Fun and Funky Thoughts on Asbestos!

There’s a funny little subject that old home owners tend to be loathe to talk about, even among themselves. They’ll sit around for hours and laugh and laugh about uninsulated walls and crumbling plaster and that time they found live electrical wire poking out of the laundry room floor, just hanging out, ready to burn the house down. “Oh, look at us!” they say to each other, “just a couple of goofy lunatics, fixing things up again!”

But——save for the darkly humored and truly sick——their voices invariably drop to a near whisper when a particular subject comes up, their eyes shifting around suspiciously, lest someone might overhear. “Poor suckers——didn’t realize before they went to contract that the whole house was covered in it. Can’t replace the siding, can’t rip off the roof, heat pipes in the basement, popcorn ceilings——asbestos, man…that’s not something you want to mess around with.”

asbestos

Yeah. Asbestos. Or as I like to call ours, the Best Asbestos, because it’s more fun to say. Pretty much all old houses have asbestos somewhere, and there isn’t anything inherently dangerous about it, so long as it’s in stable condition (not flaking and falling apart) and goes undisturbed. The problem is when people start messing with it——unnecessarily ripping it off of heat pipes or crushing it up and throwing it around like confetti. Fact: When disturbed, asbestos-containing materials often release asbestos fibers. Asbestos fibers can be up to 10,000 times thinner than a human hair (so basically they’re invisible, and I think we can all agree that invisible threats are way freaky), and, when inhaled, they like to embed themselves in human lungs and wait around for 30 years or so and then be like—”hey! I’ve been here a while. About time I caused some lung cancer or incurable Mesothelioma and killed you dead!”

Oh, asbestos. Super duper rude, you know?

More facts: Asbestos can be in all sorts of things! That’s what makes it so adorable——it just wants to be at every party, and it doesn’t understand why nobody wants it. There was a time when everyone thought asbestos was super fun and groovy because it helped keep things from catching on fire, but then everyone realized in the 80s that the people who worked with it for years were all dying, and maybe it wasn’t so great after all. Now nobody wants it in their basement or their insulation or their flooring or their popcorn ceilings or their siding or really anywhere at all. It’s like the kid that pooped in the swimming pool, except nobody ever forgave him.

There are a couple of things to be done in an asbestos-related pickle. The best option is usually to do nothing at all. Humans and their asbestos can peacefully coexist for years, as long as everyone just leaves everyone else alone. The second best option is usually encasement, where the asbestos is covered up and ignored forever. Popcorn ceilings might just be covered with a new thin layer of drywall instead of scraped clean, or new flooring might be put right on top of asbestos-containing linoleum tiles. There isn’t anything wrong with this, except for when, many years later, somebody wants to run new electrical wiring or heating ducts or whatever, and they unwittingly disturb hidden asbestos-containing materials. Whoopsie! The Internet tends to agree that a little casual asbestos inhalation from time to time is not so great, but answers vary considerably as to how not-so-great it is. I, myself, prefer to believe that small levels of accidental exposure can’t be all that bad (I feel this way about all sorts of things, for the record: most varieties of drugs, trans fats, sorority girls, Lady Gaga), but who’s to say! Plenty of people think just a little bit basically amounts to a death sentence. Set a timer for 30 years, and try to forget that you’re basically a ticking bomb.

So it’s best to be careful, just in case, when dealing with these things. This is why my ceilings caused me a lot of dread. Have we talked about my ceilings? Well—out of the several rooms in my house, three of the largest ones came with not-so-adorable acoustic-tiled ceilings. There are a lot of different types of these ceilings, but basically they were probably installed to deaden noise, kind of insulate for heat, maybe hide electrical wiring or moderate to severe damage to the original plaster ceilings. It’s all one big exciting mystery, but the fact is that we have them and I would really like to not have them. The rooms all look like maybe they could be really pretty nice with some paint and general fixing, but then it’s like: BLAM—dem ceilings tho. A fresh coat of paint would help a little, but really they just need to take a hike.

The rooms in question include:

The front parlor/future library room:

parlor

These pictures are craptacular and from our first viewing of the house, but it could be so cute and so nice, right? I mean, it has that cute little chandelier and a CORNER RADIATOR!

ceiling2

Except for this…Ugh. Ceiling. Why you gotta be all?

Then there’s the dining room.

diningroom

All those cute doors and nice moldings and that crazy arched bay window area. It’s like charm on charm on charm, 24/7.

ceiling4

ceiling3

Oh right, except that mess of a ceiling. This is the room I’m most worried about, since there’s a pretty significant sag over by the bay area, which I guess was “repaired” with some clear caulk. Fancy!

Then there’s that room I always call the “middle bedroom” upstairs, which might become a master bedroom sitting/TV room kind of place. This room needs a whole mess of work (the bump-out bay window thing is a crazy disaster zone of missing windows and unpainted drywall and weird and mysterious fixes), but the thing I hate most?

middle-room

ceiling1

You guessed it. More acoustic tiles. The ceilings in the upstairs of our house are lower than downstairs, so this one feels particularly sad and oppressive instead of just all around very…blech.

