Plaster. This single, solitary word in the old house vernacular elicits a visceral reaction of sorts in many people. It's a characteristic trait of buildings from 60 years to much much older that embodies the true nature of love/hate relationships among DIYers, renovators, preservationists, rehabilitators, flippers, home inspectors, and pretty much anyone who has every worked with the stuff. But interestingly enough, where any one of those people falls in proximity to the seemingly moral thin red line of "rip it out" versus "repair, don't replace," well, that's all based on the relationship you've developed with the walls and ceilings of the past.

When we moved into our house we had been indoctrinated by countless television shows and contractor horror stories in dealing with the fragile, crumbling, dusty, and gritty mess that tends to represent old fashioned plaster. And I'm not going to lie. When we started to think about our home renovation plans, the initial thoughts that our cracked, bumpy, and crumbling plaster was "too far gone" and the belief that we'd need to "gut every room" entered into our conversations quite frequently. But that was before we understood. Before we knew better. Before we shook off the propaganda I'm rather certain started with the gypsum board industry, much the same way vinyl window salesman have long peddled the theory that a home's 100+ year old windows should certainly be removed in favor of energy efficient gems that cost a pantload and "should last a good 30 years." Oh, what a bargain...right?

North by Northside, Jeff SkrenesNorth by Northside, Jeff Skrenes

In reality, when you hear the phase "that house has good bones," it's giving a sense of humanity to a building. The bones are represented by the framing and structural items, but one needs more than "good bones" to have a human who is worth anything. In an old home let's be sure to look past the "bones" and see that the plumbing is the circulatory system, the electrical is the nervous system, windows are the eyes, HVAC is the respiratory system, and the plaster and lath walls covering most interior surfaces, well, that plaster is your home's skin. And we all know that the skin is the single most important organ the body owns.

As we learned more about our home's plaster in our early days of renovation, we learned what a truly significant aspect of our home is represented by its original horse hair plaster that still covers the majority of the walls and ceilings. Not only does it offer a basis for wall and ceiling covering, it also provides a unique texture to the interior of our home that drywall board doesn't provide. Slight imperfections, a gentle hand laid roll to the surface, and the noise canceling characteristics of solid, one inch thick or wider plaster adds to the ambiance of any old home, and to lose that, well, you begin to lose the soul of the house.

The result of our education in plaster is a deep seeded desire to salvage and repair plaster whenever possible. It's less invasive, more environmentally friendly, cheaper (from a DIY perspective), generally cleaner (though cleanliness is all relative), and maintains the historic character that is too easily lost in homes today. We've covered how we use plaster buttons to secure our sagging ceilings and cracked walls, as well as how we use a mix of drywall, joint compound, and patience to patch holes left in the plaster by various projects, but we've never really covered a major project dealing with repairing old plaster and mixing in new materials on a much larger scale. Well, that is, until today when we kick off a multi part post on how to achieve this very thing.

We've been working on the walls and ceiling in the bathroom, trying to bring the room back into respectable shape while working to preserve as much of the original fabric of the room as possible. But in our bathroom we have a mix of original plaster, plaster patches, and drywall patches on the ceiling, and drywall on the walls (someone removed all of the wall plaster long before we ever set foot in our home). Our goal is to bring our cracking, sagging, and ugly plaster ceiling back from the brink, while also making sure the drywall on the walls still has that character building hand laid plaster look to it. And we want to do it all in a DIY manner, without breaking the bank, and without wanting to kill ourselves due to the level of difficulty. Easy enough? 

When we started this whole thing the plaster on the ceiling was textured and in bad shape. Most contractors or homeowners would look at this as a lost cause and move right into ripping the whole thing down. But not us, no way!

Instead, we began our typical process to repair and revive. We systematically went around the room applying plaster buttons at one foot intervals along the ceiling joists. The idea behind this is simple. Gravity has likely had its way with the ceiling over 100+ years, and the heavy plaster has slowly either pulled away from the wood lath behind it, or it's begun pulling the lath nails right our of the joists. Placing the buttons along the joists pulls the ceiling back up into a stable location. I like to use 2" or 2-1/2" drywall screws for screwing into the joists.

If you're doing something similar, and you notice a lot of sag in any particular area, beef up the number of buttons you're using. Place them every six inches or so to make sure there's something sturdy to pull against.

