Menu

DIY #4: The REAL scoop on removing popcorn ceilings – including painted ones

You may have seen those posts on Pinterest and elsewhere showing how to remove ‘popcorn’ or textured ceilings from your home, by yourself. I’ve seen them, too. Many of them say things like, “Scrape the texture off in just a couple of hours!” “Comes off easily, like oatmeal!” “Just follow these steps!”

Well, I’ve now removed three (3) popcorn ceilings, two of which were painted. If yours come off as advertised above, that’s great, but mine…didn’t. Nowhere close. I’m going to give you the real scoop on removing these nightmare eyesores, no glossing over the time, effort, or mess involved.

That being said – it is possible to do it yourself and come out with a fairly decent result, especially in an older house where putting a lot of money into replacing the ceiling or hiring a contractor is not cost-efficient. Read through this and then decide which option is best for you:

1) Hire someone to replace the ceiling drywall

2) Hire someone to remove the popcorn

3) Remove the popcorn yourself

4) Leave it alone or cover it with beadboard, styrofoam ceiling tiles, or other

 

STEP ONE: VITAL!

If your house was built before the mid-to late 1980s, test the ceiling for ASBESTOS before continuing. Asbestos was outlawed for residential use in 1979, but textured materials containing asbestos which had already been manufactured at that time continued to be used through the early 1980s. My house was built in 1982, so I tested.

Call a local environmental testing service. Any home renovation place should be able to point you in the right direction. The testing place will tell you what they want, but it’s pretty easy. In my case, I scraped about a one-inch by three-inch piece of popcorn material off  the ceiling onto a piece of cardboard and dumped it into a clean baggie, sealed it, and mailed it in a padded mailer to the company. They had my results in two days (no asbestos). It cost about $40, well worth it for your safety.

Asbestos Test Area

Asbestos Test Area

STEP TWO: Assemble equipment and supplies

You’ll need the following:

1) Spray bottle with adjustable nozzle and/or garden sprayer (more about this later)

2) Goggles, a hat, and a face mask – you might want to consider a full-head hood for sanding or a bandanna or T-shirt head wrap

3) Old, disposable clothes – you are NOT going to want to wash these! Got Crocs? Now there’s a use for them!

4) Plastic film and floor plastic as well as making tape to cover the room and everything in it

5) Plastic scrapers (like drywall knives or taping knives) with the corners sanded off to a rounded shape

6) At least one stiffer scraper, metal or hard plastic, for problem areas

7) Ladder, scaffolding, step-stool, to be able to get everywhere you want to get

8) Gloves (garden, leather, impact-resistant ones are good)

9) Drywall sander and sandpaper

10) Wall patching material (spackle) and spreader tool, plus finer sandpaper

11) Ceiling paint and painting supplies

12) Camera kept outside room for documenting your progress

13) ‘Landing strip’ outside room for nasty shoes, hat, gloves, sprayer, etc.

14) Large trash bags for containing plastic when you’re done

15) Patience and the ability to lift your arms over your head for long periods of time and work in that position

 

Preparing scrapers for use

Preparing Scrapers for Use

 

STEP THREE: Prepare room

Take everything out. If you can possibly get it out, take it out. I worked around a bunch of stuff when I did my first room, and it is a pain in the butt. Get as much of it out as you can. Plus, ‘stuff’ will get on whatever is left in there no matter what you do.

When you have everything out, cover the floor edge to edge with floor plastic (thicker plastic). Leave wrinkles because it will slide around and if you’ve pulled it too tight and cut it to size it will expose the carpet/flooring. Stuff will get on the carpet anyway, believe me.

Cover anything you had to leave in there with plastic film, as thoroughly as you can. Wrap it. Cover the windows, outlets, heater, thermostat, light switches, and doorways with plastic (leave a way to get out!). Some people cover the walls with plastic film. I have tried this but it all just fell down when it started getting humid in there. It would probably work better if you want to shell out for pre-taped plastic. Yous walls will get wet and streaky and require cleaning when you’re done. Expect this. It’s best if you’re going to repaint them, too.

It takes me as long as TWO HOURS to plastic a room and the stuff in it and tape all the seams thoroughly. If that sounds ridiculous, you may be a faster plasticker than I am, but realize that the better you cover everything, the less mess there will be later. It is going to be a MASSIVE MESS, don’t think otherwise.

