What’s Going On Here? – Gritty Walls / Non-Adhesion

I am removing existing wallpaper from this large kitchen. Not all of it is coming off.

Years ago, the wallpaper was not adhering to the wall, so the homeowner used some sort of adhesive (looks like rubber cement!) to reattach the seams to the wall. This did hold the loose seams down . But, years later when they want to repaper, this adhesive will not release from the wall. That’s why you see torn bits of wallpaper, or its white backing, along with swoops of adhesive, still stuck to the wall.

Yet the center areas of the wallpaper came away from the wall very easily. If you look closely at the two photos (you may need to enlarge), you will see gritty, sandy, “hairs” on the surface. Of course the wallpaper would not stick well to this gritty surface.

What happened was, first, there are several – at least three, but possibly four – layers of wallpaper on this wall. When repapering, previous installers had removed the top, inked (most probably vinyl), layer of wallpaper. But they left the backing paper still on the wall. And then slapped their new paper on top of it. Not recommended.

That’s a shame, because that type of backing is usually easy enough to soak with plain water and then strip off the wall. Instead, they built up 3-4 layers of thickish wallpaper backing on the wall.

Fast-forward to the guy before me. He did remove the top layer of vinyl, which left the manila paper-like backing stuck to the wall. And he did use some clear primer to seal that backing. That is good.

What is bad is that the primer caused the fibers in the manila backing to stiffen and stand up. When you are working with wood, this is called “raising the grain.” It’s a normal occurrence. With wood grain, it can be sanded down easily before applying the finish coat of paint.

But with wallpaper, you can’t leave those prickly, sticky hairs standing up … they look bad under paint, and, under wallpaper, they prevent the new paper from being able to adhere to a smooth, intact surface.

And that’s why his paper didn’t stick well.

And my new wallpaper would not adhere well, either.

The rigid fibers could not be sanded down. Plus there were the higher raised areas where the repair glue remained, along with the bits of wallpaper that stuck to it.

So I had to skim-float all the wall space in the entire kitchen. This means troweling on a plaster-like substance (joint compound, also referred to as “mud,” which is used in drywall installation) over all the walls in the entire room. (Do a Search here to learn more from previous posts.) This took me at least five hours today.

Tomorrow I will sand all this smooth and then apply a primer. I expect this to take another five hours.

Update: Next / third day: The walls sanded down smoothly and looked great. The primer rolled on and looks perfect.

But when I went back around the room later, I discovered bubbles in the wall. Turns out the moisture from my water-borne primer had penetrated not just the layer of skim-float, but the THREE layers of old wallpaper left on the wall. These layers absorbed moisture and expanded, creating bubbles.

I was also surprised to detect that the layers felt ever so slightly damp. Usually this primer I use (Roman’s Pro 977 Ultra Prime) dries quickly. So I’m surprised that it soaked in so deeply and is taking so long to dry.

Luckily, on this particular job, we have time. I plan to let this dry overnight, and I have cranked down the air-conditioning and turned on the house fan, as well as set two fans on the floor, plus a ceiling fan, to circulate air. So cool, dry air will be circulating all night long. This should thoroughly dry the many layers of material in this wall. I expect any bubbles to dry nice and flat.

BUT … it’s hard to look at a bubble and not want to work it. On the larger ones, I took a razor knife and cut around the buckled area and removed the layers of puckering paper. I then took joint compound ( the same material I used to smooth the walls) and swiped it over the area.

Tomorrow I will sand these areas smooth and prime. Then the walls should be ready for wallpaper.

I’m also hoping that my primer dries hard enough overnight that in the morning, it will no longer allow moisture to penetrate through it, so we won’t have more bubbles from the paste when the new paper is installed.

I would also like to add that all this would have been avoided if the previous installers had just removed the original wallpaper in the first place. The original wallpapers were all of a type that is pretty easy to get off the wall. All it takes is a little water and a little bit more of time.

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