horrors our house has endured over the years (the kitchen! the bathroom! the other kitchen! the other bathroom! the closets! the attic! the basement! the living room floor! the side porch! the mudroom!) the task of peeling back the layers of paper and restoring pretty much every wall in the house just didn’t seem like such a big deal. I’d never removed wallpaper from anything before, but it’s the sort of thing people do all the time. And not, like, crazy lunatic blogger people who run out of subway tile at 4:30 in the morning and weep about why Lowe’s can’t just be open 24 hours. Like totally normal people who might even have below-average handiness abilities but they do have two working arms and a pulse, and are therefore capable of peeling wallpaper.
This is the part where typically I talk about how wrong and stupid I am about everything and how it was actually so hard and physically and emotionally trying and made me want to be dead. Not so! Peeling wallpaper is actually kind of fun and maybe a little relaxing and overall a pretty gratifying activity. It’s messy and terrible and incredibly tedious and takes forever and leaves you with jelly-arms, but that’s my idea of fun and relaxation. Removing old wallpaper is misery-fun, which is my favorite kind of fun, which is why I was so excited to dive right in as soon as the horrible vestibule wall was down. My friend Nora was in attendance as well (she is the fairy godmother of our renovation, officially), so we went after all the loose bits that were already coming off the wall:
Which is where we left off last time, with things looking like this. I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but it bears repeating: one thing that makes our wallpaper perhaps a little different than other wallpaper is that the outermost pattern——the one in the picture above——is actually painted on, most likely with a patterned roller. The problem is, when you have 150 year old plaster walls with layers of wallpaper and paint on them, and then a house that sat vacant for two winters to freeze and thaw, that old wallpaper adhesive will fail and the wallpaper will come away from the wall in a way that is not cute or charming. I know there are those among you who think this wallpaper is pretty and I should have made an effort to keep it (*cough*VESTIBULE WALL*cough*), but that’s just not happening. Aside from being in horrible, way-too-far-gone condition, it’s just not very pretty. Believe me. It will all be so much better someday.
After all the loose bits were scraped off and thrown away, it was time to bring in the big guns. Luckily, we were able to borrow some supplies from our neighbors, Julian and Philippe (whose house Max shot for Design*Sponge today!), who are veteran wallpaper strippers.
I’ve gotten a lot of comments since I started posting about the house regarding wallpaper removal, and people have some strong feelings. Use strippers! Don’t use strippers! Use water! Use vinegar! Use steam! Steam is the devil’s work! And so on. So I’m just going to say that this is the method that’s worked best for me, after playing around with a few different methods over the course of this whole fun stripping adventure thingy.
1. Electric kettle: I don’t know how I lived for so long without one of these, but it’s amazing! We use it for coffee and tea and stuff, but it heats up water to 200+ degrees in a couple of minutes, which really speeds up the whole process. The wallpaper steamer takes a while to really get going enough to emit steam (like maybe 20 minutes), so it really helps to pour already super hot water into it.
2. Wallpaper scoring tool: this tiny thang is the most important tool in the wallpaper peeling arsenal. Basically you just run it all over the wall and it creates hundreds of tiny holes in the surface of the paper, which allows the hot liquids/steam to penetrate into the underside of the paper. It’s ABSOLUTELY essential.
3. Spackle knife: I like to keep a couple handy, since the smaller one is good to get into corners and other tight spots. I think there’s a scraper specifically for this, but any old putty knife should do the trick.
4. Wallpaper steamer: People have a lot of feelings about the merits of steam, but I found it really pretty necessary. Some people mentioned steam causing their plaster to fall apart or get squishy, but it really didn’t affect mine at all. Except for the parts that are already damaged, our plaster is in shockingly solid, great shape.
5. Handheld wallpaper sprayer: This is my new favorite thing. IN THE WORLD. All it is is a little handheld sprayer, with a pump on top to pressurize the container. That way, the spray is long and continuous, unlike a spray bottle that gives you carpal tunnel from all the repeated squeezing. Also, the plastic is much more rigid than a regular spray bottle, so pouring 210 degree water into it is A-OK. It won’t melt or anything! I added a couple drops of laundry detergent to the water, which I figured probably couldn’t hurt and would, at the very least, make things smell nice. After I was finished stripping wallpaper for the day, I used more hot water mixed with a wood floor cleaner to Swiffer the floors, which is now my new favorite floor-cleaning method.
Did I mention how important the scoring tool is?? SO IMPORTANT. I got into a groove where while the water was heating up, I scored the crap out of the paper. Back and forth, up and down, round and round, and back again. The more you score, the easier everything is. Scoring is the least fun part of the whole thing because it makes an unpleasant noise and requires a little strength, but it’s very necessary.
SCORE. Don’t forget it.
After I’d scored a decent-sized area (I liked working in about 6’x6′ sections), I doused the whole area generously with super hot water from the wallpaper sprayer. After dousing, I kept myself occupied for about 5-10 minutes (maybe scoring another section of wall), then came back and doused the same area again. After waiting a minute or so, I was able to peel fairly large pieces off the wall with relative ease. YAY BARE PLASTER.
That method worked well for about 3/4 of each wall, but the rest of it really needed the steamer. All I did was hold the head of the steamer over any stuck areas for about ten seconds, and for the most part they scraped right off afterward. It really works best if you peel RIGHT after you take the steam away. After all the wallpaper was mostly gone, I sprayed the wall again and scraped off any clinging bits of backing paper and stuff and moved on. That’s it!