Once the joists are buttoned, then move on to areas with significant cracking or failing plaster. These areas only have the lath behind it, but the plaster keys (the part of the plaster that pushed through the lath before drying) have often failed, leaving the ceiling or wall unstable. Though the plaster is no longer secured to the lath, you can still use the lath as support for the fix. For these, I like to switch to 1-1/4" drywall screws, since there's only a need to screw into the lath.

There are two major keys here:

  1. Make sure you're screwing the plaster button into the middle of a piece of lath, otherwise the lath will likely crack and will not offer any support. It's sometimes necessary to guess wrong before you can guess right, so don't worry about trying a few spots.
  2. Make sure you only tighten the screw to the point where it fully grabs. If you over tighten the screw, it will easily strip the hole in the lath and you'll lose almost all of your support.

Surround the crack, hole, or otherwise failing area with lots of screws and buttons to fully support the fragile plaster areas. You can also use the lath as backer for screwing in drywall patches cut to the size of the hole. Since plaster tends to be about a half inch thick in our house, it's almost perfect to just put in a half inch piece of drywall to fill the hole. 

Once you've used about double the number of buttons you think you should have used, and your giant holes or missing plaster have been patched with your material of choice, you're in pretty good shape and can move onto the next step of applying your first layer of skim coat.

It's important to understand how plaster, no matter how many buttons you use, will continue to move as time goes on. Any cracks already in the plaster can be patched, but unless you stabilize the top coat and isolate it from the problem area, you'll end up with cracks in the wall again as normal expansion and contraction occur. This is the reason this next step is so critical.

I prefer to use the brown bag setting type joint compound for my skim coating. You can use the pre-mixed bucket, but it tends to set up softer and therefore can incur dings and divots more easily. Also, using the pre-mix in a bathroom isn't a good option because the moisture of the room can activate the mix after it's already cured.

Purists and preservationists state that you should only use lime based plaster for any skim coating over plaster, and that using joint compound is similar to committing an act of treason. In some respects, they are absolutely right. Lime plaster should only every patch lime plaster. If you have plaster walls and are able to either strip all paint and/or wallpaper exposing the bare plaster, absolutely and 100%, only use hydraulic lime based plaster.

But for us, our plaster is a mish-mash of layer after layer of paint, patched drywall areas, and who knows what else. Now that we've been at this for many years, and we've been using joint compound all along, we see no signs of failure, cracking, or peeling that would make us think we shouldn't keep right on doing what we're doing. However, each case is unique, so please don't take our experience as a definitive "how to" on correcting each and every plaster problem. If we're ever in another house with original plaster walls, there's a pretty good chance we'll be using lime plaster everywhere.

Okay, on with the show...

I like to mix up about half a bag of joint compound at a time in a five gallon bucket. This is greatly simplified by using our awesome hammer drill. I've found it works best to add some water to the bucket first, then add about half the amount of joint compound you actually want to mix up. This allows you to mix in more water than you need and gives you a very watery mixture. This is good, because it eliminates lumps and pockets of dry joint compound, then you continue to add joint compound and water, a bit at a time, until you've mixed up enough and feel like you have what you need.

I tend to mix this first bit of compound a little on the looser side. I'd say it's probably most like a cake batter consistency (just don't eat it).

The goal of this first bit of joint compound is to cover every surface in a very quick efficient manner. If you're using the 90 joint compound (as I like to us) you only have about 70 minutes of working time before your mix will start to thicken, and about 100 minutes before it heats up and turns solid. 

Using a flat trowel in my right hand and taping knife in my left, I quickly apply the joint compound over the whole ceiling or wall, loading the trowel with the taping knife before spreading it on in one quick movement. Since this is just the base coat to achieve coverage, you don't need to worry about getting it particularly smooth. You're going for even, thin coats.

Once you've covered the area of wall where you need to work, the next step achieves what can be considered the plaster's new isolation layer. Using a roll of fiberglass mesh (we use standard fiberglass window screen in 48" x 100' rolls), cut a piece of fiberglass that you'll be able to work with. I find a 4'x4' sheet is about as big as we can reasonably handle at once. 

Then, using the taping knife, begin embedding the screen in the still wet coat you just applied. 

There is definitely a trick to this step, as you need to make sure you apply the screen evenly in the correct position and without any measurable wrinkles or folds. Any bumps, air gaps, or irregularities may weaken the end result, but will definitely cause an inconvenience and pain in getting a good finished surface. If I'm having a hard time I start to embed just a little bit of the screen using my fingers. You can easily see if it's working when the screen is absorbed into the joint compound.