These ceilings were one of the first things I noticed when we looked at the house for the first time. I remember asking our home inspector about them, and the conversation was basically like this:

Home Inspector: Really, this is a pretty great house. Solid foundation, great features!
Daniel: I know! Do you think those ceiling tiles contain asbestos, though? I’ve read they can contain asbestos.
Home Inspector: No, definitely not. I’m 99% sure they don’t.
Daniel: Oh, that’s great! What makes you so convinced? Ones that look basically exactly like these usually contain asbestos, and it’s not like the house isn’t more than old enough. Sorry to sound like a worry-wart, but am I missing some kind of non-asbestos identifying feature?
Home Inspector: Well, when you put it that way, if you’re really worried about it, I guess it’s best to have them tested because you really can’t tell about these things just by looking.

I didn’t further shame him by pushing the point about why he was so sure, but yeah—home inspector dude didn’t really know what he was saying. Which convinced me that, without question, our ceilings were most definitely chock-full of the stuff, which was a bridge we’d just have to cross some other time. We decided to forego the asbestos test that we could have written into our contingencies: partly because we were already offering a rock-bottom price, and further negotiating for asbestos abatement was not going to be a winning strategy, but mostly because we didn’t really want to add another item to the growing list of super valid and legitimate reasons we should probably definitely not buy this house.

We’ve been waiting the last few weeks to get some electrical work done in the entryway/hallway, so things have kind of reached a stand-still in there, since I don’t want to start repairing plaster until we’re done messing it up and making holes for new wiring. Naturally, my attention quickly shifted to wanting to destroy another area of my home, since that’s what I seem to like doing these days. I seem to have reached a weird breaking point with these three ceilings (particularly the dining room, since that’s the room we’re really using the most and it still looks terrible), and I want them gone yesterday. So instead of doing the truly reckless thing of just tearing them down in the middle of the night, or the slightly more reasonable thing of hermetically sealing the room and myself and going about a little DIY asbestos abatement (which is legal in the state of New York, but may not be in your state…), I decided to go ahead and be a grown-up and have those ceilings tested. I’m really very proud of this display of restraint and consideration for my own health and the health of those around me.

testing

So I went around with a spray bottle in one hand and a chisel in the other and took little samples of each of the ceilings. I immediately put them in baggies, and I immediately labeled the baggies. Then I printed and filled out a form and wrote a check and sent my samples to MACS Lab in California, where a team of scientists/magicians would analyze the samples and tell me if removing my ceilings would or would not cause me to die later in life. I watched a lot of CSI during my teenage-hood, so I have a general sense of how this whole montage looks. A dark, dramatically underlit lab full of beautiful people. Microscopes. Slides. Centrifuges. Computers with fancy graphics that either flash ASBESTOS in red or NOT ASBESTOS in green with the molecular breakdown of my mystery ceilings rotating, semi-translucent in the background. That’s definitely how it works.

Have you ever sent anything through the actual mail before? Let me tell you, the amount of waiting involved is AGONIZING. I waited for, literally—and I kid you not—DAYS to find out. I told a friend and neighbor what I was doing, and he was horrified that I even wanted to know at all. I told him my credibility in the home design/renovation blogosphere would be ruined if I didn’t take asbestos seriously, and then he stopped talking to me altogether.

ANYWAYS.

Then an email showed up in my inbox with the results. My blood pressure went up. I kind of knew what was coming, but I opened it anyway, since I’d payed a whole $35 per sample to get this terrible news, and I figured I should stop delaying coming up with a plan.

NO. ASBESTOS.

NONE. NOT EVEN A LITTLE. I read over the form a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Unfortunately it looks like I am not legally allowed to reproduce the form here (fair), so you’ll just have to believe me. It was amazing, like that time I found Mariah Carey’s instagram account. I sent a series of overly-excited tweets about the matter.

Now I obviously cannot WAIT to rip down these ceilings. I dream about it at night and during the day. It will make everything approximately 400,000 times better to have flat, beautiful ceilings. It fills me with hope and happiness to know this is a possibility that won’t cost me thousands of dollars, thousands of hours, or my life.

Of course, this quickly brought with it a whole set of very serious and important questions and decisions. Namely:

1. What is under the acoustic tiles? These tiles were nailed onto furring strips, which are secured to the original ceilings (not glued!). From what I can tell from when I made holes to take the samples, the original plaster ceilings are still right up there, waiting to be uncovered! All of these ceilings are in the oldest section of the house, so they’re probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 years old. A lot can happen to plaster ceilings over that amount of time, so I’m certainly not expecting them to be perfect—lots of sagging and maybe missing pieces and whatever damage that I assume caused them to be covered up in the first place.

2. How do I make the ceilings beautiful again? I really want to save as much of the original plaster as possible, and fill in where necessary with new drywall. Alex at Old Town Home has a great post about repairing plaster ceilings with a magical-sounding product called plaster buttons (or plaster washers), which help bring sagging plaster back into position. I already bought 200 of them, so I guess I’m basically a plaster ceiling repair professional.

