The Cross House

Punching Holes in Plaster. Fixing Holes in Plaster.

“Oh! That house needs to be gutted to the studs!”

I hear this all the time. I read this all the time.

And I cringe every time.

Buying an old house and tearing out all the plaster walls and ceilings is just, well, stupid. Houses with plaster:

  • Sound better.
  • Retain heat as plaster absorbs heat. You’ll be glad for this every winter.
  • And plaster also retains the history of a house (see below).

In my old house, the old plaster walls have revealed much about the house. I discovered, for example, the exact location of the annunciator panel in the kitchen. In the parlor, the original wallpaper was found behind the radiators. In the stairhall, fragments of the original wallpapers were discovered for the walls, frieze, and ceiling. In all the rooms, the ghost outlines of picture rails were discovered. And so on. So, gutting a house destroys, forever, all these historical clues. Forever.

There is a myth that a house has to be gutted to install new wiring and plumbing. This is just that: a myth. I have rewired and re-plumbed many old houses and managed to retain the old plaster as well.

There is a myth that a house has to be gutted to install insulation. This, too, is just that: a myth. I am installing zero insulation in the walls of the Cross House. But I am relentlessly sealing the house and this has made a huge difference. In addition, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties recommends against insulating old houses as this can actually cause damage such as rot and mold.

To rewire an old house one does though have to make some holes. And Jakob asked what I did.

One method is to use a grinder with a masonry cut off wheel (your local hardware store will know what all that means). This creates clean, precise lines but also creates a ton of dust. A ton. And I loathe such dust. So, I do something much more basic:


I knock holes in the plaster via a large screwdriver with a SHARP tip.


Then I bonk with a hammer. Surprisingly, this violent method of hole cutting does not normally affect the adjacent plaster.


To cut through the lath, I use what I call the “magic saw”. This is THE BEST tool. NOTE: Make sure all the unwanted plaster is removed before using the saw, as the plaster will INSTANTLY dull the cutting blade.



In most old houses, one can drop new wires effortlessly from the top of a wall to the hole you created. This is not so in the Cross House, where horizontal bracing impedes this. Sigh. So, I end up with a lot of small holes for every electrical outlet.


Step one in repairing the holes is to drill through the plaster. DO NOT drill through the lath. After the plaster is drilled, switch to a smaller drill bit and then drill through the lath.


I then use hexagon head FINISH screws to attach lath to the back of the original lath. The exposed screw in the image gives me something to hold on to.


Then I infill with another lath layer, after pre-drilling the screws holes (so the lath does not split).


So, remember all the holes?


SQUEE!!!!!!!! Now, I can plaster the holes just like they did in 1894. It will be like erasing the holes I created.


Working on a round room is a first! In order to do the raceway created by the previous owner, I have to cut short lengths of lath. Click image to enlarge.


The plan is to do a little every day. You know, via my patented Baby Step™ method. In a few weeks I expect that all the holes in the round bedroom will be…ready for paint!!!!!!!!

The ceiling? I am torn between repairing it or covering it with sheetrock. Bo told me that the former never really works, and that all the cracks will re-appear. I certainly do not want that to happen. But, I would vastly prefer repairing the highly damaged ceiling rather than covering it up. So, the debate rages in my soul.



13 Responses to Punching Holes in Plaster. Fixing Holes in Plaster.

  1. My parents lived in the same house from 1954 – 2012. The front hall was professionally painted many times in those years. The cracks always reappeared. around 2000, I had the guy who was working for me repaint for them. He carefully scraped the walls and removed all loose plaster, paint and other flaws. When that was complete, he used mesh drywall tape over all of the cracks and skimmed damaged areas with drywall compound. Then he sanded it thoroughly. While sanding, some unseen flaws appeared. These were carefully repaired. When sanded, the walls were primed with Kilz and painted. The cracks did not come back in the following twelve years. Although I instructed my employee in the processes involved, he had the discipline to do each step completely before moving on to the next step. he also would backtrack multiple steps when most would just do a quick cover up.
    I can honestly say that he was the most meticulous worker that I ever employed. I do not have the kind of personality to uncompromisingly follow all of the steps while going back again when additional flaws show up late in the process. The combination of my knowledge and his self discipline did result in a paint job that remained crack free on walls that had had cracks recur after every paint job for nearly fifty years.
    Wish he still worked for me!

    • I am slowly renovating my pre-1900 Victorian in Iowa, and I use this method on my walls. The rooms I have completed remain crack free. The one small closet like space I took shortcuts with redeveloped cracks. It is worth the time spent. It is also very difficult to do with damaged shoulders and severe arthritis in the neck, which is why my house remains a work in progress.

