Removing Popcorn Ceilings - How We Did It

Popcorn ceilings!  It only took me forever to write about these but hey, the post is here and maybe you care and maybe you’ll just move on but either way, let’s talk all about them!  Specifically, let’s talk about getting rid of them!

It only took us three weeks of plugging away but our new house has 2300 square feet of smooth ceilings to add to it’s resume.  I’m going to tell you all about how we went from popcorn to smooth but first, let’s do a quick Popcorn Ceilings 101. 

What are popcorn ceilings? 

A travesty, that’s what.  Hehe…kidding.  They’re not really that bad and some people probably like them way more than we do and that’s a-ok.  To each his own, right?  Right.  Popcorn ceiling refers to the popcorn-like/cottage cheese texture that some ceilings are covered with, especially in houses built in the 70’s, 80’s, beyond.  Really, they just look like someone sprayed a mixture of teeny-tiny pieces of popcorn stirred up into thick chalk paint up onto the ceiling.

Apparently they have functional value in that they up the acoustics of a room – they make sound stop in it’s tracks and not bounce all over the place (though I can’t say that smooth ceilings really make sound in a room louder).  They are also somewhat of a short cut on the building-of-the-house side in that ceilings don’t have to be “finished” quite as much as walls if they’re just going to get sprayed with popcorn texture.  It covers a multitude of drywall imperfections and we. would. know.  We recently finished (well, almost) making amends with those imperfections and THAT will be a whole ‘nother post.

Why get rid of them? 

Well, there’s nothing super bad about them.  Aesthetically, they’re just not the most pleasing.  The texture creates lots of shadows on the ceiling which in turn makes a room darker.  Light just kind of hits them and stops instead of bouncing off them to what’s below, like it does on smooth ceilings.  They’re also great at holding onto dust and cob webs AND they can harbor allegens.  Oh, and cigarette smoke (lots of fingers pointing to our ceilings).  Let’s not forget about that.  Awesome, right?  But, here’s the thing, they’re almost impossible to clean.  Any amount of light scrubbing or on-contact vacuuming will most likely ruin them/create a ruined spot.  You can attempt to fix spots but getting them to match the original is no easy task.  The main reason that we are getting rid of ours (followed by aesthetics in a v v v close second) is because the previous owner of our home smoked inside and they were stained and held in that ashtray smell.  Case in point, our master bedroom:

How do you get rid of them?

First of all and VERY importantly, if your home was built prior to 1980, your popcorn ceilings might be made with asbestos.  Make sure you check first (you can buy test kits like this one* that note a lab fee) because if they are made with asbestos, you’ll have to leave the removal to a pro or learn to live with them.

You can have them professionally scraped and removed…but it’ll cost ya.  We looked into this in our old house because the popcorn ceiling in our kitchen was discolored and we wanted to remedy that before we put it on the market.  It was sort of a fiasco but in a nutshell, we tried to paint the popcorn, it started falling off with every roll of the paint, and in a panic, I called a local drywall specialist to see how much it would cost to have them removed.  He quoted me $3/square foot so almost $600 for just our kitchen and dining nook.  Ouch.  We ended up scraping what we could and then spraying a knock-down texture instead so we solved our dilemma but, just so you have an idea of pricing, our house is around 2400 square feet so we’d pay $7200 to have our popcorn ceilings removed down to those smooth beauties.  Not a handful of change by any means and in our case, not worth the cash when we knew we could try it ourselves…with success, I might add.  ;)  Cha-ching…in our pockets.
Which leads me to option numero dos – scraping them off yourselves.  I’ll be honest, it’s not nearly as bad as I thought.  I’ll get more into that later.

You can also just cover them up.  Cindy did that with hers and the planks add a lot of character to her space.  (Spoiler alert, we have some covering up plans for the bathroom that had painted popcorn.  I’m dreaming of geometric tiles.)

Another option is to spray or have a professional spray them to create a knock-down texture look.  My sister and her hubby had this done to their entire home and it cost them a small fraction of the cost it would have been to get them scraped.

