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How to Remove a Popcorn Ceiling

Pro Referral > Home Guides > Drywall > How to Remove a Popcorn Ceiling
How to Remove a Popcorn Ceiling

The popcorn ceiling gained wide popularity with builders in the 70s and 80s. This was surely due in part to its ease of application. Popcorn textures are sprayed onto a surface from a gravity-fed device called a hopper. This, in fact, results in a fast and effective way to apply a lot of texturing material over large areas quickly.


Still available today, popcorn texture is renowned for its ability to cling to surfaces, even those overhead. Unlike other texturing applications, a popcorn texture requires no additional tooling.


Texture, in general, gets a bad rap. Nonetheless, popcorn texture specifically often helps date an interior. Because of this, you may find yourself motivated to remove it. Doing so, while a bit of a messy proposition, is easy enough provided you invest preparation time up front.


Come equipped with proper protective gear and be prepared to provide extensive touch-ups to the ceiling surface once removal is complete. This article will focus on the most common approach for removing popcorn texture from a ceiling.

Tools Materials Skill Level Estimated Time
• Spray bottle • Buckets and dish soap Beginner 4 to 8 hours
• Texture removal scraper • Drop cloths
• Drywall and putty knives • Masking tape
• Drywall sponge • Lead testing kit (for homes built before 1977)
• Ladder • Spray-on paint stripper
• Extension pole • Light-weight joint compound
• Cordless drill/driver • Drywall screws
• Sanding sponges • Rags (various)
• Shop vac and cleaning supplies • Miscellaneous paint removal supplies

    1. Important Considerations

    Nowadays the “popcorn” found in popcorn texture is made up of small kernels of either balled paper-based material or polystyrene. This, however, has not always been the case.


    The earliest iterations of popcorn texture were found to include asbestos fibers, a known carcinogen. Another dangerous mineral known as vermiculite was also used and is believed to have been frequently contaminated with asbestos. Because of this, your first task with preparing to remove a popcorn texture is attempting to date its installation.


    If you suspect that your popcorn texture had been added before 1979, get it tested for asbestos. Do this by gathering a sample. First, wet down a small area with a sponge and carefully scrape a little of the questionable texture into a small bag. Deliver this sample to an EPA-certified testing lab.


    If your sample ultimately tests positive for asbestos, choose to leave this job to a certified asbestos abatement contractor. Asbestos pros will employ specialized confinement and safe disposal techniques that may not be available to an average homeowner.


    With that said, if you suspect that your popcorn application occurred in or before the 1970s, and was likely painted before 1977, you should consider the presence of lead. While off-the-shelf consumer lead kits have become more reliable in recent years, it is still a good idea to have a qualified firm also test for the presence of lead. (Sometimes this can be accomplished by the same firm who performed your asbestos testing above.) If lead is discovered, leave your popcorn removal project to a drywall repair pro.


    If your popcorn ceiling proves to be free of lead paint and asbestos, proceed with the steps below.


    2. Prepare

    Remove furniture and non-permanent fixtures from the room. It is also worthwhile to remove any ceiling-mounted lights or ceiling fans. (Set these aside for re-installation later.)


    Lay either drop cloths (preferably waterproof) or specialized flooring protection out over the entire floor in your project room. Spread disposal plastic sheeting (four-millimeter minimum) over the entire floor area. Extend this plastic up each wall about six inches. Hold this sheeting in place using multi-surface masking tape (alternatively, use delicate surface masking tape if you must tape to painted walls). At each floor-to-wall intersection, place a 2x4x10 tight to the baseboard. This will further keep drop clothes taut and immobilized throughout the job.


    Mask any items that cannot be removed with tape, saran wrap or aluminum foil. In other words, protect surfaces as you would with any other painting project.


    If motivated, drape the entire room with two-millimeter plastic sheets. While paying special attention to interior doorways, these sheets should extend from each wall-to-ceiling intersection all the way to the floor. Place a box fan in an available window to provide some ventilation as you work.


    Important! Protect yourself. Choose to don overalls and a painter’s cap. Wear safety glasses and an appropriately rated dust mask. This is of extra importance if you must turn to chemical means for paint stripping during your project. (Always follow manufacturer recommendations for safe use when employing chemicals.)