 

STEP FOUR: Prep for removal

If you have a painted popcorn ceiling, like two of mine, you will need an extra step in here. In order for the water to reach the actual popcorn, you will have to expose the material. I do this by getting up on my ladder and scraping the points off the popcorn with the flat side of a metal scraper. It makes a terrible noise (you might want to wear earplugs) and bits of popcorn fly everywhere around the room, pinging off the walls and littering the plastic. Be sure to wear your hat and goggles/glasses at the very least. You might want a mask, too. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut!

The vibration is very hard on your wrist. I can’t do the whole ceiling at once, so after I’ve done a chunk, I spray that part in preparation for scraping, then let it soak while I go on to another area. After a while I come back to the original spot and re-spray it (I often have to spray each section 5 – 6 times before I can reasonably scrape it). You may be able to scrape larger areas than I can, though.

If the ceiling is painted, it doesn’t work to spray the ceiling before doing this preliminary point-knocking step. I tried on the last room and the water pretty much just drained off.

So, when you’ve got a section with the points knocked off, spray it with water. I’ve tried the vinegar/dish soap technique I read about online, and I can’t say I’ve noticed that it makes any difference. I do use warm water, primarily because it’s more pleasant.

For my first room, I used a pump-pressure garden sprayer, as many places recommend. I found that it applied too much water, which then ran off and made literal puddles on the floor, and that it was heavy and unwieldy to move around. A backpack set-up would help, but I eventually turned to a large, adjustable hand-sprayer bottle.

I’ve heard that popcorn ceilings “absorb an incredible amount of water”. Well, mine don’t. Most of it just runs off. A very little soaks in, but it takes repeated sprayings to get it wet enough to scrape. Yours may be different, so you’ll have to experiment with how much to spray and how many treatments. Don’t get it so wet that the drywall underneath is saturated. However, you want the popcorn itself to be wet through if possible. If water is just dripping off in large drips, it’s not absorbing that much and you’re just wasting water. Mine only accepts a fine spray, repeated many times. You, too, may have to do this.

As soon as you start spraying, the floor, you, and everything around you will get wet. You may have blobs of popcorn texture along the walls and in the corners, like in my house. These areas will take more water and more work. Your walls will get streaked and it’s likely that wall plastic you’ve put up will simply fall down. If you’re lucky it won’t. The humidity in the room will rise, the windows will fog, and it will get slippery.

DON’T SLIP on your wet plastic! that would be a bummer. I use an old pair of Crocs for shoes; they can easily be washed off.

You might want to set up a ‘landing pad’ outside the room in case you need to go get more water or a drink or whatever. That way you can step out of the room onto a piece of cardboard, etc., and take off your shoes and other junky equipment before walking into another room and tracking all the plaster with you (you will still be finding chunks of this stuff lying around for weeks, on the carpet, behind the furniture, or your dog’s fur, etc.)

 

Green bedroom with white popcorn ceiling

One of the rooms before scraping

STEP FIVE: Scrape

At this point it’s usually three hours or so into the process for me. I like to start scraping in the middle of the ceiling where the texture is often thinnest, but you might prefer to start near the door, at a far corner, or elsewhere. It’s up to you.

To do it, take your plastic scraper with the rounded corners (so you don’t gouge the ceiling). Position it at a low angle and slide it across the wet popcorn. If you’re lucky, a nice strip will peel off! But, probably not. You’ll probably have to chip a little to get it started, and in my house it’s rare that you’ll get a nice strip to peel off. If it’s not wet enough and you’re just pounding away at it, re-wet and let it soak a little longer while you work on other areas. You may have to come back and re-try several times.

Corners and wall seams are the biggest issues for me. The texture and paint is often blobbed on here and it’s more difficult to work. Plus, you don’t want to scrape up the tape on the drywall that will be laid along the edges. If you notice that happening, stop and try to go with the direction of the tape instead of against an edge. You will patch it later, along with any gouges, nail and screw holes, and other imperfections.

At this point, you will begin to see the true mess. The floor, your ladder, and your head will all begin to be covered with chunks of painted plaster. Contrary to comments on other sites, I did NOT find it to be ‘like oatmeal’. It is more solid and chunky. You don’t want it in your eyes. Wear as much protection for your face, eyes, ears (yes, it will get in your ears), respiratory system, hair, head, shoulders, and hands, as you can stand. Like, a hazmat suit if you can bear it.

