How can I tell if it's plaster??

cannesFebruary 13, 2008

My husband and I have been looking at purchasing an older home. We were wondering... how can we tell if a house has plaster walls just by looking at them? There's a house we love. My husband believes it's drywall, but the ceiling is coved one end of the rooms upstairs. We just don't know. The walls are super smooth.

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The surface of drywall is paper and paint adheres differently. Plaster is harder and even colder. If necessary you can scratch it where it won't be noticed.

    Bookmark   February 13, 2008 at 7:42PM
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A good test is to drive a push pin into it. Try some walls of known construction for a comparison. Drywall is easier.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2008 at 8:25AM
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Plaster feels cooler, and somewhat damper, in most instances. I just went and felt the plaster adjacent to a small temporary dry-wall patch in my hallway. The temp differential is easily felt, and the plaster has more solid, almost mineral feel to it. Fine, finish coat plaster is very smooth, but rougher-textured materials can also be plaster.

Look for plaster at places where you can see into walls, such as from the basement, at utility chases, in the attic, etc. If all else fails ask to take off a switch cover and peer in around the electrical stuff.

In older houses (for sure for all 19th c buildings, but perhaps also during the first quarter of the 20th century) the plaster will be on wooden or metal mesh lath with the dried blobs of plaster visibly oozing through the back - these are called the plaster keys. More recently there are plaster walls which are essentially skim coat plaster on dry-wall like material without lath.

Plaster is a superlative wall covering, but has its own challenges if it has no insulation behind it. Retrofitting energy-savings materials behind intact plaster is a controversial, and sometimes problematic, procedure.



    Bookmark   February 15, 2008 at 12:02AM
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I have a home so old, the plaster walls are not even on wood lathe, but applied over solid brick walls. Under the finish plaster is another material, looking almost like stucco and sandy. The ceiling plaster is over lathe and has keys, but not the walls.

I can tell by thumping on them. Dry wall has a hollower sound except where over a joist. My walls? Nope. In an old home, you may very well find a combination of drywall and plaster. It's not unusual anymore for people to take out plaster where it's bad and put up drywall, and in the very next room, the plaster walls are still intact. Or find areas of drywall in an otherwise plaster wall where they've patched in repairs.

If the house is for sale, this information is usually on the house description from the realtor. I think taking off the switchplates is also a good idea.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2008 at 10:53PM
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To the OP, what is your idea of an older home? Most homes from the 40ties on are drywall or gypsum board. Our first home had plaster and full sized hardwood 2 X 4's. It was build around 1920. Prior to that we rented a home so old the electrical wiring went through the pipes that once fed the gas lights in the home. All of that was in Ohio. We now live in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex where our 1959 home is considered old.

    Bookmark   February 17, 2008 at 9:06AM
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The House was being sold by the the family. Original owner died last year(in the house), so there wasn't a lot of information about the house.

We are in the west suburbs of chicago. The homes we have looked at so far were built from 1897-1945. I would prefer not to go any newer.

The house we were interested in went under contract on Friday. Since we haven't sold our place yet, we were hesitant to put in an offer and missed out. The house was in disastrous condition. But the bones were amazing! Original hardwood floors, hardware, trim, built ins. The kitchen and bathrooms needed complete guts which we are ok with. Oh well. Someone warned me not to get emotionally attached to any home before having an accepted offer. I didn't listen.

Thanks for all your responses. It'll help with our continued search.


    Bookmark   February 17, 2008 at 11:12AM
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The wall could also be plaster on "Rocklath" which is essentially 2'x8' drywall with a porous paper face that accepts a full plaster system well. USG still makes it.

Venner plaster would be thinner and newer on "blueboard".

    Bookmark   February 17, 2008 at 12:44PM
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My wife's aunt, after whom she is named, lives in Lake Forest which is a beautiful. However, I would rather have needles under my fingernails than go through a northern winter. We've had a terrible cold snap here in Dallas. Got down to 50 yesterday!

    Bookmark   February 17, 2008 at 2:45PM
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I agree with the pushpin idea. My suggestion on the same lines is a utility knife. Don't cut out a section, just slide the knife into a wall in inconspicuous places. The knife goes in easily in DW, and doesn't in plaster.

Beware, the knife will go in easily in plaster if it's very wet.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2008 at 6:42AM
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My walls are plaster veneer on blueboard, done sometime around 1940/1950. So they feel and act like plaster, without the lathe (so a little easier to work with). Something else to think about.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2008 at 3:50PM
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Remove a switch plate and look at the edges of the wall.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2008 at 3:25PM
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