How to Remove Distemper: Step by Step Guide

​Whether you are living in an older home and looking to repaint and redecorate your walls, or if you are renovating other old homes, there is a strong likelihood you will come across distemper. Distemper is a traditional paint that is often no longer used in modern homes but was used as far back as ancient Egypt.

Distemper uses an adhesive, or glue, base to attach the upper layer to the wall. The top layer, or the “whiting”, is made of powdered chalk, lime, or the highly toxic white lead, and the glue is made from either animal products such as rabbit skin.

Historically, this was used due to its ability to shrink down while drying, which would cause all the cracks and holes to be filled while leaving a smooth finish. However, because it is easily marred and discolored, it is typically used in interior painting, instead of being used outdoors.

Do You Have Distemper On Your Walls?

If you aren't sure if you own or have inherited a house with distemper, it can be easy to identify. Your walls will be soft and almost dusty when you touch it, and a chalky substance will come off and stick to your fingers.

While it has been used for several millennia, distemper has fallen out of fashion in modern times because of the problems that it creates that do not exist with modern paint. Touch and grime leaves behind permanent stains and nothing will stick to the surface, so you can kiss your redecorating plans goodbye.

remove distemper 01 - How to Remove Distemper: Step by Step Guide

Photo by Devanath

However, due to its adhesive nature, it can be difficult to remove, a process that feels almost impossible without the correct formula and procedure. The best way to learn how to remove distemper is by following our specific and detailed guidelines.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

When completing any project that includes mixing solutions and the difficulty of moving your furniture just so you can access your walls, it is always best to gather all your materials beforehand. This way, you don't have to stop what you are doing to run out to the store (or several stores) to find a key ingredient that you might be missing.

Be sure to gather the following materials together before you begin.

  • Caustic Soda, otherwise known as lye, which is a solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH) combined with water. This product can be found at online chemical supply stores, or candle and soap making stores.
  • Cellulose wallpaper paste powder, which can be made into a paste that functions as an adhesive that is commonly used to apply wallpaper in modern homes.
  • Glass mixing bowl, which must hold at least a quart, but you might find it ideal to find a bowl that can hold even more.
  • Plastic mixing bowl, which should have a capacity of no less than a gallon.
  • White, distilled vinegar, like can be found here, but any brand will do.
  • Cotton rags that you are willing to throw out once you are finished, as they will likely smell like vinegar afterwards.
  • ​A paint brush that is at least 4 inches wide and with thick bristles.
  • Thick, textured towel – in this case, the more textured you can find, the better experience you will have.
  • Sandpaper and holder to be used on the wall.
  • Large wooden spoon for mixing.
  • Cleaning gloves that are watertight.

Step 2: Do a Sandpaper Scrub

Once your ingredients have been gathered, begin the process of how to remove distemper by taking your sandpaper to the interior walls. If any furniture can be found pushed up or near the wall, now is the time to move these items far enough away that you have clear, unfettered access to every portion of the wall that you will need.

During sanding, focus on corrosion and uneven parts that you can spot and sand away until smooth. There is no need to sand down portions of the wall that already appears smooth and even.

Step 3: Make a Caustic Soda Paste

Take out your glass bowl, caustic soda, wooden spoon, and cellulose wallpaper paste. If you have not already combined the cellulose wallpaper paper paste powder into a paste using the directions on the label, do so immediately.

  1. Put caustic soda into the glass bowl. You don't need too much; only 1 teaspoon of caustic soda will be enough for your purposes.
  2. Add 1 pint of hot, almost boiling water, and mix with the wooden spoon. It is very important to use a wooden spoon in this case, because of the corrosive nature of the caustic soda.
  3. Add in the cellulose wallpaper paste gradually, stirring with the wooden spoon as you go.
  4. Once the paste has the consistency of a thick gel, it is ready to be used.

If you prefer not to make your own solution, you can purchase a paint solvent remover from a paint or hardware store for a similar effect.

