1920s kitchen double whammy problem

stealthecrumbsJuly 12, 2013

Hi guys, Okay, I have double trouble in my 1920s kitchen remodel. After months of agonizing over which cabinets to choose, I finally made a decision. I've settled on layout. I've ordered appliances. I've put a deposit on a slab of marble. I'm really close to finally ordering cabinets. (Kitchen forum is great btw.)

We are not moving walls. We are working within the existing space.

Here's problem one. My (plaster) ceilings are really uneven. Not unusual for an old house. Mine are about an inch different over a pretty short span of 8 feet or so right where the bulk of the upper cabinets will go. I've considered various options for addressing this: 1. Stack the molding and cheat the difference on the stock piece. This is actually how it is currently and it is definitely noticeable. 2. "Even" the ceiling so the crown can go all the way up without needing much of a cheat- probably using furring strips to shim and then doing a cottage style 6in tongue and groove ceiling. 3. Float the crown a few inches below the ceiling

Option 2 adds a lot of extra expense- and I don't mind that so much- except nothing in our house is even, level or plumb because it is so old and I just wonder to myself- once you start trying to even things, where do you stop? Also, several folks have told me that shimming the ceiling and then recovering it (essentially making a kind of drop ceiling) might not actually fix the problem. I don't really understand this but it apparently has to do with the joists themselves being potentially uneven and/ or continued settling. (Feel free to chime in if this totally off.)

So reluctantly I came to peace with having the cabinet and crown not go all the way to the ceiling. (After 2 months of obsessing over pictures on Houzz.) And just when I was about to place the order, I remembered the kicker- the double whammy of it all... On the main wall of upper cabinets, there is a heating duct that goes through the very top of one of the cabinets. It comes up from the basement and through the wall behind the cabinets and then angles up to the bedroom heat register on the second floor. It can't go straight up because it would be outside of the room it heats. The current cabinets (which are site built) have been modified so that they are built around the duct. And our new cabinets will be custom so they too can have that modification. But obviously I do not want to see the heat duct coming up out of the top of my new cabinets... which means having my cabinets down a few inches from the ceiling is not a viable option.

Which brings me back to needing the crown to go all the way to the ceiling, correct? Is that the only/ best option even if it means adding considerable expense to the project?

Or are there options I am not seeing or considering?

Thank you!!!!

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I have a 1930s home with plaster/lathe. Have you determined the root cause of your unevenness? Is it just the floors or the ceilings as well? In our case, we had extensive foundation work, including posts, joists and helical foundation piers, before starting this extensive set of remodeling. In the kitchen area, some areas suffered from sagging beams due to overspans and age of the timber. We actually had to add extra support posts/jacks in the basement. Still, there are differences, but we used a built up crown to bridge it.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2013 at 1:00PM
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Thanks Gooster! I don't know that we know the true root of the problem. I am sure there's foundation work that could be done... and clearly there is some that has already been done as the house has been jacked up and re-supported in the basement. But I don't know that we want to get in that deep! We are okay with the quirkiness in most all of the house. I think what you are saying is that even after doing extensive work, there can be uneven ceilings. I think that sounds right.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2013 at 10:20PM
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Circus Peanut

What kind of crown/stock pattern do the current original cabinets have? I've done two kitchens in older houses with uneven ceilings (also up to an inch variance, at least) and haven't had the same issue with noticeability when the difference was cheated with a piece of flat stock. It might be a matter of which pattern or stack order you choose to go with? (Also, you may be the only one who examines it closely enough to notice? Not uncommon for us homeowners!)

In general, as an old house aficionado, I'd say that the ceiling unevenness is just one of the quirks that make these houses so attractive. They demand real craftsmanship, and therein lies the value. After all, any idiot can glue up some foam molding in a new house, but coping and measuring real wood carefully takes some skillz. :-)

    Bookmark   July 14, 2013 at 6:43AM
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Sophie Wheeler

Get a structural engineer's report on the root cause of the problem. No point in sticking your head in the sand about it. You HAVE to know if you have a broken support beam or the sill plate is rotted out---or if it's merely the normal settling of an older home. You can only make an informed choice about how to approach the problem once you know exactly what the problem is, and what it means for the home down the road.

