Need some help/advice on my old house

lincnkelDecember 18, 2010

Hello! This is my first post. I did a search on replacing plaster with drywall 4 hours ago, found a post on here and have been reading other posts ever since (so much for xmas baking!!)

A little background - we bought a farmhouse built in 1910. The guy that owned it before us was here for 10 years and basically screwed up everything he did. (Example - ceramic tile in the bathroom directly to the paster IN the shower. Imagine our surprise when it started falling down in the shower one day.) We have lots and lots of work to do and want to retain as much character as possible.

We recently had a new electrical service put on and the upstairs has been rewired. The next project will be to rewire the downstairs but we need to replace the walls. They are in terrible shape - the office has a drop ceiling and paneling and the living room ceiling is starting to cave. We've been here a couple of years and have attempted patching but it's just not working and we can't find a good plaster guy around here. We already replaced the plaster in the stairwell and upstairs hall (also paneled) so we know the mess it will create.

TO FINALLY get to my question - what do we do about the wordwork? The wordwork is my absolute favorite thing about my old house. However there are 4-7 coats of paint on it depending on which room we are in. (Every single surface of this house was green at one time or another.) We have started refinishing it but realize that it will need to be taken down to hang new drywall. What is the most efficient way of refinishing it while it is off the wall? Or can anyone recommend a product?

I am so looking foward to being a member of this amazing forum!! Thanks in advance for any advice!!


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If you know the type of wood (oak, walnut, etc) I might ask the right person at a local hardware/H-Depot about what products are good, or else find out if there's a really well respected stripper guy in the neighbourhood and see what he says and if he picks up and delivers. It's a big job, so be prepared to pay.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2010 at 7:59PM
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Welcome Kelly! Beware of this site- it completely gets in the way of baking, remodeling, etc! But it sure is fun!

I have the same dilemma you have. What to do with plaster vs. drywall. To repair plaster, you can use plaster washers, secure the plaster since it sounds like the plaster keys are broken, then use drywall mud to cover over those. Only problem is if your plaster is like mine, and textured, it's hard to create the same look. And, it takes a ton of those washers. Of course the other way is just to drywall over the plaster. An easier way to prevent as much mess.

Plaster is a better sound insulator. Keep this in mind if that is a concern to you. The way I deal with it is when I have to replace mine with drywall, I use the thickest drywall I can find- it's harder to install, but it does seem to prevent sound from carrying from one room to another.

And, to your question about the woodwork. I hate to use strippers- messy and take way to long for me, as I'm a bit impatient. I'm not sure how many projects you have to do on your house, so buying a specific tool may not be what you are looking for. However, it worked for my impatience! I purchased the infrared heat stripper called "The Silent Paint Remover". I have stripped interior wood, exterior wood, exterior metal- and it works like a dream. Not too messy, quick, but it is a bit expensive. If you have a bunch of projects, it easily pays for itself. It uses infrared heat which removes the bond between the paint and the wood, allowing the paint to be gently scraped off. In fact on my house, I've not had to use a scraper, only a 5 in 1 tool to remove the paint.

I purchased my machine nearly 4 years ago and have completely stripped the exterior of my 1919 Craftsman with 90 years of paint, down to the bare cedar. The new paint job looks amazing. I also stripped all the interior fir in my kitchen and mudroom, and will be doing the upstairs next year. I'm now on my second set of bulbs- the first still work, just not quite as strong. I love my machine, it has held up well and a few of my neighbors have used it as well. I see that they now sell it on Amazon, but I bought mine from the actual company and they were great to deal with.

Here's some photos of the exterior job that I did:
Exterior paint before:

Exterior cedar, stripped and gently sanded:

Exterior new paint:

Here is a link that might be useful: The Silent Paint Remover

    Bookmark   December 18, 2010 at 8:06PM
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I live in a 1916 home, and while we didn't have to do this because the layers of paint were only 1-2 layers thick on our woodwork, I saw in a magazine that somebody's handyman had (VERY carefully) taken the flat woodwork and shaved off the topmost layer on each flat surface with some kind of saw-- removing the paint and a tiny bit of the wood in the process.

I thought that was rather brilliant, if you had the right equipment handy. (I've read lots of good things about the pricey infrared strippers oldhousegal recommends, though-- and by the way, OHG, your exterior looks fantastic!!)

    Bookmark   December 19, 2010 at 12:41AM
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You are most likely going to find, if you take the trim off, that it won't fit when you go to put it back on. Drywall isn't the same thickness as the plaster/lathe if you remove the plaster. If you add drywall over the existing plaster, your floor moldings won't match up to door frames - where the door frames are up/down.

I would try and repair the plaster and leave trim in place. You'll save yourself hassles down the road.

If you go the paint stripper route, I've used Peelaway products and love them.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2010 at 5:12AM
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Thanks everyone for the welcome and thoughtful answers!!

We've been told the trim is southern yellow pine although I think we need a second opinion b/c it doesn't seem very soft. We've stripped a couple of doorways and it was torture (gallons of stripper) so the SPS sounds like the ticket. It is expensive but if it works that well it would pay for itself. I wonder if it would work on floors, too....