      • Miriam, I feel your pain-I had bilateral shoulder replacements last couple of years as a result of similar old-house feats by a guy who is basically a chair jockey. Shoulders now great! Back atcha plastering again. Neck?–well, when the preacher talks about a stiff-necked people before the LORD, I understand that reference, too.

    • My Hill House was likely built plan-free, from local rough cut framing which was both sufficient (it has stood tall on a WV hilltop since 1899) and insufficient–all rooms have a characteristic sag in the middle. Ceiling cracks recur, even with Stewart’s guy’s methods. Using 1/4 drywall, I jacketed a bay bedroom ceiling–crack-free after 20 years, but the floor of the eave bedroom above has even more of an interesting maritime effect due to the weight. After failure of the mesh and skim method in the dining room, I wore out several cheap drills and conical grinding bits to get vee-shaped grooves down to the lath–looked like a map of the Nile delta. Then damp sponge, mesh tape, and mud. THAT got it-no cracks, though my mudding and sanding wasn’t first rate, paint showed flaws and I had to have somebody who knew what he was doing do a third pass, still perfect after 30 years.

  2. Sheetrocking over plaster is a pain unless you add furring strips to secure it to, then it lowers the ceiling quite a bit. It’s a hugely messy job but I would likely remove the old ceiling plaster then completely re-plaster or sheet rock onto the lath

  3. I agree on the value of plaster walls! They don’t always look that much different, but are so much more solid than drywall (especially the lightweight drywall now becoming more popular).

    For crack repair, I have had good success (no cracks reappearing in the 5 years before we moved, anyway) with the fiberglass mesh tape repair method. I scrape out the cracks to a generous V-grove (using paint scraper with triangular carbide tip), then pre-fill it with the hard Durabond joint filler, then bed fiberglass mesh tape in with another skim coat of Durabond. After that, I’d use the lightweight Durabond setting-type joint compound to feather it out. I’ve found the original Durabond to be very strong, but near impossible to sand, so I use it where I need maximum strength, but don’t need to sand, then switch to the lightweight sandable variety for the last feathering layers.

    If you have existing plaster that is still in place, but missing a lot of keys or coming loose, you can use the large plaster washers to secure it, then bury them and feather over with joint compound.

    I avoid using the drying-type premixed joint compound for plaster repair. It doesn’t develop the strength of the setting-type, and on the occasions I’ve used it, I’ve had issues with it softening from the moisture from primer paint on top.

    Our new house has textured plaster walls, so I may be experimenting with real lime plaster for some repair work here. I would love to see your write-ups on plastering with authentic materials!

  4. Thank you, Ross! A plastering contractor built my 1904 Queen Anne in Bellingham, WA as a personal home for he and his family, and it retains 80% or so of its original plaster. The workmanship was superb, but the underlying carpentry (settling from a post & block foundation) and years of water damage have taken their toll. I’m keen to patch as much as I can, and hope I can find a talented person to recreate the awesome diamond pattern below the chair rail on the kitchen and dining room plaster (anyone white how they did this in the first place?).

    I second the notion of gutting and the superiority of plaster over drywall. My first college house was all plaster, cozy and quiet as could be. I lived in it again after the new landlady did a gut remodel and it just wasn’t the same. And don’t even get me started on orange peel texture!

    Every tried a masonry bit on your magic saw thing? I dream of neatly cutting my outlet and switch boxes with nary a patch to make. I’ve also seen some outlet-box-sized attachments for oscillating tools, anyone tried those? Thanks again to Ross and everyone else chiming in!

  5. Wow! That is a tremendous amount of work, but very worth it in the end. So it sounds like you may be repairing the ceiling. It seems never ending.

  6. Ross: Wow. Just Wow. Not only are you an archaeologist but you are the conservator too. Also, your readers and their comments are the best. I always read and enjoy all of them.

  7. Thank you! I absolutely agree about plaster. It seems to be the first thing people do- rip out ALL the plasterboard. The room actually feels different when you’ve done that.

  8. In addition to plaster being better at sound insulation as well as having a (very) small thermal insulating value, I also have read (and experienced) that it acts as a humidity buffer.

    I can always tell which rooms in my old house have been replaced with sheet rock just from how dry the forced air heating makes them in the winter. The plaster rooms in addition to feeling just a little cooler during the humid summer, now feel slightly warmer.

    Now if I would just go get some peel & seal and stop the drafts like I meant to last month…

    Ross, some days I feel so inept by comparison, but the vast majority of the time I am inspired and motivated when I read about everything you’ve gone through. I love that you took the time and effort, not only to do the wiring properly, but also to show the rest of us all the bits. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that unlike HGTV you don’t have a staff of construction minions doing things off-screen. Not only do you do the work, spend the time to share it with us, but then you’re grabbing that broom handle and sweeping up those bits of plaster. And this is not your “day-job”.

    All of which babbling comes down to – Thank You.
    It seemed the time to mention it. 🙂

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