How do you know if your plaster is good enough to paint?

gardenwebberSeptember 23, 2008

I have recently begun stripping 2 layers of wallpaper in our family room with the intention of re-wallpapering. Yesterday the paint store informed me that the wallpaper we ordered is on backorder until DECEMBER. So - I have been giving the option of painting the plaster another thought.

How do you know if your plaster is in good enough shape? How much work is involved in smoothing it over?

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Most plaster isn't smooth. That is the way it is. You will have to prime the plaster anyways before you apply wallpaper. I would fill in any deep dents in the plaster and repair cracks and prime it.

You may look at it and really like it. Our house is half painted and half wallpapered. I didn't wallpaper because the condition of the plaster but because our house is of an age that wallpaper was really common and it looks nice.

Depending on the age and type of house you own.. the plaster may have been meant for wallpaper and may not be as finished as other houses.

I would prime it and determine how you feel about the paint. Some people really love the textured walls.


    Bookmark   September 23, 2008 at 4:11PM
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rj -

Thank you for your insight. I am definitely the type of person who would enjoy texture on the walls. (The wallpaper I had ordered was a faux plaster, with texture on the paper!)

I just didn't think painting the plaster was an option because there is one drywalled wall in this room that is a little jacked up, so I didn't see any hopes in getting it to match the plaster.

Our plaster is smooth, but wavy if you run your hand over it. In fact, if it were up to me, I'd prefer to see a little more texture, but I have no idea how to make that happen. How would you add texture to the plaster? Can you use drywall mud? That was one thing I liked about going the wallpaper route - the texture was there and uniform, know what I mean?

There are quite a few cracks in our plaster, but very small ones, I bet paint might even fill them in they are so thin. Maybe I'll take some pics later and post them if I get a chance.

    Bookmark   September 23, 2008 at 5:21PM
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I've seen dry wall on hgtv that has been skim coated to look like plaster. They make it look easy. Not sure what it would cost for a professional to do it.

    Bookmark   September 23, 2008 at 10:35PM
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You will be able to tell how it will look by priming it and priming is necessary if you paint anyway. Not all plaster is supposed to be textured; ours is smooth as are most other old houses I have seen. It is inexpensive to prime,so why not try it first?

    Bookmark   September 24, 2008 at 3:59PM
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"Most plaster isn't smooth."

What kind of plaster are you looking at?

While plaster cab be textured, the most common installation is absolutely flat and smooth.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2008 at 8:12PM
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Hi gardenwebber, I'd be interested in seeing your pics if you get around to posting them. I am thinking that I'm in a similar situation as yours.

I just took wallpaper off of one wall in my 1897 house and the plaster is definitely the old "horsehair plaster". My walls are not as smooth as I remember my dad's house when he built it and used the blueboard/plaster coat on his walls. When I'm up close to my plaster wall, it's like it has tiny cracks in hexagon shapes over the whole wall. They are really tiny, so it's possible that it'll look smoother after priming. I really don't want to have to skim coat the entire wall.

I don't think it was intentional to not be smoother, but I don't know. This is the first old house I've owned. :-) Maybe those tiny cracks are from the house settling over time.

To Diane or brickeye: does it matter if I prime first, and then decide to wallpaper afterwards if I don't like the texture after priming? Is there a primer that's better to get wallpaper off down the road? I'd hate to have the next owner cursing me while they take down my wallpaper. :-) I was thinking of using Zinsser BullsEye 1-2-3. I've already put Gardz on the wall as advised on the Paint forum here.

Thanks in advance! If I can borrow my husband's digital camera, I'll try and take some pics of my wall so you can see it.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2008 at 9:38AM
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brickeye: I guess I am referring to old (old) houses. When I think of the "old house" forum I am thinking houses 100 years or older and I forget that isn't always true here.

Many plasters were made using things like horsehair and these plasters are never perfectly smooth (like new plaster or drywall) they are just textured. You can feel the texture. That is what I meant. They will never be like drywall.

La koala:
There are wallpaper primers however you can get other multi-use primers such as zinsser that are recommended for wallpaper use also. Just read the back of the paint can.

Are you sure that the plaster cracks you are seeing are actually plaster cracks or could it be painted and you are seeing old paint? I only ask because I have seen a lot of old paint appear like you have described. We also have horsehair plaster walls and I don't think I have seen those little cracks everywhere. Although maybe you looked closer than I did??