Let’s get to the fun part though, shall we?  DIYing those ceilings off.  :D

*Disclaimer:  We are not professionals so keep that in mind.  We’re just sharing our experience on what worked for us.  :)

A few years ago, this “viral” YouTube video came up, shared by a friend on Facebook and I clicked over, watched it, shipped it off to Anthony’s messages, and knew that all of my dreams about removing our popcorn ceilings could actually come true more easily than I thought…all with our trusty shop-vac and very little mess.  (If you haven’t seen the video, a guy taped a finishing knife to the wide suction accessory on his shop-vac and scraped away his popcorn ceilings.  The popcorn was simply scraped and suctioned right into the shop-vac.  No mess.  He doesn’t go into detail about whether or not he wet the ceilings down beforehand but I would assume not since wet popcorn would clog up a vacuum tube in a matter of seconds…)  Wellllll, I tried his genius trick during out little kitchen mishap mentioned above.  AND, not only did it NOT work for me but it created a HUGE dust storm via the blowing end of the shop-vac.  Maybe it was our popcorn, but it also didn’t just slide off in one foul swipe like his.  It took scraping and scraping over one spot over and over until all of the popcorn was off.  Then, because I didn’t use a *very-much-required* HEPA bag inside our shop-vac (which the youtuber didn’t mention…it was something I learned after) to catch all of the fine dust my scraping was creating, our shop-vac started suffocating and spewing it out.  AWESOME!  The same thing happened to my sister while removing popcorn ceilings so…well, don’t believe every viral video you see and get some side research in before you dive in.  SO, minus using our shop-vac to eradicate popcorn ceilings, here’s how we came and conquered this time around.

-pump sprayer with flat spray option (we bought the linked two gallon but a one gallon would be perfect if you’re just doing one room or one room at a time)
-10” finishing knife (this is really made for drywall finishing but it worked SO well scraping ceilings in one swoop)
-4” finishing knife (optional but we found that a having a smaller knife was helpful in small spaces)
-tray/old cookie sheet a few inches wider than the finishing knife - we used a plastic bin and later, an old lunch tray
-step ladder* – we have the previous model of this one and like that it has a work platform…it comes in handy
-plastic sheeting - this was the cheapest we could find and it worked great!
-large dust pan with rubber edge
-paper towels

Note:  We also bought two of these scrapers* made specifically for removing popcorn ceilings but didn’t like them at all.  The knife edge on them is thicker than that of the finishing knife we used and might be why they just didn’t scrape as cleanly.  They’re such a great idea with the attached bag and extension option but we were really disappointed in how they functioned (or rather, didn’t).  However, my sis and bro-in-law used this scraper to scrape their garage ceilings and it worked well for them.  Maybe it was user error?

The Process:

Step 1:  Remove vent covers in the room(s) you'll be working in.  You can also remove light fixtures, especially if they're going to be replaced anyway.  Both of these are optional but we didn't remove vent covers and then had to go back and scrape under them (we ended up painting them white too) so I'd encourage it.  We didn't remove any light fixtures because, for now, they're all staying but as we renovate and switch out lights, we'll have some popcorn removing underneath to do.  No big deal really.  (Note:  If you remove light fixtures, make sure you cover up the wires so that they don't get sprayed with water during Step 2.)

Step 2:  Cover the floor under the area you’ll be working with plastic.  You can tape the plastic down along your base boards if you have wood floors or don’t want water dripping down the walls onto the floor.  It takes a good amount of time to tape so to cut that out, you could also just grab a towel and wipe up any water off the floor once you’re done scraping a section.  We have carpet, tile, and linoleum on our floors so we did not tape our plastic down.  Also, the more you get into a groove, the cleaner your plastic will stay and you'll be able to reuse going from room to room.

Step 3:  Spray a section of ceiling with water from the pump sprayer (make sure you have the flat spray going).  When I was working myself, I started with a 3 x 3 foot area.  When I had my rhythm, I sprayed larger areas.  When Anthony and I were working together, we could do 8 x 8 areas or larger.  We sprayed our ceilings until they started dripping water.  Ours turned darker once wet so we could tell what was wet and what still needed to be sprayed.  Once sprayed, let the water soak into the texture for 5-10 minutes.  Five minutes was plenty for us but our texture wasn’t as thick as some I’ve seen.  You can always respray and wait longer if you need to.

