Popcorn ceilings gained notoriety in the ‘60s as a decorative trend designed to hide minor structural flaws and inconsistencies. Over the years, this immediately-identifiable textural finish has morphed into an anachronistic look that catches dirt, cobwebs and cringe-worthy critique. Adding an overall chaotic feel to even the tidiest of spaces, popcorn ceilings have fallen out of favor with the American household.
If you’ve got a popcorn ceiling, perhaps you’ve tried to minimize its impact with strategic lighting and sheer hanging fabrics. Maybe you’ve upped the ante by creating an attention-grabbing feature wall and incorporating large-print upholstery textiles.
Take heart — you don’t have to avoid looking up anymore! Update your ceiling with a sleeker, more modern design. Popcorn finish removal is a messy task, but one that’s entirely doable with a few basic materials, tools and some good old-fashioned sweat equity. Here’s how.
If you know your ceiling dates back to 1980 or earlier, a quick safety check for the presence of asbestos is in order. If you’re not sure, do it anyway. In your enthusiasm to finally be rid of the popcorn look, don’t overlook the very real risk of toxic substance exposure.
Interestingly, the fastest testing option is also the most thorough. Contact your state’s Environmental Protection Agency for a list of service agencies. If an Indoor Environmental Specialist finds asbestos in a sample material in an amount of one percent or higher, you are required by law to contact a professional team for removal before ceiling alteration. Test results arrive in approximately one week.
Another alternative is to purchase a self-testing kit from your local home supply center. Instructions direct you to remove a clean fragment and send it to a predetermined laboratory. Result turnaround time is two or three weeks.
There’s one final thing you need to check after the asbestos determination is complete. Luckily, you can do this yourself in less than 15 minutes with a putty knife, a step ladder and a spray bottle.
Some popcorn ceilings are coated with a layer of paint to create a barrier against water absorption. Since you will be using water to remove the popcorn finish, you must determine if paint removal with a chemical dissolver is necessary.
To do this, simply spray water on a small area of the ceiling and wait to see if it is absorbed. If the area becomes soft and pliable, you’re good to go. At this point, you might want to test to see how easily the material scrapes off. You will need to find a balance of water application and absorption that maximizes efficient removal.
Now that you’ve adequately assessed your ceiling’s composition, you can list the required tools and equipment without guesswork. For this project you will need:
Feel free to borrow a ladder, putty knife, safety glasses and scraper if you don’t have your own and are trying to keep expenses low. Plastic sheeting, painter’s tape, sandpaper, drywall compound and a dust mask can be purchased from your local home supply center for a combined total of approximately $50.
Here’s a pro-tip: Popcorn ceiling removal is messy! If you don’t want to purchase a pair of industrial coveralls, search the very bottom of your clothing drawers for a work get-up you don’t care if you ever see again.
Believe it or not, this is the second-greatest time-consumer after waiting for asbestos results to come in — but it’s worth every minute. Remove as much furniture as possible, including hanging art. Pieces that are too cumbersome to relocate should be grouped so your ladder can easily negotiate around them.
Completely cover the floor with thick plastic sheets — taped together if necessary for a tight seal — and continue several inches up each wall. Tape along the bottom portion of each wall so no debris can fall through. Next, use light sheeting to protect walls, affixed to crown molding with painter’s tape. Finally, cover the furniture that can’t be moved out.
Turn the power off from your electric panel and remove all light fixtures. Seal electrical outlets with sheeting and tape. Open the windows to facilitate ventilation and make sure you’ve got enough stored water on hand so you won’t have to traipse through the house after the project has begun.
Regardless of the outcome of your industrial coverall versus disposable clothing debate, do not skimp on protective eyewear and mask use. Both may feel ungainly and awkward at first, but go ahead and wear the whole nine yards with pride knowing you’re tackling a satisfying job.
Finally! You’re ready to start in earnest. Begin with a small area approximately four feet by four and spray it with water. Wait fifteen minutes for moisture to soak in and begin to scrape the popcorn finish off. Think of sloughing off dead skin cells or de-icing your windshield — you don’t want to damage what’s underneath.
Here’s another pro-tip: If your scraper has squared-off edges, round off the corners with a metal file to prevent inadvertent gouging.
Once all that popcorn is lying satisfactorily in wet heaps on your floor, allow the ceiling to dry while you roll up the debris and transfer it into securely-tied garbage bags. Take note of remaining ceiling dings, holes and any uneven textures. Apply drywall to even-out the new finish with a putty knife. Sand gently when the drywall has completely hardened.
Congratulations! Your ceiling has officially entered the 21st century. Take a well-deserved minute to look up with no distracting features and bask in its contemporary sleekness.