5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 4 Plaster)

By Scott Sidler • January 2, 2012

5 worst mistakes historic homeowners plasterThe walls of any pre-war house are most likely wood lath like in this picture covered with 3 coats of plaster. The work took a long time and was very labor intensive. Not to mention, it required a skilled plasterer to make sure the plaster was properly applied and the wall was smooth and level.

Then when the GIs returned home from WWII, the baby (and housing) boom hit America, and there was a huge demand for quick, affordable housing. A new product was just beginning to get some traction in the wall covering business call gypsum board (or sheet rock.) It was a wall that could be screwed or nailed to the studs by a relatively unskilled laborer at close to twice the speed and half the cost of the traditional 3-coat system. And since this wall wasn’t applied wet like plaster, it could be painted right away and thus got the nickname “drywall.”

A traditional 3-coat plaster is typically 7/8″ thick and when you add in the 1/4″ wood lath that supports the plaster wall, you have a wall that is more than 1″ thick! Compared to today’s most common drywall thickness of only 1/2″, that is a difference worth noting.

Today, the cost of a full 3-coat plaster wall is still expensive and timely to install, but when you live in an old house with one already installed, you should try to reap the benefits of someone else’s labor all those years ago.

All to often, we see historic houses gutted to the studs to install new drywall to replace the “outdated” plaster. Sometimes the plaster has been neglected past the point of no return, but most times it can be repaired. Usually it’s torn out in the name of insulating the wall cavities. But as with anything in the building trades, there is more than one way to skin a cat! In order to save folks the mess and expense of tearing out their walls, we recommend removing a few clapboards on the exterior in order to insulate the house to modern standards. Remember, historic homes typically have no plywood sheathing under the siding, so insulating with this method is just as effective plus it’s faster, cleaner, and much cheaper!

The Benefits

Here are just a few of the benefits of having a real plaster wall to consider before you think about removing yours:

  1. Thicker walls mean better sound dampening.
  2. Thicker walls mean double the R-value of ordinary drywall.
  3. Wood lath serves to strengthen the wall by adding additional racking resistance.
  4. Plaster increases the historical authenticity and therefore resale value of a historic home.
  5. It’s already there! It’s always “greener” and cheaper to retain existing elements.

Hopefully, this has given you some things to think about when it comes to your plaster walls. If you’d like to read more about repairing and maintaining your historic home’s walls, check out our video post How To: Repair Plaster Walls or our other post How To: Repair Old Plaster.

Read the rest of the 5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners:

Part 1 Windows

Part 2 Floors

Part 3 Siding

Part 5 The Details

 

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179 thoughts on “5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 4 Plaster)”

  1. Thank you for this post! I am looking at purchasing a 2 story brick Victorian home from 1890. Is it true that the plaster contains asbestos? The walls are cracked, not beyond repair but I have young children and don’t want to be infecting them with asbestos. I thought asbestos wasn’t used in 1890? It has so much character and beauty it needs some TLC! The kitchen is renovated with granite counter tops and white cupboards but the rest of the house has original character.

  2. Currently renovating a 1920 Colonial in MA .,with plaster and lath throughout. Have already torn out the pantry and bathroom walls, and ceiling. And replaced them with drywall appropriate to the needs of the room. Will be working on the bedroom next, then the dining area,since the ceiling in that room has a dropped ceiling hiding the damage. Removing plaster and lath is a messy, dusty heavy job. But is worth it. With the current plaster and lath still left, we can not get new wiring put in. because of the amounts of plaster that has “fallen” So after the walls are modernized, the rest of the electrical will be. More modern insulation will also be installed at that time. Plaster and lath is NOT heating or cooling efficient. And is not decent at sound deadening. Unless you can honestly say “Washington Slept Here” tear that crap out and put in the more modern, easier, more efficient, and safer, drywall

  3. We have a prewar home and have been advised to pull out the plaster and replace it with drywall and I’ve told every single contractor, no way! The plaster is part of its charm and we’re happy to have a professional plaster restorer fix a few cracks now and then when needed. Thanks for this info!

  4. I have kind of a unique situation, I have a brick 2 flat in northern illinois. the boiler went out and we decided it was time to update to central air and heat. The lathe and plaster is secured directly to the brick so there is no room to blow in insulation. Now that we are installing the ducting we are trying to figure out if we should A) Gut the entire place build out the walls with 2×4’s, insulate, and drywall. or B) Drywall over the plaster and over the newly installed ducts. My concerns are the R value with just the brick, plaster, drywall combo. maybe even adding one inch foam board then the drywall to help insulate… ideas? concerns? in a perfect world i would keep the plaster but it seems like the cost might be too high for that.

