How to Finally Get Rid of Those Wood Panels (or at Least Cover Them Up)

Each decade has a “look”. You can turn on any random movie or TV show and instantly know what era the story takes place in based solely on the fashion people wear and the decoration of their homes. One of the easiest decades for home decor is the 1970s – there are just so many design cues, from shaggy rugs and sunken living rooms to bright patterns and, for some reason, orange. That’s the way interior design works: what was once super-modern and chic slowly becomes outdated and very, very unfashionable (and then, sometimes, back to cool again).

One feature that screams 1970s is the wood paneling. Wood, once considered an inexpensive and durable material , has long gone out of fashion, and so far no one has tried to bring it back. If your home has wood paneling and you’d like to get rid of it in favor of a more modern look , you may be facing a harsh reality: Getting rid of wood paneling can be a real pain. If you have a 1970s time capsule in your home that you want to leave behind, here are your options for getting rid of those wood paneling.

Can wood paneling be torn off?

Option one, of course, is to physically remove the cladding and then either replace or repair the walls. This may require a lot more work than you might expect ; often glued directly to the wall, removing wood panels can be a difficult task if you’re trying to keep the wall underneath (to avoid having to hang fresh drywall). If the panels are glued on, installing a pry bar under them will be a job in itself, and you will most likely damage the drywall if you try – possibly hopelessly. If the panels are attached directly to the studs without any layer of drywall, you may have an easier time depending on how passionate the installers are about nails, but you still have to install the drywall. In other words, whatever hopes and dreams you have for removing the panels and simply rebuilding the walls will most likely not come true – you will have to replace the entire wall.

Another reason to be wary of removing old panels? It was often used to hide problems. Water damage, huge holes, ancient, crumbling plaster? It is much easier and cheaper to just sheathe it with sheathing, and leave the real problem to the future owner. Do you want to be that future owner?

How to cover wood panels

If ripping out the wood sheathing isn’t practical, either because of the mess and stress, or because you need a reno project to be small and economical, you can try wood sheathing:

  • Dye. Painting wood panels a light color can make them much less noticeable. Thoroughly clean the panels, then lightly sand them with fine sandpaper – you can often skip sanding and be fine if you primed the wall before painting, but sanding guarantees a much better painting experience as it will get rid of the glossy sheen of the surface that prevents paint from sticking. Then fill any holes or gaps with caulk, prime the surface, and paint the wall the color of your choice.
  • Wallpaper. If you want to have a pattern on your walls, you can wallpaper the wooden panels. It’s best to use a wallpaper backing first; this provides a flat, smooth surface for wallpapering and also prevents shrinkage as the paste dries, keeping the seams tight.

How to Make Wood Panels… Disappear

Finally, you have the opportunity to perform an interior design magic trick: make your wood paneling disappear completely by filling in the gaps and then painting. Prepare the walls for painting, then take a standard caulk and fill the joints . It will take at least two applications with some intermediate sanding to get them smooth and flush with the rest of the panels.

Then, if your panels have wood grain, you will probably need a protective layer . Puttying consists of diluting the putty with water, and then “painting” it, followed by smoothing it with a spatula. It may take two or more iterations to get a nice, smooth look, but once you’re done, your walls will look like standard drywall and you can prime and paint them like you would any other wall in your home.

Of course, you can just learn to love your wood paneling, especially after you learn how hard it is to get rid of.

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