Plaster ceiling caving in HELP!!

shesaidc2November 16, 2012

When we bought our house this summer the ceiling in our bedroom was sagging, and it seemed like the wallpaper was holding up the plaster. We have been monitoring it and not seen any real change, so dealing with it was on our, someday list!

Well I think someday might be here?

I got back from a work trip last night and instead of a sag there was a crack in the wallpaper at the seam. This afternoon I was checking it out (not touching it but really looking at the sag from different angles) and the sagging had spread, A LOT. Finally this evening I got my DH to look at it, and noticed additional cracks, which are evident as running bumps through the wallpaper.

We have temporarily supported the biggest saging section and crack with plaster screws.


1. How long might this hold up (aka do we have to move our bed this weekend and tackle it)?

2. I assume what we need to do is remove all of the plaster from the ceiling and put up drywall, if so how? if not, what might be a better choice?

From peaking up into the crack we can see the lath but no insulation falling through (yay for mess, boo for insulation?) We had seen insulation between the floorboards in the attic and assume there is some insulation there.

Here is a link to a picture of the crack "post repair"

I am really shocked how fast it went from a little to a big deal! Any and all advice is greatly appreciated, we are new to plaster repair (we stripped one room and had to use the plaster screws to hold up the wall and our "skim coat" leaves much to be desired....) and have re-drywalled a bathroom, but never a ceiling.

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Vacate the room and eviscerate the ceiling.Start calling plasterers or drywall finishers. Something like that you are better off leaving to a pro, one day in and out.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 7:18PM
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We were lining up childcare and planning to try the drywall ourselves... then I read up a bit more online, might be salvageable, but also might not. Totally spending tomorrow moving our bed out and monday making calls. We needed to find a plaster guy we liked for some more complicated work than we wanted to tackle (this probably qualifies as more complicated or at least more cumbersome) ... blessing in disguise right?

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 8:13PM
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You are right to move the bed, because this is a dangerous situation. I just had the same situation in my kitchen, called a contractor and asked for advice. i love plaster and wanted to save the plaster ceiling. contractor advised rip out the damaged portion and put up drywall. i took his advice and and am so very glad.

removing plaster is a difficult and messy job. i would call a pro and get it done, as jonnyp advised above.

good luck :)


    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 10:00PM
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Nah, I think you can probably save it. I'd get some more plaster washers up there, though, right away. Plan on another dozen or more, at least from what I can see. Add some more outbound from the danger area to contain the spread of any further failure, which will also limit the needed repair if the sections that are broken do shear off. Don't screw the precautionary ones in so tight that you cause the surface to flex - protect those still-intact keys!

If you can't get on it right away, or want to buy some time to study your options, you could also screw up a panel of 1/2 plywood that bridges (by a joist or two) the entire problematic area. Screw it up only moderately firmly, but don't push it too tight since that may disturbed some more distal keys. The ceiling may not be dead flat, so don't try to be too aggressive here. What you are doing is some stabilization and also getting protection from a big fall. Make sure the plywood is screwed to the joists not the lath.

This isn't the end of the world, nor the end of your plaster. Don't jump ahead of yourselves and completely trash the ceiling (unless you have the $$ to have it replaced with plaster) just because of such a small failure. Sheetrock, compared to plaster, is a poor second choice. You have short and long term options.

Was your house unheated for some time? It's possible that the change in humidity and temps have worked on this already weak spot. Any change in really heavy loading (piano, bookcases, weight-lifting apparatus, waterbed?) or removal of an interior wall, changing window placement, etc? Sometimes heavy humidity (wall-paper steaming????) can cause problems, but likely it's just a random thing and not going to keep happening like a creeping disaster.

If you have other cracks, take the time tonight to measure and mark their extent. Draw a pencil line across them so you can monitor whether the parts are moving against each, along side, or widening. Kind of like studying tectonic plates for evidence of earthquake faults. Date the marks so you can know when you made them and leave them in place. (this is usually very reassuring because months or years later you can see that nothing is happening and just repair the hairline and forget about it.

And for heaven's sake don't go slamming any doors. (Just kidding!)


    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 10:34PM
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liriodendron - The house was not unheated that I know of. Like I had said before the bulge really had been small since we looked at the house and moved in this summer. It seemed like overnight the weight of that failing piece started effecting everything. This room is on the upper floor and above it is the walk up attic, and we are really not storing much up there.