Also the paint will fill in any hair-line cracks in the plaster however you should expect those cracks to show up after a few years again unless you carefully tape over them.
If the walls have a large number of cracks or it seems that the plaster is loose you need to fix that problem before you do any more work. Some small cracks shouldn't cause any alarm. Houses move so there will always be some small cracks here and there. Wallpapering will cover them up nicely though.


    Bookmark   September 25, 2008 at 11:37AM
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Ok, Koala and anyone else who is interested... here are some pics of my plaster (if this is pic overload for a single thread, please let me know)

Here is a pic of one of the larger cracks we have that I suspect may need some TLC:

And here is a pic of a tiny hairline crack that I suspect paint may fill in (there are a few of these):

Koala - you had mentioned you have horsehair plaster. We have both. We have horsehair upstairs and upon closer inspection, I am thinking that the plaster in my current FR in question is NOT horsehair. The horsehair texture is more coarse than our plaster downstairs. (this room was added in 1950, so I am thinking that is where the difference is) Here is pic of our horsehair:

Here is a pic of our smoother plaster downstairs in FR:

Koala - we've painted our horsehair in a room upstairs years ago and we were definitely not too happy with the results. We went through and filled in nail holes and then those areas tend to "flash" at you under the paint:

Area without nail holes:

Area with nail holes repaired:

In hindsight, I wish we would have done something to pull all the texture together and make it look uniform. We'll be re-doing that room someday and doing that.

Here is a broader pic of one of the corners in our room with some nail holes delicately repaired:

We are wondering if we just rolled on some texturizing mud, or took a med trowel and just randomly criss-crossed it or something that we could pull this all together to look textured and somewhat uniform. I actually prefer some sort of texture instead of smooth as glass. I think that puts us at an advantage as far as the workload this will be.

Any comments?

    Bookmark   September 25, 2008 at 11:38AM
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A good plaster job is smooth. Texture is used as a way cover up problems.
The wall should be repaired and primed before the paper is appliedanyway.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2008 at 1:22PM
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Gardenwebber, Here is what I think is an easy to understand, how to guide to plastering.

Don't use Home Depot or Lowe's, off the shelf spackling/patching type products. You'll end up having more problems than you have now.

Your woodwork is great!!!

Here is a link that might be useful: how to plaster

    Bookmark   September 25, 2008 at 1:44PM
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If you use matte paint that will help also. The glossier the paint the more you will see any wall imperfections. I get eggshell (in between matte and gloss) because it cleans better than the matte but it isn't glossy really at all.


    Bookmark   September 25, 2008 at 4:10PM
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My plaster (1920s home) is a lot smoother than that, but not as smooth as wall board. I wonder if gardenwebber's was intended for paper?

    Bookmark   September 25, 2008 at 4:20PM
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Hi renee, thanks for your response. I have been up close and personal with that wall! It's the first time I removed wallpaper with a goal of painting, so I was following the instructions from the Paint Forum about removing the paste. I ended up going over the wall at least 4 times (one with Dif and sponge, one with Scotch scrubby and water, one with Dirtex to clean, and one with plain water to rinse after the Dirtex which I probably didn't need, but I was being thorough. :-)

The thought crossed my mind that it might have a layer of paint, except it doesn't behave as paint. It doesn't flake off anywhere, and when I accidentally gouged a place while scraping off the wallpaper, the whole piece seemed the same all the way in the 'dent' as it were.

Hi gardenwebber, thanks for posting the pics of your walls!
That pic with the dime looks *exactly* like my wall. It has the same little flecks that show up in your picture with the dime, and also the one after it.

After seeing your pics of the red painted wall, I took a flashlight and took a look at the room walls in my house that are painted (and were painted like that the day we bought the house). And I can see that the previous owner must have just painted without doing any new smooth coat of mud or plaster. They have the same textures I see in your red pics. I think I never notice it because the color is a neutral beige, the lights are pretty dim in those rooms, and I am slightly nearsighted and rarely wear my glasses when I'm just in the house. :-)

Kathy's idea might be one reason the walls aren't as smooth. I had read in the Paint Forum that sometimes if the builder knew it was going to be wallpapered, they didn't do as smooth a surface, or rather, used a rougher plaster, so that they could be finished faster.

