Removing drywall from plaster without damaging plaster

slateberry51October 31, 2012

Soooo, all over my house, the P.O.s added layers. I am slowly peeling them back to reveal an 1887 victorian.

My latest venture is the ceiling in a small 2nd floor room. I figure, start with a small room, see how it goes, and work my way up to a big project, like the dining room where the new ceiling layers are obscuring part of the crown molding.

I have figured out that they covered all the ceilings with 1/2 drywall, 3/8" brown coat (but I really think they used cement), and a skim coat of mopped plaster with ugly little flecky balls of plaster stuck in it. I call it low-budget popcorn. It's GREAT!

So, I'm trying to remove the plaster and sheetrock without damaging the original plaster ceiling above it. If I actually manage to do this, I'll patch as needed, do a calcimine protocol (scrubbing with tsp and water, rinsing well) and then use BM calcimine recoater.

So far I've gotten about a 12" square off. The ceiling looks surprisingly good. I can't understand why they covered it! I figured it would have to look pretty bad for them to go to all that trouble. But the removal is slow going. I've been using a dremel multi tool to cut a 6" grid and then I pry off the squares. The blade is dulling fast on the "cement" plaster.

Is there a better way?????

Part of me wonders, am I destroying a really awesome soundproofing job? Maybe I should just knock off the flecky balls, skim the mopped swirls (I tried sanding them and they won't budge), and call it a day. But in the dining room, that won't work. This room is only 6 x 8 so it's good for practice. And, the inch I gain, while not much, will greatly increase the proportional size of the cramped strip of wall between the window trim and the ceiling.

Oh, I'd prefer not to rip out the whole ceiling and sheetrock; I don't much like the acoustics of sheetrock.

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Beware that the plaster may very well be cracked and falling down in the portions you haven't gotten to yet.

I know when I've drywalled over plaster ceilings that was exactly why I did it.

    Bookmark   October 31, 2012 at 7:29PM
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^^^^^ What he said!

The usual repair for a sagging plaster ceiling is to put thin drywall over it as a giant bandaid, then finish the drywall.

Don't be surprised to find missing or detached chunks.

    Bookmark   October 31, 2012 at 10:08PM
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And the drywall may have been stuck to the plaster with glue or contractor's epoxy.........

Can you contact the previous owner to find out? I think I would go to some trouble to do so before starting on something that might be more work to rectify if you find the plaster underneath in terrible shape and falling down on your head.

The only reasons I can think for doing that to intact plaster would be for soundproofing or weatherization. And those would be an extreme stretch to imagine why you go to all that trouble. I think if the plaster is covered it wasn't just because they didn't want to deal with the calcimine-painted ceiling. Sorry!

Still even if the plaster is totaled, it's not the end of the world, just perhaps very expensive to fix. That somewhat depends on how common plaster is in your area. In places where there it is still even somewhat common, you'll have more luck - and probably better prices - than in those areas where it is strictly a restoration-quality material.

You could learn to do it yourself. Whole ceilings scare me; I'm still working myself up through small -to- medium sized patches on walls and ceilings. I do have a whole ceiling to do, but it's not on my schedule, yet. So for awhile longer it can stay a combination of plywood and sheetrock.


    Bookmark   November 1, 2012 at 12:02AM
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Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting

Although I somewhat agree with what has been said, you just never know what people were thinking. I would proceed with what you are doing, taking it slow and careful and see what it up there. I have been in this situation and found pristine plaster under all that crap. Who knows?

    Bookmark   November 1, 2012 at 5:24AM
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Thank you all for the warnings! I am prepared to deal with plaster damage; I trained for this in the trunk room (link below)

Actually, it was working in the trunk room that got me thinking about why the ceilings were all done like this. The trunk room on the third floor was the only one they left alone. Reading people's calcimine horror stories on gardenweb got me thinking, that if you don't know what to do about it, you get endless rounds of peeling paint--I figured the po's didn't know how to deal with calcimine, and got really fed up and had all the ceilings covered, except the trunk room bc it was just storage and they didn't care.

The other clue is, I met the po's once. They were extremely proud of everything they've done to mangle the house. Since they were in their late 80's, I bit my tongue. It was another time and another generation. But I remember standing on the poured concrete and cinder block porch, and turning to the wife and saying, "It's such a shame that the original wrap around porch and piazza rotted and you had to tear it off." "Oh, it didn't rot..." was all she said. It was a miracle my jaw didn't hit the floor when she said that. Who in their right mind would have ever ripped that off (I'd seen the original house blueprints.) Then the husband told me about how solid the concrete and cinder block we were standing on was, and "No one is ever going to budge this," stomping on the floor for emphasis. "Just watch me!" was all I could think, but I said nothing.