Safety Hazard

Please note that these chemicals can be harmful, and it very important to protect your exposed body parts. To be safe, follow these safety precautions:

  • Wear long sleeves, long pants, and ensure your torso is fully covered.
  • Put on closed-toed shoes.
  • ​Protect your eyes by wearing goggles or other eye protection.
  • Find some protective gloves for your hands.

Step 4: Apply Paste

For the next step in the quest to learn how to remove distemper, you will need the caustic soda paste you made in Step 3 and a paint brush.

remove distemper 02 - How to Remove Distemper: Step by Step Guide

Photo by evondue

Dip your brush into the paste and apply liberally to a small section of the wall, about one or two square feet at a time. It is very important that you apply the paste to small sections alone, and do not immediately apply to the entire wall at once.

Now, wait for 3 to 4 minutes to allow the gel paste to absorb into the wall.

Step 5: Wipe the Wall Surface Clean

Once four minutes has passed, take your thick, textured towel and wipe away the paste. Use strong strokes and wipe away as much as you can from the coated section, and this is where you will find that a more textured towel can be far more efficient than a cloth or rag.

At this point, you should be able to see that the distemper is being removed completely from your wall. If necessary, you might wish to rinse your towel after each section, to keep it from getting clumped with gel and losing the advantage of texture.

Step 6: Repeat the Process for the Entire Wall

Now that you have your first section of wall with removed distemper, you can continue on until the entire affected area is cleaned of the old-fashioned paint.

Repeat steps 4 and 5 in the same two or three square foot spaces on your wall until the entire area is completed.​

Step 7: Make Vinegar Solution

While it might look like you are done with cleaning your wall, there is one more step that is essential to making sure your walls are safe and ready to take on whatever their future holds. Before we can continue, however, we need to prepare the vinegar solution that will be used.

In a plastic bowl, combine the following ingredients:

  • Add 1 quart of white, distilled vinegar.
  • Add 1 quart of warm water.
  • Stir with a spoon.

At this point, you can make as much or as little of the vinegar solution as you desire, as long as the proportion is always fifty-fifty, with half of the mixture being vinegar and the other half water.

Step 8: Apply Vinegar Solution

It is time to put your cleaning gloves back on, to protect your hands. However, if you don't mind your hands smelling of vinegar for a long time after you are finished with the project, this step is optional.

Bring your vinegar solution and your cotton rags to the affected wall, and then use the cotton rags to apply the solution to the entire area.

This step is essential to ensuring your wall does not have residual alkaline from the distemper paint, which will affect how well you can apply paint or wallpaper to your wall in the future.

Step 9: Continue Home Renovation

Your wall is fully cleaned and ready to be used. At this point, you can begin whatever process you wish to apply to your newly distemper-free wall, such as painting with modern paint or applying stylish wallpaper.

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Bring Your Home into the Modern Age

While there are several sources that suggest it is far easier to leave a wall alone that is covered in distemper, the drawbacks are numerous enough that most homeowners find they prefer to get rid of the distemper entirely and cover their home's interior walls with an alternative surfacing.

Distemper can quickly give a room a poor and inexpensive look, despite how much and classy the home and furniture might be around it. With something as simple as touching it with the oils on your fingers or not dusting your house consistently, it can take on discoloration and eventual corrosion that is impossible to remove without removing the distemper entirely.

In addition, homes that keep distemper walls will find that the process of properly maintaining a wall covered in distemper is strenuous and time-consuming. Just cleaning a distemper painting wall alone can cost money in necessary products and hours in time every month – or more, depending on how dusty your home climate may be.

Instead of keeping up a high level of maintenance for a minimally expensive look of a distemper wall, you can follow our simple nine steps to remove it entirely in favor of a different surface that is easier to maintain.

Complete the process of how to remove distemper by sanding off any corrosion, making and then apply the caustic soda gel solution, and wiping off the distemper in small sections. Once you have applied the final vinegar solution to remove any residual alkaline left behind by the chalk and adhesive, you are set for the future with a distemper-free home.

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