To achieve the smooth application I like to use the "Union Jack" approach. I start at one edge of the screen and use the taping knife across the entire screen to the opposite side, placing an embedded line right in the middle of the piece of screen.

With the middle of the screen on the wall or ceiling, I begin working with the taping knife from the middle towards the edge, starting with a cross that is perpendicular to that first line.

Again, starting from the middle, I begin making diagonal lines out to the corners, effectively making markings similar to the Union Jack flag.

This tends to reduce the likelihood of any bubbles or folds as I'm only working from the center out. Once the Union Jack is in place, I just work to methodically, always from the center to the edges, to embed the remainder of the of the screen in the still wet joint compound. 

To ensure full adhesion, I then go over the whole thing with the flat trowel or large taping knife, eliminating any pockets and smoothing any significant bumps. 

At this point I like to keep working on putting up screen in the room until all of the screen is in place. Repeating the process for each piece, I ensure an overlap of at least three or four inches on each piece. You could move onto the next step and start jumping around a bit, but I find that to be too overwhelming.

If it's a large room, you may run out of time on the joint compound before it begins to cure. If that happens, it's important to time your process so you aren't left trying to embed the screen in dry joint compound. Otherwise you'll end up frustrated and with a bunch of built up joint compound that you now have to somehow scrape or sand off. 

As you move around the room, there will be holes that need to be cut in the screen (such as for lights or ducts). Don't bother trying to pre-cut those holes. Go ahead and put the screen up on the ceiling and allow it to go over top of the holes. Once you've embedded it in place, come back with the utility knife and cut it away. The screen cuts really easily once in the joint compound, and even easier after the joint compound has had a chance to harden up.

Once you've covered the entire room in screen your first layer is done. Sit back, relax, clean up your tools, and admire your hard work. It doesn't look like much, but you're well on your way to a wonderfully smooth and no longer cracked/falling down wall or ceiling. For us, in our bathroom, we'd lived with the horrible texture on the ceiling, the bad cracks, and the fear that the whole thing could come crashing down at any moment for so long that the look of the screen over the whole ceiling was a marked improvement and gave us a tremendous sense of hope.

In our next post we'll continue covering the process and will fill you in on the next steps in correcting ceiling and wall plaster issues. We'll also touch on the first steps to taking a newly hung drywall wall back in time with our tips for making drywall look like it belongs in a house full of plaster walls and ceilings, all as a DIYer.

What are your thoughts on plaster? Are you in a "do whatever it takes to save it" crowd, or do you tend to the "rip it our and replace it" side of the fence?

We have a whole series of plaster repair/skim coating posts you should check out if you like this or are trying to tackle the same thing. Here's the whole list for convenience:

  1. Plaster Repair for DIYers - No Need to Rip It Out - this post
  2. Plaster Buttons to Fix Your Crumbling Ceiling
  3. Plaster Repair Part 2: Laying a New Brown Coat
  4. How To Fix Plaster Like a Boss: Sand Baby Sand
  5. DIY Plaster Repair: We Finally Put the Skim in Skim Coat
  6. My Skim Coating Nickname is Mr. Smooth - The Tricks I Use to Earn It
  7. The Final Steps to Perfect Skim Coating
Comments 21

Comments

kelly
10/18/2013 at 5:05 PM
I love posts like this because I learn so much. The fiberglass mesh is brilliant, thank you!

Unfortunately, my plaster is different than anything I've ever seen...there's not lath under it that I can see. It's just VERY crumbly, and very thick. Are there any parts of your house or houses in your area that have this kind? I starting to think it's horsehair plaster, which I guess is lime plaster?

I think I may try your mesh method next on the entrance to my basement, which is identical to yours. It's the only part of my house where whole walls need repairing.

So far I've also used regular drywall joint compound mixes for the smaller patches or cracks even though they say not to. But they held up ok and I have only used them in dry areas, like the hallways. I have more patches to make and am considering using DAP's Plaster Patch because it's the only commercial pre-mixed one for plaster I can find here. There are a ton of youtube videos from the UK/Ireland with real plasterers and plaster products, and I get so envious. I'm a bit worried about messing with the areas too much because of asbestos, but I'm hoping my home pre-dates the use of it in the plaster.

