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How To: Repair Plaster Walls

How to repair plaster wallsPlaster walls are some of the most misunderstood parts of an old home. And many homeowners are quick to tear them down and put up drywall. But replacing plaster walls with drywall is not only a major mess and expense, but it also destroys the character of your home. Each plaster wall is unique. You can truly see the hand of the plasterer who made the wall as opposed to monolithically boring drywall. Combine that with the extra strength and soundproofing a plaster wall provides, and you now know why I won’t do drywall anymore.

The most common problem with plaster walls is cracking or pulling away from the lath behind it. If this is happening in your house, there is a simple solution that you can do to save your plaster and your money. At my historic restoration company, we started using Big Wally’s Plaster Magic for our plaster repairs. Funny name, serious product. The system is easy enough for anyone to use and it works great! In my opinion, it’s a much a better system than the old way of doing plaster repair which is why I offer their products for sale in The Craftsman Store.

So, we put together the video below to teach you the process we use and how you can do it in your own home:

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67 thoughts on “How To: Repair Plaster Walls

  1. Our home is 1906. The previous owners decided to “fix” the cracking in the plaster by lathering joint compound about 1/4 inch across the entire wall, and 1/8 inch of ceiling sand paint over the joint compound. They then did a stippling effect, we think, to hide the cracked plaster from new buyers. To date, the plaster in the stairs is now a spiky wall that sandpapers your knuckles everytime you walk up the stairs. To save our knuckles, the joint compound has to come off, but requires scraping. Any suggestions on how to get the joint compound/ceiling paint off the walls without damaging the plaster?

    1. A commercial low pressure clothing steamer (aka Jiffy J3) to soften the layersmay be useful – it depends on whether it was premixed (water soluble) or hard setting, but it should at least soften the top coat of paint (and possibly the layers below) assuming the PO didn’t strip the 100+ years worth of paint, the steamer may be good at releasing the paint under the joint compound.

  2. Hi Scott, My husband and I just purchased a 1919 colonial. We have discovered that in addition to 3 balloon ceilings, the plaster ceilings in the living room and dining room are covered in canvas. While working on the dining room the entire canvas sheet fell off, underneath was almost a cement like layer of what I can only assume is plaster. It doesn’t look like regular plaster because it’s grey and almost cement like to the touch. Here are my questions :
    1. What do you know about balloon celings?
    2. What do you know about the use of canvas on ceilings?
    3. The celings has long cracks in it, they are hairline and the plaster /cement seems firmly affixed to the lath, do you think it would be wise to premtivley use the PM and plaster washer fix on the ceiling or just skim coat and repair?
    I love our old house and am looking forward to bringing it back to its former beauty. Your blog is very helpful.

    1. We are scraping a layer of paint and two layers of wallpaper off our 1896 Victorian home’s walls and have also found a grey, cement-like wall. I would like to know if this is plaster? What do we put over it before painting?

        1. It’s not more plaster under the layer removed..it’s the Lath board it was adhered to. You can actually nail new drywall into that….or plaster fresh and new…and historically preserve the look of the era.

    2. Scott,

      I understand you can use the big Wally’s product on bulges as well. How do you bring the bulge down when re-anchoring the plaster with the glue. Is it a matter of sanding down the area and do you do that before or after the application of the product? I assume the final part is feathering a skim coat over the area.


  3. Has anyone experienced issues with asbestos in your old plaster? We have made an offer on a house built in 1938 and are concerned about possible asbestos in the plaster.

  4. Hi Scott,

    We are about to start plaster repair work on our 1910 Victorian. As part of the rewiring process (move from knob and tube to modern electricity), our electrician had to cut a few holes in walls and ceilings (about the size of both of my hands put together). He cut through the lathe, so now we just have an empty hole. Do you have a recommendation of how to patch? In other places where plaster has fallen away but lathe remains, we are planning to repair with gypsum plaster base (structolite) followed by a 3-coat lime plaster from Master of Plaster. Not sure how to handle the gaping “no-lathe” holes, though.

    1. I enlarged the holes just enough to screw in thin metal mesh (using #4 stainless steel screws). Then I build up the hole with plaster patch in three layers. The last layer can be textured to match the existing walls. Prime paint done.

  5. Hi Scott. Great Blog.
    I just bought a 4 unit house in Columbus Oh for rental. Its in a below average part of town and tenants in this part don’t care about the house. It has rooms where plaster has fallen off due to roof leak and walls with peeling paint. The previous owners had started the rehab with some drywall and panels.
    My question is would using hardboard paneling work to cover the plaster. I can then paint on top of the panel. I came across this at lowes.

