Steamed

A full-scale assault on the evil that is wallpaper.

Back in February, I completed the purchase of my first home — a charming two-story brick rowhouse in Baltimore County that had belonged to my brother-in-law Mark. Two and one-half months later, I’m still several weeks away from a likely move-in date. It turns out it’s a bit of a fixer-upper.

The house was built in 1952. The same couple lived there for more than 50 years, until Mark bought the place from them. From everything he has told me, they’re a perfectly sweet old man and woman. That may be, but their decorating taste and tactics are making my life difficult. How difficult? Allow me to sum it up in one word:

Wallpaper.

Once upon a time, it was considered fashionable to affix large sheets of paper to your walls with a glue that could only be removed by nuclear weaponry. Ideally, this so-called “wall paper” would be festooned with hideous floral prints featuring colors that do not commonly occur in nature. The more garish, the better. And it just so happens that my upstairs hallway, stairwell, bathroom, and kitchen are covered in just such a fashion. For a little extra flavor, the bedrooms and the living room featured only a strip of border at the tops of the walls. I never knew there were so many different abhorrent combinations of wildflowers and ribbons. It all had to go.

My chief tool in this battle has been an electric power steamer. In theory, at least, the extreme heat from the steam loosens the glue, allowing me to pull entire strips of paper right off of the wall in a manner of minutes. The borders in the bedrooms and living room? Came off in no time — I didn’t even need the steamer for some of them. The hallway and stairwell didn’t put up a fight, at least the portions that I could reach. (I’ll have to suck it up and hire a professional to do the rest.)

The kitchen, however, was a real treat.

I don’t know if the grease from decades of stovetop-cooked meals bonded with the glue, but something made that adhesive exponentially more tenacious. The paper still came off primarily in strips, but little obnoxious shreds would be left behind along with a gnarly, sticky film. It took my loyal, six-person band of steam jockeys and me several shifts spanning three days to banish all of the flowery badness to the hinterlands. Actually, we’re still not finished sanding the residue away.

The ordeal has been further complicated by a few inexplicable elements of flair added by my elderly predecessors. These include molding the paper to the underside of the bulkhead over top of the cabinets; slapping a strip of wallpaper on the front of the pantry door (who does that?!); and placing a border over top of the wallpaper on both bulkheads, despite the fact that this left only an inch of wallpaper visible. I think the interior decorator was Mephistopheles.

Last Friday, I stopped delaying the inevitable and set to work on the bathroom wallpaper — which had been painted over by my brother-in-law. No sooner had I started steaming the wall than I figured out why Mark chose to do things that way. The paper came off in piecemeal scraps, and it took me an hour and a half to remove most of a single strip of it. As I did so, I found that the majority of the layer of paint underneath of the wallpaper came off as well, leaving
the drywall underneath exposed. (Note from the eds: We hate to break it to Kevin, but that’s probably not drywall. In a house of that vintage, it’s almost certainly plaster — which means he’s in more trouble than he knows. Sorry, man.)

Now I can’t even walk by the bathroom without breaking out in a cold sweat. But, hey, at least it’s not covered in floral prints.

Article © 2010 by Kevin Brotzman