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.

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