Coffee heat rising

DIY: The great de-wallpapering adventure

Kyle at Rather Be Shopping is running a contest for smartest, dumbest, hardest, or frugalest home improvement projects. The prize is a fancy cordless drill with many trimmings, something not to be missed. So, here’s my contribution:

When my son reached grade-school age, we moved out of a very elegant house in a gentrified inner-city neighborhood in search of a functional school district and fewer transients. Though the new-to-us house, a custom-built 1950s rancher, was in a far tonier area than the one we left behind, all that proved was that the rich spend much of their time at Junior League and Men’s Arts Council and little of their time cleaning house or supervising their housekeepers. The place was filthy, smelly, and run-down.

After two weeks of nonstop scrubbing and disinfecting – during which the wife of one of my husband’s law partners showed up at the door and mistook me for the cleaning help – I was ready to take on the tired décor. I planned to paint the walls myself. It took three coats of white to cover the unholy navy blue the previous owners had put in the master bedroom. From there it was on to the kitchen.

Ah, the kitchen.

Strangely, whenever I walked in there I found myself feeling slightly dizzy, as though I’d had one gin and tonic too many.

The vast kitchen consisted of a large cooking and utility area plus a breakfast nook big enough to hold my mother’s dining room set, which I had recently inherited. One wall of the breakfast room was lined with cabinetry and glass-fronted shelving. The two rooms were nominally separated by an ell of the kitchen counter and an upper cabinet, which hung from a soffit. A soffit also ran along the kitchen’s front wall, supporting more upper cabinets.

In the past, some proud homeowner had covered the soffits, the ceilings, three walls, and the wall behind the shelves with busy blue-and-white floral wallpaper. Although it wasn’t obvious at a glance, the pattern had a direction. The wooziness one felt upon entering the rooms arose from this wallpaper. In the breakfast nook, the ceiling pattern ran north and south. In the kitchen, it ran east and west. As if it weren’t bad enough to have ditzy flowers all over the ceiling, the flowers raced back and forth in different directions!

No problem, thought I. We’ll just pull that wallpaper right off there. Hey – I knew how to remove wallpaper. I was good at it.


Except this stuff wasn’t your normal wallpaper. In fact, some question arose about whether it was wallpaper at all. The strips were narrow, about the width of Contact Paper. It didn’t appear to be self-sticking shelf paper, though: the surface was matte, not shiny, and it definitely was paper and not vinyl.

I hauled the ladder, a sponge, and a bucket of water into the kitchen, propped the bucket on the paint tray, climbed up, and started mopping and peeling.

Whatever it was, the paper had no interest in peeling off, thank you. On some sections, it would come off in small strips. In other areas-where more paper hid behind it-it sort of chipped off.

Down the ladder, out to the tool chest; retrieve a putty knife and a squirt bottle of vinegar water. Spray, scrape, and peel: this worked to slightly better effect, but it was slow, slow going.

The soffits had been papered by many previous owners. A layer of blue flowers came off to reveal a layer of harvest gold wheat. The harvest gold wheat came off to reveal a layer of brown with busy yellow and orange flowers. The layer of brown came off to reveal an identical layer of brown with busy yellow and orange flowers! Beneath that lurked another couple of layers in increasingly retro patterns.

The brown stuff put up an even bigger fight than the blue flowers and the gold wheat. It behaved like glued-down cardboard. Not only would it not peel off, it wouldn’t scrape off, either. It came up in quarter-inch chips.

Down from the ladder, into the car, off to the rental place. Rent a wallpaper steamer.

The rental guy pointed out that a steam iron would do the job: just turn it to “blast furnace,” hold it an inch or two away from the wall, and hit the “burst of steam” button. This, he pointed out, would be a lot easier for a 118-pound woman whose idea of exercise is an occasional walk to the refrigerator, for whom a wallpaper steamer represented a heavy, unwieldy, arm-aching chunk of a thing.

This was beginning to look like an iffy idea.

The steam iron strategy worked little better than the spray bottle. As a young mother, however, I was too dumb and too stubborn ever to say “I give up.” Oh, no.

Days passed as I clung to the ladder like a monkey in the jungle canopy and steamed, sprayed, scraped, peeled, steamed, sprayed, scraped, peeled, steamed, sprayed, scraped, peeled…. I paused only long enough to pick up the kid at school and park him in front of the television. Then it was back up the ladder, steaming scraping and peeling to the tunes of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers.

After the better part of a week, I had the stuff off the soffits and the walls behind the bookcases. Well…almost. Behind the shelves I came to a layer of excellent, solidly applied and still intact bright yellow lead paint. It had been applied over more underlaying wallpaper!

Luckily, I owned cookbooks, many cookbooks, all still in the mover’s packing boxes. Command decision: remove the paper from the intact paint, wash off the glue, and cover the more or less smooth goldenrod surface with new paint. Hide the result behind row on row of cookbooks.

Moving on, it was time to tackle the dizzy ceilings.

If Michelangelo could do it, I told myself, so can I.

Except…well, Michelangelo had scaffolding. Michelangelo had swarms of underlings. Michelangelo could lay on his back while he dealt with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo did not have to balance on the top step of an aluminum ladder while holding a sizzling steam iron over his head!

And if he did, you can bet one of the underlings would have been sent up the ladder.

More days passed. Neck-twisting, back-wrenching days. The neighbor came by and stared up at me in awe. A woman who had no fear of telling another woman she was nuts, she told me I was nuts. Obsessively, I steamed and sprayed and scraped and peeled.

Clearly, she was right.

After another week of steaming, scraping, and peeling, I finally got the layers of wallpaper off the ceiling.

Now all that remained was to remove an ancient nonfunctional intercom from the wall, patch the resulting 8 x 14-inch hole in the drywall, and paint. So it was that I learned how to do drywall repair. Not well, we might add.

I’d like to say that when the job was finished I was proud, I was pleased as punch.

But no. The result was OK. But it was just OK. Unlike the fine old 1929 hacienda we had left downtown with its shaded atrium, 18-foot lath-and-plaster walls, huge wood beams, and authentic French doors and windows, this house had nothing special to offer. It was just a tract house on steroids. Nothing that you did to it made it special. Far from feeling pleased, all I felt was glad a miserable job was finally done. At least the paint was clean and we no longer felt tipsy while we were making our breakfast coffee.

Smaller is better. Simple is best. Workmen are good. Hire them.