Five ways to deal with hideous wallpaper

You can paint over it but the wallpaper underneath has to be pristine
You can paint over it but the wallpaper underneath has to be pristine

You’d hope that Wednesday night’s Spectator Awards ceremony might have given us some juicy political gossip, but the big scoop of the evening was Jeremy Hunt’s remark that the eye-wateringly expensive wallpaper Carrie Johnson is said to have hung in the prime ministerial flat is nowhere to be seen. He now says it must have been painted over by Liz Truss during her brief tenure in Downing Street – if it ever existed at all.

While we’re all entitled to making our living spaces bearable, common sense would suggest there might be smarter – but perhaps not quicker – ways of dealing with such ocular assaults. Handily, professional decorator Emma Anderson has all the insider tips on how to relieve your home (and your eyes) of the worst wallpaper offenders.

1. Paint over it

Painted anaglypta and woodchip is a decorating nightmare that haunts many of our childhoods. We can paint over it, but the question we all should be asking is: should we? “I understand why clients ask for this because it is the cheaper option,” explains Anderson. “And it can look nice but – and this is a big ‘but’ – the wallpaper underneath has to be pristine, because the paint will show up every seam, every dent, every loose corner. You can stick these edges down and skim the seams with filler, but there’s no guarantee it’ll give you a perfect finish. Expect questionable levels of success.”

2. Plaster over it

“This can be done, but it’s certainly unusual,” says Anderson. “You wouldn’t want to plaster over something that can feasibly just peel off the wall.” But, as we’re all likely to find out in the fullness of time, some wall coverings aren’t going anywhere, unless subjected to a sustained fire storm. “I remember some particularly stubborn woodchip that after days of soaking clearly wasn’t going to budge,” recalls Anderson. “The plasterer I was working with painted over it with Febond Blue Grit, a bonding agent, then plastered. It did work. But saying that, I wouldn’t do it myself.”

3. Wallpaper over it

If memory serves, this is what everyone used to do. Even the National Trust has found many a sumptuous wall decoration under layers of paper thanks mostly to past inhabitants’ sheer laziness. “I wallpaper over lining paper so it’s exactly the same,” says Anderson. “Again, you wouldn’t want to wallpaper on a surface that could just peel off, so make sure the base paper is really sound.” Anderson also explains that the base needs to be very clean so the paste can adhere properly. “Washing down old wallpaper is tricky. You want it to be properly degreased but if you get it too wet, it’ll start to disintegrate.”

4. Steam or spray?

If you’ve decided to take it all off, what is the best method? “Wallpaper steamers are quick but if you steam one area for too long, you can end up taking off a patch of wallpaper and blowing a dinner-plate size of plaster, which will then require filling or, even worse, professional skimming,” says Anderson. “I’d also avoid steaming the ceiling, as you’re going to have scalding hot water dripping on you.” Anderson advises a gentler method. “With anything thick, and by that I include woodchip, textured wallpapers like Anaglypta, or even wallpaper that’s been painted over, you need to score it first. A Stanley knife would do the job, but you risk damaging the plaster below. I use a decorator’s scoring tool that you can just roll over the paper. This allows liquid to penetrate beyond the paper to the paste.”

Then – and she’s adamant on this – you should turn off the mains and tape plastic over the sockets “as there’s going to be a lot of water running down the walls”. She then makes a solution of water and fabric conditioner (“it doesn’t need to be precise; maybe a few capfuls of conditioner to a bucket of water”), fills up a garden sprayer and soaks the offending wallpaper. Wait five to 10 minutes for the water to sink in (“the wallpaper should go dark”) and theoretically, the paper should then just glide off the wall, assisted by a scraper tool. “Once the paper’s off, I tend to go over all the walls again with the water solution and scraper to ensure all the paste is removed too,” she says. “You may not be able to see it but there’s always some glue left on the walls.”

5. Think about what comes after

Anyone who has ever redecorated an old house will tell you that wallpaper hides a multitude of sins and, potentially, half the wall it was on. Anderson explains that woodchip was often put up to hide imperfections that were already there, so once it’s been chiselled off, there’s little chance those cracks of 50 years ago have improved with time. “If I’m quoting to do work in a house that was built before 1950 and the client is saying, ‘This wallpaper has to go’, alarm bells start ringing. I make it very clear that, once the wallpaper is down, a plasterer will probably have to be called in. If you’re decorating a period property, you need to budget for that.” Perhaps that’s why Liz Truss painted over hers.

If the problem goes beyond the wallpaper, you can also read our guide to the best homeware stores.