Renee, thanks for the tip about the matte paint too.


    Bookmark   September 25, 2008 at 6:13PM
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"I guess I am referring to old (old) houses. When I think of the "old house" forum I am thinking houses 100 years or older and I forget that isn't always true here.

Many plasters were made using things like horsehair and these plasters are never perfectly smooth (like new plaster or drywall) they are just textured. You can feel the texture. That is what I meant. They will never be like drywall."

All the Federalist townhouses I work on in Alexandria, VA have some of the smoothest plaster around.

Horse hair and sand are used in the base coat of plaster over lath.
It allows the plaster to easily bridge the gaps and form the 'keys' necessary for a solid job.

The next layer (the scratch coat) is mixed with sand as a stretcher.

The final finish coat is normally a mix of lime putty and plaster, and is finished off smooth and polished.

I have seen the finish coat omitted when wall paper was intended as the final surface.
It was a cheap shortcut and made it more difficult to strip the paper when needed.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2008 at 8:22PM
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Hi brickeyee,

About this: "The next layer (the scratch coat) is mixed with sand as a stretcher. The final finish coat is normally a mix of lime putty and plaster, and is finished off smooth and polished. "

Given your description, what I'm thinking is that the surface that I see on my wall is the scratch coat. It's because you mention the sand: when I look closely, there are all of these flecks scattered through it and some of them seem to reflect the light. That would make sense to me if these flecks are the sand--because sand grains are like that.

Is there some way to test if the surface has the lime in it? Or if I have a bit that's already been scraped off, is there some chemical stick or something that I can test for the lime?

If my surface really is the scratch coat, is it reasonably doable to hire a plasterer to put on a final finish coat to make it smooth and polished? If I've stripped the wallpaper and done a good Gardz/hole-repair/sand job on the scratch coat, what issues would someone be facing in adding on that final finish coat?

(I'm asking to try and judge whether it's less risky to go with wallpaper vs trying to make the walls smoother and paint them.)

Thanks in advance!

    Bookmark   September 26, 2008 at 9:49AM
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Wallpaper would be less risky and less expensive.
Also how old and what type of house do you have? brickeye mentioned that some plaster by him is very smooth. Well, we have old farmhouses here and the plaster is not smooth. It was meant to be wallpapered. If you have a farmhouse or something simple maybe you want to keep it simple?

I would worry about getting someone to make the plaster smooth because if they are not knowledgeable then maybe the top coat could end up cracking in a few years? Also sanding would make the biggest mess. That sand gets everywhere!

When we end up painting our walls we do fill in any larger holes and then I usually get a slightly wet sand paper sponge and sand the filled areas smooth. I think this looks nice. Also we always do at least one coat of primer and two coats of paint, so that does help things smooth out a little bit.


    Bookmark   September 26, 2008 at 3:54PM
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Hi renee,
My house is a Queen Ann style, built in 1897 in Massachusetts. Nearest that we can tell, it was built by a fish oil merchant he was in his 50s, and I'm thinking he was fairly wealthy for the day. In some respects, based on features we've found in the attic, I suspect he might have run it as a boarding house for seasonal workers working on the fishing docks. But that is speculation until I get time to research the town's old newspapers. :-)

I see what you mean about matching the style (if it was a farmhouse, etc). Wallpaper would certainly be in keeping with the era of the house. I would have to hire someone to wallpaper though--I don't see handling that by myself, whereas I think I could handle painting myself.

Thanks for mentioning the point about the sanding and the potential for mess! It looks like I have these options:
1. Keep the scratch coat 'as is' and get an estimate for wallpapering
2. Find an expert plasterer and get an estimate of putting on a final smooth coat and his/her judgment for how smooth as result would be achievable and the aspects of sanding mess and future adherence. (And then I paint afterwards)
3. Fill and sand the largest uneven areas myself, and then prime and two coats of paint and see how I do.

Maybe I could do the one area of a wall that will be hidden behind our largest bookcase. Then, if I don't like it, I can go to the wallpapering. :-)

Thanks again for all the tips and advice you've posted here! It's helped a lot to clarify what I might best do next.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2008 at 11:47AM
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