3. Medallions? Crown molding? Old houses usually have super beautiful plaster ceiling medallions in the middle of the ceilings surrounding a light fixture. I think my ceilings would look incomplete without them, and I want to add that extra level of super amazing fabulousness, at least to the downstairs rooms. House of Antique Hardware has some really great options——a bit of an investment, but worth it. Once everything is caulked up and painted, they look just like the real thing. I’ve thought a lot about adding crown molding, too, but I think I’ll pass——it would cost a ton of money to do it right (small crown molding with the huge moldings around the doors and baseboards is going to look extra-crappy), and I don’t think it’s necessary. If I feel like we need to add it later on, we can always do that!

www-1.47parkavenue.co.uk

Whenever I think about amazing ceilings, I think about 47 Park Avenue. Aside from the very extreme British fabulousness of everything Michael does to his amazing house, I am obsessed with having ceilings like his. Also, vintage Venini chandeliers, but that’s besides the point.

I thought that we needed to choose simpler ceiling medallions because our moldings don’t have all the ornate flair of Victorian finishes, but after gathering some inspiration (this picture, namely), I feel like maybe that isn’t the case? Maybe I need to track down really elaborate ceiling medallions to go with the really elaborate chandeliers that I will someday own? I’m not sure. I guess it’s a while off.

So. Lessons:

1. Things that look like asbestos might not be asbestos. Get them tested! It’s cheap and easy.

2. My ceilings are going to be amazing! I trust we can all sleep better tonight knowing this.

3. I would sell my soul for that chandelier.


117 Comments

  1. Please tell me you also had the glue tested. A lot of times the tiles will be asbestos free – but the glue holding them up contains it. I only skimmed – so my apologies if you addressed this!

    • I should have mentioned——these tiles are actually nailed to furring strips, which are secured to the plaster ceilings, not glued!

    • You couldn’t figure out how to put the dogs on the ceiling to enhance your photos?

  2. Sweet! This gives me a ray of hope that the tiles in the house we just purchased aren’t asbestos either. But now my hope has been crushed by Emily R, who just had to mention the glue. Wah-wah. How would you test for asbestos in the glue anyway?

  3. That Venini chandelier looks exactly like a big ol’ chunk of asbestos.

  4. If you love that chandelier then you should check out craigslist in Florida! I used to live in Wellington, Florida (in Palm Beach County)(we live in Maine now) and that was the go-to light fixture that the builder used in all of his homes. I’m not sure if it is the exact same because ours was brass but perhaps you could do some painting or spray-painting to have it look like what is in this picture. I remember we sold ours at a garage sale about 20 years ago. Good luck!

  5. aaand exhale… so much suspense, I literally held my breath while reading. Happy to hear you are clear to move forward.

  6. You had me at Mariah Carey. Congrats on the non-asbestos.

  7. Oh you are so lucky that those tiles do not contain asbestos! Thank goodness. I have asbestos siding on three sides of my house, but luckily I do not have to decide what to do with it for a while.

    Your rooms are going to look so much better no matter what you do with the ceilings. Anything is better than acoustic tile. I would go for fancy medallions myself, but go with what you like best. I’m with you on that chandelier. At least you know that if one day you actually got your hands on one you could put it up. There is no way that I could ever put one in my house with its little 9′ ceilings. Which means that when I get one we are going to have to move!

  8. Thanks for maintaining your blogging cred and also not risking your health. Now I’m wondering, since asbestos takes 30 years to kill you, do you think that olds, like over 40, should just go for it when they encounter asbestos?

  9. Yay!! So happy for you!

  10. you are hilarious. that is all. also congrats on the asbestos free diagnosis.

  11. This post made me laugh because I also have those super gross/tacky acoustic tile ceilings, and they are indeed The Worst™. Sadly, my place is a rental so there’s nothing much I can do with it, but I’m happy to report that a fresh coat of paint does make them about, oh, 1% better. My sad ceilings will have to live vicariously through yours when you get rid of the tiles. Can’t wait for that post!

  12. Wow, what a suspenseful read! I am happy that your house doesn’t have asbestos. I’m glad that you will save money and won’t harm your health, but I am also happy for selfish reasons, so we can see the amazing things you will do to your ceilings!

  13. I’m so excited you’re doing ceilings soon. I live in an old 1900s apartment with plaster walls and ceilings. I stare at my ceilings sagging, cracking and looking a mess thinking “what would Daniel do?” I realize there’s a million videos out there on repairing your plaster ceilings. I’ve seen them. However I need your guidance for peace of mind. So yay ceilings! Can you do this before Christmas so I can do mine? :)

    • Ha! Mayyyybe. There is SO much going on over the next couple of months, and hopefully the electrical work in the hallway will be done soon, at which point I can get back to trying to finish that space off! But I will try! :)

  14. Awesome news on the “No Asbestos!” What a huge relief. I mean, a lot of lead is not nearly as big of a deal as a little asbestos. The only other area you probably need to worry about it is on any hard pipe insulation you might have, but I’d be willing to bet you’re in the free and clear through the rest of the house.

