Plaster Walls: Paper, Priming, Painting

devon8April 10, 2006

We are restoring a 1920's dutch colonial. We are ready to paint, but have the following issues:

Our walls are plaster and lath, but underneath, there appears to be some type of paper. It's not wallpaper, and I do not believe it is NuWall. It is, however, overlapping and it looks terrible. First, what is it? Second, should it be removed (my inclination is no)?

Also, the walls are horrendously dirty. Are there any products that should (or should not) be used on plaster walls? Also, how about a primer? Some friends recommended Kills (sp?) and TSP but I'm concerned with throwing modern products on plaster walls. Any thoughts?

Thanks in advance for your responses.


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I am certainly no expert on painting, so I asked a lot of questions before tackling my old plaster wall and ceiling. My surface, too, was very dirty--particularly the ceiling and the part of the wall (on the left in the "before" picture below) where a coal stove had once stood. I had planned to use Kilz, but was told the fumes were rather powerful. An alternative recommended to me was Behr's Premium Plus stain-hiding latex primer. Although Behr is not a paint I often see praised, the primer worked very well. I covered it with Lowe's American Traditions "Ivory Dust" in eggshell latex. I don't have an "after" picture yet, but I'm very pleased with the results.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2006 at 2:09PM
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I'm not sure I understand your question ...Is the overlapped material underneath the plaster and lath or on the surface? If on the surface, and you don't think it's wall paper or NU-wall, then it may be canvas or some other attempt to either cover-up crumbling plaster or to provide a smooth surface for decorative painting. Why don't you want to remove it? (Other than it being a a nasty job to do.) Have you tried loosening it in a concealed area to assess how hard it would be to remove? You will always see those seams unless you sand them down, which might be a bigger pain than simpy removing the covering.

A lot would depend on what your plaster is like underneath and whether you have rough or finish coat as a top surface. Perhaps your plaster is only rough coat and the paper was installed to make it easier to get a smooth finish. Another alternative would be to remove it and get a top coat put on.

Or you could just slap a coat of paint over it and move on.

As for cleaning, I wouldn't hesitate to use any cleaner, including TSP. Generally I prefer powdered products, rather liquids as I think the powders leave less residue. At the moment I am using up some green powdered laundry detergent, with out enzymes or optical brightening agents, and I like how it's going. (The stuff was a complete dud for laundry, though.) Some people wash with strong ammonia nd water solutions, but I hate that stuff. I have also used Lysol liquid detergents and been satisfied, but now prefer the powdered stuff. I have seen Spic and Span recommended, though I can't stand the smell. Another tactic is to use a steam cleaner. I have a Lady Bug, and while I'm not at all impressed with most of its uses, wall cleaning is something it does do well, though very slowly. (It can also steam wallpaper residue off, so try it first before doing a whole room if you choose to keep whatever is on your walls.)

For primer, I have used Kilz and BIN, and both are very good but incredibly stinky to use (you really need to have an open window). Alisande's recommendation for using a good quality primer, is also good, particularly if you decide to just paint over the surface for now.

With old houses knowing when to go whole hog and restore like crazy and when to just get things cleaned up and looking fine is the key to a happy life. Sounds like maybe just painting over your wall surfaces (after some cleaning) might be a good choice for you.

Happy spring cleaning!


    Bookmark   April 10, 2006 at 2:31PM
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Plaster is almost indestructible when it comes to cleaning, unless you clean with hammers. That's one of the great things about plaster, they are easy to work with.

Just go ahead and wash 'em, use a primer and paint away. I've always had plaster walls and I've never had a care with them.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2006 at 7:53PM
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You must ascertain what the paper stuff is. If it's painted over wallpaper, it's only a matter of time until it loosens. The seams are problematic from an aesthetic POV anyway. Get back to us when you can say what it is.
If you remove it (wall scraper, putty knife, sharpened, single edge razor blade in holder) then after a good wash to remove the paste, you'll have a very clean wall.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2006 at 7:25AM
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I know this is a late reply but I have found a few things in regard to fabric over plaster with many layers of paint on a 1920's home.

1. My first encounter was in a hallway. I blindly painted over it without thinking twice. Six months later the fiber had separated from the wall leaving an air pocket between the plaster and exterior coat. I went back and removed the air pocket filled with plaster and repainted. No problems since.

2. I recently started to work on restoring the dinning room. I came across, more like stopped ignoring, the huge air pocket in the corner of the wall. I opened it up to find the same fabric under many coats of paint. Instead of patching the area I decided to pull all the fabric off first. To my surprise I was able to remove all the paint and fabric from the wall in under an hour. I now have a bare wall with a bit of glue that I plan to was thoroughly and then prime and paint..

Hopefully this extra step will lead to a longer lasting paint job.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2009 at 12:43AM
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I would bet it's wallpaper that's been painted over time and time again. Our ENTIRE 1870's farmhouse had at LEAST 5-6 layers of wallpaper all on top of each other, painted over many times as well. Even the CEILINGS in our house had wallpaper on it!! It is a BEAST of a project to take wallpaper off--do not approach lightly, without patience and a whole lot of time!

We are still not done, and in a few rooms, we just didn't have the time and the wallpaper wasn't coming up in any spots, so we did paint over it. Not ideal. You can still see the lines and it annoys me a little. But when you are doing it all yourself with no money for contractors and you have three kids five-and-under, sometimes there's no choice!

Buy or rent a good steamer, get a paper tiger (is that the name?), a one and two inch scraper thing, and a rag. That and an old boombox is all you need! After you score and steam for a while, it should scrape off pretty well. While the wall is still wet, wipe all the little old glue spots off, and I SWEAR, the plaster is as smooth as a baby's butt!

It's hard to imagine how bombproof plaster walls are since we kind of envision how sheetrock would respond to steaming and scraping, but it is pretty tough. Just be careful on digging the scraper in--I did that and it took the white, smooth, chaulky layer off the plaster, which I had to spackle later on.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   January 26, 2009 at 2:01PM
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The last time I had to remove painted wallpaper no one could even be hired to do the job.

It is easier on plaster walls than drywall.

I used a 4 inch wide razor blade scraper and just removed ot from the plaster dry.
When you get the correct angle it just peels right off.
No water, no steam.

Sometimes the last layer will actually split and you can quickly steam off the back half of the paper.

Plaster should be washed with TSP (the real stuff if you can get it) and then rinsed to make sure all the glue residue is removed.

You will get a few knicks in the wall no matter how you do it.
Easysand (setting type joint compound) makes repairs easily, and if you get good enough to not have to do any sanding you can use Durabond.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2009 at 2:47PM
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