I’ve been in the property business for over 20 years. I’ve bought and renovated many houses in that time, so I know how removing emulsion paint from plaster walls is painful, not to mention hazardous.
In this step-by-step guide, I’ll explain when you should remove old emulsion paint before repainting and how to avoid the health & safety issues associated with lead in paint.
So, to be sure you’re following the proper steps during your next redecorating project, read on.
Why Remove Paint from Plaster Walls?
Generally, you would simply decorate or paint over emulsion, but there are circumstances where you should remove the paint first.
- If the paint is loose, peeling, or flaky
- If the paintwork hasn’t been stripped back for decades and the wall is looking tired.
Paint drips and runs will always show through, no matter how many times you paint over them. Eventually, you must bite the bullet and strip everything back to the plaster.
Methods of Removing Paint
To remove emulsion paint from a wall, these are your primary options:
Using a heat gun might sound like a great idea, but beware! If there’s any leaded paint underneath the emulsion, the heat gun could create toxic fumes that are hazardous to anyone nearby.
Heat guns work by melting the paint with scorching air, making it easy to scrape off.
When using a heat gun, be careful not to burn the skirtings or door/window frames. You can learn more about using a heat gun in our guide to stripping paint.
If you don’t have a steamer*, you can use boiling water from a kettle. This method is less efficient but still effective.
Place the freshly boiled kettle against the wall where you want to remove the paint. After a few minutes, you’ll see the paint loosen. At this point, you can use a scraper to remove the paint easily.
There are a couple of points you should be aware of:
- Don’t leave the removed emulsion lying around to dry; otherwise, it will stick to wherever it lands.
- Even more important, don’t use steam on a skimmed plasterboard wall as this could also soften the board.
*Pro Tip: If you do own a steamer, check out our guide to using a wallpaper steamer.
Chemical paint strippers break down the bond between the paint and the sub-surface.
Many products are on the market, but the main ingredient is often a toxic chemical called methylene chloride.
I prefer to use products with low VOCs for internal use, but these tend to be the most expensive paint strippers.
My Preferred Choice for Removing Emulsion Paint from Plaster Walls
I don’t like using chemicals that need special precautions unless there’s little choice. My preferred option is white vinegar.
A solution of white vinegar may take longer to loosen the paint than most of the proprietary chemical products, but it’s cheap, safe, and easy to use.
Whatever product you use to loosen the paint, you still need some elbow grease! This job typically involves using a scraper or a wire brush, but be careful not to damage the surface you’re going to paint.
I don’t recommend mechanical sanding as this is likely to create unevenness and gouges on the surface. Instead, use medium-grit sandpaper on a block to achieve a smooth finish.
Do I Need to be Concerned About Lead in the Paint?
A lot of people use the term lead-based paint, but this is not the correct terminology. Paint containing lead pigment is typically oil or solvent-based.
Lead was used as a pigment in oil paint until the 1990s, but it’s more commonly found in pre-70s housing and commercial buildings.
You won’t find lead in emulsion paint, but there could be many paint layers under the finish coat if you’re decorating an older house.
How do you know if you have lead paint? The best way to be sure is by using a lead paint test kit.
As we’re dealing with the removal of emulsion paint, lead isn’t an issue. However, if you want to know more about lead in paint, check out this article from the DIY Doctor.
Tools & Materials
Here are the things you need to complete this project using my preferred method:
- Sharp putty knife or metal scraper – the broader, the better
- Sanding block and 80-150 grade sandpaper
- Broad paint brush or pasting brush
- Latex gloves, a face mask and goggles
- Dust sheets
- White vinegar
- Black bin-liners for the old paint
Health & Safety Measures
Using this method, you won’t be handling anything particularly hazardous. However, I recommend wearing latex gloves, goggles and a face mask. These items will save you from the bits of flaky paint flying around.
Additional measures are necessary if you encounter lead paint (see lead section above).
How to Remove Emulsion Paint from Plaster Walls – Step-by-Step Instructions
Step 1: Preparation
Things will get messy, so lay down some dust sheets close to the wall. These sheets will collect all the flaky emulsion paint and dust from the sanding process.
If you can’t remove your furniture, cover that up too. For more tips on preparing a room, check out our guide to painting a room without making a mess.
Step 2: Wash Down the Wall
Mix a water and white vinegar solution: 3 tablespoons (45 grams) of vinegar to 1 gallon (4 litres) of water. Note: this solution works more effectively if you use hot water.
Apply the solution liberally to the wall using a paintbrush, starting at the top and working down.
Leave to soak for 30 minutes to allow the solution to work, and then move on to the next step.
Step 3: Scrape off the Paint
Use a putty knife at a shallow angle to the wall to scrape off the paint. This shallow angle will prevent you from digging into the plaster beneath the paint.
If you do damage the surface, don’t worry, it’s easy to fix. The video below by Charlie DIYte shows you exactly how to repair a damaged surface:
Make sure you collect all the paint scrapings as you go and place them in bin bags. Otherwise, they’ll stick to your feet, and you’ll spread them throughout the house.
Step 4: Sand Down the Wall
Having removed all the loose paint, use a sanding block to rub down the wall using a circular motion. Make sure you get right into the corners.
Adding a bit of water will help rub paint and plaster into the depressed areas or pinholes, but anything more significant will need filling.
Concentrate on areas where the paint is raised slightly. The idea is to get a smooth, not necessarily good-looking, finish on the wall. Remember, you’re going to paint over it later.
Step 5: Wash the Wall (again)
This time, just use clean water and a sponge to get all the loose bits/residue off. You want to leave the wall clean, smooth, and ready for painting.
Let the wall dry naturally rather than applying heat, as heat may cause the surface to crack.
Pro Tip: Use a dehumidifier to speed up the drying process.
And that’s it; you’re ready to repaint the wall! Before you do so, check out our guide on the best emulsion paints in the UK.
Removing Emulsion Paint from Plaster Walls – Final Thoughts
Unfortunately, removing emulsion paint from plaster walls is a chore, and a lot can go wrong when done poorly. However, I hope from reading this guide; you now understand the shortcuts to getting the job done cheaply and effectively.