The blueprints showing the wrap around porch and piazza:

Front elevation:

And now, concrete floor, cinderblock base, and jalousie windows (to match the popcorn ceilings :-):

So, they have a history of destroying perfectly good details. I think I know how they think. I really do want to fix the reveal of the crown molding in the dining room. This ain't no fun, but I'll let you know how it goes.

Other than the multi tool I'm using, or a can of gasoline and a match, anyone have suggestions for getting just the new layers off?

Here is a link that might be useful: trunk room: scroll down to the before and after pics at the end

    Bookmark   November 1, 2012 at 8:20AM
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Are you using the multi-tool to do vertical cuts? If you could reliably establish the depth you need to cut, you could use a Sawzall with the depth marked on the blade.

I can't imagine how much work this must be.

    Bookmark   November 1, 2012 at 10:41AM
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So I started with the multi tool, but the blade just doesn't cut plaster very well:

I switched to a small circular saw with an even smaller diamond masonry blade. The blade is intended for use with a rotozip, but it fit the circular saw as well (I don't own a rotozip...yet).

It is going so much better now. Here is the test area I'm working in, about 2 sq ft open now:

And a nice big chunk I pried off after cutting:

basically all i'm prying is the sheetrock backer paper.

Just for fun, check out the Chippendale style radiator in this room. Love it!

I better get to my day job, but I'm going to work on this for an hour every morning before work til I getter done. I'm much happier with how this is going now.

Graywings, thanks for the sawzall suggestion. I considered it, but this little circ saw is working for now. I'm wearing eye protection but I'm thinking of adding leather gloves, even though it's got all kind of safetys and it's a masonry blade, I don't love the thought of working with this thing over my head while standing on a ladder! I'm just taking it slow.

    Bookmark   November 1, 2012 at 12:37PM
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That radiator is fantastic! I'm not sure I'd call it Chippendale, but it is to die for, nonetheless.

Maybe you'd feel more comfortable if you set up some scaffolding with a wide (even nearly whole room) platform you could move around on more easily instead of being on a ladder.

I know it sounds like a lot of extra work, but whenever I've gone to the trouble of doing that (setting up a raised work platform) I am so grateful for it. I always start the hard way - and sometimes finish that way, too - but the smart way is to set up the work area right from the outset.

I am heartened by your description of the PO's approach to remodeling. It makes it seem more likely that the sheetrock may not conceal a plasta' disasta'. Or at least not in every room.

I wish you very good luck.


    Bookmark   November 1, 2012 at 12:53PM
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Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting

Like I said, people are strange.Have fun and spend a little $ on proper tools. You will never regret it in the long run.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2012 at 4:56AM
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Now you've got me curious: by proper tools, do you mean scaffolding, or a rotozip, or the right kind of saw blade (which I think I got--it's a diamond masonry blade, except the box store didn't have it in 5"), or would you recommend something even better)? The only downside of using the little 3" saw blade in my circular saw, which normally takes about a 5", is that the rpm's are not adjustable, so I'm not really spinning the 3" blade at the optimal speed. But, it's still cutting like a champ. A rotozip would be better. Is that what you used when you did this?

    Bookmark   November 2, 2012 at 10:05AM
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Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting

I was not being specific, if the circular saw is working, go with it.Just in general, a good tool will last a long time and do a better job.In my profession, it is like using a $20 paint brush as opposed to a $2 brush for Lowes, there is a big difference in performance.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2012 at 5:32PM
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WOW - that radiator is fabulous! I've never seen one like it.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2012 at 1:48AM
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Thanks! I love it too. I shouldn't have called it Chippendale. I think Aesthetic movement Japonaiserie might fit better.

I really, really love this stuff. Of course, I also like Persian tile and rug field patterns.

Here is a link that might be useful: Example of Japonaiserie pattern

    Bookmark   November 4, 2012 at 6:47AM
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Quality stilts are likely to p[y off more for interior work than scaffolding.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2012 at 11:35AM
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That is a great radiator, slateberry! You are lucky the previous owners didn't rip it out or sell it! I'd love to see your porch opened up again, if not restored to it's full length...the nice thing is, you can cover up the concrete with wood! :)

As a side note, I really hate it when sites which try to represent themselves as professional, can't even spell their own topic! :)

    Bookmark   November 5, 2012 at 6:41PM
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There are some cracks in the plaster, but not bad. Based on what I've seen so far, I'm not worried about the patching and prepping of the original ceiling. So, I will never know why they covered it.

