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Be wary if replacing popcorn ceilings

Gene Austin McClatchy-Tribune

Q. I bought a house that is 100-plus years old and am trying to figure out what to do about a popcorn ceiling in the bathroom. Should I remove it, replace it or what?

A. Just one of the problems with old popcorn ceilings is that they might contain asbestos. If the popcorn, or rough-textured material, was installed prior to about 1978 there is a good chance it does.

Before considering removal – a very messy, laborious process at best – you should test for asbestos. Do-it-yourself test kits are available at some home centers or online at A kit costs about $30 and includes a lab test of your sample.

For more general information on dealing with asbestos, which can be a health hazard if particles get into the air and are inhaled, visit

If the popcorn does contain asbestos and you want it removed, the work should be done by experts. There is information on this at the EPA asbestos site.

If the popcorn does not contain asbestos and you want to remove it yourself, cover everything underneath it to collect the mess that will fall. Spray a small section at a time with warm water containing a little detergent, let it soak until the popcorn softens, then scrape it off with a wide drywall scraper.

Possibly the most practical thing you could do with the ceiling is to leave the popcorn in place and have it covered with drywall. This encapsulates the popcorn and gives you a clean new ceiling that you can paint or wallpaper.

If the popcorn is in good condition and is simply dirty, you might want to consider painting it.

It is difficult to paint popcorn with latex paint because the water-based paint can loosen some of the popcorn. Readers have told me that they successfully painted the stuff by first carefully applying an oil-based primer. Once the primer is dry, latex paint can be applied with light passes of a paint roller.

Q. One edge of the drywall tape has come loose in a corner of a room I want to repaint. How should I treat it before painting?

A. If the tape’s edge is stiff and curled out, try to shave it flat with a razor blade. If it is flexible and will lie flat, just work over it.

Apply a coat of drywall joint compound to the tape, working a little under the loose edge, then smooth the compound carefully. When the compound dries, sand it flat and smooth. The edge of the tape should no longer be visible; if it is, apply another coat of compound, let dry and smooth.

Apply a primer to the patched area or, for best results, prime the entire patched wall. When the primer is dry, you can repaint.

Q. I am refinishing some old furniture. When I strip the old finish from a piece, some of the wood is lighter in tone than other wood. How can I get an even appearance when I re-stain?

A. It is very difficult to get an even tone on different colors or types of wood with pigmented oil stain, which is what most do-it-yourself refinishers use. It would take a lot of experimentation on wood samples.

For example, use multiple coats on lighter wood to match one coat on a dark wood. Or wipe off the stain from dark wood quickly while leaving it penetrate longer on pale wood. You could also experiment with wood dye, which gives a more even coat than pigmented stain.

You might also get more uniform results by using a gel stain instead of liquid stain. And using dark stain tones, such as walnut, should give more even results than pale-toned stains.

Questions and comments should be e-mailed to Gene Austin at Send regular mail to 1730 Blue Bell Pike, Blue Bell, PA 19422.
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