Thursday, March 21, 2013

Repair Old Plaster or Install New Drywall

Old farmhouse lathe and plaster walls.

Old Plaster

Plaster was the primary process used for interior wall and ceiling covering pre-1950.  As shown on our kitchen wall above, lathes are narrow strips of wood that are nailed horizontally across the wall studs.  The lathes are nailed to include spaces so the plaster can ooze out of the back.  The ooze can also be called "the keys".  You will find old horsehair incorporated in some of the old plaster work.  The horsehair and "the keys" help reinforce the plaster which means it would not break away from the lathe.  When professionally done, plaster has a warm patina look and feel.  Plaster creates a nice solid wall.


I grew up in our 1905 farmhouse so I had been looking at cracked plaster that was repaired and painted over a thousand times my entire life.  Frankly, I lived with all the old cracks and the look of old repairs because it was my family home.  You can laugh but most of the time we just hung pictures where the cracks were the worse!  I didn't think anything of it until renovation.
The house had the original horsehair plaster I was told.  Some people think that may be "cool".  Well, how often do you think horsehair plaster will come up in a conversation during a cocktail party?  To me, the horsehair was a non-issue.  Don't get too nostalgic about plaster. 

Flaws just add to the charm and character of an old house, right?

I wanted to keep the old plaster walls for a number of reasons.

1.  I thought it would be good to keep the "vintage" look and maintain the original character and charm of the home.

2.  I knew tearing down and removing all the plaster would make a MAJOR mess. We were living in a part of the home during construction so this raised a red flag for me.
3.  The walls and ceilings were not THAT bad. Upon inspection, some walls were in good shape but some of the old repair patches were sloppy and when you placed slight pressure on the wall where cracks existed, some of the walls were spongy. That meant the plaster was giving way from the lathe. Spongy is not good. And the ceilings? Lots of hairline cracks with bad repairs. And, a few walls with larger cracks were "bowed" which meant the plaster was detaching from the lathe. Bowed walls are not good. Dang.
4.  Cost. It was my impression that if I kept the old walls I would keep my costs down. At this point I had my Asbestos, Lead and Hazard Inspection so I knew I would not have expensive removal costs.

Pick your battles

We were renovating the house, not simply re-decorating.  That meant we were taking down some old door and window trim because we were moving the doors and windows somewhere else.  We needed to cut in cold air returns for HVAC ducts that were never done when the old coal furnace was removed.  We were going to add new electric outlets (some required by code), cable, perhaps hang a wall tv, new artwork and perhaps some new ceiling light fixtures.  Some rooms did not have ceiling fixtures and some rooms only had two outlets.  And, you are probably going to redesign your kitchen so the entire kitchen will need new drywall.

Regarding the second floor, are you adding bathrooms, changing bathroom location or design, moving walls and changing or adding HVAC duct?  Upstairs work can have a huge impact on the first floor walls.  Frankly, we knew some of the old plaster was not going to hold up.

In the end, we kept and repaired 3 rooms of old plaster and one ceiling.  The plaster we kept was repaired and skim coated with an orange peel finish.  It looks fabulous!  Some plaster is not worth saving.  That's it.

My recommendation

My recommendation is don't get all romantic or nostalgic about plaster.  In the end, new drywall does not detract from your vintage home, especially if you keep all the old woodwork.  Once you paint and hang art work, you'll wonder why you fretted about this issue.  Saying that, I totally understand wanting to keep vintage.  Pick your battles.

My Tip of The Day!

Insist on a personal meeting with your General Contractor and the Drywall/Plaster subcontractors during the bidding process.  Review your house plans.  Inspect walls and ceilings.  Make a decision right on the spot which walls and ceilings will be saved and repaired and which walls and ceilings will be replaced with drywall.  Make sure the proposal is specific and detailed.  List each room, each wall, and each ceiling.  Don't assume.  Decide what final finish you want. 
Beware of the General Contractor that will discourage a meeting with the subcontractor that will be doing the work.  Why?  The contractor may want your job and think the lowest price will win him or her the contract.  Be cautious.  When the drywall/plaster contractor finally appears on the job and announces he can't save the old plaster, you are faced with an expensive "change order" and budget increase.  It is you that will be faced with paying more money - not the contractor.  He already has the job and knows you don't have a choice.  This is a time when you need to be detailed if you want to stay on a realistic budget.

A Thought About Insulation and Noise

Anyone who has an old farmhouse knows that rooms tend to be small and bedrooms are usually located right off the living room.  Upstairs bedroom walls are paper thin.  When ceiling and walls are opened up, we used this opportunity to place panels of insulation in-between the wall studs of all bedroom walls.  Nowadays, most people watch television in the bedroom, kids talk on the phone all hours, and people have different wake and go to bed schedules.  All our bedrooms are VERY QUIET  and COZY.  Simply go to Menard's, Home Depot or Lowe's and buy a roll of dense insulation and place it in-between the studs yourself.

Vintage Kitchen Wallpaper Design

Some of the pleasant surprises during renovation is uncovering vintage decorating materials like wallpaper.  The entire first floor of this house had plaster and lathe as shown on the wall below.  Damage or cracks in the plaster often resulted in covering the problem rather than hiring someone to fix the old plaster.  In this case wall paper was added.  
One of the benefits of living in the house while construction happens is that you are able to save or photograph some of this history before the wall is taken down. 