There's been work done on my home in more recent years, I'm assuming 70s and 80s. In the 80s, someone must have put up drywall over walls in all the front rooms of the house, perhaps as insulation, or perhaps during a re-wire (but left the back rooms untouched). As far as I know, the fireplace in the living room has been drywalled over, and so have all the window sills and I'm assuming window trim, in the front two bedrooms. I don't have the time or money or know-how to gut & restore the house, but I often wonder what's behind the walls in some of the rooms, and what it looks like. And what it looked like when it was first built. Things I will never know!
Alex
10/21/2013

The only part of our house that had anything like what you're talking about are the places where we have plaster right on the brick. And yes, that stuff falls apart like it's its job. We also had a bit more "modern" materials in the kitchen. Think drywall, but drywall made from cement with a plaster skim coat from about 1900. It was the heaviest wall material I've ever seen in my life. We could basically put about 2 square feet of it in each garbage bag or else it got too heavy.

I love the ideal that your home's trim and details might be lurking just behind a layer of drywall. So cool.

10/18/2013 at 5:41 PM
You're such smarties. Nicely done!

I always try keep the plaster. Unless I rip it down to the brick, which I've done in a couple areas. The plaster does provide better sound & temperature insulation than the brick but I'm a sucker for the exposed brick. Lurve it.
Alex
10/21/2013

I know the feeling on the exposed brick. We'll be doing that in one more room of the house, and possibly the basement as well, when all is said and done.

10/20/2013 at 1:32 PM
Oh, plaster. I hated it, HATED IT in our old house. The plaster in our new house though? Love it and it's not going anywhere for anything.

I'm so glad you guys write posts like these.
Alex
10/21/2013

It's definitely a love/hate relationship, but once it's all in place and the job is finished, it's pretty much just a love relationship. What is it about your "new" plaster that makes you feel differently about your situation? Lack of fallingdowness?

Pat
10/21/2013 at 11:59 AM

During my interior renovation, I made the decision to gut the kitchen, bathroom & living room to the studs to make it easier for the whole house rewire. The kitchen & bath were necessary because of the extensive work being done as well as heavy electical & plumbing issues. The ceilings were left in place since the electrician could channel thru the plaster, but were drywalled over.

The living room walls had been paneled, with holes knocked at the tops of the stud bays to pour in insulation. Then the ceiling was dropped as the paneling was 8 feet tall and the ceiling are over 9. Over 25% of the plaster ceiling had fallen off & was laying on top of the drywall, so I made the call to rip it all down. Sure it could have been fixed/saved, but it made it much easier (& therefore cheaper) on the trades to not have to deal with the plaster. I was also able to use closed cell foam insulation on the open walls.

In the other rooms, the plaster was largely untouched & my contracter did a decent job of blending the drywall in with the plaster where needed. It doesn't have the texture of the original plaster, but once furniture, drapes, artwork, etc. fill the rooms, it's not easy to spot. Although my hasty patching of the worst wall before I painted is starting to crack again. Oh well.

Terri K.
10/23/2013 at 7:28 PM

love your suggestion about using fiberglass screen to patch cracks. One question though, if you only have a few cracks on the wall do you still have to cover the entire wall with the screen?

Alex
10/23/2013

Good question, and the answer all depends on you. Personally, I'm getting to the point where I'm so incredibly anal that I want the whole wall or ceiling to have the same texture, so I want to skim the whole thing, and while I'm at it, I might as well cover the whole thing in screen. If that's not really your concern, then the only section of the wall or ceiling that really needs screen are the areas with cracks, as those spots will most likely move again in the future. Alt smile

rob
1/8/2014 at 2:04 PM

After seeing your process I have to say you would save an infinite amount of time and would get wall and ceiling infinitely better looking if you just ripped out the plaster and drywalled the studs. I've used Durabond many times. It hardens like rock and if you don't get it smooth while it is pliable you are in for hours of sanding. If you need to keep the old plaster you would be much better off applying a plaster adhesive to the walls and then skim coating with a finish grade plaster. But if your wall surfaces are as bad as pictured I would go the drywall route without hesitation.

Phil
2/16/2014 at 6:36 AM

Hi, really good blog thanks!
I'm over in the UK and your tips are very good encouragement for my project I'm starting now which is renovation of our 16th C. farmhouse in Devon.