    As for the plaster repair, have fun but be patient. You’re going to get really good at it over time, but I didn’t do it right to start out and I made lots of mistakes in my first room. We’re doing a multi part post (started last friday) on repairing even the most damaged plaster ceilings and walls. The next one *should* be up tomorrow.

    The first room we did the repair in was our living room. I only patched the cracks, didn’t skim the whole ceiling. Now, almost 11 years later, every time I sit in that room when it’s daylight I stare up at the ceiling and think of everything I did wrong. The rest of the walls and ceilings I used a better approach, and I like those, but that damn living room ceiling, it taunts me. Some day…

    I think the big decision you’ll need to make is whether you want to use joint compound to do the fix (use a setting type that comes unmixed, dries much harder and doesn’t shrink/crack as it dries), or if you want to really do it the right way and use a more expensive hydraulic lime based plaster. Purists will insist on the lime, and I’d probably use that in the future, but we’re 10 years in and have had no problems with the joint compound we’ve used, and it’s been far less expensive that way.

    As for medallions and crown, we have some info on that too. We’ve used a very simple egg and dart medallion throughout the first floor. It’s a lightweight medallion with a synthetic core, but the exterior is covered in plaster, so it looks legitimate and authentic. The best ones I could find were from Balmer (vitekmoldings.com). For crown, we’ve used several different styles in different sections of the house. We selected one very fancy crown for narrow hallways, one more traditional for large rooms with high ceilings, and one more simple and smaller for rooms with lower ceilings, like the bedrooms and bathrooms. I prefer the look of different crowns depending on the room, and this is something you’d often see in old homes. I do have one major regret with our first crown selection on our double parlor. We used a traditional large crown we got from the big box, but in 10′ ceilings, it looks too small. I wish I had done a multi part crown with a backer piece to add more size/detail. It would have also made installation a lot easier, giving a more true surface to nail the crown to. Oh, and do yourself a favor and use Big Stretch Caulk. We did a writeup on it. The normal Alex Plus caulk tends to crack. We’ve used Big Stretch in many rooms now and haven’t had a single instance of the crow separating from the wall like the other caulk tends to do.

    I love that you’re in the steps of your renovation where you are, it reminds me so much of that point in our project. So much anticipation, so much effort, and SOOOOO much reward.

    • And by “use big stretch caulk” I mean you should use big stretch when putting the medallions up. You can use it to glue the medallion to the ceiling and also at the meeting point of the medallion to the ceiling. Not with the crown (since you’re not doing it).

    • Thanks, Alex!! I’ll definitely be studying your posts closely! And thank you for the caulk tip!! I’ll definitely check out the medallions…

      (you skipped the part about soooooooo muchhhhhhh stressssssss!)

  15. Dear Daniel and Max (and your sweet puppies),

    You all remind me so much of my old neighbors that my husband and I truly adored. They were my BFFs and they broke my heart when they moved to Denver. Won’t y’all move to Texas to take over their roles? Pretty please!

    Seriously though, I live for your posts.

  16. Well yays, Daniel! Our late ’60s raised ranch has popcorn ceilings. In Every. Single. Room. High vaulted ceilings in the living/dining/kitchen area. Even the bathrooms and coat closet. So they’re staying. Even if they don’t contain asbestos–and all the original tiles on the lower level (now covered with other stuff) do–it’s too much work to deal with removal or covering them everywhere. But YOUR house can now move forward on its beautification program from its faded Miss Havisham state to the restored elegance of Jane Fonda post-nip and tuck.

  17. We used plaster washers to shore up our 1914 plaster ceilings when we first bought our house in 1996. The ceilings looked unsalvageable, but they look fantastic now. And since this repair was 17 years ago, I can attest to the longevity of this relatively quick fix.

    We did remove asbestos siding from our house soon after buying it, (The shingles were chipped and cracked) and I’ve got to tell you that we’ve since spent a fortune on heating our uninsulated sieve of a house. Say what you will about asbestos, but it is an awesome insulator.

    • Oh, that’s great to hear about the plaster washers holding up!! YAY!

      I have that fear about removing our vinyl siding. The vinyl is on top of a layer of foam, and I think taking it all off is going to be better for the house aesthetically and structurally (the longer the siding is there, the more the clapboard underneath will deteriorate…), but I worry about the insulation thing! I keep having fantasies about removing the clapboard wall by wall, tearing out the brick and mortar insulation (R value of less than 1!), filling in with new and amazing insulation, and then doing the whole OSB + weather wrap thing before putting the clapboard back. Totally like a 1-day project right?

      • There is, sadly, usually a reason why the siding went up above and beyond people not wanting to paint clapboard. The foam assists in insulating, and you may find that when they sided, they knocked apart a lot of the woodwork or at the least put 100 thousand nails into it. You might be a rare case where it is easy to deal with once you take it off, but I would really, really, really not count on it, especially looking at the state of the box gutter as you just discovered.