Putting in cabinet and all of these pretty surfaces would be a horrible waste of money if the home's main support beam is damaged and the home continued to sag over time. Your cabinets would again become out of level and the pretty marble would crack, and you wouldn't be able to roll out dough on them without the rolling pin rolling off and cracking your big toe. I'm not kidding or exaggerating on this at all. I grew up in a home that had these kinds of structural issues that were ignored, and my mother focused on the decorative. Eventually, the enclosed back porch laundry room collapsed.

A structural engineer only costs a couple of hundred dollars for the assessment. Then you know what the problem is, and if it can be safely ignored or if you're planning a lot of pretty icing on a stale and moldy cake.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2013 at 11:26AM
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Thanks y'all. I suspect it is normal settling but I think Holly's suggestion is a really good one.I don't know why I didn't think of that. It seems worth a few hundred dollars to get an engineer's opinion. I actually wish we had done that when we purchased the home. We did spend money on all kinds of inspections but not a specific engineering one. The main inspector said everything was "okay" and "normal old house" but obviously he might not have been qualified to make a true assessment. Also, there are newish support posts and some newish looking footers in the basement (about 8 of them) and I remember the inspector saying that someone had done some work to the support of the house. I will dig out the report and re-read it. We live in a national historic district and we all joke a neighborhood bbqs about our uneven old houses! I'll get someone in for peace of mind. FWIW- our GC came by this morning and of the options I outlined above, he recommends using the furring strips and then doing a 6in tongue and groove ceiling. He does not think we should try to move the heat vent.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2013 at 12:49PM
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belle_va: I had a structural engineering report done first. Since it appears extensive work has been done already, sometimes, an "adjustment" is needed (unless this is due to seasonal heaving). If they installed jacks, they are sometimes "adjustable". It can also be a quick fix to put in an additional beam or jack or adjust existing ones-- less than the cost of adding furring strips and a false ceiling.

This post was edited by gooster on Mon, Jul 15, 13 at 0:43

    Bookmark   July 14, 2013 at 4:23PM
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If you float the crown a few inches below the ceiling and the ducting hugs the back wall, then you could just paint the duct the same color as the wall and it likely wouldn't be noticeable. Of course, this depends on from how far away you can see the cabinets (closed room=can't see, open floorplan=might be able to see from the next room).

    Bookmark   July 14, 2013 at 6:21PM
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Weedyacres- the ducting comes pretty far forward. It doesn't hug the back of the wall at all. I wish it did! Just when I had made peace with floating the crown a few inches below... I remembered this little gem of a treat inside my cabinets! I know you guys like photos. I should take a few photos.

I will say that I actually like the plaster ceilings in my house. I am a fan of plaster. It has a nice earthy rusticity. (Is that a weird thing to say?) Now, our upstairs is more earthy than down because the ceilings are sloped and there's a half hip roof-line and the trowel work was a little less smooth. Those ceilings have all kinds of character.

Okay- so assuming we do decide to "even" the kitchen, would it be the right thing to do to pull down the old ceiling and shim up and/ or plane the joists or is it equally acceptable to go over the existing ceiling? GC seems to think we should just go over existing ceiling. All the downstairs ceilings got a beautiful new skim coat before we moved in and they are so luscious. I so hate to mess with them at all.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2013 at 6:35PM
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Sophie Wheeler

I'd wait until I got the report to make a firm decision. However, I would NEVER cover up even out of level plaster ceilings. You can design a compound molding that will help to disguise the slope. The key is that it shouldn't be too simple.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2013 at 6:57PM
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I know this might not be in character with your kitchen but...

I had the same problem. I made a simple soffit about 3" at the highest point, that extended about 1" deeper than the cabinets. I made the soffit level.

After the soffit was painted the same color as the ceiling - the problem was hardly noticeable.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2013 at 2:56PM
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