  5. My house is on the north coast of Massachusetts and built in 1850. It was converted to a 2 family at some point but all of the walls are plaster and lathe. We recently purchased the upstairs unit and are planning to transform the house back to a single family.
    As much as I would like to save what I can it appears as if most of the plaster in the upstairs unit is only 1/4 -3/8 in thick. Have you’ve ever seen anything like this? All of the walls were wallpapered, which came off pretty easily with just some warm water. The plaster really only looks like a smoothed out brown coat, is that something that was done in the past when they knew they were just putting up wallpaper?

  6. Plaster repair by the experts can recreate details in medallions and crown molding so that a home or office looks as good as new. Definitely worth the investment!

  7. I’m sitting here at the computer looking at plaster walls in our circa 1799-1800 house and wondering if they have been skim coated over time. I stripped up to 5 layers of wallpaper off the walls expecting to see some kind of white wash or calcimine paint underneath, but the paper’s paste might have removed that. ( the first room I repainted had the paint scrapped off and as I rolled on the primer and then the new paint, any patches of the remaining paint from that coat flaked off) I have some nicks and holes to refill and the walls need to be washed of any residue of the paste. What is the best way to wash it off and neutralize any calcimine paint off and should I use sheet rock compound to patch the imperfections? Reading most of the comments above, I will throw in that our plaster walls are done not over regular lathe, but over :Shaky Butts” (accordion lathe which is very cool) I speculate the reason that the plaster looks to be original is because the shaky butts, usually chestnut, is hairy and tends to hold the plaster better than the keyed way normal lathe does? Although almost all of the plaster in the house was still intact, there are a few areas where water damage has brought down areas of plaster. Can those areas be replaced with sheet rock and blended in with the plaster? Any thoughts?

    1. Paula,
      I’ve been a plaster here on the west coast for nearly fifty years and I have never seen or heard of the ” Shaky Butts” lath you described. This must have been something you would only see in a house as old as yours.
      I always repair plaster with plaster and drywall with drywall. You can have a plasterer repair water damaged areas with metal lath and plaster. The metal lath is a high quality; quick and cost effective approach to the repair. Plug any tiny imperfections with spackle or drywall compound; then sand smooth.

      1. Thanks for the expert advice Rick. Will look for plasters in our area in the Spring. To go back to Shaky Butts…around here in the older houses, they had an abundant supply of wide boards, usually chestnut back then. They would reeve the ends of the wide boards and then shake or pull them apart like an accordion and then since the boards weren’t planed, they had hairy faces that the plaster seems to stick to really well. The “Keys” weren’t close together, but they are wide. One of the best ways to see if a house has had alterations made to it is when you get a peek at the different lathes used. We owned a house built in 1816 and the only remaining original ceiling in the home after alterations was in perfect condition and unfortunately, had to taken down to make way for the plumbing for a new bathroom above it. It was the hardest plaster removal we’ve ever had to do. That plaster really, really wanted to stick to the shaky butts. I don;t know if I can post a pic of a section of wall here that shows some shaky butt lathe or not, but it is beautiful to look at on its own. BTW, if we’re experienced sheet rockers and mudders, do you think we could attempt the plaster repair with the metal lathe ourselves?

        1. Interesting post Paula regarding the interior lath. I’ve seen many variations of exterior lath in California but not so much interior. We don’t have many homes older than 1880’s out here. Mine is 1914.
          I wouldn’t discourage you from attempting to apply metal lath and plaster yourself .. if you want to give it a go. A 2.5 gauge metal lath is sufficient for interior overlay of existing wood lath. Just fasten metal lath with plaster board nails or 1″ drywall screws right over the exposed wood lath.. Apply a thin coat of “fast setting” gypsum plaster over the lath; just to close up the screen. Do not use fast setting drywall compounds. Once the plaster has set, (about 30 minutes), apply a thicker second coat to bring it near flush to the adjacent surfaces. Allow a little room to apply a finish coat, ( about 1/8th ” thick ), and as it begins to set, it may be troubled smooth. I’d suggest you practice on a small area at first then go from there. If it is too much to handle .. hire a pro or skip the plaster and finish with a drywall application.