  18. I’m so glad your home is asbestos-free…because that would be unfun but mainly because I would be worried for Max and his hypochondriac tendencies. One time we were walking around Elmwood and a tiny dog bit his hand and he was worried he had rabies. I mean, better safe than sorry, but still.

  19. It may be worthwhile to dress up in a Tvyek suit, a decent dust mask, and full eye protection when you get around to exorcising those hideous ceilings. Given the various other…interesting workmanship that’s been displayed in your house, it’s best to be prepared. Or maybe I’m just overly cautious. One of our family businesses is asbestos removal, it’s truly nasty stuff, and that’s a mistake you only have to make once. Good luck!

    • Oh, I’ll definitely be wearing a good dust mask (the ones I have are actually rated for asbestos!) and eye protection!! I may skip the tyvek suit, but maybe I’ll be in the mood to just really go for it. :)

  20. You are too cute/awesome/hilarious. Can we be friends in real life? It’s only a matter of time before I buy my crumbling pre-1950s fixer of a dream home…

  21. I breathed an audible sigh of relief at the “no asbestos” result — seriously, great suspense building. And yay! Good luck on the ceilings, can’t wait to see them in the future.

  22. My first ever job was actually at an environmental lab prepping samples for asbestos analysis. You’re actually fairly accurate about the “beautiful people in dimly lot places” thing, well maybe just the dimly lot part. The whole process involves baking your tiles and then analyzing them by scanning electron microscope. Very scientific like.

  23. CSI reference killed me :D

  24. I never thought I’d read such a delightful post about…abestos. Anyway, glad your in the clear. I cannot wait to see what you do next.

  25. Lesson No.1 totally reminded me of a cheap date, or a hooker. “Get them tested! It’s cheap and easy!” Congrats to your old dame of a house being asbestos free!

  26. We had the popcorn ceilings tested after we bought our 1955 house and they too were amazingly asbestos free. The first thing we did before we moved in was scrape the ceilings. It was very messy and not fun but pretty satisfying to have done ourselves.

  27. Here’s how I imagine the proceeding days in your house: a movie montage style ripping down of the ceilings, tiles flying everywhere while Daniel, Max, and dogs jump up and down in a fit of glee. In slow motion with Beyonce playing.

    • Ha, I wish!!

    • Oh my gosh, yes! That is exactly what flashed into my mind when Daniel said “NO. ASBESTOS.” Except I was also somehow picturing him using a massive chainsaw-type thing, I dunno, really noisy and powertoolwonderland-y. Just basically an out-of-control ceiling tile demo montage.

  28. That chandelier is making me swoon. I’m pretty sure we have asbestos in the tiles underneath the carpet that is covering up the original hardwood floor in our 1870 farmhouse. The bad, irresponsible part of me wants to rip up the tiles and carpet and pretend I’ve never heard of the word asbestos and free those gorgeous hardwoods. (This has been my laissez-faire method with lead paint removal as well). Every time I mention this, my husband starts to twitch.

    • Amanda, you can try to remove the tiles carefully yourself, or at least take a sample and have it tested. Sometimes there’s asbestos in the tile itself, the mastic used to adhere it to the floor, or both, so it might be worthwhile to take a separate sample of the tile and the glue. If the glue is an issue, I think there are methods of removal that may not be so bad——like chemical stripping instead of sanding. I’d say do your own research and decide how much work you’re willing to do, and how comfortable you are with doing it. Or, you can always lay new wood flooring on top if the tile and call it a day——tongue and groove pine only runs about $.69 a square foot, and looks great in old houses!

  29. Mazel Tov on your lack of asbestos. It’s clearly a Thanksgivukkah miracle.
    One essential ingredient to our plaster repair has been Big Wally’s Plaster magic (I know, I know, the name is just too awesome). Big Wally’s allows you to repair you plaster when it has come off the lathe without have to use permanent buttons (which require real skill to hide). http://www.plastermagic.com/. We’ve used it in virtually everyone room of our house (including ceilings) and it work well–if you follow those pesky directions to a T (http://madmaison.com/?p=390).

    • Thanks, Denise! I came across that product a while ago while researching plaster repair…it’s tempting, but I feel like it’s pretty spendy! I’m going to give the plaster buttons a shot first (I also feel a little better about the longevity of screws over adhesives…) and see how it goes. Some of the tutorials make it look like detailed work, but not so complicated that I can’t do it! I guess we’ll all find out… :)

      • If you’re looking for a cheaper adhesive method for repairing the loose plaster, maybe check out this tutorial; it uses construction adhesive to reattach the plaster to the lath:

        http://starcraftcustombuilders.com/HowToFixPlasterWall.htm

        I’ve used this method to repair most of the original plaster walls in my condo. It’s only been about a year since I made the repairs, but the adhesive is holding up great so far. Also, if you’re planning to do a lot of skim coating with joint compound, you should look into getting a squeegee trowel, which sometimes goes by the brand name “Magic Trowel.” It makes skim coating much faster and minimizes the amount of sanding you’ll have to do in the end.

