Repairing Historic Flat Plaster Walls and Ceilings (Part B)

By The Old House Web
Many of the problems described above may not be easy to remedy. If major structural problems are found to be the source of the plaster problem, the structural problem should be corrected. Some repairs can be made by removing only small sections of plaster to gain access. Minor structural problems that will not endanger the building can generally be ignored. Cosmetic damages from minor building movement, holes, or bowed areas can be repaired without the need for wholesale demolition. However, it may be necessary to remove deteriorated plaster caused by rising damp in order for masonry walls to dry out. Repairs made to a wet base will fail again.

Canvassing Uneven Wall Surfaces

Uneven wall surfaces, caused by previous patching or by partial wallpaper removal, are common in old houses. As long as the plaster is generally sound, cosmetically unattractive plaster walls can be "wallpapered" with strips of a canvas or fabric-like material. Historically, canvassing covered imperfections in the plaster and provided a stable base for decorative painting or wallpaper.

Filling Cracks

Hairline cracks in wall and ceiling plaster are not a serious cause for concern as long as the underlying plaster is in good condition. They may be filled easily with a patching material. For cracks that reopen with seasonal humidity change, a slightly different method is used. First the crack is widened slightly with a sharp, pointed tool such as a crack widener or a triangular can opener. Then the crack is filled. For more persistent cracks, it may be necessary to bridge the crack with tape. In this instance, a fiberglass mesh tape is pressed into the patching material. After the first application of a quick setting joint compound dries, a second coat is used to cover the tape, feathering it at the edges. A third coat is applied to even out the surface, followed by light sanding. The area is cleaned off with a damp sponge, then dried to remove any leftover plaster residue or dust.

When cracks are larger and due to structural movement, repairs need to be made to the structural system before repairing the plaster. Then, the plaster on each side of the crack should be removed to a width of about 6 inches down to the lath. The debris is cleaned out, and metal lath applied to the cleared area, leaving the existing wood lath in place. The metal lath usually prevents further cracking. The crack is patched with an appropriate plaster in three layers (i.e., base coats and finish coat). If a crack seems to be expanding, a structural engineer should be consulted.

Replacing Delaminated Areas of the Finish Coat

Sometimes the finish coat of plaster comes loose from the base coat. In making this type of repair, the plasterer paints a liquid plaster-bonding agent onto the areas of base-coat plaster that will be replastered with a new lime finish coat. A homeowner wishing to repair small areas of delaminated finish coat can use the methods described in "Patching Materials."

Patching Holes in Walls

For small holes (less than 4 inches in diameter) that involve loss of the brown and finish coats, the repair is made in two applications. First, a layer of base coat plaster is troweled in place and scraped back below the level of the existing plaster. When the base coat has set but not dried, more plaster is applied to create a smooth, level surface. One-coat patching is not generally recommended by plasterers because it tends to produce concave surfaces that show up when the work is painted. Of course, if the lath only had one coat of plaster originally, then a one-coat patch is appropriate.

For larger holes where all three coats of plaster are damaged or missing down to the wood lath, plasterers generally proceed along these lines. First, all the old plaster is cleaned out and any loose lath is re-nailed. Next, a water mist is sprayed on the old lath to keep it from twisting when the new, wet plaster is applied, or better still, a bonding agent is used. To provide more reliable keying and to strengthen the patch, expanded metal lath (diamond mesh) should be attached to the wood lath with tie wires or nailed over the wood lath with lath nails . The plaster is then applied in three layers over the metal lath, lapping each new layer of plaster over the old plaster so that old and new are evenly joined. This stepping is recommended to produce a strong, invisible patch. Also, if a patch is made in a plaster wall that is slightly wavy, the contour of the patch should be made to conform to the irregularities of the existing work. A flat patch will stand out from the rest of the wall.

Patching Holes in Ceilings

Hairline cracks and holes may be unsightly, but when portions of the ceiling come loose, a more serious problem exists (Fig. 13). The keys holding the plaster to the ceiling have probably broken. First, the plaster around the loose plaster should be examined. Keys may have deteriorated because of a localized moisture problem, poor quality plaster, or structural overloading; yet, the surrounding system may be intact. If the areas surrounding the loose area are in reasonably good condition, the loose plaster can be reattached to the lath using flathead wood screws and plaster washers. To patch a hole in the ceiling plaster, metal lath is fastened over the wood lath; then the hole is filled with successive layers of plaster, as described above.

Establishing New Plaster Keys

If the back of the ceiling lath is accessible (usually from the attic or after removing floor boards), small areas of bowed-out plaster can be pushed back against the lath. A padded piece of plywood and braces are used to secure the loose plaster. After dampening the old lath and coating the damaged area with a bonding agent, a fairly liquid plaster mix (with a glue size retardant added) is applied to the backs of the lath, and worked into the voids between the faces of the lath and the back of the plaster. While this first layer is still damp, plaster-soaked strips of jute scrim are laid across the backs of the lath and pressed firmly into the first layer as reinforcement. The original lath must be secure, otherwise the weight of the patching plaster may loosen it.

Loose, damaged plaster can also be re-keyed when the goal is to conserve decorative surfaces or wallpaper. Large areas of ceilings and walls can be saved. This method requires the assistance of a skilled conservator--it is not a repair technique used by most plasterers. The conservator injects an acrylic adhesive mixture through holes drilled in the face of the plaster (or through the lath from behind, when accessible). The loose plaster is held firm with plywood bracing until the adhesive bonding mixture sets. When complete, gaps between the plaster and lath are filled, and the loose plaster is secure.

Replastering Over the Old Ceiling

If a historic ceiling is too cracked to patch or is sagging (but not damaged from moisture), plasterers routinely keep the old ceiling and simply relate and replaster over it. This repair technique can be used if lowering the ceiling slightly does not affect other ornamental features. The existing ceiling is covered with 1x3-inch wood furring strips, one to each joist, and fastened completely through the old lath and plaster using a screw gun. Expanded metal lath or gypsum board lath is nailed over the furring strips. Finally, two or three coats are applied according to traditional methods. Replastering over the old ceiling saves time, creates much less dust than demolition, and gives added fire protection.

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