As far as repairing the plaster that is there we would need to remove the layers of wallpaper correct? The one room we tried this in it proved more work than we could manage (pulling layers off in tiny 2 in or less pieces). I agree cracks can be repaired, but they are extending from the hole across the ceiling in both directions nearly to the walls, from what I can see, the hole is maybe 1/4 of the ceiling in the room with cracks extending across. If the plaster is repairable, that is great, but beyond our skills/time, so we will have to call someone. I don't mind learning how to do plaster work on walls but ceilings suck and I can't see us learning how on that surface.

More and better pictures of the damage

We do get a lot more movement in our house the the past owners, we have two small kids who have big energy and jump and run and shake the whole place around!

Either way our plan is to move our bed and stuff out of the room so we have the space to make the decision. Also our upstairs bath has a sewer gas smell coming from it, so we are dealing with that first. (we have a plan on that though)

    Bookmark   November 17, 2012 at 9:11AM
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At this point it really should just be pulled down and you can start deciding what to replace it with.

If you can secure the rest of the ceiling with plaster washers now, you may only lose a section that can be repaired.

If it is a small area you need to force the plaster back against the lath before installing the washers.
They are not capable of pulling a ceiling back by themselves.

A small bottle jack,\ and a piece of 2x6 work well.

You stand the 2x6 on the jack, raise it up to force the plaster back, then run in screws with plaster washers around the 2x6 into the wood lath.

Move over a few inches ad repeat.

Be aware that you may lose of few pieces of plaster during the job 9someomte large pieces)

Do not even enter the room without a hard hat.

Plaster is heavy, and large pieces falling can injure you (at the hat protects your head, shoulders are a another problem).

    Bookmark   November 17, 2012 at 10:00AM
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Keep in mind that plaster over their taped hands is what cheating boxers have used over the years to KO opponents, even killing them.

I've had chunks of ceiling plaster fall unexpectedly in homes I've owned, in one case smashing a porcelain sink off the wall.

    Bookmark   November 17, 2012 at 10:40AM
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Is it just me? That crack looks too straight and perfect to be plaster! Are you sure it isn't already drywall up there? Often times the lath is left in place and drywall installed over it, so lath by itself is not an indication of plaster.

Have you checked for water? Water dripping from above would explain the initial problem, and then the rapid deterioration as the leak became progressively worse.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2012 at 8:27AM
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Clarion. The crack is straight because it split along the wallpaper seam. There are two layers of wallpaper on every ceiling (as seem by the seams). Also we have gotten up and felt it, it's not drywall.

Actually I can feel give of almost 1/4 in across the whole ceiling like we do on the walls when the plaster has detatched from the lath, no other ceiling is like that in the house that we've noticed.

No water damage, upstairs bedroom and the attic is totally dry. The sagging was there when we bought this summer, I think vibrations from all the kids running and jumping just took its toll. The weight of the soft spot started pulling on the areas around it, really those layers of wallpaper(ceiling paper?) have been holding it all together. It finally gave way on a wallpaper seam.

Today we are going to carefully pull down anything which is damaged, see what's left and where to go from there.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2012 at 9:30AM
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I don't know much about plaster at all.
to me it looked like sheetrock also until you
explained that it was wall paper on the plaster.

would it be more cost effective to remove it and
replace with sheetrock? hopefully the
damage is contained to the one room!

the joys of home ownership! hope you get it
fixed with minimum of problems.

best of luck.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2012 at 2:19PM
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An update. The whole thing came down.
After removing everything from the room and laying down drop cloths to protect the floor, we removed the screws we had put up and about 1/4 of the ceiling pretty much fell. Testing the whole ceiling showed very little if any fully intact keys, it pushed back into place everywhere, meaning it was failing everywhere. I think we could have saved it using the adhesive, jack and plywood method I have read about online, but we don't have those tools, and were worried drilling any holes in would cause it to come down on us. I am going to try it on some walls once we get to them (about 1 out of 4 walls has detached at some point, and I have no intention of ripping those out, but rather saving them). The wallpaper was really acting like a structural element on the ceiling, in some cases just pulling on the wallpaper brought the whole thing down. Which actually scares the crap out of me, since this is our bedroom, and the kids are always in there jumping on the bed (just under DISASTER!).
From the other ceilings in the house I have pushed on this was the only one with this problem. Another has a crack down it, but feels solid. I know the house had water damage at some or many points, likely the roof, we also get lots of snow and I know houses here have to watch out for ice dams, but this spot was not in a corner near any roof joins so I don't know how it got so damaged, but it seems like the damage had been there for a while and the wallpaper was holding it up, and just all that weight slowly took it's toll on it. That and probably the kids jumping from the bed to the floor in there all the time.

