Wallpaper in an old house

Restoring Walls in an Old House

Wallpaper in an old house
Wallpaper in an old house

I have come to the conclusion that most people who own old houses can’t be A type personalities. It would drive them nuts. Take for instance the walls.

Wallpaper in the 20th century has always been a budget friendly way to hide imperfect walls and add decorative impact especially as more and more designs became available at different price points. As styles changed homeowners simply added another layer in another pattern.It was also common for homeowners to simply paint over the existing wall treatment. Unless those before you have dutifully removed each layer of paper the walls you end up with may not look their best. So what do you do? Here are your options:

  • You can keep the walls as they are and minimize their defects by painting with a flat paint
  • You can simply put another layer of wallpaper to the walls thereby hiding what’s underneath.
  • You can strip the layers but this may be a huge task. Test the walls in an inconspicuous place first then make your decision. I have seen the horrific results of a homeowner starting this project then giving up.

What not to do:

  • Unless you absolutely have no choice or you are tearing out the walls to insulate (another topic for another time) do not drywall over the existing walls. This will create nice flat walls, yes, but you will find that the drywall will affect the mill work because it will butt up against it. The mill work will be flush to the new walls. I have seen examples of this and it really shows an extremely lazy disregard for doing the job right.

So learn to love your old walls. Think of their bumps, bubbles or ridges as character lines. If you went to Europe and suggested they should improve the look of the walls in their old buildings they would think you are crazy. Why is it that so many North Americans want everything to look new? Europeans have learned to appreciate the age and quality of old buildings, inside and out. Isn’t it time we did the same?

6 thoughts on “Restoring Walls in an Old House

  1. “do not drywall over the existing walls” .. Well, I’m a bit conflicted about that. On one hand, thicker walls are almost always better for soundproofing and a layer of drywall will add some much-needed fireproofing to, for instance, 8 layers of paper over Beaverboard. On the other hand, you don’t want to bury the woodwork in a sea of drywall. I’d say that if the pros of drywalling over the existing wall outweigh the cons, any woodwork that would be noticeably affected should be removed and shimmed to restore the original look of the wall. This would be far preferable to another popular alternative: chopping out the wallpaper and whatever is under it, then replacing it with half-inch drywall, leaving a nice, smooth, hollow wall with almost no soundproofing.

    1. What is referred to here is the practice of hiding walls with drywall instead of attempting to preserve them. Sometimes it’s not a bad option to cover with drywall – it really depends, however doing this can affect the profile of any millwork (if there is millwork) and can really cause problems with electricals. Quite often there isn’t enough wiring to pull the switch box or plug ins to be even to the new walls, requiring the piecing of old to new wiring. If you’re replacing the old wiring, then that’s not an issue. Old walls have character and should be kept if at all possible but sometimes one has to make difficult decisions.

  2. When we bought our home last August removing all the wallpaper was one of the first tasks. We wanted to start fresh to see if we wanted to paint or reapply wallpaper. So far it has been paint as I think it would take some convincing on my husbands part to put up wallpaper when we just spent so much time and effort taking it down.

    My office had 6 layers of wallpaper I believe starting with the original when the house was built in the late 1920’s. It was a task but with patience my son and I worked together and the walls look great. I agree with you the plaster walls have a character that drywall can never achieve and the cracks to me are like the smile lines on a face, they tell a story of the house.

    We have put up wallpaper in our master bedroom but not on the walls on the ceiling. We have the typical sloped walls and so framed out the true ceiling and put up textured wallpaper that looks like tin ceiling in that area. Painted the sloped part of the walls a soft blue and again put chair rail (all of the trim and chair rail and such is white) then painted the lower part of the wall a beautiful grey/blue.

    There was a sewer pipe running up through the room so my husband enclosed that and built another box on the other side of the window to match. He then built a shelf across the top and built a window seat with bead board cupboards to match the bead board closet that was already built into one end of the room. It looks like this was always there and we just love it. Waiting for the right light fixture now to finish it off. Oh and we did all this with recycled wood and free paint from the paint recycling depot. In fact we have painted the whole inside of our home with free paint so far. They are not “true” period colors but some are very close and the other neutrals are temporary just to get a fresh start until we decorate that particular room.

    Thank you Joanne for all you tips and info.

    1. Terry – Wow that’s pretty impressive! You are being very creative in the way you approach what may seem to others to be a problem (sewer pipe). Window seats are perfect for heritage homes. They were popular at the turn of the 20th century and there was an even bigger revival in the 1920’s because builtins in houses became all the rage.

      Sloped ceilings are always a challenge and typically I have painted the bottom half one colour and let the sloped part be a piece of the ceiling and finished accordingly. This is especially important if you are using a strog colour – it can really weigh the house down.

  3. I love the texture and character of old walls, as Johanna notes- drywall, while nice and flat, and much easier to hang pictures on, is also totally lacking in “character”…In order to introduce that character into my house reno, without having to actually plaster walls, I used FlexRock wall covering…Its a rock product, available at Home Hardware and is applied using various techniques with a textured roller. Low VOC, quick drying, no need to prime, and water clean up. The beauty of it…hides imperfections wonderfully, so no need to patch and sand either. My sons had been quite hard on the walls as teens, and Flexrock not only covered up a multitude of sins, but gave shadow, depth and texture to otherwise very bland boring drywalled walls- colours are period correct too from late 1800’s through A and C period.

    1. Early twentieth century painters (house painters that is) added sand to their paint to create a textured finish. The skill with which they did this is evident in the eveness of the texture. Other ways they added texture was to paste burlap onto the wall and paint it. We still have the original finish on our dining room walls. It’s a good way to hide less than perfect walls even today – albeit in small quantities!

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