The Cross House

To plaster? Or not to? THAT is the question.

When I purchased the Cross House in 2014, every room looked like a bomb had gone off in it. There were holes in all the plaster walls and ceilings. Some plaster walls and ceilings were missing entirely, like the library, which was 95% bare studs.

I sheetrocked the library, and sheetrocked over the heavily damaged parlor ceiling. And now these two rooms, at least, are ready to be introduced to polite society.

But…uneasy lies my head with the results. And I have proceeded no further.

You see, I adore plaster-on-lath walls and ceilings. A plaster house sounds better than a sheetrocked house. I also like the idea of plaster-on-lath and this is one of the fundamental things I love about old houses.

So, why am I introducing sheetrock?

Uneasy lies my head.

Last November I did a post about the terrible conditions I must ye reckon with…

 

EEK!

 

EEK!

 

EEK!

 

EEK!

 

In my November post, Pat wrote in and asked if I knew about Alex, who has his own blog and wrote about how he taught himself to plaster walls using a product by Master Of Plaster (MOP). Then Alex wrote in! And he strongly recommended I go with plaster.

Well, all this has been mulling around my uneasy head.

Recently, I was urged to cover over all my damaged ceilings with blue board. This is just like sheetrock but has a blue facing which is designed for plaster. So, I would blue board over all my ceilings, then plaster over them using MOP.

OK!

But I could not find where to buy blue board. This was not entirely a surprise as how many people plaster their houses today?

So, I reached out to Master of Plaster, and Lauren has been remarkably, amazingly responsive. Back and forth we have gone and Lauren also discovered that finding a blue board supplier in Kansas was not an easy thing.

However, Lauren did not think I needed to blue board over all my 123-year-old bomb-damaged walls and ceilings. Why not just restore them? You know, with lath? And then plaster over?

Oh. Gee.

All of a sudden this seems like the duh obvious solution.

Why not, indeed, reinstall lath where it is missing, and then plaster over this? Just like it was done in 1894?

MOP can supply 5-gallon buckets of premixed base coat, and pre-mixed finish coat. Between the two coats one can apply fiberglass mesh (window screening) to help create a solid finished surface. Alex assures me that I can do all this and, zounds, enjoy the process.

Could…this…truly…be…possible????????

Well, I am fascinated by all this, and giddy at the prospect of actually being able to restore the highly damaged plaster of the Cross House in an authentic way.

I am curious, too. What is your experience with damaged plaster?

 

16 Responses to To plaster? Or not to? THAT is the question.

  1. I am glad, that I am not the only one pondering this!

    I have an 1860’s church that probably has/had as much plaster on the walls as your entire house lol All of it is long long gone, to far gone to save and that is even the sections full of signatures..

    I then have the parsonage which had/has plaster too…

    I LOVE plaster but the only place I may be able to save it is in the parsonage as most of the walls are intact BUT most of the plaster is lose from the lath and ceilings are all gone. I want to save all the walls but everything else I am just going to dry wall…It may be very DIY but there is no way I could plaster everything, specially the near 20ft ceilings in the church…I would be like Michelangelo lol

    I do like this product though, if I ever get to that part of the project…

    I wish we still did plaster like a lot of the other parts of the world does and we could just call a father n son team to redo it all. I still have a ton of sand under the parsonage from when it was first mixed on site….

  2. Exciting! I will warn you against using any sort of screening though. If somewhere down the road a piece of plaster comes loose from the lathe it makes it impossible to repair without tearing the whole thing down. plaster reinforced with mesh is also totally intolerant of shifting and settling with the house and can actually tear itself off the walls if the house shifts or settles too much. regular plaster deals with the pressure and tension of gradual shifting by cracking. a nuisance but easily repaired. If you make the entire thing one rigid entity it has no other way to deal with this other than for the keys to break away from the lathe. Personally I recommend doing it the Victorian way – with horsehair. or any type of hair which is more easily available.

    • Excellent point Nathan – the fiberglass mesh tape is great to treat existing cracks – so a 4″ or 6″ mesh we have found works wonders. The existing crack lines that are in the current plaster have now become pressure points in your wall/ceiling and as the house continues to settle the pressure will continue to release at the easiest point of access. This open weave fibreglass mesh serves to diffuse the pressure in moving forward and thus becomes a great option to treat cracks or traverse any areas where old plaster and new plaster meet – as they will have different moisture wicking ratios at first.

