How to Remove a Popcorn Ceiling (Because Isn’t It About Time?)

By Audrey Ference

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“How to remove a popcorn ceiling” is one of those questions you’ll ponder if, well, you find yourself afflicted with popcorn ceilings—a home decor trend which had its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s but has since fallen far out of favor. If you dream of smoothing over that unsightly, bumpy texture, you can hire a pro to remove the popcorn ceiling for an average national price of $1 to $2 a square foot. But that adds up quickly.

So before you hire anyone, make sure your popcorn removal includes all the cleanup, because boy is it messy.

The other option is to learn how to remove a popcorn ceiling yourself. The good news is that this DIY route is not difficult in a technical way; it requires no special knowledge and only a few tools. The bad news is that it’s hard work. But isn’t it worth a day or two of backbreaking labor for gloriously smooth ceilings? Here are the tools you need and steps to take to remove a popcorn ceiling.

1. Check for asbestos

If your popcorn was applied before 1977, there’s a chance there could be a small amount of asbestos mixed in with the chalk and wallboard compound used to create this material.

“Before you do anything, buy a home kit and test it,” advises Danny Lipford of Today’s Homeowner. Even if you find that your ceiling contains asbestos, you can probably still DIY the removal (check for any local laws about asbestos removal and disposal). You’ll just need to be careful with the dust and wear a disposable crawl suit, respirator, and goggles.

Not sure if you’re cut out for this kind of work? Lipford suggests starting small, with a bathroom or other smaller area, to give yourself the opportunity to bail if things go bad.

2. Get your tools and make a plan

Here are the tools you’ll need:

  • Clothes that can be destroyed: “Don’t wear the clothes you’re planning to wear to a wedding,” says Lipford. A disposable crawl suit with a hood that you can just strip off afterward is a good choice ($7.60, Amazon). Lipford also recommends wearing a hat and eye protection to keep yourself from getting hit with falling glop.
  • A sprayer: You’ll need a garden sprayer ($9.97, Amazon) and some fabric softener.
  • A scraper: Any 6- to 10-inch drywall knife will work, but to make life easier, Lipford suggests a special popcorn scraper tool from Homax ($21.99, Homax), which has a loop to attach a garbage bag, so you can scrape right into the bag instead of onto the floor.
  • Drywall joint compound and putty knife:  The compound is also known as “mud” ($5.48, Lowe’s). You can use your scraper as a putty knife.
  • A sander: The easiest is a drywall pole sander ($19.98, Lowe’s), which has a pivot and a pole that let you sand the ceiling while standing on the floor.
  • Paint and roller: “Most ceilings are painted flat white latex,” says Lipford. Get enough for two coats and feel free to buy the kind with primer included.
  • Light and fan: Not absolutely necessary, but it’s nice to have some extra light pointed at the ceiling to see what you’re doing and a fan to help things dry in between tasks.

3. Clear and cover everything

If you can move out the furniture, do it. Otherwise, cover up everything in the room like it’s going to have globs of wet plaster falling onto it, because that is what is going to happen. Lipford suggests a plastic-lined dropcloth ($6.98, Lowe’s) to protect your furniture and floors from the hailstorm of wet popcorn above.

4. Spray it down

Fill your garden sprayer with the hottest water you possibly can (just boiled is best), and add some fabric softener (about a quarter cup per quart of water). The fabric softener will help it adhere to the ceiling. Start by wetting down a 6-square-foot  area of the ceiling.

“Spray more than you think you need,” advises Lipford. Let it sit for a minute or two to get fully wet.

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5. Remove the popcorn ceiling
The cathartic moment: scraping off the wet popcorn. Feels good, doesn’t it? Use your scraper to carefully remove the texture, trying to minimize gouging or damage to the ceiling beneath. Either drop it into the bag if you’re using the Homax scraper or right onto the floor. Work in 6-square-foot sections until the ceiling is done. You don’t have to scrape off every last scrap; you can get the rest during the sanding phase.
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6. Take a break
Once all the drywall on the ceiling has been removed, walk away for an hour to let the goop on the floor dry, then shake it into the trash and replace the dropcloths. You’re done for the day. Let the ceiling dry overnight before moving onto the next step. A fan blowing on the ceiling will accelerate drying.

7. Sand off imperfections
Using your sanding pole (or even just a handheld sander and ladder) carefully shave off any bumps or remaining popcorn.

“You shouldn’t have to do a lot of sanding, just knock off anything you missed,” says Lipford. Take care not to tear the drywall ceiling if possible. It should be “like scrubbing a floor to make sure it’s clean,” says Lipford.

8. Repair any gouges
Skim out any imperfections or gouges you see on the ceiling with your drywall compound. You’re going for a flat, clean ceiling. Let that dry completely, inspect it, and do any sanding or touch-ups as necessary.

“Do a close visual inspection,” advises Lipford, because this is what your ceiling is going to look like. That little bump that will bug you every time you see it? Fix it now.

9. Time to paint
Finish your ceiling off with two coats of paint, trimming around the edges with a brush and filling in with the roller. Welcome to a popcorn-free existence.