Wallpapering over old wall décor - can it be done?

Who doesn't like a change of scenery? But anyone who has ever attempted to achieve this by redecorating will know just how much time, effort and stress the removal of the old wallpaper can involve. You need the patience of a saint to scrape off bit after tiny bit, and the walls seem to be endless spaces. Often there is more than one layer of wallpaper to deal with, some of them may have been painted over repeatedly.

No wonder many people ask themselves the following question: Can I wallpaper over existing layers? Alas, even though it is possible in some cases, most experts will discourage this approach.

This guide will explain why old wallpaper should first be removed before the new one is put up, and how to make this process as easy as possible. So-called lining (maculature) paper is designed to be wallpapered on. We discuss what this is all about and why paper-based wallpapers or newspapers were often used as lining paper. We will also look into the future and consider how wallpaper can be stripped without problems when the time comes to redecorate again.

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Why generations before us often stuck one wallpaper on top of another

"Everything used to be different in the past", as the saying goes - and one example is that the choice of wallpapers was much more limited compared to today. Smooth paper-based wall décor without patterns was the favourite in 1950s middle class households. In the 60s and 70s, structured, embossed and vinyl wallpapers found their way into fashionable homes. It's no big surprise that one will predominantly find those types of wallpaper in old buildings, and often in more than one layer.

As a result of technical progress, building standards and requirements have changed significantly. Today the walls in new builds are generally flawless, with smooth rendering or dry walling.

In the past, most residential buildings were built brick-by-brick as solid constructions, usually by the builder-owner himself to save money. This wasn't always a recipe for 100% success. In addition, the construction materials for plastering weren't anywhere near as advanced as they are today. To balance out any unevenness or discolouration in the plaster, many people chose to use newspapers as "lining paper" in order to create the best possible surface for the decorative wallpaper.

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Later on, this process was replaced by wallpapers with an additional paper layer. These types of wallpaper can be removed in a dry state, as the decorative layer splits from the bottom one, leaving behind just the paper layer. Theoretically, this can then act as the lining for the next wallpaper, just as long as it is not damaged and isn't peeling off the wall anywhere. However, as a general rule it is usually recommended to remove this layer too, if nothing else then for reasons of hygiene alone.

Off with the old wallpaper - there are some good reasons for it!

In order to achieve the best possible results and a smooth, even appearance, the following rule of thumb should be applied: The wall surface needs to be dry, clean, neutral in colour, smooth, even, stable, absorbent and adhesive. An old wallpaper does not provide ideal conditions, for a variety of reasons:

  • Even if they were cleaned regularly, old wallpapers will have collected huge amounts of dirt particles over the years, so dark spots, discolourations and dust and dirt deposits are inevitable.
  • An untreated surface can hide some nasty surprises. The new wallpaper might initially cover them, but they could potentially turn into big problems long-term, e.g. damp spots, rips and cracks or even mould.
  • With regards to cleanliness and hygiene, this is obviously not an ideal situation. Old wallpapers also tend to smell a bit musty, and some of them can emit toxic substances. The thought of simply wallpapering over them is really rather unpleasant.
  • If the old wallpaper features darker or stronger colours, bright or conspicuous patterns, nicotine stains, discolourations, etc., these can be visible under light-coloured or thin new wallpapers and have a serious impact on the general picture.
  • Coated or sealed wallpapers or those treated with foam or foil do not provide the necessary adherence or stability for new wallpaper to be put on top. The adhesive cannot stick to those surfaces properly as they might not absorb any moisture or wallpaper paste, or they might simply be too uneven. If the old wallpaper has air bubbles, creases or other irregularities, these will also have a negative impact on adherence.
  • When applying wallpapering paste, old paper-based (i.e. absorbent) wall décor can be dissolved in places, and edges, corners or seams can become undone and open up, and in the worst case, the old wallpaper might come off along with the new one! You might joke: "At least that would save scraping it all off!"
  • Gravity determines that glueing heavy wallpapers together can only mean one thing: they will eventually fall off the wall.
  • Structures, embossing, natural or textile materials will be visible through the new wallpaper and affect the look. In theory, a wood chip wallpaper could be hidden behind a thicker structure wallpaper to avoid this effect. However, gravity might come into play and scupper this cunning plan.

