Exposing Ceiling beams

Questions and answers relating to houses built in the 1800s and before.

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Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby Jero312 on Sun Jan 29, 2012 4:01 pm

I have an 1803 house, some of you may have seen the pictures in my other thread, It was a originally a fisherman's house and is somewhat rustic (in a good way) I am thinking about exposing the ceiling beams in our living room/common area in front of the large central fireplace. I have searched the topic and found out a few things, 1) noise and dust from above can be an issue, and 2) I might have piping electric or other suff running over the plaster. Me and my wife currently are the only people living there so the upstairs is empty so I am not concerned about noise right now, and as far as I know there is nothing running behind the plaster. Now for my question... I know nothing is as simple as it sounds but is it really as easy as ripping down the plaster, cleaning up and finishing or oiling the old timbers? is there a good how to or anything I should know ahead of time before I get started on one of my first projects?
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Re: Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby coldwater on Mon Jan 30, 2012 8:55 am

I have removed quite a few ceilings for customers wishing to expose their floor joists. Depending on the age of the house, I usually try to discourage them doing it for a few reasons. By the age of your house, It's not a guarantee that the type of joist is what you would like to keep exposed. It may be that they are simply milled joists and resemble modern construction. They may be in less than great condition, having been drilled out for upgrades over the years, and there may well be wiring run through the joist pockets. Sadly, it was pretty common practice to hack into the floor above, to access the ceilings for wires, because the plaster was too time consuming to repair if opened up. I almost always use an inspection scope for a visual inspection before suggesting that it would be worth the time and expense for them to pull a good ceiling down, only to find a visual mess.
When it is possible and everything looks like it will be worth the effort, There is a good chance that you will have a constant mess from the floor above dropping dust and bits of "fluff" through the movement of the floorboards. In most cases, I do a short float from the underside of the floor, and install drywall between the exposed joists, fitting it carefully to each joist, and finishing the surface with a skim coat to try and replicate plaster. It's a very rare job that the joists and upper floor boards are of a quality worth keeping fully exposed. Unless you're in need of a new ceiling due to damage, I would highly recommend scoping every joist pocket and get a good look at what you're dealing with before tearing it down. It's a lot cheaper and easier to patch a few 1/2" holes than to replace the ceiling.
Owning an old home requires good stewardship, so that we can not only honor the original
craftsman who labored to build a home of enduring quality, but allow the next generations the opportunity to live in history.
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Re: Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby James on Mon Jan 30, 2012 11:44 am

I agree with much of what coldwater said. HOWEVER, whether or not you like the look of exposed beams is subjective so if you think you would, its your choice. I have exposed beams but they were meant to be exposed. They got covered over in Victorian times and so have lots of nail holes from that unfortunately, they are back exposed. You do get some dirt thru the floor boards, and water too if anything gets spilled. At the age of your house I doubt you have joists meant to have been exposed, but I would not rule it out. If you have those, then I would definitely encourage them being brought back. The difference is they are planed on all four sides, and the bottom edges are beaded. Anytime you see that you know they would have exposed originally.
Beams that are rough sawn and not meant to be seen back when it was built are not necessarily everyones cup of tea, but if you like it is all that matters. Its your house. But the hacking up for wiring and plumbing CAN be a real problem. Tho personally I doubt I would rip out old plaster and lath to expose beams that were not meant to originally.
Locust Quarter, circa 1770 Georgian Gambrel roofed cottage.
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Re: Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby jharkin on Wed Feb 01, 2012 8:50 am

+1 to both responses above.

HIstorically, you see more exposure the older you go, and the more remote the area (i.e. Boston/NY/Philly got all the trends first and then they migrate out to rural areas).

- In the 1600s you might see the large beams and the joists all exposed, and the joists might be large and on big spans - maybe eventree tunks flattened on one side only. You also see a LOT of paneling and generally less plaster.

- In the early 1700s you will see more plaster. Ceiling joists probably covered but the large summer beams might still be exposed. As James pointed out a sure sign is if they are decorated with beaded or chambered edges.