          1. Rick, My husband is anxious to try some plastering and this might be his chance to give it a try. Thank you again for the advice and the description for the application of coats and the whole process.
            I’ve laid Saltillo tiles on a metal gird before and it sounds like that first step is very similar. Thanks again.

  8. My home was built in 1880. The back corner of the house has been walled off between the kitchen and the bathroom to the exterior wall. This is probably a 6ft×8ft area. Its a lot of wasted space that we would really like to open up, but we are newbies to home renos. I did cut a small piece of drywall away in the kitchen and found lath and insulation behind it but no plaster. I haven’t cut a hole in the bathroom yet but it sounds more hollow than the lath wall. Anybody have any idea why there would be this much wasted space walled off like that, and if it’s a good idea to open it up?

  9. We are remodeling a home built in 1920, has never been remodeled. We want to demo a wall that is separating the kitchen and dining room. The walls are plaster, remodel the kitchen and put a sliding door where a window is… What is the best route to do this? We were thinking of taking down the wall (it is not a support wall), open up the kitchen/dining area. Replace a double window in the kitchen with a single window and put the sink along that wall. The plumbing and electric will also need to be done at the same time. any input will help!! Thank you

    1. My home was built in 1880. The back corner of the house has been walled off between the kitchen and the bathroom to the exterior wall. This is probably a 6ft×8ft area. Its a lot of wasted space that we would really like to open up, but we are newbies to home renos. I did cut a small piece of drywall away in the kitchen and found lath and insulation behind it but no plaster. I haven’t cut a hole in the bathroom yet but it sounds more hollow than the lath wall. Anybody have any idea why there would be this much wasted space walled off like that, and if it’s a good idea to open it up?

  10. I have a house that was built in 1917 and am in the process of remodeling. Due to various reasons the lath and plaster has been removed and I am down to the studs. Since the lath and plaster was anywhere from about 3/4 to 7/8 of an inch thick what would you suggest to bring the new drywall wall out so it matches up with the door and window frames since they don’t make 3/4 inch drywall. Although it is a lot of work, I was thinking of placing 1/4 inch wood strips over all the studs and then drywalling on top to bring me out the 3/4 of an inch. This would be less expensive then two sheets of drywall. Any thoughts or other ideas on how to do it would be appreciated.
    Thanks

    1. Kyle,
      In order to allow drywall to line up with your doors and windows, furring the studs 1/8th – 1/4 inch is a good option. Another option would be to install “thin wall blue board ” and veneer plaster the wall surface flush to your door and window frames. The advantage of a veneer plaster application is that you can adjust the thickness of the plaster to accommodate the variation in wall thickness needed to line up to your door and window jambs. Drywall contractors can install and fire tape the blue board and a plasterer can apply the base and finish plaster. Some plastering contractors will install both board and plaster. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a plaster finish in your 1917 home? You may want to look into it. Most estimates are free.

    2. Use a 6 ft. level (or whatever size you have) and you can shim the studs out accordingly. Start with the 1/4 in around the windows and doors and you might find in some areas you need more or less depending on what the level shows between studs. Shimming the wall out to straighten it will make a big difference, drywall work that is super wavy looks unprofessional to me. Plaster is harder than drywall but it is also 3 times the price so I would recommend to hire the best quality drywaller you can and make sure to have all the prep work done properly before the drywaller shows up. (I am a drywaller and plasterer by the way so feel free to respond with any questions)

  11. We just purchased a home built in 1835, so I’m assuming lathe and plaster. The previous homeowner somehow (glue) attached carpet to several of the walls over the plaster. She claimed it made it so her pictures wouldn’t move once placed on the wall. First question, how do I get the carpet off? Secondly, how do I fix the walls that are most likely going to look horrible after taking the carpet off?

    1. Hi Valerie,
      I think it’s so cool that you have a home built in 1835. That’s amazing!
      Our best recommendation, simply because we can’t see it in person, is to use our directory to find a licensed preservationist in your area and they can make a more accurate recommendation upon seeing it in person. http://www.thecraftsmanblog.com/directory.
      I hope that helps and best of luck to you!
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  12. Just bought a1913 Craftsman in Nahant MA.
    Ceilings on 2nd floor all cracked, not repairable.
    1. Go over with blueboard and plaster?
    Or
    2. Demo ($1700 and dust!) and hang new blueboard and plaster?
    There is knob and tube… Removing ceiling would make THAT job easier. And new forced hot water heater is system going in… Could make that job easier too.
    Which is best route?
    Or
    3. Just go over with drywall whether demo or not, and not plaster?
    Thank you for helpful blog!

