“Popcorn” ceilings, the result of a decorative spray-on treatment developed in the late 1950’s, are not held in particularly high esteem these days.

However, these distinctive textured ceilings, also known as “cottage cheese” and “stucco” ceilings, were once considered extremely chic.In the 1960’s through the 1980’s,they were the “gotta-have-it” design element; the absolute last word in faux finishes. Easy to apply, noise reductive, and capable of hiding unevenness and design flaws,“popcorn” ceilings enjoyed undisputed popularity for many years.

Fast-forward to 2014, when popcorn ceilings are viewed with same the enthusiasm homeowners and homebuyers might extend towards an infestation of bedbugs. The presence of a popcorn ceiling can instantly “date” a house, thislowering the resale value. In addition, their crevices and pebbly surfaces work like magnets to attract dust and household dirt; adding insult to injury, they are notoriously difficult to clean.

The result: once-sparkling-white surfaces that are now stained, unattractive and unfashionable.

The takeaway: it’s probably time to say goodbye to your popcorn ceiling.

Removing a Possible Health Threat

Another, even more serious consideration is the fact that popcorn ceilings applied before 1978 may contain asbestos.Exposure to the needle-like fibers, which can be released into the air, can raise therisk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. Because a loophole in the law allowed the use of the material in pre-existing inventory, popcorn ceilings applied well into the 1980’s could theoretically contain asbestos,as well. The only way to be sure if your older popcorn ceiling contains asbestos is to have samples tested.

Bring On The Experts

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Bring On The Experts

Laboratories specializing in asbestos consulting and testing can be found in the phone book and online. Although some will make “house calls,” most require that you send them samples. To obtain a sample, don rubber gloves and use a garden mister to thoroughly wet a small patch of the ceiling. After letting the moisture soak in, use a putty knife to pry loose a small chunk of material – a square- inch piece should be sufficient – and drop it into a sealable plastic bag. Experts advise submitting more than one sample, selected at random from various sections of the ceiling. You should gather three samples from a 1,000-square foot ceiling, five samples from a ceilingthat is between 1,000 and 5,000 square feet, and seven samples from ceilings over 5,000 square feet.

Send in The Troops

If your popcorn ceiling is found to contain asbestos, removal by a certified asbestos-abatement company is your best bet. Although experts report that asbestos is only a threat when the ceiling’s structure is disturbedand fibers are released, most homeowners opt for removal once asbestos is discovered.

There are compelling reasons to leave this work to the experts. Although it is not illegal for homeowners to remove asbestos-containing ceilings themselves, the task is time-consuming, almost mind-bogglingly complicated, and potentially dangerous to you and your household. In addition to obtaining and wearing disposable rubber coveralls, gloves, goggles and boots, you must also wear a half-face, dual cartridge respirator with HEPA filters. You will need to follow specific procedures, including creating a containment area with secure entry and exit points and posting an official asbestos removal notification. Removing the ceiling yourself also means taking on the legal liability of bagging the debris, transporting it, and disposing of it at an authorizedsite.

It is far wiser to leave asbestos-containing ceiling removal to qualified professionals, who have the specialized equipment, materials and expertise to perform the job safely.


Or… Roll Up Your Sleeves

If your popcorn ceiling is free of asbestos, removal ismuch simpler matter, and you can take a more relaxed approach. However, the process can still be time-consuming and physically taxing, and only energetic and agile DIYers should take it on. The task involves balancing on ladders while working with your arms upraised; meanwhile, gravity compels the crumbling materials to fall down into your face and hair. If you are going to remove your own popcorn ceiling, masks and non-fogging goggles are a must.

The procedure – similar to that of obtaining a sample – is fairly simple. Protect floors and walls with waterproof dropcloths and plastic sheeting, then shut off the electricity to the ceiling light fixtures at the breaker, remove them, and seal all exposed wire with electrical tape.

Use a gardener’s hand sprayer to wet the ceiling, working in 3’ by 3’ sections and spraying enough water to moisten the material well. Be careful, though, not to overspray; drenching the ceiling can damage the underlying drywall.

Let the ceiling soften for 10 to 15 minutes, then use a drywall finishing knife or a putty knife to scrape the old “popcorn” away. The moist material should peel off fairly easily, though the process can be messy. Using a ceiling texture scraper with an attached refuse bag can save a lot of stooping and sweeping at cleanup time.
After the popcorn is removed, you can smooth out the drywall with a layer of joint compound. Let it dry well, then sand to a satiny finish with fine-grit paper.

Then, take a moment to savor your achievement. Your hard work has paid off –instead of stained, ugly, outdated popcorn on the ceiling, you now have a clean, flat canvas overhead, ready to be primed and painted in a fresh, modern shade taken from today’s designer palette.

You have effectively just brought your ceiling from the 1980’s into the 21st century.

About the Author

Molly Hilton is the owner of Renaissance Painters in Toronto and has devoted more than 30 years to home renovation, painting, and custom home building. Her unique design concepts bring homes to life with colours and unique pieces that are artfully placed to draw attention to the most powerful and distinctive features of a home.