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So listen to the experts and put up your new wallpaper on a appropriate surface with all the necessary qualities - which old wallpapers are unlikely to provide. The lining of a peelable wallpaper from many years ago is also no clean or hygienic basis. An issue with dampness might have developed under it years ago, and the true extent will only be revealed by removing the wallpaper. Wallpapering over the old lining layer is possible if it is fully attached to the wall, there are no damaged or loose areas and the surface is clean - which is most likely the case with newer wallpapers.

Generally speaking, however, the age of the wallpaper and the time it has been on the wall plays no significant role. In conclusion: To hang new over old wallpaper is not a wise, let alone professional, approach.

How to remove old wallpapers the easiest way

If you want to do a clean and proper job, you won't have a choice but to strip the old wallpaper first. But fear not, there is no need to despair. First of all, you need to find out what carrier layer the old wallpaper has, as this will inform you how to remove it. The two possible categories are paper and fleece.

Wallpapers with a paper-lining can be removed in a dry state, but there are also models that require dampening/soaking first. For paper-based wallpapers that can be removed in a dry state, the process is easier. The decorated top layer can be pulled off, usually in whole lengths, whilst the paper-layer remains on the wall as lining paper. As this should also be removed, especially when it comes to old wallpapers, the process is the same as for those models that need to be soaked first.

Certain tools can come in hand for wallpapers that need soaking before removal, especially for those with thick or structured surfaces. These are used to score or roughen the surface, thus allowing moisture to be absorbed that will dissolve the adhesive . Wallpapers with a fleece layer can usually be removed dry and in entire lengths/strips. They require the least amount of work.

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A quick "tearing test" will be sufficient to determine which carrier layer you are dealing with. Find a seam to make a tear in the wallpaper, or use a cutter knife to make a cut. Now grab hold of the wallpaper piece and pull it off. If the entire wallpaper piece comes off easily and you can see the wall surface, it is a fleece wallpaper. If only the top layer comes off, making a layer of paper visible, the wallpaper can be removed dry and without soaking it first. If the old wallpaper does not come away from the wall easily, and only in small pieces, you are most likely dealing with a paper-based model.

These tests aren't always entirely obvious, so here's another trick that will give you a clearer result. Thoroughly examine the torn-off piece - if you can see longer fibres around the edges, it's probably fleece; are they short and even, it is paper.

Check out our guide How to strip old wallpaper to find out how to prepare walls for new wall décor professionally, easily and with minimum effort.

Lining paper - wallpaper over it to your heart's delight!

Renovation and redecoration projects often reveal the wall décor mistakes of the past: from thick paint or lacquer coats to stubborn nicotine stains and discolourations all the way down to the plaster, all the way to health-threatening mould which might have been lurking under the wallpaper for years. Not to mention the odd lump or bump due to "cowboy work", and the general wear and tear, including cracks of various sizes. To get these walls back to a workable state takes a lot of elbow grease, but it is an inevitable task if the end result is to be a healthy, comfortable and attractive ambience. However, even the best efforts and thorough treatment will not always eliminate the sins of the past.

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In those cases, applying industry-standard lining paper (from rolls) directly onto the pre-treated "naked surface" can be the best option. The new design or pattern wallpaper can then be put up on top of the lining. Lining paper is available in paper or fleece variations; extremely "tricky" walls may require roll maculature (paper) or renovation fleece.

Our instruction How to prepare the wallpapering surface provides a step-by-step guide that will help you create the perfect surface. It also includes a detailed description of how to choose the right colour for the lining.

Thinking about the future - when the time comes to redecorate

Change makes life interesting - and as a result, we don't necessarily decide to find new wall décor only when the old wallpaper is a bit tired and damaged. Our lifestyle might have changed, or we might just feel like it. Perhaps we got bored of the new pattern or motif sooner than expected, or some water damage or similar makes it necessary to redecorate. This means that the current wallpaper has to be removed. Wallpapers with a fleece carrier are obviously the easiest and cleanest solution.

However, when it comes to selecting the right wall décor, we rarely think of the easiest practical solution. Instead, we base our decision mostly on personal taste, and the preferred design might just be a wallpaper with a paper carrier that needs to be soaked before stripping. In order to save oneself the effort of scraping the wallpaper off bit by bit, it makes sense to pre-line with roll maculature. It consists of two paper layers. If, at some point in the future, the design wallpaper needs to be removed, it can be pulled off the wall in a dry state, together with the top layer of the roll maculature, leaving behind the bottom layer. With any luck, this can be used as lining for the new wallpaper without any further efforts.