Renovating Old Plaster

Wallpaper removal is nearly done
Wallpaper removal nearly done

 Loryn: One of the downsides of owning a 100+ year old house is the 100 years of wallpaper layered on every surface. When I first bought the house, I had grand ideas of removing all of it and skimcoating. These delusions ended after it took a few months to strip four rooms—rooms covered in up to fifteen layers of wallpaper, wallpaper that came off inch by frustrating inch. The house has fifteen rooms total, many of them large Victorian rooms with ten foot ceilings, and even my helpful, crafty family just doesn’t have that much enthusiasm!

Since then, I’ve started painting over the already painted wallpaper as a compromise to make the house actually livable. There are a few places, though, where the wallpaper is already peeling and has to come off. The end of my upstairs hallway is one of those places. Above, you can see it in progress. I don’t have a before shot, because I started taking the paper down PB (pre-blog).

There are a lot of methods out there to remove wallpaper, and we’ve tried most of them. The top layer of paper scraped off easily, and I just used hot water on the last layers that didn’t want to come up. Since this is antique paper (not vinyl), the water brings it up pretty easily. (That’s easy on a wallpaper removal scale, which ranges from repetitive annoyance to utter misery).

Here it is, ready to begin patching the plaster. Most of the paper on the right wall was adhered firmly, so I’ll be leveling it out with drywall compound, rather than removing it all. Expediency rules! In this shot, you can see the back stairway, and the doorway to the guest room.

The first thing that I needed to do is to patch a large area where the plaster has pulled away from the lath. I’m planning to use this niche to display artwork, so I need flat, sturdy walls.

Here is the patch in place. The “proper” way to make this repair would be to cut a square out of the plaster and insert a square patch. I even have a Dremel Multimax that will cut plaster. One small cut in plaster, though, will ruin a $14 blade. Since plaster is hard to cut and drywall is very easy to cut, I’m taking this route! I pulled out the loose plaster with a hammer, and left the lath in place. I made a template by tracing the shape onto brown paper. I used 1/4″ drywall, which matches the plaster pretty well.

And here is the patch again. To fill in the gaps, I used setting compound or “hot mud.” It’s more like real plaster, in that you mix it yourself, and you have limited time to work with it before it sets. It’s good for filling in large gaps, because it doesn’t shrink like drywall compound. Also, it cures much faster, so you can keep working. I usually use 45 minute compound, but you can also get 20 and 90 minute. I also used paper tape over the seams.

Once that was done, I was ready to start using drywall compound for other cracks and to smooth out some old and uneven plaster repairs. Purists use plaster to repair old plaster, but I’m happy enough with the drywall compound, and it saves many steps. Expediency again!

And here it is with the cracks taped and rough spots leveled. I still need to tape the ceiling seams. A previous owner hung drywall on the ceiling in the not-so-distant past. Unfortunately, their finishing job was pretty bad. They embedded the tape, and never used any topping coats, so the seams look terrible. The tape was also on top of all the layers of wallpaper, so I just pulled it off. I’ll end up redoing all of the seams eventually. Tomorrow, I’ll do that seam and put the first topping coat on!

So, why fix this plaster instead of just demolishing it and putting in drywall? Well, I happen to love old plaster. New drywall just doesn’t compare with the substance of original plaster. This wall was in good shape, with two main vertical cracks. Overall, the amount of finishing I’ll do is not much more than I would if I put in new drywall. Plus, not having to haul all the old plaster out and carry in new drywall is a relief to my back.

I’ll be back tomorrow with an update on this project! If you’re interested in learning more, I used the site to learn all about repairing plaster. His tutorial was very helpful!


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