    • Nathan,
      With regards to horse hair, what amounts and type of horse hair is needed for plastering? Do you need only mane and tail hair or winter shedding body hair, or both?
      Thank you!
      Amber

      • I have absolutely no idea! something strong though. as cory mentioned, fiberglass strands are probably a cheaper, stronger, and more easily available.

  3. I’d say plaster! All the way! It’s always a plus to learn a new skill. You’ll even be able to fix it yourself later on, if need be.

    Side note, what kind of wood is used in your diningroom? Is it a faux finish like other woodwork throughout the house? I’d kill to see what kind of paper they matched with that great dark wood.

  4. I’ve done plaster and lath on ceilings of an 1870 house about the size of yours. The base coat goes on easier than you think and most of it stays where you put it. Instead of horse hair use fiberglass strands. The more plastering you do the more youll find muscles you never knew you had. The finish coat goes on like spreading mayonnaise on bread. Just work it back and forth and the plaster will self level. Use a spray bottle filled wit water to revive dry areas and you’ll never need to sand. Practice icing a cake. If you can ice a cake you can plaster a wall, though icing tastes a lot better.
    Home Depot in my area carries lath. I’m guessing yours doesn’t if they don’t have blue board.

  5. I’m with the others, you should learn to plaster. BUT first find some places to patch at eye level or lower to practice on. In fact, offer for the others to help learn. Many hands make light work, as they say. The experience would be soothing to your soul and a new skill will keep your brain young. I’ve learned that while we may grow old, we never have to grow up! So go for it! Find your practice area, learn the skill, and watch how your home changes even more.

  6. If you do decide to plaster your remaining fixes, will you leave the parlor ceiling and library walls and ceiling as sheet rock?

  7. I think the sheet-rock in the parlor & library are acceptable as it was so disheartening with the extensive damage. I think in other areas where the damage is not as extensive, plaster would be lovely & you seem so excited. It’s your house & you have been so happy about your 2 rooms for polite company, it’s just 2 rooms & sheet-rock was the most viable option at the time. You have hopes & dreams about plaster in most of the house.or perhaps the rest of the house if feasible. Time is money. The costs of (C)Ross House restoration are exponential. Sometimes what us most cost-effective is the key. It is what it is. Restoring to make right sometimes means doing what needs to be done at the time. Cross Houseis looking so stunning and beautiful & I love the blog as we get to see the marvelous progress. I also think it supports and validates.
    Yay C-Ross (Cross) House!! Yay Ross! Yippee-yi-kayay!

  8. My Italianate house has evidence of severe water infiltration that severely damaged virtually every second floor plaster ceiling, and several first floor ceilings and walls. Previous owners dealt with this by obscuring these ceilings with acoustic tiles affixed to battens both nailed and screwed into the lath. If the original plaster had not been compromised by the water, the nails and screws shattered it, assuring it had to be replaced. Plaster rained down in huge pieces when the battens were removed. I had a total of seven ceilings that had to be fully replaced. Of these, two were in rooms that required all the walls be stripped back to lath as well. I cannot speak with the authority of an expert, but I can relate what I learned and what I would have done differently.

    I started with basic research. The National Trust has a book on historic plaster that has a scholarly overview of it’s history but not much in the way of practical do it yourself advice that was relevant to me. The complexity of using lime was very off putting, especially when compared to the ease of acquiring gypsum and its rapid drying time. There are youtube videos of a gentleman in California who does an entire ceiling on lath in one day with a swimming pool trowel and a team mixing rapidly drying mud. There are also terrific videos of English and Irish plasterers online, but they are all working with lime. There is a fascinating episode of “Grand Designs” set in Wales where two lime plasterers redo an entire stone cottage interior. It looks gorgeous and I presumed lime is what the plaster in my house probably was, so I contacted Lymeworks in Bucks Co., PA but the product was frighteningly expensive and the shipping cost was enormous. I was also ignorant at that point as to how much plaster I would need. Not knowing exactly what I was going to do, I continued anyway with prep work. This involved removing all the broken plaster keys out of the lath (a seriously unpleasant and messy endeavor) and buttoning up all loose lath. I had to remove old BX from light fixtures that had been at the lower elevation of the acoustic tile ceiling. New electric was put in which when centered into the middle of the room, meant cutting lath and having to add wood between joists so it could be re-secured.