    1. Hi Susanne,
      I looooove the sound of your 1913 Craftsman! My gut is to say no to option number 2, but we can’t really provide an accurate assessment without seeing it in person. Our best recommendation would be to use our directory http://www.thecraftsmanblog.com/directory to find a licensed preservationist in your area who can give you the best direction upon seeing it in person.
      Best of luck to you!
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  13. One thing this neglects to mention is that lath and plaster are much harder to work with for any modifications…
    I wanted to make a window bigger and everyone was telling me how easy of a project that is, cut a hole in the wall, get an standard window and pluck it in, finish up. Cheap, done in 2 days.
    When I actually started getting quotes, it turned out they were assuming drywall; with lath and plaster it’s much harder to cut (some contractors straight up say “I don’t work with lath and plaster”), the window has to be custom ordered (weeks of waiting), etc. A huge pain and much more expensive.

    1. I work on old homes that are almost exclusively plaster and lath. I cut in outlets, switch box, windows, door and change opening all the time. It is easy to do without damaging any plaster around it. It was much more difficult before the tools we have today but it’s easy now and not that much more difficult than cutting drywall.

      1. I would agree Scott. The mistake many tradesmen make is that they cut wood lath and plaster with a reciprocating saw.
        This causes the wood lath to shift violently and damage the plaster surface. It’s fine to use a Saws-all on drywall, but unwise to use it on wood lath and plaster. Use another less intrusive tool.

        1. Yes. I use a 4 inch diamond edge blade on a grinder. No vibration, just smooth cut. It does put out a lot of plaster dust so use a good OSHA mask.

  14. I have a brick home built in the 40’s. All plaster walls! We are remodeling the kitchen which has drywall for the upper half and paneling on the lower half. I ripped the paneling off to discover layers upon layers of wallpaper. The upper half sticks out a bit more than the lower half. With that being said, how do I repair these walls? Do I patch up the lower half with drywall to match the upper half? Or tear it all down? Will I have to remove all of the wallpaper? I mean there is ALOT!

  15. So glad to have found this!! We have just purchased a 1937 cottage, and I’m debating what to do with the walls. I don’t know if they are plaster or not, but they do have some sort of paper on them, and in many of the corners, the paper has pulled away, and cracked. The inside of all the closets have planking that looks like it had the cheesecloth backed paper on it. But I have peeled a tiny piece of the paper away from one of the corners in a bedroom, and there is definitely either plaster or gypsum underneath. If the closets have planking, and I also see it behind the kitchen cabinets, do you think that is what all my walls have underneath the paper and gypsum/plaster as opposed to lathing??

  16. Can anyone tell me the best way to prevent ripping out my plaster walls so I can insulate my home? It’s a 1922 brick home so it’s not as easy as remove a couple of clapboards.

    Any help appreciated.

    1. I’ve got a similar situation and I believe it’s worthwhile to conserve the plaster as much as possible. If the underlying structure is sound – while you won’t be able to re-create the damaged plaster, you can substitute drywall or the like.
      First you need to figure out what the source of the damage is. In my case (and probably yours), there’s a water/moisture issue, and/or an issue of pressure(weight) from later additions to the house.
      In my case, there’s a very, very slow water/moisture leak, from the outside. I say slow, because I’ve owned the house for 30 years and observed the situation all that long.
      I’ve ruled out many sources of the moisture, down to one (a deck, that I had an EPDM membrane installed 20 yrs ago). The EPDM is reaching the end of its life – so I’m going to have it pulled up & look at what’s underneath & related structures like the railing that pierces the decking… once that is done, and I’m sure there’s no more seepage – I’ll have the damaged plaster cut out & replaced with drywall nailed to the lath.
      This plan is based on consultation with many contractors – some of whom knew NOTHING about plaster, others who did understand the benefits of old plaster.
      Good luck.

    2. We recently had insulation added to our our lathe and plaster walls. The contractor drilled holes (approx 3 inches around) in regular intervals alongside the interior walls and blew in the insulation. It required some skilled repair work by tint but only has and to patch a few small holes.

