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3 Easy Methods to Remove Popcorn Ceiling

Consider these tips when deciding between scraping, covering, or skimming to remove your dated popcorn ceiling.

Popcorn Ceiling iStock

Very few things date a space like a popcorn ceiling—and not in a charming way. They're difficult to repair, hard to clean, and catch dust easily; but despite all these cons, their popularity exploded beginning in the late 1950s because they made easy work of finishing ceilings and hiding imperfections.

If it's time to redo a popcorn ceiling, there are three popular ways to take on the challenge: scrape, cover with a new layer of drywall, or skim coat with plaster to create a new textured ceiling.

How Much Does it Cost to Remove Popcorn Ceiling?

The national average for popcorn ceiling removal is $1,707, according to Home Advisor.

Removing popcorn ceiling can be a labor-intensive process that is best left to a licensed professional to ensure safe removal. In some cases, there may be asbestos present in the ceiling, so it’s always a good idea to consult with a pro before starting the project.

What is the Best Method for Removing Popcorn Ceilings?

Which is best? Depends on a lot of things, including the age and condition of the substrate (ceiling). We spoke with drywall and stucco expert Mike Poellinger, owner of Poellinger, Inc., in La Crosse, WI, who filled us in on everything a homeowner should know before deciding how to remove their popcorn ceiling. With his help, we break down the three methods to redoing popcorn ceilings below.

How to Scrape a Popcorn Ceiling

When scraping popcorn ceilings, you'll want to use a 4-inch utility knife or a drywall knife to chip away at the texture and create a smooth surface. You'll probably need to skim it with a thin layer of joint compound to smooth out imperfections, then sand it smooth before repainting.

Why do it?

This is by far the most common method of popcorn ceiling removal. Scraping your ceiling is a messy and slow process, but it's the most cost-effective and can be completed by one person. However, popcorn finishes and paint applied before 1979 often contained asbestos and lead, respectively, which could be toxic if sent airborne. If you live in an older home, purchase a home test for lead paint, and consult with an expert about testing for asbestos. If it tests positive, do not scrape it.

If your ceilings are not at risk for asbestos or lead paint, but they have been painted, it may be near impossible to scrape them, since the porous popcorn material will have soaked it up. Drywalling over them may be a better option.

Pro tip: Don’t spray your ceiling with water before you scrape

A lot of people spray their ceilings with water before scraping to loosen them up, but Poellinger doesn't recommend it. "Not only will it be a sloppy mess, but it will absorb into the ceiling and make it heavy; then it could start to expand and crack. It's more time-consuming, but it's best to scrape it dry."

How to Cover up with Drywall

Affix ceiling-grade gypsum board, which weighs significantly less than standard wall board, right over the existing popcorn ceiling. You'll need to securely screw it into the framing and be proficient at mudding and taping for a seamless job.

Why do it?

This is a better option than scraping if you have lead paint or asbestos, because you can encapsulate the harmful substance instead of sending it airborne. Plus, you'll get the smoothest possible finish, if you mud and tape properly. Alternatively, a team of pros will be able to complete the job in no time. Finally, if the ceiling has damage or if you already need to cut into it to reroute electrical or HVAC, you can make large cuts into the existing substrate without worrying about patching, since they'll soon be covered up anyway.

This method will come at a price—a 4-by-8-foot sheet of ceiling-grade gypsum board costs $9 apiece. It may also be difficult to maneuver the boards single handedly if you're DIYing it. And if you have crown molding, you'll likely have to remove it and replace it.

Pro tip: For a DIY removal project rent a drywall lift

Rent a drywall lift if you're DIY’ing it. It might cost about $40 per day (The Home Depot; location pricing varies), but it's safer and allows you to get a better handle on the material.

Skim Coat on a New Design

Yes, it's still a texture, but according to Poellinger, it's making a comeback—and it's fairly easy for homeowners to do themselves. Often found in older homes—pre-popcorn-era—this type of textured ceiling involves cleaning and prepping the existing substrate with quick-set drywall mud, applying a bonding agent like joint compound, and then applying a finish compound with a trowel or knife to create a new texture.

Why do it?

Many old-house owners want to recapture the history of the home, and a smooth ceiling won't fit the bill.

The most important consideration is to make sure the substrate is structurally secure, since adding a wet product could create more weight than the ceiling can handle and cause it to come down. You might need to consult with a contractor before getting started.

Pro tip: Don’t use ready-mixed material as your base

If you opt to skim coat, use a quick-set drywall mud, then touch it up with a ready-mixed joint compound. Don't use a ready-mixed material as your base, as it has a higher moisture content and contains silica, which is prone to causing some shrinkage, affecting your final look.

Do Popcorn Ceilings Have Asbestos?

If your home was built between the 1950s and 1980s, there is a chance that the popcorn ceilings contain asbestos, according to the Mesothelioma Center. The best way to determine if your popcorn ceilings contain asbestos is to hire an abatement professional, or you can purchase a test kit.

If you discover that your popcorn ceilings contain asbestos, don’t panic—and don’t try to remove it yourself. Removing it will cause the particles to escape into the air, making it easy for you and your family to breathe in the carcinogens. Leaving the ceiling intact poses no dangers.

If the ceilings must go, then it’s a good idea to call a professional abatement company to do the job.