      • Dan! I’m loving following your renovation diary!! Best one yet. :)

        Thank you for the tip on the Magic Trowel——I will definitely look into it!

      • Thanks! This kitchen reno is taking way longer than I thought it would, so there should be plenty more posts to read, like it or not! Also, I’ve loved following your blog for the past few years!

      • Whew! That was an edge of the seat post! So happy it worked out for you. Now for something a bit more serious. It’s not that I’m planning on being unfaithful to you (side eyes), but a gal does have needs, so in order to tide me over between your posts, could you please give me the name of Dan’s renovation diary. Pretty please?

      • I get it! Just click his name! :)

      • I’m totally loving Dan’s Kitchen Reno too. Really loving the process and looking forward to the completion.

      • Thanks so much, Daniel! You’ve created a monster by teaching me some names are clickable. Now, where’s another one? …

  30. check out SF Victoriana, they make awesome medallions and all kinds of other stuff. http://sfvictoriana.com/

  31. So glad to hear you don’t have any Arse-bestos (that’s what I bitter refer to the kitchen incident) and even more glad you didn’t have to seal yourself into a kill room to remove it such an awful job.
    Can’t wait to see what you do 47 Park is totally my ceiling inspiration too, those chandeliers probably wouldn’t fit in my tiny house but I don’t care still want them!

  32. Your pink seal of sparkly asbestos approval reminded me of this Montreal Expo 67 guidebook I got from a friend. The lovely Asbestos Plaza, made entirely of asbestos, with asbestos flower pots and asbestos benches where you can sit and admire the asbestos fountain shooting out asbestos water! http://www.flickr.com/photos/mbibelot/10428425113/

  33. I live in Western Australia, one of the places there was asbestos mines.

    Fun (possible) fact (or possible old wives tale told to me): Lang Hancock, mining tycoon, used to spread asbestos on bread and eat it to prove that it wasn’t dangerous.
    Which it isn’t, if you EAT it. The problem is breathing it in. And the whole 30 year latency thing.

    Sad fact: India and many other countries with maybe less stringent OHS laws are still operating asbestos product manufacturing plants.

    Fun (definitely true) fact: In WA the town where asbestos was mined is just considered a total no go. GOvernment cut off power and water and sewage to force people to move out. Then they removed its location from all government printed maps, and then they removed all the road signs pointing to Wittenoom. If that meant cutting out part of a double-location sign, that’s what they did. Its a secret location now. Though there are a few people living there still.

    • Wow! That’s nuts. All of it!

      I’ve actually read SOMEWHERE that asbestos accidentally ingested (as in water, or on food) has been linked to various types of cancers in the digestive system. Better think twice, Mr. Hancock!

      • Mr Hancock is no longer with us, although he did live to a ripe old age. This is the same family who continue to enthrall and horrify in equal measure – his daughter is currently attempting to prevent her adult children have access to the family billions till they’re 103 or something. And who attempted to have her stepmother (her father’s former housekeeper) charged with his murder. And who’d like to have Australians paid a couple of dollars an hour, so we can compete with African miners. Truly the family that keeps on giving. Oh, and the youngest daughter’s runaround while she was at finishing school or college or something in Switzerland was a Rolls. As in, a Rolls Royce.

      • Yah google Gina Rinehart to see her in all her wonder. Another asbestos story from Australia: my grandfather worked on the wharves in Adelaide. In the 50’s they were shoveling asbestos up in the hold, putting it into bags and carrying it off the ship (!)

        But seriously folks, the current wave of asbestos cancers in Aus are from children who were around their parents who were building or demo-ing with it regularly. And the NEXT wave is expected to be the home-diyers of today. So you can never be too careful…

        ** I think it’s a sign of desperation on my part that I’m willing to comment on a post from two weeks ago!! : )

  34. It’s probably a bit weird to say this (and a bit fangirl), but I feel like I’m hearing from a good friend whenever you post. I love your blog! I’m glad to hear your ceiling is asbestos free. I’m sure it will look great when it is all finished!

  35. Could this be the best blog post title in the history of the internet? I think so. I just wanted to say your blog really makes me so happy. It is truly a pleasure to read. I follow a bunch of home design blogs because I’m obsessed with the topic, but yours combines the DIY goodness with really skilled writing and smart humor. Not just, “hey, he’s funny” or “hey, he knows how to properly string words together”, but like “hey, this guy is a legitimately talented writer.” That you also happen to write about DIY is icing on the cake. Thank you for sharing with us.

    Also, super thrilled you’re not going to die in an asbestos-related tragedy.

  36. CONGRATS! I’m pretty sure my blood pressure went up 10 points just reading this, and I’m very thankful that my current house is so new. My mother’s old house, on the other hand, was a headache.

    Ugh.

    I can’t WAIT to see what you do with these ceilings! Your blog is the highlight of my day, whenever you post I do a little *squee* ;p

  37. Poop in the pool hahah.
    I saw some huge Venini chandeliers at auction last year…super pricey and not for me. Looked dusty. Everything else you’re dreaming of sounds fun though!

