If you live in an older home — or even some modern builds — there’s a good chance popcorn ceilings are commanding the overhead views. If you’re getting tired of this feature and plan to remove it, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s find out what you need to know about removing popcorn ceilings from your home.
What is a popcorn ceiling?
Popcorn ceilings — also known as stucco, stipple or Artex — are marked by their bumpy texture, though they can also be characterized by swirling designs, or peaks that look like the top of a meringue pie. The plaster-based material was originally called Artex, after the UK-based company that developed the textured finishing technique as a way to hide imperfections and seams in ceilings. The application also provided a minor sound-dampening effect.
From 1945 until the 1980s, popcorn ceilings were a popular feature in the construction of most North American homes. Popularity peaked in the 1970s with a varying range of designs and textures gracing ceilings across the continent. It was even possible to add glitter to the finish.
Asbestos fibers were originally incorporated into the plaster for added strength, while also acting as a fire retardant. Due to the severe health effects of air-borne asbestos and the associated risks involved with building or renovating when it is present, it was eventually removed from production in the 1980s.
Testing for asbestos
Before attempting any kind of removal, make sure the material used for your popcorn ceiling is asbestos-free, especially if your home was built before 1986. While DIY asbestos test kits are available, they can sometimes be inaccurate. Although hiring a professional may cost more, it’s worth the extra peace of mind when this carcinogenic material is involved.
In the event asbestos is present, you’ll need to make a judgment call on moving forward with smoothing out your ceilings. It’s recommended to use an asbestos abatement professional to execute a safe removal. This may not be the ideal outcome for die-hard DIYers, but your household’s long-term health and safety — not to mention you and your family’s health and safety — always comes first.
Supplies and tools
You’ll want to pick up a few things at your local hardware store and be prepared for a messy undertaking. Here’s what you need:
• Dust mask or respirator
• Safety goggles
• Plastic sheeting (to cover furniture, floors and walls)
• Painter’s masking tape
• Popcorn ceiling scraper or floor scraper
• Wide, flexible putty/plaster knife
• Spray bottle (a pump pressure sprayer is ideal)
• Garbage bags
• Mud pan (to catch the wet plaster)
• Drywall sander
• Drywall tape and joint compound
Test a small area first
Once you’re ready to dive into smoothing out your popcorn ceilings, start by testing out a small section. Mist a small, inconspicuous area with water, allow the moisture to absorb for about 15 minutes, then use a flexible putty knife at a low angle to scrape the texture free.
Pro tip: Closets make the perfect test subjects as they will often have the same ceiling texture as the room they are in.
If the stipple comes off easily, then you’re looking at smooth sailing with this project. However, if you encounter a lot of resistance, or the water does not soak into the texture at all, this means it’s either been painted over or paint was mixed in with the material when it was applied — a serious wrench-in-gears situation.
What if there’s paint or asbestos?
If paint was mixed into the popcorn ceiling texture, if it’s been painted over, or if there’s asbestos present, it may just be simpler to cover over the ceiling with fresh drywall panels. This achieves your goal without disturbing any asbestos, dealing with the high costs of abatement, or heavily involved removal in the event of paint.
To save yourself a clean-up nightmare, remove large furniture pieces and cover the floor with plastic sheeting. Use painter’s tape and sheeting to line the walls, then cover all electrical outlets and light fixtures (remove any lights or chandeliers first).
Safety tip: Because you’re spraying water near electrical outlets and fixtures, it’s recommended to turn off the breakers for the room.
Spray, wait, scrape, repeat
Working in sections, use your spray bottle to moisten the stipple. As with your earlier test, wait 15 minutes and then use your scraper to remove the texture while holding the mud pan underneath to catch it. Repeat the process, and as you near the edges and corners, switch to the smaller putty knife to avoid damaging your walls.
Pro tip: If you use a popcorn ceiling scraper, you can attach a bag to it to catch the material, negating the need for a mud pan.
Some rough patches or gouges are inevitable, and you can repair these easily with a drywall sander. If you wish to avoid excessive dust, aim for a sander that attaches to a vacuum or has a built-in vacuum assembly. Don’t forget to wear a dust mask or respirator!
If the underlying drywall tape gets damaged or if the seams become visible in the drywall, apply fresh drywall tape to affected areas and apply joint compound with your putty knife. If necessary, sand the areas smooth again.
At this point you’re ready to paint, clean up, replace the furniture and fixtures, and enjoy the smooth fruits of your labour.
If you don’t mind getting a little dirty and incorporating some elbow grease into your efforts, this is a great project to handle on your own. Just don’t hesitate to reach out to the professionals if needed, because safety always comes first.