    3. Soften the Texture

    Use a pump-action sprayer with a wand to wet down the ceiling. Some recommend adding a bit of fabric softener or dish soap to warm water. These formulations will both cling to the ceiling surface and will soften the ceiling texture helping to break down its adhesive bond, ultimately making scraping easier.


    Work in a grid fashion about four feet square. It’s better to make several passes than to allow the popcorn ceiling to absorb too much water, which could then damage the paper surface of wallboard often found underneath. Plan to use a hand-held spray bottle and a bent-handle scraper for corners.


    4. Scraping the Texture

    Always allow your water (or solution) to soak into the ceiling’s texture for 10 to 15 minutes before scraping. While scraping can be accomplished with any relatively stiff putty (or drywall) knife, or even a general use floor scraper, several manufacturers make a ceiling texture scraper specifically designed for this task.


    These specialty texture scrapers look much like standard 12" drywall finishing knives, but provide a unique bag attachment, which captures texture as it is removed. While you may find it preferable to get tight to the ceiling (working with more control from a ladder), you may also connect a standard extension handle to this tool allowing you to work safely from floor level instead.


    5. Painted Ceilings

    Difficulties can arise when paint has been applied over the ceiling’s textured layer. Paint will prevent the texture from absorbing water, which is of course necessary for loosening the texture.


    While a painted textured ceiling can be removed, it usually first requires the application of a chemical stripper to breakdown the paint barrier.


    To determine if this condition applies to your ceiling, combine a few drops of liquid dish soap with warm water in a spray bottle. Lightly spray a small spot in an inconspicuous location, and wait a few minutes for it to absorb the water. If the water will not soak in, the ceiling has been painted.


    When choosing a paint stripper for this job, try to select a non-methylene chloride product (one that can be sprayed on is preferable). This type of stripper will not only cling to ceilings, but will also stay "wet" or active for longer periods of time. Ideally, opt for a stripper that offers water clean-up for tools.


    Once you have broken the paint layer, you should be able to proceed with the soaking and scraping procedure described above. Whether painted or not, remember to try to address the ceiling in multiple passes. For particularly difficult sections of a ceiling, using a paint-eater or palm sander can get you back to a clean slate.


    Warning!: Do not overdo mechanical means, as there is again risk of damaging wallboard surfaces below.


    6. Finishing Removal

    Optionally, run a drywall sanding screen (potentially extended with a pole) over the entire surface before breaking down your plastic. Use drywall sanding sponges in tight spaces.


    7. Clean Up

    It is sometimes surprising just how much waste this job will create. Starting at the top of the room, carefully break down any plastic. Place bundled plastic into construction-rated garbage bags.


    Consider shop-vacuuming the entire space before proceeding with necessary drywall repairs. Do not remove drop clothes or additional masking at this time.


    8. Touch Ups to Scraped Surfaces

    Specially designed scraping tools contain slightly rounded corners to help prevent gouging of drywalled surfaces. However, no removal project is immune to the need for patching follow-ups.


    In the largest percentages of cases, popcorn texture will be removed from drywall. Because of the heavy use of water in this job, joint compound applied prior to texture will have the tendency to wash away to a degree.


    Refinish the ceiling surface using light-weight joint compound. Taped drywall seams, drywall nails, and screws should receive three layers of joint compound and should be sanded appropriately between each pass. Tackle any and all collateral damage to the ceiling at this time.


    Prime and finish the ceiling to your desired taste. Breakdown remaining surface protections and reinstall any removed room features.


    9. Conclusion

    Removing popcorn texture from a ceiling is not necessarily a difficult job. Prior to beginning this project, it is important to take appropriate steps to verify that both asbestos and lead-based paint are not present. Without question, it is a messy job that will require a good bit of elbow grease.


    If these measures are expected, accepted, and addressed, the removal of popcorn texture from a ceiling is well within reach, even for a beginner. The most challenging aspects of this job possibly appear in the post-removal and refinishing phase of the project. Plan to brush up on your drywall finishing and painting skills.

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