Quick question, any reason you use the glass fibre mesh rather than a more substantial metal lath? I guess its because the fibre allows very thin coats where as the metal lath would mean a thick and heavy build up?

Also just to confirm the idea is that the fibre mesh provides reinforcement to the new skim and isolates it from the joists/lath movement above so hopefully reducing/removing any future cracks?

Thanks
Phil.

Alex
2/17/2014

Hi Phil. You're farmhouse sounds amazing. What I wouldn't give to have a 16th C. house anywhere in the UK! It's a dream of ours. We need to invent some sort of teleportation solution so it doesn't take us so long to get there.

Yes, you're absolutely right on the fiber mesh. Our approach works when you already have a viable plaster surface to start with and only need thin coats.

The metal diamond lath is more typical when you're doing completely new wall, and you'd use it for the scratch/brown coat.

Would love to see some photos of your place if you have them to share.

4/22/2015 at 10:58 AM

This is a project that I need to take on soon. My ceiling is looking a little worse for wear and it is getting worse. I wonder if this is something I could handle on my own. I'm not too good with things like this as much as I'd like to be.

4/26/2015 at 10:17 AM

Hi, really a wonderfully written blog. I have been banging my head over this frustrating problem for over years. With monsoon approaching, I am planning to renivate my house soon...this blog will come of great use. Thank you sir.

8/20/2015 at 9:15 AM

I like the way you have explained each and every step in the plastering process to such a detail. Awesome work and it really was helpful to me.

8/31/2015 at 6:04 PM

I built my bathroom in a concrete floor, brick building cc. 1910. It had many layers of wall paneling, where layer 1 was plaster. The room I was working had an acoustic drop tile ceiling, covering very fine plaster that instantly shed water with its (enamel?) finish coat. Unfortunately I chose to demolish it since the surrounding woodwork was 90% consumed by termites. The plaster was self structural, I had to use a plaster bladed recip saw to make reasonable work out of it.

I probably could have saved the ceiling by propping it with feet on its perimeter... My plan was not clear and i was anxious to remove all detritus, dust, filth, etc. and encapsulate nothing.

MelB
12/8/2015 at 4:09 AM

Seeing the cracked mess you started with makes me appreciate the overall good shape my walls are in. I've scraped and hacked off 70 years of paint in my little 1942 Cape Cod. Most of the paint is just "floating" on top of the plaster and comes off in pieces, like stiff wallpaper, when you get a grip under it and start peeling it off. It's funny but the more layers of paint there are, the easier it is to get a grip and peel everything down to the base in one go.

The texture of my plaster walls varies from room to room. Some walls are brushed in a ridged texture like the ceiling in the 4th pic of this post. Some are sandy and gritty, actually kinda painful when you run your hand over it. I've scraped the ridged stuff and it does come off with some elbow grease. The smoothness of the plaster when you get that off is such a treat and the color is pleasant enough that I might not repaint. The sandy stuff is integral with the plaster so it can't be smoothed down, but it takes paint well.

I've been lucky with my plaster so far. But what I've seen under the drywall in my kitchen, that's going to be a different story and I may tip over to the "rip it out" dark side when that time comes!

Annie
1/5/2016 at 10:24 AM

The mesh is interesting. I've re-done 2 bedroom ceilings using silicone caulk for cracks and then doing a textured ceiling with drywall compound. I didn't know about those plaster screw deals, I actually tore out a few small sections of plaster and replaced it with drywall (that was scary!) I am getting ready to do our large kitchen ceiling, so the mesh and plaster screws are very helpful to know! But my bedroom ceilings have held up fine for several years now, happy about that!

Dennis
3/24/2016 at 9:53 AM

hi,
i was wondering if you get provide an update on these repairs, how is a ceiling holding up, did any cracks or sags reappeared? what year did you repair them.
thanks
Dennis

Ashley
5/31/2016 at 4:40 PM

Hi, I am a new homeowner and my entire house has plaster but the walls are in excellent condition--the only issue is the last paint job of about 10 years ago was not a good job. Should I strip the paint off and start fresh or would that be opening me up to more extensive work or issues. Should I have the walls skim coated if I strip them? Are there anyways to make the walls look smoother without stripping off all the paint? I do notice some cracks in my ceiling but they are hair thin--the building is about 100 years old and nearly 4000 sq ft. Its a big job and I am just trying to get some ideas. Thanks

sam
2/21/2017 at 8:46 PM

this is one broken ceiling

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