Removing old decorative finishes

One problem which you may encounter when renovating or redecorating rooms will be how to remove the existing decorative finishes especially if they were put in by previous owners and you may not know how they were done.

Problems can arise from a number of finishes, such as textured finishes (ie Artex and similar products), polystyrene tiles, wall tiles (such as ceramic and cork) and timber wall or ceiling cladding.

In this article, we suggest approaches for dealing with each.

Textured finishes

WARNING: Old Artex type textured finishes contained some white asbestos and this will present a health hazard when in dust form.

Modern Artex (from about the mid eighties) does not use asbestos, so if it is known when a textured finish was applied, it may be possible to establish if special precautions need to be taken.

Removal of Artex containing asbestos is covered by the UK’s Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations 2006, which make it illegal for it to be removed by anyone not licensed.

The notes below refer only to removal of modern, asbestos free textured finishes.

Even though modern textured finishes don’t contain asbestos, removal or flattening by sanding will present a dust health hazard and so should not be carried out.

Removal of a textured finished ceiling will be awkward (having to work overhead), slow and messy so remove all furniture from the room, cover the carpets, put down dust sheets. Wear old clothes and shoes together with a head covering of some sort to keep pieces out of your hair, also use a pair of safety goggles. You'll need to have a stable platform to stand on to reach a ceiling, a step ladder may be adequate but will limit the work area and a platform is much better and will make the job easier. To avoid walking pieces of the removed finish through the house, remove your shoes when leaving the room.

Modern textured finishes fall into two main categories – plaster based (Artex and similar) and thickened emulsion paint (which typically have a lower, softer relief).

  • Plaster-based products can be soften using a steam wallpaper stripper and stripped off using a decorators scraper.
  • The thickened emulsion paint type can be stripped using a textured paint remover, a special type of paint stripper designed for the job.

An alternative for both types is to actually have the ceiling replastered.

Polystyrene Tiles

Polystyrene tiles were often used to cover-up a poor ceiling and their removal will probably cause additional damage, so be prepared for their removal to lead to even more work.

Two methods were used to fix polystyrene tile:

  • Putting a ‘blob’ of adhesive onto each corner and then pushing the tile into place
  • Spreading a thinner coating of adhesive over the whole surface of the tile and then pushing it into place.

You may be able to determine which method was used by pressing on a tile; if just the corners are firm, it’s probable that adhesive blobs were used – if the whole area of the tile is firm, then it suggests that the whole of the tile was covered in adhesive.

Like with removing the textured finishes detailed above, removal of Polystyrene tiles from a ceiling will be awkward (having to work overhead), slow and messy so remove all furniture from the room, cover the carpets, put down dust sheets. It will tend to be slightly less messy because no steam/water is involved, but static will make small pieces of polystyrene cling to your clothes. Wear old clothes and shoes together with a cap of some sort to keep pieces out of your hair, also use a pair of safety goggles. You'll need to have a stable platform to stand on to reach a ceiling, a step ladder may be adequate but again, will limit the work area.

To remove the tiles:

If the tiles were fixed using blobs of adhesive:

  1. Break the tiles up leaving the adhesive behind.
  2. Make an assessment of the ceiling – if it’s in a poor state anyway, it may be cost effective to replace it completely; in which case, don’t worry about the blobs, removing the whole ceiling will take the blobs away. If the ceiling is in good condition apart from the blobs, ‘attack’ them to scrape them off - unfortunately, this will almost certainly cause damage to the ceiling and you'll need the ceiling skimmed to achieve a smooth finish for painting, or you could apply a textured coating to hide the damage.

If the tiles were fixed using a continuous coating of adhesive, there’s no real way to remove them and leave a decent finish. The options are really to either remove and then replace the whole ceiling or to leave the tiles in place and cover them with plasterboard – effectively giving you a new ceiling with the tiles above, however fixing the new plasterboard won’t be that easy as you won’t be able to see the joists.

Cork Tiles on walls

Cork tiles were generally fixed to walls using a contact adhesive, and will be well and truly permanently fixed – providing the wall itself is sound. Don’t attempt to remove them, instead, cover them with wallpaper size (ie diluted wallpaper paste), then cover them with lining wallpaper, this will provide a surface ready for painting or papering.

Ceramic tiles on walls

Ceramic wall tiles can be removed using a brick bolster and hammer, but this will damage the wall surface which will need to be replastered if you intend to paint or paper it – take special care if the wall is plasterboard. Start at an edge or an external corner of the tiling; once the edges of the tiles are exposed, work along the rows tile by tile until you've removed the tiles and as much of the old adhesive as possible.

If you just want to fit different ceramic tiles, there’s no need to remove all the old tiles - the new tiles can be stuck on top of the old ones. Around the edge of the old tiled area, fix strips of wooden moulding the thickness of the original tiles, then you can fix new tile edging to it. You can only really do this once.

Timber cladding on ceilings and walls

Timber ceiling/wall cladding was normally tongued-and-grooved fixed using hidden nailing (ie panel pins through the actual tongue of each piece) onto battens screwed to the wall/ceiling at right angles to the T&G and finished off with wooden moulding nailed around the edges.

Start by prising off the edge trims. Then try to lever away the strips of cladding at the two sides where the cladding runs parallel to the walls; one of these strips will have had its tongue removed when it was fitted – this is the one you want to completely remove.

Once the first strip is off, you should be able to prise off the remaining strips from the battens using an old chisel and a hammer – you'll probably find that most of the fixings will break though the tongues and remain in the battens.

When all the cladding strips have been removed, remove the wall/ceiling battens (they are normally screw fixed) and make good the wall/ceiling for whatever new finish is to be applied.