Gilles' Outlet

August 14, 2006

Removing a “Popcorn” ceiling

Filed under: House Remodelling — Gilles @ 11:16 pm

Most of the ceiling in my house are so called "acoustic" ceilings or "popcorn" ceilings. Builders love this kind of ceiling because it dramatically cut constructions costs: they do not have to do a perfect drywall taping / skin coating since the surface will be covered with an irregular texture.

Unfortunately, popcorn ceilings (also called "cottage cheese" ceilings) have numerous drawbacks for homeowners. First, they have a tendency to capture and retain dust, smoke (cigarette or even smoke produced when cooking) … Most of the time, this will be most visible in room’s corners. Second, they are difficult to clean: putting moisture on them will damage them (more on this later). Third, and this is a matter of taste, they are ugly because they make the house look old. In other word, I hate them!

I knew way before moving in the house that these ceilings would have to go. Removing a popcorn ceiling can be done by homeowners. There are a few basic things you need to know to make this experience a success.

WARNING: Some textured ceilings installed before the mid 80’s contain asbestos. Asbestos was banned in 73 for insulation and 74 for textured ceilings. This means that in theory, no new construction material could be produced with asbestos in it after those dates. However, builders and contractors were allowed to use existing stocks of product even if they contained asbestos. If you plan on removing a popcorn ceiling and it was installed before the mid 80’s you must test it for asbestos.

I tested mine (built in 76 in King County, WA) and it turns out that it did not contain any asbestos. I was cleared for takeoff.

Before you remove the popcorn texture, you need to remove all furnitures and cover everything that could be damaged with plastic sheets (I used painter’s plastic). This is a very messy task. I also recommend wearing clothes which cover all your body, including a baseball cap and wear a dust mask. Those wallboard particles are nasty.

When everything is protected, turn the power off at the main panel. You will be working with water close to ceiling fixtures so better be cautious. Using a spray bottle filled with water, spray a region of 1 sq ft but make sure you do not saturate the underlying wallboard. That would essentially destroy it and you’d have to re-drywall the ceiling.

After spraying the water on the texture, let the water be absorbed for 30 seconds or more depending on your ceiling. Use the putty knife to scrape the texture. It should come off easily and it should not make any dust (or very little). You might need to adjust the amount of water / time you wait for a smooth removal. Be careful not to damage the wallboard as you scrape because it will become your new ceiling. Some people like to dull corners of the putty knife with a file to make it less likely to damage the board.

On the picture below you can see me scraping the texture. The dark brown spots on the bare wallboard indicate where I put water and the water went through the texture into the wallboard. The wet texture can be seen at the left of the picture (slightly darker texture). In this very case, the texture would come off without adding water and without any dust.

Make sure you remove all the texture especially whe the ceiling meets the wall. Removing all the material is key to ensure a great looking ceiling after re-finishing.

At this time, you will want to clean the whole room: this will help contain the mess. It is amazingly easy to carry pieces of texture ceiling everywhere in the house. Clean as soon as you are done.

Once you have removed all the texture, let the ceiling dry. Because textured ceilings cover many sins, builders usually do not bother making perfect joints between wallboards. Now that the texture is removed, all these imperfections are exposed and you will have to do the work they did not do before: fix any popped nails, fill in any cracks…

Inspect joints: you may have removed the draywall compound that used to hold the tape in place. If so, you’ll have to redo the joins (add another piece of tape, add some compound, feather the join so it looks smooth …). It may take several tries and a lot of sanding between small applications of drywall "mud" to achieve good results. This phase is critical because it dictates how good looking your ceiling will be.

I have seen ceilings so damaged after removal that it was necessary to skim coat them completely instead of doing spot repairs. Skim coating can be tricky for a homeowner. Do not hesitate to call a professional for that.

So far, my ceiling has been in great condition. I damaged a few spots and I only need to re-tape a joint because it was old. I’ll do taping / repair somtimes this week so stay tuned for the follow-up.



  1. Great directions! I did two rooms in the house and I have to do the rest. You make a few good points that I’ll take into account in the future 🙂

    Comment by carmen — March 2, 2007 @ 8:25 pm

  2. Great tips!!
    An easy way to wet the popcorn is using a 2gal weed sprayer filled with water.  You can pick these up for $25-$35 at Home Depot if you odn’t already have one. 
    I found that really wetting done the ceiling made this easier.   I wet the eniter ceiling in one pass, lettign the water seep into the popcorn material.  Then I’d work in sections, wetting a section and then scraping, then moving to another section of the ceiling.

    Comment by Stein — September 15, 2007 @ 2:58 am

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