  6. A week ago we bought a 2 family brick veneer home (2,200 sq ft) in the Bronx (NY). It was built in 1922 and has plaster and lath walls. It needs a LOT of work (new electric, plumbing, bathrooms, kitchens, and the “new” walls removed to restore living room/dinning room. We would like to insulate the exterior walls. With all the work that needs to be done I was assuming the plaster would have to be replaced with drywall. Is there a way to install a vapor barrier/insulation, and electrical/plumbing without removing the plaster? I am afraid of moister condensing on the back of the exterior walls’ lath in the summer when the air conditioner is on. Between the brick and the plaster is lath, studs, and diagonally orientated tongue and groove planks.

  7. Scott, My wife and I just bought foreclosed 1796 colonial that is roughly 3300 square feet. As you can imagine, it needs A LOT of work. This, however, is our “forever home” so we have time to tackle things in a more methodical way. I notice that much of the homes that are discussed here are post 1900. We bought it because it has the size to accommodate our growing family and it obviously has GREAT character. We do, however, want to bring it into the 21st century while maintaining as much of that character as possible. Any general advice for me regarding such an old home? Thanks!

    1. Ron, much of the advice for the post 1900 homes also applies to the really old ones like yours. Building science didn’t change much between the 1700s and the 1930s. I would pay attention to the unique details on your home because at 1796 most if not all of the woodwork was likely custom milled for your home. Keep it original and you’ll be in great shape.

  8. Is Wally’s Plaster Magic really unique and worth the price, or could Liquid Nails or another construction adhesive be used instead with good results?

    1. Personally, I use and love the product. They don’t pay me anything it’s just my opinion. Liquid nails might work, but I usually prefer specialized products for specialized jobs and if it ever comes loose again the added security that Wally’s provides is well worth the additional expense I think.

    2. I’ve used both for repairs. The primary product involved is the adhesive. The Plaster Magic adhesive is VERY expensive, about $18 for a tube, compared to $3 for Liquid Nails. That said, the PM adhesive is practically explosive. It expands violently and will get into every crevice it can find underneath the plaster, so it stands to reason it will create a superior bond, as it will get into all the space you need it to get into. Liquid Nails comes out more like caulk.

    3. The key is to somehow deal with the dust on the wood and plaster which cannot be removed with the vacuum. The purpose of the conditioner is to consolidate this dust. Try to use a construction adhesive to glue scarp dusty lath and plaster and see how well it sticks. Look for a construction adhesive which is water soluble (water clean up) and make a dilute solution of the glue with water and alcohol (5 to 1) to squirt into the hole as a primer, and use the adhesive diluted to allow it to flow better into the hole. (I use the real stuff so I can’t recommend any products)

  9. Hi Scott, I am in a 1906 cottage that had a crumbling foundation. After the lift and new foundation, there is some cracking of the plaster. Do I do this whole process, if everything seems tight still, or can I just use something to fill the cracks. I would imagine it will be cracking for a long time to come, since it was way out of level when we began.

  10. Just want to say, that the real star of this suite of products is the adhesive. When you squirt that stuff in there it practically explodes between the lath and plaster, filling every air pocket that exists and making a very nice seal. I don’t think there’s any adhesive like that, nor one as expensive. I think you could get by with liquid nails but I don’t think you’ll get nearly as good a bond.

  11. 1904 craftsman: every room is covered in wall paper, where do I begin? Paint over it or remove and harm plaster?

  12. We purchased a historical home built in 1888. The paint on the walls in one of the bedrooms is peeling off. It looks like some kind of sheetrock that might have been wall papered. What can we do to repaint this room?

    1. We just purchased a house with all plaster walls. The walls were doing the same thing you described. Every single wall needed help. What we did was peel all of the loose stuff back and skim coated with new plaster. Looks great and was pretty simple if you have the time.

  13. Hello Scott, my entire living room has tiny cracks in my plaster walls. I thought it might be the cheap paint from Walmart begining to crack but I’m just not sure. My question is, should I do what you did in the video or should I do the Veneer Plaster repair?

  14. Any advice for plaster crumbling thats adhered to a red brick wall? Some areas you can see the brick.. and it doesn’t look too have any moisture in it..

