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My most hated home repair jobs - wallpaper removal and drywall patching

By Andrew Pollack on 01/07/2008 at 08:29 AM EST

When I was very little, I would not finger paint. The reason for this, discovered later, is that I have an aversion to any kind of dust, fine powder, or things that feel like they're coated with dust. This includes newsprint, chalk, and even dry soil. The idea of purposely spreading talc on ones body makes my skin crawl just to think of it. The idea of working with and even sanding down dry wall joint compound is enough to send me into full procrastinate mode for very long periods of time. Interestingly, my daughter Aeriel shares exactly this same aversion. It is almost kinesthetic in its nature. The mean sight of a fine powder gives either one of us a taste and touch sensation that is immediately irritating. I get a need to keep my lips and mouth wet for some reason -- resulting in chapped lips when I have to work with dusty things.

A few weeks back I put my forehead nearly through a wall in the kitchen. Not on purpose, you understanding. I tripped and fell against it. What saved me a concussion was my total and complete inability to ever find a wall stud -- even by accident. This uncanny ability to avoid wall studs means my head went through the softer part of the wall between the studs, leaving a forehead shaped broken hole in the gypsum board. Patching a hole in drywall isn't that hard, by itself. This was made a thousand times worse by the wall being covered with outdated wallpaper. The kind of wallpaper that you can't replace. The only good luck was that this wall is freestanding between two openings and is only five feet wide. That meant I could remove the wallpaper and paint it as an accent wall without having to re-do the entire room.

This weekend I started that task. Of course, the wallpaper had been put on to the wall when it was new. The wall hadn't been surface prepped or painted first. As a result, removing the wallpaper left plenty of spots where the wallboard backing was torn, marks from the "paper tiger" used to perforate the wallpaper so that the steam could get in, and other nastiness. All this had to be smoothed out, filled in, and made perfect again before I could paint.

I used a standard drywall patch to cover the hole, and have spent the last two days repairing the damage caused by removing the wallpaper. This involves spreading joint compound (mud) on the wall with a ten inch wide blade. It is very tricky to do right, and it has taken me a couple of days to get the hang of it. On recommendation from my home building contractor friends, I used a product called easy-sand. This works much better than the consumer focused little tubs of pre-mixed patching or spackle compounds, which I've never done good work with. It is, however, a bit of an art form to get right. Easy-Sand is a powder that you mix at roughly 2:1 with water. It sets chemically, and as such comes in a variety of setting times. I've seen a 5 minute 'patch' version, a 45 minute, and a 90 minute version. The only one that comes in a very small volume seems to be the 5 minute 'patch' kit. I suppose that makes sense.

Here are some of the things I've learned:

1. Although the temptation is to get the small amount of 5 minute setting joint compound, don't do it. It takes a great deal of practice and skill to do anything effective in five minutes with this stuff. For a skilled painter with years of practice in the fine art of wall preparation, I'm sure a quick patch job can be effective. For those of us learning to use mud for the first time? Not so much. I had also been told to use warm water, as it would set faster. I ended up with about one knife load on the wall, and a two quart bucket of rock. After the second attempt, I decided it was worth spending the 10 bucks on the full 20 pound bag of 45 minute joint compound. In the end, it would be much cheaper and way less frustrating.

2. Repairing a hole with the patch kit and a layer or two of joint compound is easy. Trying to apply joint compound to an entire five foot wall evenly is not easy. There is no way to describe in print the right thickness to mix or the technique for applying it. You have to work with it and get the feel of it. The only thing I can say, is that I found applying it as thin as I could possibly still work with without it just pouring off the blade and just using multiple layers to build it up where you need to was the only effective strategy. At one point, I resorted to finger painting. I'm sure a pro would have laughed at me, as I've never seen this particularly messy technique used. Still, I found for a big area with lots of small damaged spots, slopping handfuls of the stuff onto the wall and smearing it around into all the crevasses and then going over it with the wide blade to smooth it was the most effective thing I could do.

3. Thankfully, 'easy-sand' really is just that. Again on advice of my contractor friends I picked up a cheap padded sanding screen holder and some medium and fine screens. These don't cake up with the dust the way sandpaper does. I was very happy to learn that as long as you've got plenty of the joint compound on the wall, any bumps and ridges you make with it sand down to a nice smooth finish very quickly. Until this morning when I hit it with the sanding screen, I was worried it would never look right. After a few minutes though, I'm confident that I'm going to have a really nicely done project.

4. Use a shop-vac. When you sand this stuff, it sends great billowing clouds of the finest dust you can imagine into the air, onto the floor, and all over your body. Having a 12 year old holding a shop vac up to where you work can prevent hours and hours of cleaning. Make sure your shop-vac has a filter installed. Mine does (thankfully).

All in all, this is a nasty, horrible, abomination of a job for someone who hates dust. While I'm sure anyone who does this sort of thing for a living would laugh at how long this is taking me and would scoff at how much of the compound I waste, I am finally able to say that I am getting the job done in a way that looks professional when its done.


There are  - loading -  comments....

re: My most hated home repair jobs - wallpaper removal and drywall patchingBy Aaron Becker on 01/07/2008 at 09:09 PM EST
I sympathize with your situation. I had a hole that needed fixing due to a
pipe springing a leak (that's another story). It has been six months and it is
not yet fixed. If was a big enough hole that I had to put a new piece of
gypsum board in. I tried a 1/2 inch thick piece which was not correct then I
bought a full 4x8 foot sheet of 5/8 thickness which turned out also did not
fit. After scratching my head and almost putting it through the wall purposely
I finally figured out that the whole room was 5/8 inch think but that section
had previously been repaired with 1/2 inch. The person who fixed it just spread
the joint compound on thick enough to match them up. The top of my hole had
5/8 inch gypsum board and the bottom has 1/2 inch. The hole has now been
covered but I haven't yet tackled the job of putting on the joint compound,
smoothing it out and painting. I put some kids artwork over it and it looks
good as new!
re: My most hated home repair jobs - wallpaper removal and drywall patchingBy Debbie on 07/18/2008 at 11:51 PM EDT
Your tips are encouraging since I am faced with finishing the job a contractor
abandoned once he was paid by my landlady to install a window in my apartment.

He did angily come back one day to finish the job but he wound up just piling
on more and more compound and then stomping off in a huff -- like we'd done
something to him.

My brother-in-law is going to loan me a trowel and as soon as I figure out how
to sand the area properly, I am going the do it yourself route.
re: My most hated home repair jobs - wallpaper removal and drywall patchingBy Handyman on 01/19/2011 at 07:27 AM EST
Yes, I agree! It is always easy to make new things but it is always difficult
to repair or mend the older ones. This situation is also similar to it.


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