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How to remove tar paper from hardwood floors

Updated on September 15, 2009

So you've found hardwood floors under the linoleum tile......

You're probably here, because like me you pulled off all of that nasty linoleum and found hardwood floors. The only problem is that it's covered with tar paper and you can't seem to remove it.

I've recently been through the same, and have tried several options. Some were fair, but only one really worked: steam. So, I'm going to give you a few pointers, and show you how I removed the paper in a matter of days.

Alternate methods

These are a couple of suggestions I was given

Chemicals: Firstly, I didn't want to pay for the industrial strength solvents that it would require to remove the paper. Moreover, I didn't even want to think of how bad they are for the environment, much less my health.

Fabric Softener: Yes, liquid fabric softener diluted with some water will remove the tar paper...very slowly. If you want to use this method, I would recommend doing it on a small area because it takes forever. You'll need to place 1/2 liquid fabric softener (I found the cheap dollar store stuff works better than top brands like Snuggle, etc.) and 1/2 water in a spray bottle. Saturate the paper and wait and hour or two. Keep saturating the paper if it looks like it's drying out. After a couple of hours you should be able to scrape it off with a putty knife. Repeat as needed.


The final frontier

After months of struggling with the fabric softener method, I did a little more research. I found a man who had used a wallpaper steamer to remove the tar paper. Apparently, he managed to clean the floor in a couple of hours with the steamer. Unfortunately, I don't have a steamer and didn't want to rent or buy one.

What I did was boil water on the stove and pour the hot steaming water over towels that I had laid out over the tar paper. I let it sit for about 5 to 10 minutes, then pulled off the towel and started scraping. It came off like butter!

Some removal tips

Learn from my failed experiments

Over the last couple of months, I've tried just about household remedy to removed this tar paper. Some items were very helpful, others bordered on dangerous.

Tools that I found worked best were a flexible putty knife to remove the wet/steamed paper. Wider and stiffer knives would gouge the wood or only remove the tar paper in bits.

I also found that using a dry towel every time I would pour down more steaming water worked best. The dry towels hold the steaming water in place and allow it to work on the paper. When I would wring out each towel after use, I found that I was getting very tired very quickly and that water would only pool around the towel since it couldn't hold as much water. This made for a huge mess.

Rubber mason or garden gloves will be your salvation. This is all very rough on your hands. Plus, the hot water could scald you so protect yourself with some kind of rubber glove. I like the gardening gloves with the rubberized palms because you can throw them in the washer.

You can remove the small stubborn areas of tar paper and adhesive with hot water and scotch pads.

I would NOT recommend using a heat gun. I tried this, and let's just say it didn't work.

Photos of my progess

Below are some photos of the condition of our floors from start to finish. We still haven't sanded down the floors to have them refinished, but that is next.

I hope this information will help you and save you lots of time!

Linoleum tile covers tar paper

Linoleum tile covers tar paper
Linoleum tile covers tar paper

More linoleum tile

More linoleum tile
More linoleum tile

The dreaded tar paper

The dreaded tar paper
The dreaded tar paper

Beautiful hardwoods exposed!

Beautiful hardwoods exposed!
Beautiful hardwoods exposed!

Tell me about your flooring nightmares. Be sure to let me know if this worked for you or if you have other helpful ideas!

Are you having the same problem?

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    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Dollar store fabric softener worked wonders, time consuming, but well worth it ! Thank you for the info !

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Where or are you getting a strong, lingering petroleum smell from the tar paper and mastic? i have

      that problem in my kitchen where we recently removed all he built-up flooring layers down to the beautiful heart pine finish floor which is covered in a tar like substance. After 4 days with the windows open the smell hasn't diminished. I don't know how to go over it and ensure that the smell will go away.

      Help anyone! (An asbestos aatement company has already deeply gouged the floor.)

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Yes, this works. I did a kitchen this way. I used an iron and a really wet towel. very little mess. tar paper and adhesive came up.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago


      I pulled up the linoleum also and found tar paper on half of the kitchen floor. My brother has a commercial steamer and it is working pretty good. The tar paper comes off in layers so I have to repeat the process once or twice in a small area and then move on. Im curious as to what type of floor sander did you use ? And did it take off the hard to remove pieces. To scrape the tar paper I have been using my multi tool with the scraper blade. Thanks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @anonymous: use a heat gun... they cost like 15 bucks, and are designed for that purpose.

      i tried everything, including all solvents and the boiling water technique. Only thing that worked was a heatgun, a putty knife, and a lot of time.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Did you lay the iron directly on top of the tar paper or on a towel?

      Did it ruin your iron??

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I went through all the solvents too, and even a steamer. But what works even better, faster and cleaner is a clothes iron. Lay it on high heat and the tar paper will start to bubble around the edges in less than one minute. Move the iron to another spot and easily scrape off the entire sheet of paper the size of the iron. Cut your job from days to hours. Seriously!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      i am working on this right now on my staircase in an old house i just bought. have been scraping like crazy with a metal putty knife. the progress varies. some areas are very dried out and flake off easily in chunks and other sections are very very stubborn... either way it is a lot of work and i will be going in tomorrow to see how much more i can get rid of. the knife is not gentle on the floors, but i figure I will just sand it out smooth after anyway so I am not worrying too much about it. I may just try steam on the more stubborn sections. thanks for the advise!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Thanks for your suggestions. We ended up using my clothing steamer, certainly did the trick!!! Be careful not to burn your hands though.

    • profile image

      selink 6 years ago

      Switching from linoleum to hardwood flooring can be time-consuming if you do not know how to remove the tar paper or if you do not whom to ask. Before removing the tar paper accumulated over years that the linoleum has covered your flooring, you must be equipped with all the needed materials because one you have removed a part, it would be best to accomplish the job entirely so that you can finish the removal in less time. This can also be prevented if you are guided by the right custom homes Austin builder to inform you of possible consequences when you decide to cover your wood or concrete flooring with linoleum as there may come a time that you will change your mind and you do not have the luxury of time to fully clean and remove the tar paper.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      My husband and I tried EVERYTHING and EVERY solvent known to man. I can't believe it was as simple as HOT water. Thank you!!

    • profile image

      phservices 6 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your ideas on how to repair wood flooring. It is not enough to have a wood flooring, it would be even better if we know how to properly maintain it ( with the help of - for instance ) . The flooring needs to be of quality so that you will not have any problems maintaining it for many years to come.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I have tried several other optoins that were all failures and took way too much time and effort. I will rent a wallpaper steamer at the home depot as my last try. Thanks so much for the suggestion, but if it still does not work out, I am going to cut out all the wood flooring right down to the supporting joists and lay down new 3/4 inch plywood and move on to get the renovation of the kitchen finished.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Your steam trick turned a tedious, horrendous job into nearly a breeze! THANK YOU!!! You are our hero for posting this amazing information.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      This was exactly what I was looking for!


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