I don’t have any real wisdom at this point. You just have to go with what is happening on your own ceiling and experiment a bit to see what works and what doesn’t. On the edges, you might find it useful to run the side of a metal scraper along the joint before trying to scrape that part.

I want to point out that my dark-blue painted popcorn ceiling in my 11′ X 13′ master bedroom took EIGHT HOURS of steady work to remove.

 

Popcorn ceiling before scraping

Popcorn ceiling before scraping

STEP SIX: It looks like crap

Yes, it does. Don’t fret, it will look better when you’re done. You might be thinking you made a terrible mistakes, and it’s true that it won’t be perfect – the only way you can get that new-ceiling look again is to replace the drywall completely. But, it won’t be horrible, either. Take a look at these pictures and take a deep breath, and a break. Like, start again tomorrow.

 

Scraped ceiling with marks

It looks bad

STEP SEVEN: Sand

This is the worst part, in my opinion. You thought the wet scraping was messy? This is worse, because it gets everywhere. This is where you cover your head, arms, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth and shut off every intake and door in the room. You will still have plaster dust everywhere.

You might want to clean up the previous plastic job so you don’t have to wade through wet ceiling gunk. If you don’t want to do that, save the $$ and add the dust to the wet stuff.

I use a drywall sander with a large handle. Buy drywall sanding paper. I tried doing it damp, but that just rips the wallboard, so now I do it dry. Much of the loose, dry plaster that remains on the wallboard after the scraping will come off easily. The corners will be the hardest part.

Don’t over-sand. Once you see wallboard (gray) and it looks smooth, stop. Don’t sand off the seam mud where the sheets come together, just smooth it and remove the rough plaster. Stop and clean your goggles every few minutes or you won’t be able to see.

When you are done, use a damp rag and bucket of water to gently but thoroughly wipe it down. Paint won’t stick to dust and you won’t be able to see divots and other imperfections with the layer of dust on the ceiling.

 

STEP EIGHT: Patch & re-sand

With everything smoothed out, you’ll be able to see any gouges, divots, torn tape, nail holes, and other imperfections you need to patch. Patch carefully and let it dry. You may also need to patch around the joint between the ceiling and walls. In my case, the walls also have texture on them, which I’m not removing. This means the joint between the smooth ceiling and lumpy wall is very uneven and will be difficult to paint with a straight line. I originally used paintable caulk, but now I use spackle, forced in with a finger.

When your patching is dry, sand again. It won’t be as bad this time since you will only need to sand the patched areas.

When you are satisfied with your patching, clean everything up well and prepare to paint.

 

STEP NINE: Paint

I’m not going to go into the basics of ceiling painting here, but things will look much better after you get the first layer of paint up and after the second, you should be pretty pleased with your efforts. Remember that most people won’t be studying your ceiling for long periods of time looking for every imperfection. Follow up with wall painting, fixtures, new smoke alarms, etc.

 

STEP TEN: Clean-up

This step actually goes along with several of the steps above. First, the wet plaster is very heavy. You are probably going to need several garbage bags to contain it and haul it away, and you may need to cut up the plastic sheeting. When you are folding the sheeting to remove it, remember to fold all the edges in to the middle to contain as much of the plaster as possible.

DON’T vacuum wet plaster dust unless you have a shop-vac or some vacuum you don’t mind ruining. Wet plaster dust will coat the inside of your vacuum’s workings and gum it up quick. Use a whisk broom and dust pan to scoop up as much as you can and let the rest dry before vacuuming it. Don’t let large piece sit there drying, though, or they will stick to the carpet/floor.

Scrape as much as you can off ladders and other equipment and then hose them down outside. Dispose of clothing that has a lot of stuff on it or you could damage your laundry machine.

 

STEP ELEVEN: Show off

Remember that camera? You were supposed to be taking before, during, and after photos so you can show off your changed room to your friends and family!

 

Room after scraping and painting

Green room after scraping and painting

If you still want to do this after reading the above, good luck!

Here are a few more pics of before-and-after (painted popcorn ceilings):

Dark blue room and ceiling

Dark, dark master bedroom with blue popcorn ceiling

Scraped ceiling

Dark blue popcorn after removal (brighter already!)

Dark blue bedroom repainted

Same corner after repainting