Drywall contractors add texture to walls as a design element or as a quick way to finish out the drywall without applying numerous coats of drywall tape. Most interior drywall texture consists of a layer of rolled or sprayed joint compound. While you can sand down most rough textures, it's a messy job, and you'll have to smooth the wall completely before you can paint or apply wallpaper.
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As long as the texture contains regular drywall compound, you may sand it. To find out what kind of texture is on your wall, scratch a bit of it away in an inconspicuous area. If it comes off easily and it's whitish, dry and powdery, you may sand it. If scratching off a bit of the texture is difficult, or if it contains sand or gravel, you may not sand it.
The Sanding Process
Get ready for a mess. Sanding off drywall texture produces billowing clouds of white dust. You can reduce the dust by using a power drywall sander with an attached dust bag, but that won't eliminate all the dust. Wear a full respirator mask and protective eyewear. Start in one corner, and sand in 3-foot swathes. The airborne dust may cause you difficulty in seeing how much of the texture is coming off, so stop occasionally and feel the wall. After an initial sanding pass, let the dust settle and examine the wall. Spots of texture likely remain, and you must resand these areas until the wall is smooth.
If you're not ready or willing to tackle the mess of sanding off drywall texture, skimming the wall is an alternative method for smoothing it. Skimming requires a rolled-on coat of thinned drywall compound, which you will then smooth by pulling a large drywall trowel over the surface, which works well when the texture is light and flat, like an orange peel texture. But if the texture is prominent -- if it sticks out from the wall more than 1/8 of an inch -- skimming may not adequately smooth the wall. In this case, you may sand the surface of the texture and then skim the wall.
You can't sand down masonry texture, such as cement-based stucco. If the texture is light, protruding less than 1/8 inch from the wall, you can try skimming the wall as noted above. If the texture is heavy, the only options are drywalling over the texture or tearing out the old wall and installing new drywall, both of which require a drywall professional.
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