Old Plaster Walls


Plaster walls in one of the bedrooms

Plaster walls in one of the bedrooms


After a slightly longer hiatus than we planned, the Weekenders are back!  We had a great summer with a successfully pulled-off wedding that included great music, tasty food, and of course a fabulous location (our barn). Then we got totally caught up in gardening and yard work through the amazing Indian summer we had this year with tomatoes and zucchini into October. Now that winter has really set in with 4 degrees on the day after Thanksgiving, we’re gearing up for some more house projects including figuring out what to do with some old plaster walls.

One thing I’ve always noticed when looking at photos in listings for old houses, especially old farm houses, is all of the wallpaper on the walls.  I always just assumed that it was only because that was the fashion of the day, and that people renovated old farmhouses to look like old farmhouses by putting up Victorian or turn of the century-looking wallpaper. Don’t get me wrong – I think in some cases limited use of wallpaper can be fantastic, and for really nice wallpaper, expensive.  But too much wallpaper – especially ugly wallpaper – isn’t something that I find aesthetically appealing.  It never occurred to me that there might be another reason for all of that wallpaper.  As was the case in our house, wallpaper can hide multiple wall sins that paint can’t: cracks, holes, stains, bad paint colors, older wallpaper, secret messages, etc.

When we bought our place three (!) years ago there was, in fact wallpaper in every bedroom and hallway.  After tons of cleaning and ripping up carpet, removing the old, ugly, peeling wallpaper came next. I discovered a fairly tried and true removal method – a spray bottle of hot dish-soapy water, sprayed on one panel at a time, let it soak in for five to ten minutes (don’t let it dry out), then use a three inch paint scraper to scrape it off.

One of the reasons the paper came of relatively easily in the bedrooms upstairs was because those walls were the original smooth plaster – not newfangled dry-wall most newer homes have. We were actually really excited about this. Plaster walls are apparently more fireproof, sound proof and provide better insulating qualities. Also, because they are a smooth solid surface, they don’t have the seams that drywall has, and they are less prone to nicks and dents.

Some of the downsides of plaster walls are that they are prone to crack, especially around doors and windows as old houses settle, and in some cases, especially on ceilings, the solid plaster can come loose from the wooden strips or lathe that the plaster is on top of.    They are also generally more expensive to fix large areas that have issues – it’s easier and cheaper to just cover up old, cracked and broken plaster walls and ceilings with drywall or paneling (as has been done in many rooms in our house, and all of our ceilings have been covered with drywall or wood), than to pay someone who is good at plastering to come and fix or re-do entire walls or rooms.  This Old House  has a pretty good description of how plaster and lathe walls work and how to reattach plaster that has separated from lathe if you have small areas to repair.

Wallpaper in the process of being removed.

Wallpaper in the process of being removed.

After removing the wallpaper, we actually really like the way that the bare plaster walls look – kind of French/European and antique, so we’re trying to find a way to preserve the look of the plaster walls, but make them look a little more finished. Unfortunately, we haven’t found a lot of resources or information online. I looked into doing real whitewash.  Whitewash is literally paint made with very watered down slaked lime – essentially adding a very thin layer of lime plaster to your walls. Whitewash has other benefits  – it’s non-toxic,  you can color it  with  pigments or stains it’s mildly anti bacterial and insect repellant (thus it’s common use on the inside of dairy barns).  But it is also prone to rub off if you brush against it.

I contacted a company called Earth Pigments to see if they could recommend a whitewash treatment we could use that wouldn’t rub off.  I got a very nice reply from them informing me that whitewash wouldn’t really work on our plaster walls which were most likely the newer gypsum plaster, rather than lime plaster.  They gave us the suggestion that we try Casein Borax Paint (essentially milk paint), and gave us a recipe to which we could add some pigments if we wanted as well as an acrylic binder to make it more permanent.

Other suggestions have been as varied as clear polyurethane, clear stain and wax.  Luckily, of the three rooms that have plaster walls that haven’t been covered, one of them is in sort of rough shape, so we plan to just paint over the plaster.  But before that, we can use the plaster walls to do some experiments to figure out exactly what we want to do in the other rooms.

Any Upstater readers had any experience refinishing, painting or rehabbing plaster walls?  Any tips (that don’t involve wallpaper) you can give us and other Upstater readers?

Category: Lexington, Old House Dreams, Renovations, upstate new york, Weekenders

By: Kim | 6 December 2013 12:00 PM | 4 Comments

4 Responses

  1. Country Sean says:

    My 1930 bungalow in Columbia County had weird plaster board, not lathe. After ripping down wood paneling and dropped ceilings in my Living and Dining room, the plaster was surprisingly intact, but needed a skim coat. I got multiple bids (most contractors wanted to put drywall over the plaster) and eventually got ripped off by James McCormic from Painting Plus (he took my $ and disappeared). Decided to get Angie’s List and ended up using Peter Michaelman. He did an excellent job at a good price! Now that I’m starting the kitchen remodel, I decided to just pull the plaster down and do drywall and a wood ceiling. Although the plaster has some great qualities, it was too big of a headache to deal with and too expensive to renovate.

    • Kim says:

      Thanks Sean. It’s good to know that you found an honest plasterer you liked at a good price. It does seem like it’s a hard skill to master, so it makes sense that it’s expensive. It’s just too bad that most people can’t afford to save old plaster. Hopefully we’ll be able to keep the ones we have left.

  2. I have been removing wallpaper from plaster walls since 1980, in my painting business. I never had someone ask me to leave the bare plaster, and put a “finish” over it to make it look better. However, if I were to try something, it would be either a flat, or satin finish acrylic polyurethane. This would give it a slight sheen(the satin finish), which would bring out the “highlights” of the various colors and imperfections in the plaster.
    As far as repairing plaster walls, I am an expert at that, having worked on older homes in Westchester and Putnam Counties for over 30 years. My company can be explored at ritaccopainting.com. Best of luck with your old house! Bob

  3. Lana Fritz says:

    I bought Bernard Gladstone’s wonderful book years ago. He wrote a Q&A column for the NYTimes. He suggested “bridging” the cracks in plaster walls & ceiling. I located the products he recommended at a great old hardware in Stone Ridge, NY…Krack Koat and Tuff Coat…made by the same company. They are tremendously easy to work with & I was a true amateur DIY type. That was about 24 yrs. ago & the work still looks great. Our (apt.) building is 104 & is still settling + it’s in bad need of having the brick re-pointed + exposures of all kinds (also near the Hudson)…It’s a challenge!

    I did see a really beautiful waxed wall in a French restaurant that I still covet. The restaurant is gone (alas) but had 5-6 thin layers of softened (not melted) beeswax applied. Light penetrates the layers for an incredible ‘glow’ & the owners chose to use the natural beeswax instead of tinting it.

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