How to Remove Popcorn and Stucco Finishes From Walls and Ceilings

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How to cover or remove stucco and popcorn ceilings to produce a smooth paintable surface.

During the middle part of the previous century, stucco and popcorn textures were used on walls and ceilings for interior design considerations, sound proofing, or to cover imperfections in the original plaster or drywall workmanship. In most cases the reason was to apply a quick finish to a drywalled ceiling without having to spackle and sand the surface to achieve a smooth finish. This occurred in the homes built in the post-World War II era when houses had to be built quickly and inexpensively.

Today the finishes are still applied for aesthetics, but many people choose to remove the finish when moving into a home that has stucco or popcorn finishes on the ceilings or walls.

Caution: Many stucco and popcorn ceiling products, used prior to the mid 1960s used asbestos as one of the ingredients. You may want to have the material tested by a certified testing laboratory before you begin any removal or renovation project. The removal and disposal of any asbestos must be handled by professionals.


There are several finish patterns that were used on ceilings and walls with the ubiquitous "Popcorn Ceiling" being the most popular. Popcorn ceilings are basically a thickened paint with small foam, paper, or asbestos pellets incorporated into the mixture and sprayed onto the ceiling. Other styles of stucco are orange peel, mud swirl, sand swirl, and skip trowel designs. Most stucco finishes are made from applies plaster or spackle over the ceiling or wall surfaces.


Orange Peel

Mud Swirl

Sand Swirl

Skip Trowel

Removal of Popcorn Ceilings

Removing a popcorn ceiling is slightly different than covering or removing a stucco ceiling. Since the popcorn finish was sprayed onto the plaster or drywall, this layer can be removed fairly easily.

Assuming that you have had the ceiling material tested and it is free of asbestos, the popcorn can be moistened with water using a pump sprayer or small spray bottle. Once the water has had a chance to soak into the popcorn layer it can be scraped off of the ceiling using a scraper or spackle knife.

Since you will be generating quite a bit of wet, falling debris, it is best to remove all furniture from the room and cover the floors with plastic sheeting. The particles are also abrasive so don’t wipe the material off any finished surface. Use a shop vacuum to pick up any debris that may land on floors or furniture. Wear safety goggles.

1. Remove any wall or ceiling light fixtures from the room. Use temporary lighting plugged into wall receptacles for work lights.

2. Using a spray bottle filled with warm water, dampen a section of the ceiling.

3. To make a starting point, hold the edge of the blade almost perpendicular to the ceiling and scrape away the popcorn finish. Once you have exposed the flat ceiling, continue removing the finish as described below.

4. Place the scraper or spackle knife at a shallow angle (Less than 30 degrees) to the ceiling in the area where the moisture has been applied. Push the scraper or drywall knife forward and it should remove the popcorn and leave a smooth finish. You knuckles will probably be touching the ceiling at this angle so you should also wear gloves.

5. Inspect the ceiling and fill any gouged areas with spackle. You may want to lightly sand the entire ceiling with a pole sander after the ceiling is dry. Apply very light pressure as you can sand away the paper layer.

6. Paint ceiling using a quality primer and finished coat of paint. Follow the paint manufacturer's instructions.

Stucco Ceilings and Walls

Stucco finishes are thin layers of plaster or spackle that is applied with a trowel and then, while still wet, is textured using a brush, trowel, texturing tool, sponge or rag.

There are 3 ways to remove or cover a stucco finish.


You can try to use the technique for removing stucco as described for the removal of popcorn ceilings. Unfortunately since the stucco is much harder you may not be able to scrape off the stucco ceiling the same way. You will also need much more water to allow it to penetrate the stucco which can be over ¼ inch thick.

Apply Another Coat of Spackle

Applying an additional coat of spackle over the stucco is probably the easiest and most effective way to deal stucco finishes and return your wall or ceiling to a flat surface. Coating the ceiling or wall requires some finesse and experience, and most do it yourselfers may not be able to accomplish this. Then entire surface will also need to be sanded, which creates spackle dust that gets everywhere. If you go this route you may want to rent or buy a spackle sanding attachment for your shop vac.

Vacuum Sanding Attachment

Apply a Layer of Drywall

You may choose to cover the existing stucco with a layer of 1/4 inch drywall. You will need to measure the walls or ceiling to determine the quantity of drywall required. For walls you should try to buy sheets that are at least as long as the wall is high and stand them up to limit cutting. Consult with your local building and inspections department to determine if a permit is required for this work.

For ceilings:

Turn off the power to the ceiling light fixtures.

Remove all furniture, light fixtures, and cover the floor.

Remove window blinds, curtains, and hardware.

Locate the ceiling joists and place masking tape on the walls and mark their location with a pencil on the tape. Use 2 inch screws where fastening the new drywall.

For walls:

Remove receptacle and switch plate covers.

Shut off power to the room.

Remove window blinds, curtains, and hardware.

Remove door and window trim.

Locate the wall studs and place masking tape on the floor and ceiling and mark their location with a pencil on the tape. Use 2 inch screws where fastening the new drywall.

For either surface:

Inspect the surface and remove any abnormally high areas with a sander, grinder, or scraper.

Hang the drywall and apply spackle, tape and sand smooth.

Paint the room using a quality primer and finished coat of paint. Follow the paint manufacturer's instructions.

For walls: Replace door and window trim with the addition of a filler strip between the jambs and the casing.

For walls: You will need to loosen and remount the receptacles and switches so they are flush with the new layer of drywall. You should not require any electrical box extensions for this work.

Re-install the light fixtures and window accessories as required.


Marcus Bokowski
Posted on Mar 21, 2016
Jerry Walch
Posted on Jan 26, 2011