The ceiling is coming off in larger chunks than I expected:

Hey brick, nice to see you. Yeah, I should get some stilts, there would be so many uses, although DH, spoilsport, says stilts and circlular saw work overhead shouldn't mix. I say, as long as I've had a beer to loosen up first, it's perfectly safe, right?!? But seriously, for the painting and plastering, they'd be great. And maybe for a cool halloween costume.

Our ceilings are only 9 and 8 1/2. I envy the southern Victorians with their 12' ceilings. Bliss!

Oh dear Columbus, I'm not such a great speler. Can we stil be frends?

When we work on the porch, there will definitely be a thread for it.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2012 at 8:51AM
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My you are persistent!

But I wonder if a a skim coat or two over the drywall might have gotten you the same results with a lot less work.

That's an amazing rad! (Though not likely very efficient due to the limited surface area vs. traditional types. )

    Bookmark   November 6, 2012 at 6:42PM
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Sure we can, slateberry--it was the alleged 'Japonaiserie' site I was poking...they have it spelled that way, so you aren't to blame. :)

I have to do some work on the ceiling of my pantry--stupid remnants of the hurricane came from just the right direction to cause my pantry to leak--nothing major, but it certainly caused the old painted paper to peel off!

Can I just say I hate repair people? Last week I called four or five places to get estimates to fix the roof--it's only about 175 sq.ft.--and only one company got back to me. They gave me an estimate today to remove the asphalt shingles, put down ice dam self-sealing stuff and put up new shingles at what I thought was a good price, so I gave them the job. Should take only a few hours, but they can't get me in for a week or so.

When I told their rep about not getting call backs, he said it was because few people wanted a small job, which would take almost a day with cleanup, when they could do a large job in the same time frame. Bastards--I'm just glad there are some companies that will still do small jobs...but you have to dig for them!

    Bookmark   November 6, 2012 at 8:34PM
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And 1 inch of what may have been the original 1887 wallpaper. I like the green:

I ended up using the circular saw to make grid cuts 12-18" apart. I used the multi tool to make cuts closer to the wall and corners where the circular saw couldn't clear. I tried different methods to pry the sections off; some were too narrow; some had too much flex. A 5" wide blade, hammered in and then pried down, did most of the work. Where the ceiling met the wall, I did a combination of breaking the paint and skim coat with a putty knife hammered upwards, and just cutting around with a multitool. There was only about a 1/8" thick bond to break through so it came away, thankfully, easily. I'd say it was altogether 10 hours in a 6 x 8 room to get this far--crazy! I definitely won't be doing the rest of the house.

In most other rooms I plan to knock off the flecky balls and skim coat the ridged scallops, like Worthy suggests. In the double parlor, which has crown molding, I'll go through this routine. It's a great upper body workout!

Some of the original ceiling is loose, so I'll be putting in some plaster washer anchors. You can also see where they poked holes to verify the location of studs. Those and the cracks will get fiberglass tape and patched. A little skimming, a little sanding, a little paint, and she'll be done.

Of course, before all that, I'll do a thorough scrub down with tsp and water, then rinse, dry, and coat with benjamin moore calcimine recoater. Then plaster bonding agent to all the damaged places, and then fiberglass tape, patch/fill with durabond, knock down with a putty knife, then easy sand, then sanding, priming, and finally paint. What could be easier?!?

Hope everybody else is having as much fun as I am this weekend!

And yes, I'm saving a sample of the wallpaper for the house book.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 6:18PM
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I meant to say I tried different putty knives for prying, and a 5" wide putty knife with the right flex (fairly stiff but more flex than a chisel blade) worked the best.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 6:21PM
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Well I definitely won't be doing this in every room, but at least now I know what it takes. A lotta grunt work.

Just for fun, here's a top shot of the radiator:

pat'd Dec 8, 1876

and here's the doorknob I got to keep the radiator company:

Now it's time to rest these tired bones. A cup of coffee, a good book, and a comfy reading nook:

Maybe it was worth it after all.

Merry Christmas to me and all the wonderful Old House Forum contributors--you're a great bunch!

    Bookmark   December 24, 2012 at 9:02AM
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