When It’s OK to Paint Over Wallpaper (and How to Do It Right)

updated Sep 8, 2022
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We love wallpaper. Give us wallpaper on ceilings, or removable wallpaper in rental spaces or dorm rooms. We’ll take it anywhere—it can be a great, bold way to add some personality to your space. But sometimes, you move into a home with existing wallpaper that’s just not your style and you’re not up for a complete wallpaper removal project, so can you just paint over it? Ian Snyder, professional painting contractor of The Happy Brush in Hudson Valley New York, says yes, you can paint over wallpaper—if you follow these essential tips.

When Should You Paint Over Wallpaper?

When deciding whether to paint over wallpaper or not, Snyder says it really comes down to the time and money you’re willing to spend on the project. “There are different types of wallpaper, and some come off easy, and some do not come off,” Snyder says. 

He suggests testing a small spot. If you can get the wallpaper to peel off, you will be able to steam it off altogether. But if you find that the paper is really stubborn and you’re going to have to dig behind the paper to remove it, then the process runs the risk of damaging the wall behind it. In that case, painting over it might be the better option.

“If it really is hard to come off and it’s more than one layer of paper—sometimes old homes have two or three layers—and if time and money are of the essence, do not try to remove it,” Snyder says.

The size of the space may play into your decision, as well.  An open living room will give you adequate space to put in some elbow grease, but removing stubborn wallpaper from a small bathroom or tiny closet might prove to be more of a headache than you’re willing to take on.

How to Paint Over Wallpaper

If you’ve decided that painting over the wallpaper in your room is the best course of action, check out the below tips from Snyder on how to do it correctly.

1. Wear protective gear.

You’re going to be working with some strong chemicals, so be sure to protect your skin. Here’s what you should have.

It’s also worth investing in a $30-$40 respirator mask to protect your lungs. Be sure to open some windows to get some ventilation going to help alleviate the smell, as well.

Credit: 5m3photos/Getty Images

2. Choose the right primer for the job.

If you’re dealing with older wallpaper, then it was most likely pasted to the wall over a chemical compound called sizing, which helped protect plaster walls from the moisture of an adhesive.  “If you go to paint it, that glue can stain your paint if you don’t seal it,” Snyder says, “so you have to use an oil-based or shellac-based primer first before you paint over it.”

You’ll want to use an oil-based primer over the wallpaper before you paint. Oil-based primers can take longer to dry, and the smell will be overbearing, but some fast drying options are now available.

“Oil-based primer will block anything coming through,” Snyder says. “Whether there are patterns on the wallpaper or the glue behind it, it will block that so you can paint right over it.” Check the instructions on your oil-based primer to make sure it’s compatible with water-based latex paints.

While oil-based primers can be great, Snyder says the strong smell is worth noting, and when possible, he prefers to use B-I-N shellac-based primer instead.  The smell dissipates faster and it dries in 15 to 30 minutes (and it tends to dampen any bubbles out of the wallpaper because it sucks the moisture out). You’ll be able to use latex paint over this primer.

When using oil-based primer, have mineral spirits on hand to clean up any spills or outside-the-lines moments, as well as your brushes afterward.  If you’re going to use alcohol or shellac-based product, have denatured alcohol on hand to clean up.

Snyder says it’s important to use quality products and recommends Purdy or Corona brand brushes, and roller covers in a ⅜-inch-thick size. “Don’t go cheap on brushes and roller covers!” he says.  “Better brushes and covers mean better coverage and application.”

3. Prep your space.

Clean your walls with a damp (not wet!) rag to remove any dust or dirt that might have collected on your wallpaper. Tape off the wall trim to protect it from the primer. It’s best to move as much of the furniture out of the room as possible; make sure to cover whatever you can’t move.

4. Repair any obvious problem spots

Are parts of the wallpaper peeling off, or are the seams popping up in spots? Snyder says to take a sheetrock knife, cut off the loose piece, then use a brush to paint the B-I-N primer over the spot to seal it off. For seams that might be curling up, he recommends cutting off the part that’s curling and sealing it with B-I-N, as well.

“Any exposed areas, seal it with B-I-N first, then you can use spackling compound over it once it’s dry,” Snyder says. If you have textured wallpaper, he recommends using an orbital or palm sander with 150-180 grit sandpaper to smooth down the surface to an even level.

Credit: ellinnur bakarudin/Shutterstock

5. Prime before painting over the wallpaper

Your surface is smooth, clean, you’ve taken all safety precautions, and now you are ready to apply primer.  Snyder advises taking a “less is more” approach when starting. “Oil-based primers and B-I-N primers can be kind of splashy,” says Snyder. “Go slow at first. Less is more. Use a little bit until you get used to the feel of it.”

Once your primer has dried, reinspect to see if there are any rough spots in the wall.  If you need to go back to fix something at this point, Snyder recommends using 3M Patch Plus Primer spackling compound because it already contains primer; that way, you won’t have to re-prime the entire wall. If you take your time and are using quality products, one coat of primer should do.

6. Paint over the wallpaper

Once the primer has dried, you’re ready to officially paint over your wallpaper and give your space the style stamp it deserves. Find instructions for how to paint a room here.