I don't think I've tried Peelaway but may give that a whirl for the intricate areas of the waincoating which is original to the house!!

I think in two rooms we could repair the plaster on the walls if it's that much better of a route - we will need to find someone to do it. We will have to put sheetrock on the ceilings as the plaster is crumbling. However the room that has the paneling will more than likely need to be replaced. If it's anything like the hall/stairway, the plaster absolutely crumbed when we took down the paneling.

oldhousegal - your house looks amazing!! It's getting my wheels turning b/c I know we have wood siding beneath the current siding.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2010 at 9:44AM
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For the intricate areas....ask your dentist for some of their old teeth picks. I'm not in the dental industry so don't know the accurate name...but the very pointed tool they use to pick between your teeth is awesome for picking out paint.

Old growth southern yellow pine is hard. Don't try and compare it to new pine that you see in the big box stores. They are 2 totally different woods.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2010 at 10:51AM
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Thanks for the compliment on my house! It took a lot of work, but I sure saved a ton of money versus having the painting company do it- they quoted me over $20K to strip my house- no painting!

The SPR does work on floors, you just have to keep a close eye on it as the paint can catch on fire when it's in that direction. I stripped my front porch paint, and it did fine. One time I did look away for a bit, and the paint had caught fire! The machine was perfectly fine though as was the wood underneath! I think the air circulation is not as good with the machine turned upside down, but it does work. My ADHD gets me in trouble sometimes!

As for your wainscoting, I think the SPR will work on that too. This fall I did my beadboard ceiling and it took the paint right out of the grooves without any problems. A few areas were tougher than others, but it still does a great job. I had to experiment with times for the paint to come up- some areas took longer than others. The paint actually does bubble up and away from the wood- it's really cool to see!

Good luck with your decision!

    Bookmark   December 19, 2010 at 11:38AM
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Now I want a SPR!!! Great, I'll just add it to the list!
:-) good info!

    Bookmark   December 19, 2010 at 3:43PM
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I agree with Oldhouseguy, don't take the plaster out unless you absolutely have too.

We did that in one bedroom of the house we are renovating, and I learned a lesson the hard way. The plaster is very heavy and a mess. We also found tons of soot (and God knows what else) behind the plaster. I have never felt so dirty!

Be careful removing moulding in a house that old. In our house (built around 1900) they had put the baseboards up first then plastered to them. Imagine my surprise when I pulled off the first piece to find nothing behind it.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2011 at 4:26PM
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Removing Paint from Siding.

There are two tools that, in our experience, are very good at taking paint off siding, and a lot better than the traditional heat and scrape, or scrape and sand methods..

1. Silent Paint Remover is one. This tool is a GIANT STEP above heat guns and the dangers they cause. The other is

2. Paint Shaver. This is a mechanical, high speed stripper that uses replaceable carbide blades.

Which one we use depends on the paint to be removed. Silent Paint Remover is slower, but does a very neat job requiring very little sanding. Paint Shaver is faster, but takes a bit of practice to remove the paint without putting a lot of crescent-shaped divots in your siding that require a lot of sanding out. One mistake to guard against using this tool is setting the depth adjustment for too-aggressive a cut. You don't need to remove all the paint, just the loose paint, so don't try to get down to bare wood in one pass.

When you are removing paint, you hope the original painter did a lousy job so it will come off easily. If he was good at his job, it's going to come off hard no matter what tool you use.

Keep in mind that the EPA lead abatement rules govern the safe removal of any exterior lead paint. As a homeowner, they may not apply to you, but follow them anyway for everyone's safety.

Both of these tools are commonly available at a deep discount over retail from e-Bay and Graig's list. We have used and cannot recommend the Metabo or Wagner machines. They don't work nearly as well as the suggested machines.

Repairing Plaster

To repair cracked or falling-off true plaster you need to reattach it to the wood or metal lath underneath. The traditional way is with screws and plaster washers. These usually extend proud of the wall, making them difficult to conceal except with thick coats of patching plaster.

The better way is to glue the plaster to the lath. There is a commercial kit to do this called Plaster Magic which we like, but which we also think is pretty expensive. We just use our own, locally available materials, that work just as well and are a lot less expensive. Here's what to do:

1. Using a concrete bit, drill about 3/8" holes in the plaster until you hit the lath -- do not drill through the lath. You will feel it when you reach the lath. You will want to drill about 1" on both sides of any crack, putting a hole about every 4-6" along the crack. Its a judgment call. Drill as many holes as you think you will need. If in doubt, more is usually better. For large loose areas, drill about every 4"-6" in the field and every 4" around the perimeter of the loose plaster area.

Sometimes you will hit the gaps between lath strips. Don't worry about it. Just move about 1" away and drill again.

2. With your trusty shop vac, suck the plaster dust out of each hole. This is important, plaster dust interferes with the adhesive.