Step 4:  After you've waiting that 5-10 minutes and are ready to scrape, quick spray the next section.  This cuts out all of that waiting time.  You can spray, wait, scrape, spray, wait, scrape… or you can spray, wait, spray, scrape, spray, scrape, spray…  Basically, while you’re scraping the section that’s been soaking, the next section is starting to soak so that, once you’re done scraping, you’re ready to scrape again.  (Though, once you get the hang of it, you’ll be scraping faster than the next texture can soak so you’ll end up waiting a little but it won’t be nearly as long as if you don’t spray until after scraping, which literally can add an hour or more to the whole process in one room.)

Step 5:  Grab the finishing knife and scrape the popcorn off while holding the tray underneath the scraper with the other hand to catch everything.

Empty the tray regularly to save your arm because wet popcorn texture is HEAVY.  Along with that, empty the trash can you’re dumping the tray into fairly regularly because, if you don’t, it will feel like you’re carrying ten bags of concrete out to the dumpster.

If you’re scraping around the edge of a room without crown molding, ditch the tray for the rubber-ended dust pan just around the room edges.  Hold the dustpan up to the edge of the ceiling and scrape along the wall.  Don’t scrape to the wall though.  You’ll probably end up catching the drywall tape and you don’t want to disturb that because then you’ll have to fix it after.  So, ALONG the wall, not towards the wall.  Make sense?  Also, we found that the shorter finishing knife was best in this situation.

Note:  We settled on the dustpan option after a few other ideas.  We thought about just taping up plastic sheeting but, in doing our entire house, we would’ve went through LOADS of plastic and I didn’t like the idea of tossing all of that plastic…or buying it all for that matter.   One thing we did early on was use cling wrap around the entire top edge of the room.  In my head, I thought it would cling to the walls on its own (which it did pretty well) but it needed to be taped up to really stay.  Whether you find the dustpan or taping up something to be the most efficient, just make sure you use something to keep the popcorn from dripping down the walls.  I didn’t in our master bathroom (the first ceiling without crown molding to get scraped) and I literally spent two hours cleaning the walls.  Once scraped popcorn falls and dries, it is a BEACH to clean up.  You’ll have to wipe, and wipe, and wipe, and wipe and then maybe, just maybe you won’t see swirls of dust.  ANYWAY, with the cling wrap along the top of the walls, you can hold the catch-all tray under the bottom edge of it while scraping to catch anything that falls.

  Another idea I had that we didn’t end up utilizing was tin foil.  If you tape tin foil around the top of a room, you can fold up the bottom quarter to create a sort of pocket that will catch everything that falls from the edges.  This option (and even the cling wrap) can get pricey though but after cleaning that master bathroom, I was pretty much resigned to spend $100 on tin foil or cling wrap just to not have go through that again.  As far as efficiency and ease go though, using a dustpan is the way to go.

If you have popcorn ceilings with crown molding, congratulations, you’ve won the jackpot!  These are BY FAR, the easiest texture to remove.  Why?  Because the crown molding covers up the taped edges of the ceilings so you don’t have to worry about being gentle around the edges of the room to protect that and they provide an edge under which you can hold you tray to catch everything.

However, if your crown molding was painted or silicone was applied after the popcorn ceiling was sprayed on and paint/silicone got onto the popcorn, it might stick to the ceiling and not come off.  This is what happened in our master bedroom.  In this case, I had to go along the edge of the crown with a razor blade to cut off the silicone + paint.  Then I had to do one more quick scrape around the edge of the room to get off any residue.

It worked great but it was an couple of steps I wasn't too enthused about.

Step 6:  Clean up anything you accidentally spilled and wipe up excess water on your crown molding and walls.  It’s not the best for your plumbing to have popcorn texture rinsed off a cleaning cloth though (think clog-waiting-to-happen) so your best bet is to clean up with paper towels that can just be tossed into the trash or rinse your rag outside with a hose.