  38. This is the most light-hearted asbestos post I’ve ever read. I’m so happy that it has a happy ending. You have to get rid of the tiles in that dining room. The archway needs you!

  39. Ugh, ceiling tiles. So glad you are asbestos free, but I don’t envy the amount of work it’s gonna be getting those ceilings down. YAY! Stress!

    Those ceiling medallions from House of Antique Hardware are beautiful, but I couldn’t justify their price when I was doing my original reno. I used this place and was pretty happy with their bajillion options: http://www.felber.net/products/ceiling_medallions/medallions_2.html

    They have some interesting ‘transitional’ medallions too that are just enough old-timey aesthetic mixed with just enough modernism. And relatively cheap! They have a lot of weirdly dimensioned medallions, perfect for weirdly dimensioned rooms, too.

    Anyway, exciting times!

  40. Oh that stuff! When the basement laundry room floors were replaced here in Vancouver the lino from the last layer was sent away for testing just in case. But you know, in England, our roof tiles are cement composite with asbestos and that’s a very popular and durable roof. And, as long as it’s sealed within the tile, everything will be fine for the next…well, as long as we have the house anyway. Glad your story had such a happy ending but asbestos be damned, those tiles have to come off one way or another. :)

  41. I was half expecting there to be a “I had a drink before I read the news and then drunkenly removed the roof tiles” end to that story!

    Can’t WAIT to see what’s under that horrendous ceiling!! The renovations so far have been amazing, captivating and as a loyal reader, I feel emotionally invested in this renovation ha!

  42. Hah, a post, thank you! I’m sitting alone at home with the flue, since my husband is in China, and I’m bored out of my mind. I’ve rewatched the Tonys, the Emmys, the Oscars and the Golden Globes from the last three years. So this was a very welcome change. But man, those ceilings look disgusting! I never noticed it before, but they really are awful! Rip that shit out, do it now! But process shots, please, process shots! I imagine ceiling tiles lend themselves as nicely to voguing as plywood does.

    Regarding the chandelier issue – do you know the Austrian company Kalmar? They are still in existence, they make chandeliers for hotels and so on. Their current stuff isn’t so hot, but they made some funky chandeliers in the sixties and seventies, quite similar to those by Venini. I checked it out – on the American Ebay they are similarly priced to Venini, but in Germany and Austria the pricing seems to be quite a bit lower. Shipping of course is expensive, but when you manage to buy when the exchange rate is good (there is bound to be more Euro crisis), you might get a really good deal.

  43. Asbestos is slowly killing my Uncle with COPD, very sad state of affairs, I hope everyone will be careful when renovating!

    • I’m so sorry to hear that, Gracie. Despite the light-hearted tone of this post, I really did write it because I think it’s something people are afraid to talk about (I frequently see bloggers and TV shows gloss over the topic when discussing old houses), which leads to a lot of misinformation in the way property owners handle it. We have neighbors, for example, who had all the asbestos wrapping their basement heating pipes removed by someone with a flimsy little dust mask because they wanted it out of the house, and were horrified (and defensive) when I told them that they’d really only made matters worse by disturbing it. Asbestos is a tricky subject, so I tried to write about it in a way that was approachable and informative, but not so serious that people would be turned off and not read it. I hope that makes sense, and I apologize if it came off any other way!

  44. Your inspiration picture made me gasp out loud. That is a gorgeous sexy room.

  45. Glad you are safe from asbestos — apparently your karma is most excellent! My MIL died of mesothelioma. As best we can figure, she was exposed to it when FIL, an el-cheapo do-it-yourselfer, ripped out the 1949 gravity furnace in their house and replaced it in the late ’60s. I am so glad DH had already left home by then.

    I kinda think more modest medallion and chandeliers might go better with the rest of the house, but it’s not my decision.

  46. Hi Daniel,

    We are in the process of renovating our (old) 1920’s house and your posts are an inspiration. You make it look so darn easy (yes you do) to the point that I feel almost confident enough to start tiling my own kitchen.
    (I can’t believe I just wrote that, next thing I’ll actually be doing it…)
    We got rid of some similar ceilings, unfortunately no lovely moldings. Hope you guys are in for a pleasant surprise. You can still find many a chandelier here in Europe (I’m from Brussels), especially on flea markets. You should come to Europe!

    Thanks for making this blog such fun to read, I love it :)

  47. Congrats on the lack of asbestos. A couple of years ago my Dad (now almost 83) sought some advice from Environmental Health on the best way to remove some asbestos – the guy explained it and added the disclaimer “but we have to warn you that you may suffer side effects in 20-30 years”. Dad was delighted the guy had such expectations of his life expectancy – he walked round grinning for days :)

  48. Dressing a room is like dressing yourself. If your top/bottom or floors/mouldings are fairly neutral/simple, you then leave it wide open for big crazy accessories/ceiling medallions. You should get the ceiling jewelry that you want!!!