I have been shocked at how many things have fallen apart so quickly with us moving in, the house has never really been un-lived in, though the PO was not living here full time for the past 2 years, but the house has not had kids in it full time since it was built and maybe the kids (and us) are just harder on it that older couples? We also discovered a bathroom leak that has been slowly dissolving the drywall ceiling in the downstairs bathroom... found that the same day we took down the ceiling in our bedroom. We have been in the house less than 6 months it's a bit worrisome. The house looks so nice, the PO had really focused on the aesthetics more than the real mechanical details I think. sigh.

Thanks for the advice, esp. the warning about hard hats!! :)

    Bookmark   November 20, 2012 at 8:50AM
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Strip the lath, sister new 2x to the sides of the old joists hanging down to make a flat new surfaces.
the odds of the old framing being flat enough over the room is very small.

Use two layers of 5/8 drywall if you want anything approaching the sound performance of the old plaster (the weight is what you are after).

Otherwise just 1/2 inch drywall.

Rent a lift, and consider purchasing stilts if you have other ceiling work or high wall work).

    Bookmark   November 20, 2012 at 10:38AM
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And yes, falling plaster occasionally kills someone.

Thou usually from more than a residential ceiling height

    Bookmark   November 20, 2012 at 1:20PM
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Hey those are very unique corner blocks/rosettes in the corners of your doors. Would you mind posting a closer up shot of them? I was so distracted by them I almost forgot to look at the ceiling damage!

    Bookmark   November 22, 2012 at 8:50AM
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slateberry51 - lol! They are kinda neat. I have never seen anything like it before, but all of the upstairs room have that in the corners. Also in two areas where there is a bit of a corner sticking out into the space there are really high ones. So here is some
corner block goodness :)

The two tall ones can be removed, so the wall paper/paint can be put down and then they are put back on. The lower corner ones along with the baseboard trim were put in before the plaster, so they have been an area of crumbling plaster.
In this pic you can see the tall ones, pre-purchase photo.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2012 at 10:32AM
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shesaid, I love your album -- what a beautiful house. There is so much to drool over. That corner sink is stunning, as is the staircase! Is that a curved window in your living room? And the wallpaper in the dining room -- is that a Bradley and Bradley?

    Bookmark   November 22, 2012 at 3:53PM
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Those are great photos--thanks for sharing. What beautiful house jewelry you have! I have a victorian too and I love all the hardware in my house; it has a sunflower motif. I posted a couple of comments in your flickr album; don't know if you notice those so I thought I'd mention.

The woodwork in your house is stunning. There can be a lot of pressure to paint it, but I recommend living with it for a while before making any hasty decisions. Your oak is so beautiful. They don't grow it like that anymore!

When I moved into my house the biggest favor my friends and tradepeople did was to gush over my woodwork, because seriously I did not think it was that great, and if you look at home decor mags, everything is painted. Well, that's becuase everything is plastic or mdf in new houses and it has to be painted. It took me a while to realize the value of what I had, and I'm so glad those early comments set me on the path to appreciating my house, so that I was NOT the first person in 125 years to paint the woodwork. Also I've been educating myself about touching it up and refreshing the finish. There are so many types of wood and finishes; what you do to your woodwork depends on what has been done and the type of wood. After 5 years of experimenting with different finishes and materials and learning about wood finishing, I've come up with a system that seems best for my wood, which is simply clean it, touch up any scratches and dings with a matching wiping gel stain to make them disappear, and apply a new coat of shellac. It took me many tries to get the right shade of gel stain; I finally figured out that the damaged wood is very porous, more so than regular surfaces, and it absorbs so much more stain and gets really dark. So I compensated by using a really light gel stain color. It worked and now the imperfections are disappearing into the woodwork.

Sorry for the long digression...but you've got great wood!

    Bookmark   November 23, 2012 at 9:23AM
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Chibimimi - Thanks! The corner sink is not original, but from the PO, but yeah it's cool! The curved window is crazy! I love it and fear it getting broken. The three main rooms downstairs are all bradbury and bradbury also from PO.

slateberry51 - oh a sunflower motif that is cool! Interestingly all the fancy hardware is upstairs and not on the first floor. We have no plans to paint any of the wood trim, except that which is already painted (likely with lead paint as it is enamel hard and at least 50 years old) but thanks for the info on upkeep I haven't really thought about it other than keeping it dusted:) But there are places that need some help. This is actually the third place we have lived with unpainted wood, and second house we owned. I do like the look of the crisp white trim in all those design shots, but agree with you about not wanting to be the first person in 115 years to do that damage! I love love love my woodwork and plan to highlight it to its best!

    Bookmark   November 24, 2012 at 12:04PM
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