Vintage farmhouse wallpaper and border.
This wallpaper was selected and hung by my grandmother.  I tried to keep some of the original pieces but the plaster was so old it crumbled as it was removed.    I photographed pieces and framed a collage of shapes to hang in the kitchen.  My cousins and girlfriends think it is "cool" I was able to record the decorating history of the house.

Close up of the vintage kitchen wall paper.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Ode to the Gardener


Ah.....I'm done working for today
the shadows tell us it's time to rest or play
the sun was hot and weeds were tall
but we managed to clean it all
No wind, we swatted the flies and bees
but cheerful garden partners were we
not to worry I'll wait for you here
our work starts early tomorrow
when overnight new weeds appear
Author:  Jacqueline Klapproth Nelson. Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved.
Photo:  Courtesy of Jacqueline Klapproth Nelson.  Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved.

Are Stairs in the Garage a Good Idea?

The time to address stairs in the garage is during the design phase.

Adding livable space, or a bonus room, above the garage is an excellent way to add space to meet the needs of modern living lifestyles while keeping the vintage look of the old house. Adding stairs from the garage to the bonus room should be carefully considered while you are in the process of drawing your floor plans.

Adding stairs in a garage may seem like it is an easy "add on". Just be aware that adding stairs may change the size of your garage floor space and whatever square footage you add to the garage floor space will be added to the bonus room above.  This impacts your cost per square foot of construction costs and architect fees. 

How we would access the bonus room on a daily basis caused me to stop and think. 

Adding the stairs was not brought to my attention by the architect or contractor, probably because I was constantly saying, "don't design renovation changes we can't afford".  Sound familiar?

You owe it to yourself to consider the pros and cons of this option.  Remember, you can't add the stairs later.  Why?  You will be using 4' of width in the garage for the stairs, not including the space for "the turn landing" and approach steps as shown in the photo.  This means you need to adjust your garage parking space so you have enough room not only to park cars, but to fully open the car doors and have walk space between cars!

Imagine yourself driving into the garage.

Think about how you will use the bonus room, you know, every day living for you and your family.
  • Bedrooms for yourself or kids?
  • Separate living quarters creating privacy for a mother-in-law, care taker, live in help?
  • Do you have a large family or lots of guests who "vacation" with you?
  • Do you work at home and need office space?
  • Will you  have clients come to this area?
  • Will you hire office help?
  • Will this be a recreation area for the family?   

Stairs and much more! 

The photo above shows how garage stairs can be added to access the bonus room above the garage. The stairs should be 4' wide at a minimum.  Looking at the photo above, be creative and make every inch of space usable.  As an example, the area to the left at the base of the stairs could be used for a garage refrigerator, open shelves (always needed in a garage), coat hooks and a boot seat, or an enclosed built-in closet.  There is plenty of room to build a coat closet underneath the stairs and the remaining 4' width could be a breezeway, with access to the backyard.  There are lots of possibilities depending on where your stairs are located.

Now is your chance to add closets, storage and perhaps a breezeway.  Old homes, and especially old farmhouses, were not built with the closet space needed for today's lifestyles. You are paying for square footage so use every inch of space for something useful. 

Pros and cons to consider when building stairs in the garage

Pro:  Add another exist from a the second story addresses fire safety issues.

Pro:  Using the garage stairs directly up to the bonus room saves wear and tear on carpeted stairs in the main house.

Pro:  You can enter the bonus room from the garage without disturbing the rest of the house.  Privacy for office visitors or care taker quarters is a benefit to everyone.

Pro:  Moving furniture to the bonus room or to the 2nd floor is easier using the 4' garage stairs instead of the narrower house stairs.

Pro: The 4' stair width permits space to add storage, shelving, closets or a breezeway.

Con: It "eats up" a minimum of a 4' wide area of your garage floor space.

Con:  There may not be a good place to add garage stairs. 

Con:  You may not have a wide enough space on your lot to add 4' to your garage.

Realistic budget checklist

for adding stairs in the garage

 If you and the architect find a space to add stairs in the garage and you have space on your lot to increase your garage space, then the question is "how much will it cost"?  Here are the categories that are impacted by your decision. 
  • Labor
  • Hand rail (required by code)
  • Door (insulated door?)
  • Insulation
  • Drywall
  • HVAC duct work
  • Electric (don't forget an outlet so you can vacuum)
  • Electric fixtures, light switches
  • Trim
  • Hardware for door and railing
  • Painting and staining
  • Stair covering
Extras in Garage
  • Labor
  • Shelving and or boot seat with hinged seat for storage
  • Built-in closets: doors, hardware, painting/staining, poles, shelves, and supports
  • Electric for garage refrigerator, light in closet, etc.

Extra for Breezeway
  • Labor
  • Door from garage to breezeway (insulated door?)
  • Door(s) for new closet under stairway
  • Insulation
  • Drywall
  • HVAC duct work
  • Electric (don't forget an outlet for vacuum or table lamp)Electric fixtures including light in closet, light switches
  • Trim
  • Hardware for door
  • Painting and staining
  • Floor covering



My Tip of the Day:  Recessed Stair Lights

Add recessed stair lights. I am SO VERY GLAD I added them to every stairway.  I love them and so do my guests.  The light fixtures are inexpensive and you can buy 15 or 25 watt florescent (non-heat) bulbs that last a long time.  They illuminate the stairs at night without leaving on bright lights. I love them!
Recessed stairway lights