Plaster Restoration and Repair

Posted on: July 7th, 2020 No Comments

Greetings everyone, Oscar the Grotesque here, joining you for another week to look more closely at Adirondack architecture, historic buildings, and preservation opportunities.

This week I am joined by my special guest Tom Podhrazsky owner of  White Pine Studio. Tom has recently relocated to the Adirondacks and is hard at work restoring his Greek Revival home.  Read on as Tom shares his recent experience restoring historic plaster.

“Most people rip out plaster in favor of sheetrock. They claim that it’s faster and cheaper. In a completely new building I would have to agree. In an old building it’s not so clear. For one thing sheetrock and plaster aren’t the same grade of finish – so time and cost estimates are skewed. But if the lathe is already on the walls, in my experience it isn’t any faster to patch the wall with sheetrock. Sheetrock is dead flat and sticks out like a sore thumb when put into a historic building that was lovingly built by hand. Plaster is full of nuance and adds beauty to a room as light rakes across it’s surface – revealing undulations and textures that please the eye and display a connection to the earth from which it came. Additionally, plaster has a higher insulation value, and a lower chance of growing mold. If the walls in your old house aren’t straight it doesn’t matter – the plaster will amicably comply with the lumps and bumps.

If you already have plaster walls then you have a luxury finish for free. Tearing it out because of some needed repairs would be like buying a new car so you don’t have to pay for an oil change. Repairing it looks intimidating, but I’ve found it to be really forgiving actually – the beauty of it is it’s hand-made quality – if it’s not perfect then it’s exactly right.

Here is an overview of what I did in my kitchen:

1) The first picture shows my kitchen as it was when I bought the house. My first step was ripping out a lot of pressboard panelling – I really don’t like this material – it just simply had to go.

 

2) After ripping out all of the offending materials, I discovered the original plaster walls – which had been covered in layers of wallpaper. You can’t fix plaster if it’s covered in wallpaper. As soon as you put anything over top of it the previous layers will rebel and start falling apart beneath it – you will drive yourself crazy trying to fix it all. You have to drill out the gunk in a cavity before you can fill it, so armed with a spray bottle in one hand (filled with regular old tap water) and a putty knife in the other, I went to work scraping off the wall coverings.

 

3) When you take off the wallpaper the bad plaster beneath tends to fall off. Just like any natural material, given enough moisture and abuse, plaster will just fall apart – this goes for sheetrock too by the way! In any case, I took out the plaster that couldn’t be salvaged and then consolidated the remaining plaster using a clever system I discovered of regluing the old plaster to the lathe to make sure it hangs in there.

4) Before I started putting plaster back on the wall I needed to reinstall the chair rail and wainscotting that was missing. I didn’t see any evidence of what was there originally to guide my decision, but the kitchen in my house was originally a farm/utility shed, so I felt that what I needed was something simple. So I milled up some white pine boards into single-beaded shiplap. I made my own because what I wanted wasn’t commercially available. I fitted up a basic job site table saw with a dado blade and used a few handplanes to cut the bead. In a few hours I had finished making my material and installed it.

5) After installing the wainscoting I could now begin putting up plaster. Traditionally plaster is a three coat process: You start with a scratch coat (a rough coat that you scarify with a giant tool that looks like the devil’s hair comb), then you put on the brown coat (a relatively smooth coat of a course grade plaster), and then finally the finish coat gets applied (a smooth coat made using a high lime content plaster that leaves a smoother finish). The following images show the three coats as I put them up. In a house of this particular vintage, the original craftsmen would have mixed their own plaster with lime, sand, and water (sometimes they also would have included horse hair). For expediency’s sake I decided to use a premixed plaster product for the first two coats, and then a bit of light duty joint compound for the finish coat. If my house were of particularly important historical value I would not have made that decision.

6) After a couple coats of paint, the kitchen was transformed, and I did it at a reasonable cost while retaining a high percentage of the home’s historic fabric. My kitchen is still a work in progress, and I expect it to remain in that state for a while longer, but I’m really enjoying the process of restoring it. I encourage anyone else in a similar position to embrace the plaster in their house rather than tear it out.

Thank you Tom for sharing your tips and tricks for a successful plaster restoration. For a additional information on the subject, see the links below.

https://www.period-homes.com/product-reports/restoring-historic-plaster

https://www.oldhouseonline.com/repairs-and-how-to/repairing-historic-flat-plaster-walls-ceilings

At AARCH we love to hear your stories, adventures and learn from our members and friends about Historic Preservation and more. Be safe!

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