- In the mid-late 1700s you will start to see everything enclosed, but some of the largest beams like the summer still project into the room, but are boxed in with decorative moldings. In this era you often see the joists and studs from a sawmill and only the large beams/posts handmade. The joists might be close to modern dimensions and on relatively close spacing (for example mine are sawn 3"x5" on varying 20-24" centers)

- After 1800 usually all of the structure is hidden. As the gradual shift from timber framing to platform frames happened the big frame members get smaller and smaller until they are completely behind the plaster by the late Greek revival era.

Now what you want to do is of course down to personal taste. I have seen houses where folks expose old sawn joists that were never exposed originally, and they are full of nail holes and plaster burns (the streaking pattern when you rip off the lath).. personally I don't like the look as it ends up looking like a basement ceiling... But I do like the look of a big exposed summer beam surrounded by fields of plaster and decorative mouldings.
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Re: Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby Jero312 on Wed Feb 01, 2012 12:41 pm

Thanks to both for the responses. and also for the historical information, as much as I like the look of exposed wood if it wasn't like that originally then I most likely won't be doing it, time to put my efforts and funding elsewhere.
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Re: Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby JDA on Thu Feb 02, 2012 9:52 pm

jharkin wrote:I have seen houses where folks expose old sawn joists that were never exposed originally, and they are full of nail holes and plaster burns (the streaking pattern when you rip off the lath).. personally I don't like the look as it ends up looking like a basement ceiling... But I do like the look of a big exposed summer beam surrounded by fields of plaster and decorative mouldings.

I have to agree. We are getting ready to close on a 1750s home. At some point, a previous owner took the ceiling down in the kitchen and dining area to expose the beams. The plaster burns are not attractive, and they are plentiful! There is also copper piping and electrical running all around. The only positive thing I can say about it is that you can tell the different areas of the ell that were put on in different time periods by the type of wood beam construction of the exposed beams, which is fascinating. Having said this, it does not add to the look that the exposed beams are all different- some big, some small, some close together, some spread apart, and all different ages. I am not planning to leave it exposed.
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Re: Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby Sombreuil_Mongrel on Sat Feb 04, 2012 11:39 am

All the responses have been excellent. I agree with leaving plastered-over things that were originally plastered-over, like brick, chimney breasts, and most ceilings/beams.
If there were finished, planed post & beam with beaded edges, I'd be all for uncovering them.

One added point is that you will likely expose new areas of air infiltration from outside at the ends of the joist bays and could end up unbalancing your heating system, and need to come up with appropriate-looking ways of sealing off at the exterior walls, which isn't always as easy as it sounds. Concealing or explaining revealed modern mechanical systems is another big drawback for me.

I grew up in a house with exposed hand-hewn chestnut barn beams in every room, so I'm comfortable with the concept and appearance, but it's not something I'd try to impose on a historic building where it was never the intention of the builder.
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Re: Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby oldsch on Tue Feb 07, 2012 11:03 am

Another way to think about it...A nicely plastered ceiling is a pretty nice upgrade for an 1803 era fisherman. It seems commonplace to us but consider the time, money and work(my arm hurts!) that goes in to plastering a ceiling... its actually kind of a luxury item.
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Re: Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby PreRevColonial on Fri Feb 17, 2012 9:36 am

In my previous home (c 1780s) the old plaster had long since been torn out and the beams were sheetrocked over. When we renovated our kitchen we tore out all the sheetrock, ran wiring up against the floorboards, then put a 3" cleat on both sides of each bay and inset new sheetrock up into it. It was quite a bit of work to tape the edges and sand and paint a large room. We then lightly sanded the beams and oiled with linseed oil and the final effect was beautiful. It allowed all the old beams to be seen but gave room for wiring and insulated for noise. This house had been extensively altered already so I didn't have any qualms about retaining character - in fact this added considerably to the character from what was there before.

Now my current home (1741) has fully exposed hand hewn beams in all but 3 rooms (which retain ancient plastering). It is quite rustic, quite noisy, and with gaps between the floorboards everything travels between floors - dust, smells, sounds, etc. We love it but it's not for everyone.
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Re: Exposing Ceiling beams

Postby mfglickman on Fri Feb 17, 2012 11:49 am

My house (1758) has the big beams exposed but ceilings plastered. I'm sure the ceilings have been re-done and don't know if the beams were meant to be exposed but I like them. Someone took the time to oil them and the finish is lovely to touch. They look rough but don't splinter to your hand.

"The Revolutionary Cottage" ca. 1758 in NW CT
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