In case the mysteries of my house weren’t bountiful enough, I just wanted to share that generous portions of my walls were actually covered with wallpaper and paint, which was then skim-coated over with joint compound, then repainted in the same pattern! WHYYYYYYYYY. The same removal techniques pretty much worked for these areas (and the plaster underneath was——for the most part——totally fine, so I’m not sure why anyone did this in the first place!), but it just made everything extra-hard and extra-miserable. By which I mean extra FUN and WALLPAPERTASTIC.
I didn’t take tons of “process” photos, but you get the idea. Lots of old painted wallpaper, all over the place. I lined the floor with plain white paper (an easel roll from the kid’s section of IKEA), which helped moderately in protecting the floor and made clean-up slightly easier. The adhesive on our paper was so old that it didn’t really stick to the floor even if it landed there instead of on the paper, but I’ve heard that can be a problem. So protect your floors. You know. Use your brain and stuff.
ANYWAY. Hours and hours and hours later…CHECK IT OUTTTT.
Yeah. I so don’t miss that wallpaper. Even though we’ll need to give the plaster a final scrub-down to get off any remaining adhesive, repair big holes and other damage, prime, and figure out what the hell we’re doing with the ceiling before we can paint, THIS IS SO EXCITING.
I’m SO CLOSE to being done with peeling the entire first floor hallway. I had to stop in this back corner because the only light source in the entire entryway/hallway is that tiny little sconce up by the door, and I was doing this at night and I just couldn’t see what I was doing well enough to deal with this corner. Soon!
But check it out! This wall: totally peeled! That hole is from where the basement light switch used to be, but I guess at some point it was relocated to the inside of the stairwell. I think it makes more sense there anyway, so I have to patch this hole. It was previously patched with masking tape, so I think there is room for improvement.
YAY! YAYYYYYYY! Now that the walls aren’t so wacky, can’t you totally see the soft white/grey walls with the white moldings and the black doors and the rug and the chandelier and everything being so beautiful? GUH. I can’t even wait. This is the phase where I kind of wish I could just hire everything out, if only so it would be done, like, yesterday. It’s going to take a ton of work to get there, but someday it’ll be amazing in here.
Now that the big ugly dumb wall is gone, this picture is possible! I still love that stairwell as much as the first time I saw it (so, so much). I *think* my new plan is to strip and refinish the treads, stained to match the dark mahogany-ish color of the newel post and banister. Then I’ll paint the risers white. Yeah? I considered just stripping and sealing the treads (which are probably pine), or just painting both the treads and the risers, but I don’t really want to introduce another wood tone between the flooring and the banister. I think if the treads and the banister match, though, it’ll look great.
Speaking of, THANK YOU to all the amazing people who gave their input on refinishing the floors in the comments of my last post! To clarify, the photos do make the floors look better than they are, but the floors in this area are actually in pretty good shape. The floors in the front “parlor” room and the dining room, though, are a mess, and it’s all continuous flooring (no thresholds), so it doesn’t really make a ton of sense to refinish one room without just doing it all to match. I’d also like to use either a water-based poly or some type of other sealer (Osmo?) to cut down on the yellowness of the current varnish and minimize the inevitable scratches that the floor will continue to get with time and use. All of that is probably quite a while down the line (I’d like to deal with the walls and ceilings first!), but just the idea is really exciting.
As for doing it myself…the general consensus seems to be that it’s POSSIBLE, but it’s difficult and takes forever and has a high potential screw-up factor, so I think it’s probably worth saving up for having it done professionally. I don’t really want to spend weeks of my life dealing with sanding and refinishing floors, especially with everything else that I could be doing with that time, and it sounds like maybe it’s not as expensive as I thought.
I have no idea what to do about the ceiling, though. As some point this ceiling was replaced with drywall, but it looks TERRIBLE. All the seams are super obvious, and the “repairs” over the years have just made everything worse. I guess it might be worth pricing out how much it would cost to just have the ceiling re-sheetrocked, taped, and mudded (assuming we do the demo and the priming/painting), but I don’t know. Maybe this ceiling is salvageable. I just keep staring at it an no answers are coming to me. I really don’t want to deal with drywalling a ceiling. That just sounds incredibly crappy.
I made some progress in the upstairs hallway, too! I couldn’t really reach the area that’s left, and I’m not quite sure how I’ll deal with it yet. It’s really high! I’m guessing it will involve some creative ladder positioning and a death-defying balancing act, which I’m sure Max will dutifully Instagram for your viewing pleasure before I plummet to my death?
I don’t know. More pictures. I took a lot of pictures. You can see where the wall used to be. That repair shouldn’t be too bad, and then it’ll be like it was never there!
And that’s how far I’ve made it! So close to being done! Hopefully over the next couple of weeks we can finish the stripping, the patching, and can get some paint on these walls. I never thought I’d be this excited about painting, but all this prep work really makes that seem like the fun part.
Just because it wouldn’t be complete without a little before-and-after action, behold! This whole area really has made a total turnaround already. I can’t even describe how dark and sad and scary this whole entryway/hallway was before, what with the closed-off doors and the extra walls and the peeling wallpaper…I’m just overjoyed that it’s starting to look like a nice house again.
Uh-oh, I’m already looking at swatches! I actually had these already from choosing a color for a client, but I’m not sure if I LOVE any of them here. I feel like I’ll spend my entire life looking for a grey that doesn’t go blue or purple, and is warm without being at all beige or taupe or anything like that. Also, super light but not in a way that reads as white. DOES IT EXIST? I need to paint a sample of the trim color on another board to see how they relate. That will help. I’ll figure it out.