Repairing Historic Flat Plaster Walls and Ceilings (Introduction)

By The Old House Web

Excerpted from the National Historic Preservation Brief 21 -- Repairing Historic Flat Plaster Walls and Ceilings

By Mary Lee MacDonald for the National Park Service

Plasterers in North America have relied on two materials to create their handiwork--lime and gypsum.

Until the end of the 19th century, plasterers used lime plaster. Lime plaster was made from four ingredients: lime, aggregate, fiber, and water. The lime came from ground-and-heated limestone or oyster shells; the aggregate from sand; and the fiber from cattle or hog hair. Manufacturing changes at the end of the 19th century made it possible to use gypsum as a plastering material. Gypsum and lime plasters were used in combination for the base and finish coats during the early part of the 20th century; gypsum was eventually favored because it set more rapidly and, initially, had a harder finish.

Not only did the basic plastering material change, but the method of application changed also. In early America, the windows, doors, and all other trim were installed before the plaster was applied to the wall. Generally the woodwork was prime-painted before plastering. Obtaining a plumb, level wall, while working against built-up moldings, must have been difficult. But sometime in the first half of the 19th century, builders began installing wooden plaster "grounds" around windows and doors and at the base of the wall. Installing these grounds so that they were level and plumb made the job much easier because the plasterer could work from a level, plumb, straight surface. Woodwork was then nailed to the "grounds" after the walls were plastered. Evidence of plaster behind trim is often an aid to dating historic houses, or to discerning their physical evolution.

Lime Plaster

When building a house, plasterers traditionally mixed bags of quick lime with water to "hydrate" or "slake" the lime. As the lime absorbed the water, heat was given off. When the heat diminished, and the lime and water were thoroughly mixed, the lime putty that resulted was used to make plaster.

When lime putty, sand, water, and animal hair were mixed, the mixture provided the plasterer with "coarse stuff." This mixture was applied in one or two layers to build up the wall thickness. But the best plaster was done with three coats. The first two coats made up the coarse stuff; they were the scratch coat and the brown coat. The finish plaster, called "setting stuff," contained a much higher proportion of lime putty, little aggregate, and no fiber, and gave the wall a smooth white surface finish.

Compared to the 3/8-inch-thick layers of the scratch and brown coats, the finish coat was a mere 1/8-inch thick. Additives were used for various finish qualities. For example, fine white sand was mixed in for a "float finish." This finish was popular in the early 1900s. (If the plasterer raked the sand with a broom, the plaster wall would retain swirl marks or stipples.) Or marble dust was added to create a hard-finish white coat which could be smoothed and polished with a steel trowel. Finally, a little plaster of Paris, or "gauged stuff," was often added to the finish plaster to accelerate the setting time.

Although lime plaster was used in this country until the early 1900s, it had certain disadvantages. A plastered wall could take more than a year to dry; this delayed painting or papering. In addition, bagged quick lime had to be carefully protected from contact with air, or it became inert because it reacted with ambient moisture and carbon dioxide. Around 1900, gypsum began to be used as a plastering material.

Gypsum Plaster

Gypsum begins to cure as soon as it is mixed with water. It sets in minutes and completely dries in two to three weeks. Historically, gypsum made a more rigid plaster and did not require a fibrous binder. However it is difficult to tell the difference between lime and gypsum plaster once the plaster has cured.

Despite these desirable working characteristics, gypsum plaster was more vulnerable to water damage than lime. Lime plasters had often been applied directly to masonry walls (without lathing), forming a suction bond. They could survive occasional wind-driven moisture or water winking up from the ground. Gypsum plaster needed protection from water. Furring strips had to be used against masonry walls to create a dead air space. This prevented moisture transfer.

In rehabilitation and restoration projects, one should rely on the plasterer's judgment about whether to use lime or gypsum plaster. In general, gypsum plaster is the material plasterers use today. Different types of aggregate may be specified by the architect such as clean river sand, perlite, pumice, or vermiculite; however, if historic finishes and textures are being replicated, sand should be used as the base-coat aggregate. Today, if fiber is required in a base coat, a special gypsum is available which includes wood fibers. Lime putty, mixed with about 35 percent gypsum (gauging plaster) to help it harden, is still used as the finish coat.


Lath provided a means of holding the plaster in place. Wooden lath was nailed at right angles directly to the structural members of the buildings (the joists and studs), or it was fastened to nonstructural spaced strips known as furring strips. Three types of lath can be found on historic buildings .

  • Wood Lath. Wood lath is usually made up of narrow, thin strips of wood with spaces in between. The plasterer applies a slight pressure to push the wet plaster through the spaces. The plaster slumps down on the inside of the wall, forming plaster "keys." These keys hold the plaster in place.
  • Metal Lath. Metal lath, patented in England in 1797, began to be used in parts of the United States toward the end of the 19th century. The steel making up the metal lath contained many more spaces than wood lath had contained. These spaces increased the number of keys; metal lath was better able to hold plaster than wood lath had been.
  • Rock Lath. A third lath system commonly used was rock lath (also called plaster board or gypsum-board lath). In use as early as 1900, rock lath was made up of compressed gypsum covered by a paper facing. Some rock lath was textured or perforated to provide a key for wet plaster. A special paper with gypsum crystals in it provides the key for rock lath used today; when wet plaster is applied to the surface, a crystalline bond is achieved.

Rock lath was the most economical of the three lathing systems. Lathers or carpenters could prepare a room more quickly. By the late 1930s, rock lath was used almost exclusively in residential plastering.

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