Step 7:  Lay on the floor and admire those ceilings (and those new biceps).  I didn’t know at the start if this project would be something I’d say “never again” to after we were done, but honestly, even with the amount of work, I’d totally do this again.  These smooth beauties (once painted, of course) are worth every second of scraping.

So that’s great and all, but what if my popcorn ceilings were painted?

If your popcorn ceilings have been painted, take a moment to whine a little.  And then take a deep breath and cross your fingers because all hope is not lost.  I mentioned this above, but the ceiling in our kids’ bathroom was painted..and the popcorn wasn’t going anywhere.  It was a huge let-down.  (And to add insult to injury, we didn't realize it wouldn't budge until we had the entire top edge of the room taped off with cling wrap...)  My guess is that they were painted with an oil-based paint which was probably not the case in our living room where the ceilings were painted but the popcorn still came down.  Albeit it came off in sheets and needed a second spray and pass in some areas but, it came off.

The only way you’ll know if your painted popcorn will come off is to test a small area.  I’m also going to go out on a limb here and guess that most painted popcorn ceilings are just painted with regular latex ceiling paint and will probably come off.  If not, love them as-is or cover them up.  

Additional Tips
-Scraping away popcorn ceilings is a learning process…the more you scrape, the closer you’ll come to finding a groove.  I moved at a tortoise’s pace while scraping our first room but a few rooms later, I was closer to that hare.   

-You won’t get every single thing off the first time you scrape…well, you might.  But we certainly didn’t.  We scraped as best we could but were still surprised to find a few small spots we missed once everything was dry.  No worries though.  You can always go back over later with a spray bottle and scrape those few spots or catch them in the sanding phase – the next step in finishing ceilings.

-Staring at an entire ceiling of popcorn (or an entire house!) and willing them to be smooth is a daunting thought!  You might wonder what the heck you were thinking right after that first scrape.  But, once you perservere and find that groove, you won’t look back.  :D

-We were lucky that we could tackle this big project before we moved in.  It allowed us to get all of the ceilings done in one, foul swoop.  If you don’t have that luxury (which I can’t imagine we ever will again), it’s still somethat that’s doable while you’re living in a house.  You just have to work room-by-room.  Move out everything big, scrape, and paint.

I hope this is helpful for those of you who long for those smooth ceilings like we did!  It was easier than I thought it would be, not to say it was necessarily a breeze, but I expected a more arduous process.  It’s something that could definitely be done in a weekend if you worked for a few solid afternoons.  Even with the elbow grease, I know it’s something we won’t regret doing. 

SO, now that you know how to scrape the texture off the ceilings, read this post on how to continue and finish those smooth ceilings.

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  1. Love you Sheena.

  2. Thank you for this! I have popcorn ceilings throughout our home, some painted, some not. We also have vaulted in livingroom, n 25' ceilings in our foyer to contend with. I'm excited n nervous to start. First things first, asbestos testing...

    1. Ooh! Fun! ;) If it helps, we had vaulted ceilings in our old house and thought many times about removing the popcorn from them but we just didn't have the time or energy with little kids running around. Looking back, now that we've went through the whole process, I wish we would have! It wasn't as bad as I thought and yes, the height adds a little bit more of a challenge but the end result is so worth it! Good luck!!

  3. I've successfully removed painted popcorn ceiling by adding white vinegar to the water in my 2 gallon sprayer. There's a very short video on YT explaining the process. Also, there's a technique on applying the joint compound (mud) by rolling it on the ceiling with a paint roll, and smoothing it with a long mud knife/squeege; this accelerates the process of patching off ceilings after the popcorn removal. Check it out, and good luck y'all!

  4. Just scraped my newly painted living room and had a mini heart attack when I saw the swirls of dust on the wall I had just wiped down. This post gives me hope they aren’t ruined!

    1. Haha! Definitely not ruined, thank goodness. Just a little more wiping down will do the trick. Consider it a good arm workout. ;)