  15. we plastered the interior of our strawbale house 10 years ago. there are areas in the bathroom that are looking shabby now, above sink, around tub. Is there a way to remove the inevitable stains from soap scum, water, lotion etc? is there a protective coating that can be applied after the fact to prevent more staining? thanks

    1. Bathroom areas should have been done with a custom plaster mix. While I am NOT a plasterer, I have seen a home with bathroom walls many yrs. old that had zero evidence of mold or wear right above the tub and sink. I would contact a VERY experienced plasterer and think it would be worth a consultation fee to get an experienced opinion. I HAVE used a latex additive made for tile thinset on drywall face and plastered over the drywall also using the latex additive for half the liquid in the plaster mix. This wall is now 10 yrs old and shows no cracking and looks like the other plastered walls in the room

  16. Hello Scott,
    We purchased a 1917 Craftsman that used a steel mesh instead of lathing for the plaster walls. We have had to replace some ceilings because the nails holding up the lathe have turned loose , and one actually fell in. Will this product work as well with metal lathing? Any suggestions>

    1. Muriel, here is the response from the president of Plaster Magic: “Plaster Magic can be used with metal lath in specific circumstances. It will
      not stabilize cracks like it does with wood lath or masonry where Plaster
      Magic bridges and reinforces the plaster.
      The circumstances where I have had the most success is when the plaster has
      come loose from the wire lath.
      (I use the term wire or diamond lath to make it clear I’m not talking about
      pierced metal lath.)
      If you can see or believe that the plaster keys have let go from the lath
      (this usually happens with limited exposure to a water leak on gypsum
      plaster) then the adhesive will redevelop the keys necessary to hold the
      plaster in place when the plaster is pushed back to the lath and the
      adhesive is squeezed through the wire lath and allowed to coalesce. Brace
      the plaster back to the lath either wall to wall or floor to ceiling.

  17. Hello Scott,
    Thanks for the advice on plaster walls. I have a question. I am closing off a wide passageway (5’8″WX6’8″H between two rooms in a 1920s Craftsman with plaster and lath walls. I will try to match as best as possible the plaster and lath on one side of this passageway (the other side is 1930s knotty pine). I don’t have the skill to do plaster so I will use drywall. I understand the match will be far from perfect so I am thinking of pictures and wall hangings. Still, can you give me any tips on softening the contrast between the plaster and the drywall?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. Sure thing, Mike! First, make sure you use a drywall thickness that is equal to the thickness of the plaster walls. It may take doing 2 layers of drywall (maybe 1/4″ and 5/8″ sheets) to get to the right thickness.
      Second, try making your joint compound for the transition between plaster and drywall closer to the consistency of the old plaster. Maybe add a little sand if appropriate. It just depends what the old plaster is like.
      But the only way to really blend it is to skim coat the whole wall. Whether you use plaster or joint compound that will give you the best product.
      Good luck and let me know how it goes!

  18. Hi Scott, Love the website! I live in earthquake country and I need to bolt my bookcases into these old walls. Any tips on how to bolt the bookcases into the walls without causing major damage to the plaster walls?

    1. Ron, I would just screw into the studs for security if possible. If securing it to the studs isn’t a possibility then you should pre drill holes for anchors that are rated for the weigh of the load you need to support. Just avoid any hammering as that will loosen the plaster’s connection to the lath.

    1. Tricia, Did you ever get a reply/good leads for a KC area old home contractor? We just moved into a 1935 Tudor in a neighborhood where home are being torn down and super-sized so I am looking for a good knowledgeable contractor. I would love to hear anything you are willing to share.

      1. Hi Penelope and Tricia! On our site, we have a directory of licensed historic preservationists in different cities. Though we haven’t personally met all of them, they’ve gone through similar training etc! I hope you have great luck and keep us updated with pics (tag us on Instagram) etc of your progress. https://thecraftsmanblog.com/directory/
        -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  19. Hi Scott,
    I love my old walls. Every so often, when someone would come into our house for an unrelated issue, they would stop and look at the walls and say they knew somebody that could put up dry wall for us. My answer ” Does this house look like a cookie cutter house in the sub divisions?” Jeesh, this brain wash about drywall. Thanks for the video, it’s terrific.
    The Dusty Victorian

    1. When interviewing contractors to work on our small 1924 Craftsman bungalow, that’s one of the clues I use. Any contractor who’s not sensitive to, and appreciative of, my home and its historic features doesn’t get to lay a hand on any part of it. And yes, it does eliminate the vast majority of potential contractors. 🙁

      1. Laura, I’m glad you’re so particular about who gets to work on your house. I only wish that more people thought like that. I’d probably have less work fixing their mistakes, but there would be more historic homes that haven’t been remuddled.

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