3. Using your caulk gun and a good construction adhesive (we like Power Grab, but any quality adhesive should work. In a pinch, we have used most of them at one time or another and none have failed.) squirt a good glob of adhesive into each hole. This will probably be messy, so have some mineral spirits and rags around to cleanup any drip-out.

4. Make a bunch of 4" square wood washers. You can make them out of job scrap. We use 1/2" or 3/4" OSB most of the time just because it happens to be around. Drill a hole in the center of each washer - 3/16" or 1/4" ought to do it.

5. Line the washers up with the holes you drilled earlier and, using a drywall screw, attach the washer to the wood lath beneath the plaster. You don't need to screw into every hole, about every 4-6 holes is a good rule of thumb. What you want to do is put even pressure over the loose plaster area and draw it back to the lath. This will allow the adhesive you just applied to bond the lath tightly to the plaster once again. As you tighten the screw, you will feel the plaster draw in. DO NOT try to sink the screws all the way in one go. Draw them in gradually moving from screw to screw. This lessens the risk of cracking the plaster further. When all the screws are sunk, you are done until tomorrow. Go have a beer.

6. After 24 hours, remove the screws, put them back in the box (they can be reused) and throw the washers away. The plaster is now stuck solidly to the lath once again. There are no screws or washers in the wall - so finishing the plaster is much simplified, and this fix is strong. The adhesive sticks like, well, like glue.

7. Using patching plaster, a setting joint compound, or even regular joint compound, patch the screw holes, cracks and fill in any missing plaster. The purists will tell you that joint compound has a different texture than real plaster and is softer, so you should not use it. It does have a different texture and is softer, but so what? The paint will hide any differences.

8. We recommend against paper tape on cracks. What we use is nylon screening -- the stuff in screen doors. buy a role from your hardware store and cut it into 6" strips while it is still rolled up -- its easy to cut with normal shop shears or even your utility knife. Use this in place of nylon mesh tape -- it works better. We embed it in a thin coat of joint compound, then, when the first coat of mud has set, mud over it. Its wider footprint is better at stabilizing cracks than narrow nylon mesh tape. In fact, we have never had a repair fail using this method.

Removing Layers of Paint from Interior Trim

Definitely use a commercial stripping service if you have one in your area. At $1.00 - $2.00 per linear foot, the price is well worth not having to deal with the mess of stripping in place or on saw horses in your garage. After stripping be sure to sand with a fine sandpaper to remove the fuzzing that stripping causes.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2011 at 6:28PM
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We bought a 1905 house with crumbling plaster and multiple layers of paint on fabulous wood trim nearly 18 years ago, and spent a year renovating it before moving in.

We took the plaster off. Specific reason here: you could peel it off the lath with your fingers in places, including off the ceiling: we live in an earthquake-prone area. Got it all out before we moved in, so got all the dust over with. This also allowed us to insulate better before dry walling - it was all blown-in cellulose filling only half the wall cavities.

The plaster does have a better look to it than drywall - we left the plaster on in the "addition" done only 50 years ago, so can compare. But I can live with boring walls and ceilings that I don't feel are going to drop on me any second.

Of course, we took the trim off too, or most of it. On a few inside walls, we took off just the plaster and left the lath, in those cases we could drywall over the lath up to the trim. THAT trim isn't stripped yet - and why every previous owner of this house couldn't paint without making huge drips I don't know - but boy am I sick of looking at them. However, MY CHRISTMAS PRESENT THIS YEAR WAS A SILENT PAINT STRIPPER! so that trim, and the wainscoting in the same room, will FINALLY be stripped this year. My husband being a Dec 24th shopper, it just arrived today and I am thrilled.

Of the trim we took off, which was the vast majority, we have chemically stripped and reinstalled about half... maybe three quarters. My chemical stripper of choice is EZWay, available at trade shows and by mail order. It is the only chemical stripper that does not require cleanup with water or another chemical. It stinks, is not for indoor use, but is apparently less toxic than methylene chloride. Doesn't raise the grain, really great stuff for pieces you can take outdoors. I just finished doing a whole door with it this summer. Not cheap either - I expect to save money with the SPR!

And yes, when we reinstall the trim, it doesn't always (hardly ever!) fit. So things are quirky, and require some fiddling to work at all. That makes up for the too-perfect walls :-)

Oh and about every surface being green once- here too! But it was a specific shade of aqua/jade. Must have been on sale...

Good luck!


    Bookmark   January 7, 2011 at 12:39AM
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Rick Solie

On plaster vs. drywall: I elected to have three bedrooms and a dining room in our 1920s foursquare stripped to the studs, then finished with drywall and veneer plaster (we're in New England). With the walls open we could upgrade the wiring, run TV cable and phone, and, most importantly, insulate. I can't see how saving the old crumbling plaster could have had such advantages. This was not DIY. Removing the mess was the contractor's job. I removed, stripped, and repaired the woodwork myself. In an historic house maybe old plaster should be saved, but for a vernacular building of no particular distinction it's hard to see why you'd bother.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2011 at 5:21PM
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