    3. Hello, I too have an old brick home with lath and plaster. Whatever you do, I don’t recommend removing any of the walls because you will not find wall space behind it. What you will find behind that lath is heavy gauge wire that supports the brick on the outside. I recently had to remove plaster from my kitchen walls because it was all destroyed crack wise there wasn’t anything we could do but drywall it, this is how I discovered how the walls were built. It was a lot of work and we ended up insulating it with a product called Reflextic. It’s a insulation and vapor block that comes in rolls. So I read that if you apply this same type of barrier in your crawl space and insulate the attic and replace windows you will be fine. That’s what I ended up doing. Hope that helps. RestoringMuskogee

    4. We have a 1928 bungalow cottage in San Antonio. Original shiplap siding. Not sure if the interior walls are original plaster or not. Anyway, we insulated with blown in material. We opted for the holes to be drilled on the outside and the holes plugged, finished and painted. Much less invasive and damaging. We are also much happier with our summer electric bill! Good luck!

    5. I have a different type of plaster in my house. The plaster in my house has a drywall backer and plaster over the top of that. My house also has a stucco exterior. I had an insulation contractor stop come over to my house several years ago. He installed blown in fiberglass insulation into my wall cavities. Anyway, he gave me the option of drilling through my stucco (which I really did not want to do) or drill holes into my plaster walls. I obviously chose the latter option.

      My contractor drilled two roughly 3″ diameter holes per stud opening. One of those holes was near the ceiling, and the other was about a foot off the floor. My contractor added blown in fiberglass insulation through the bottom hole until his machine met resistance. He then finished filling from the top. He drilled holes every 16″ apart (also used a metal coat hanger to verify location of next stud prior to drilling). I worked right behind my contractor patching the holes in my plaster with lightweight spackling. Depending upon what kind of siding you have, that might also be removed and insulation installed that way. I prefer not to mess with the side of the house that keeps the elements out if it is working.

      I did my project in 2002 when utilities were a lot cheaper. The previous owner of my house stated his utility bills were close to $200 a month. I currently average about $150 a month at today’s rates. I spent about $1000 on my project (just the insulation contractor). I paid extra for the wall patch and paint. However, I think I got my money’s worth on that project. As an FYI, my contractor told me it was roughly an 11 year payback to insulate walls. Of course, there are other reasons to do it (comfort, noise reduction, etc.). Hope that helps.

      1. You did the right thing Keitj; opening the interior walls to insulate. Your interior walls are what is known as button board and plaster or Rock Lath and plaster. Opening the exterior stucco compromises your black paper moisture barrier and waterproofing and patching the stucco is much more involved than the interior repair. Often insulation contractors prefer to open the exterior stucco because it’s a easier to clean their mess outside than keeping the inside clean. I repair walls for a living and I’m telling you the interior repair is a better way to go.

  17. There’s a lot to be said for keeping the old ways when restoring an genuinely “historic” home – not to be confused with an old house. What’s historic about it – did Grant throw up in the corner one night? If it’s just an old house that’s been scabbed onto for 200 years, there’s no viable reason to replicate the “good old ways.” Clean up the accumulated crap and put it back right. Got double hung, 12-pane windows – garbage – go with double insulated either replacements or inserts, then sell the old ones to some other sucker. You can always glue / paint on the divided lights. K&T or 14/2 armored cable w/o ground – garbage. Plaster over lath or doubled-up wallboard – garbage. Trying to do any repairs correctly on plaster is expensive or a PITA. Got a dinky 100-amp panel that’s chocked-full of single-pole breakers – dangerous garbage. Chuck it and put in a 200-amp commercial panel and proper GFCI and Arc-fault breakers. Bet you have an exposed service entrance cable too, with rubbery schmoo around the splices and plugging the holes around the meter- 10:1 there’s no drip loops either. Service entrance – big olde glass insulator on a lag screw hanging on the end rafter too I bet. How this house passed inspection at the sale is criminal at best.

    When you open up these old houses you’l find a myriad of critters, shortcuts, compromised structure – especially in bathrooms, code violations / dangerous-as-hell wiring shortcuts (multiple buried junctions, splices, lamp cord to outside boxes, buried romex w/o GFCI ) the list is endless.

    Iv’e done a couple wreck-outs on my own homes (’50s and ’60s-built homes), and it was infinitely cheaper / faster to start with “framing holding up the roof,” when making the renos. I’m working on friend’s 72-year old cape cod house now and that’s 1″ plaster over drywall over rockboard is taking twice as long and costing twice as much as just tearing it all out and doing it right. I won’t even get into the cedar-shingle siding and unvented attic – it’s vented and insulated now.

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