    Not confident I could do this alone, I dusted the house and contacted some local contractors who had zero interest in my project. Every one of them recommended sheetrock, looked at me blankly when I mentioned lime, and couldn’t give me estimates as they had never plastered over lath, they had only skimmed over blue board. I did find one fellow, Jose, willing to give it a go and at a very appealing hourly rate. Unfortunately he barely spoke English. He did, however, have lots of experience with Diamond Veneer plaster skim coating so he was good with a hawk and adept at mixing. I would have loved to have used lime but without a source and with communication difficult, I let Jose dictate the materials.

    We vacuumed the lath and coated it with Plaster Weld applied by brush. Structo-lite was used as the base coat. It was very easy to work with but I learned much later that it permanently stains wood floors if you spill it and let it dry. I have several small black stains still visible even after floor sanding. We applied two applications of base coat. Following that, Jose would mix gypsum Diamond plaster with 45 minute mud for the next phase. He also insisted on applying mesh to the whole ceiling. He didn’t seem scientific about the measurements when mixing, relying on his eye, but he was fussy about what he wanted the mix to look like. Making the mixes was hard work and really messy for an amateur. I was constantly going to buy more bags of plaster. The ceilings were just eating them. The total number of coats was dictated by the number it took to eliminate the ghostly appearance of the lath’s undulations beneath the plaster. This can be difficult to gauge as the direction and intensity of natural light in a given room varies so tremendously throughout the day. Jose did all of the polish coats himself, spraying the plaster with a water bottle and knocking ridges and high spots off onto the floor. This too was messy and very hard work to execute over one’s head. Compared to sheet rocking, the increased time of total execution with plaster is a huge disparity. There is just no comparison. Frustratingly, literally every room of my house had 1970s wallpaper that when removed revealed that when the house was new, circa 1870, every one of those rooms had been papered from day one. So all the wall plaster was in a crude, rough, unpainted state that would require a polish coat throughout the entire house. I would end up having a plasterer in the house for nearly a year. I do have some concerns about the compatibility of gypsum plaster over lime but there seems to be no consensus about this among experts.

    The second floor ceilings where the project began turned out really well and look great a year later. Priming would usually reveal trowel scratches and other defects not previously noticeable but I would just skim them with 45 minute mud, give it a light sand, and re-prime. Jose was talented enough that he never, ever sanded anything. While the overall result is not as perfectly smooth as the house’s original ceilings must have been, they do appear even. I would go on to make more mistakes with the whole room projects on the first floor than with the ceilings.

    There were two rooms downstairs where the walls were as equally destroyed as the ceilings. In addition to the water damage, one room had been a bathroom so tiles had been glued to the plaster and all sorts of openings had been cut into the walls for cabinets, plumbing etc. Unfortunately the original baseboards and door casings had long been discarded and replaced by 1960’s clamshell moulding. I had not hired a carpenter yet so we went ignorantly ahead and plastered the room without having considered that the woodwork should have been created first. Inspection of the second room, where the baseboard was intact, revealed just how thick the plaster in the house really was and with 12 foot ceilings in each room, I totally panicked about the cost of the materials. I don’t have an exact figure, but the room with the baseboards would consume dozens and dozens of bags of plaster in the end. Facing serious budget problems at this point in the project (plastering was but one issue this house had), I used way fewer bags of plaster in the room without the baseboards than I should have. Consequently, in certain raking light the undulations from the lath are very apparent. No doubt the acoustical properties of the room are diminished compared to the other as well and while I have not seen any movement occur, the thinner walls can’t be anywhere near the strength of the other room. Lastly, because we let the lath and our eyes dictate the contours of the walls their wonky-ness is much more apparent than on any of the ceilings and without baseboards already in place to align the new walls with, the replica baseboards added later undulate with the walls.

    I do not wish to ever add up the total cost in plaster for this project. It was just massive. For months my local hardware store was never not restocking Plaster Weld because of me. I never would have expected when I bought the house that not a single room had ever had a polish coat, and that all that extra plastering above and beyond replacing the water damaged parts would need to be done. It does look really great though. There is a 1960’s addition to the house that I had sheet rocked and there is just no comparison to the beauty of the plaster in the 19th century part.

  9. sheetrocked over the heavily damaged parlor ceiling. This is a No No. All the extra weight is bad for the house. It needs to be down to studs.

    • Sheetrock over the damaged parlor ceiling is perfectly fine.

      The original plaster remains, and could be restored at a later date.

      Gutting a house to the studs is a no-no.

Leave a Response

Your email address will NEVER be made public or shared, and you may use a screen name if you wish.