  49. Good news on the asbestos front! As for the plaster details, they may be hiding under the dropped ceiling. In any case, just remember: Greek Revival. Simple and extremely elegant. Look at those window surrounds, that arch. I’m dying.

  50. No way, I don’t so believe you! I would have been ripping those ceiling tiles out within hours of getting that email, even in the middle of the night- and you’re even crazier than me in that respect! You *really* haven’t secretly started?! You must have!

    • I really haven’t!! It’s a big job, and I’m trying not to be *too* overwhelmed by all the work! We already have a few spaces in progress (aka shambles) and adding more would just make me crazy!

  51. Daniel,

    I was on the edge of my seat reading this . . .

    So glad the result was benign. Had it been otherwise, I’m not sure I would have wanted to continue living in a house with so much potential danger.

    Now you can get on with what you do best – looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

  52. Glad they weren’t asbestos! Can not wait to see the results.

    When we were working on a ‘mini-remodel’ of our family room I shared a picture of the tiles that were under the god awful burgundy carpet (why???). A friend said they might be asbestos linoleum, so of course I freaked out.

    They were breaking into pieces (not tiny ones, but still coming apart) so I just took a few pieces to have tested locally. While they did contain asbestos it was the ‘non-friable’ kind meaning fibers are only released if they are crushed. We were advised that we could remove them on our own and dispose of them like normal. I was still super paranoid and kept the area cordoned off from kids + pets and wore old clothes I disposed of and one of those crazy masks.

    Friable asbestos is much more dangerous-so I’m grateful that even though my friend was right we didn’t have to go through an expensive remediation.

    So I’d recommend to anyone to have it tested and to look at your state laws regarding disposal. Many states allow homeowners to dispose of asbestos themselves-but the disposal methods will vary.

    Now I know the words mini and remodel should never go together in our house because what started as new carpet and paint turned into a gut job that included electrical, closing in a doorway, hanging drywall, and so much more. If you want to read more you can find my full agony here: http://www.thecentsiblelife.com/2011/11/before-after-family-room/

  53. I never though I could enjoy reading an entire blogpost about someone else’s ceiling :) But, I did. Oh the joys of the internet.

  54. Holy congrats on the asbestos free-ness!! I’ve seen the biulls for professional abatement. Not pretty. Not pretty at all….

    also, yes that chandelier is to die for…I assume you’ve been scouring first dibs for inspiration, yes? I’m sure they have similars for a paltry 5-10K…

  55. So glad you can rip those tiles down! This makes me want to get on removing the shitty popcorn ceiling where I am…and since the house I live in was built in 1977, I don’t think there is much chance of there being asbestos here. I should probably get it checked out anyway, though.

  56. I just read an article on the WSJ about an old house that had been poorly remodeled and stripped over the years, and it made me think of you, and your great efforts to restore your home while honoring its historic roots. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304410204579141710043398376

  57. Very informative and a fun read! YAY! Asbestos free!

    Your kitchen ceiling was all covered up with a drop acoustic tile ceiling, right?
    And you were able to bring them to their updated glorious state.
    Here’s hoping your house’s good bones have just been waiting for you the unearth them
    and your ceilings are basically another “what in the heck were they thinking?” situation.

  58. My friend who was an architect became suddenly sick this past summer. He went to see the doctor and found out he had stage four Mesothelioma. Turns out that he ran into some asbestos at some point in his life. He died three months later. He left behind 3 small children and a wife. It was so unbelievably tragic, and I want to thank you for putting the warning out there. Up until my friend became sick, I didn’t really know how serious asbestos is, you hear about so many dangers out there but it doesn’t really sink in till it hits close to home.

  59. I feel your asbestos pain, and you are totally right – asbestos is the absolutely the dirty word among us old house people. There is actually a place in Astoria or LIC that does asbestos testing (KAM Consultants), so if you are ever in a “is it/isn’t it” quandary again, you can find out pretty quickly.

  60. I had to laugh at your asbestos freak! 20+ years ago we found asbestos wrapped around the ductwork in our house and arranged to have the asbestos guys remove it for a hefty price. At the time, my dad (a retired teacher) said “Hell, I’ll do it. We used to mix asbestos with water to make clay for the schoolkids to make models with!”. So this past summer we were ripping up our battleship linoleum from the kitchen floor to expose the original wood floors. The contractor was wary of asbestos and the cost involved. I figured hey, my dad is now 82, maybe he will come do it since he’s not afraid of asbestos!

  61. Oh man, I went through such a similar situation. I recently bought a condo from 1977, and promptly hired a cheap contractor to scrape off all of the offensive popcorn insulation before I moved in. He never mentioned asbestos, and I was clueless that it could even be an issue. I found out a few days later, while googling how to paint a ceiling, that it was a very real threat. Immediately, I became convinced that there were now a billion asbestos fibers circulating in my home through the air and the a/c system. I found out that there was a lab in my city that would test a sample of it with same day results. So, I took a carving knife and hacked out a decent sized piece from a utility closet that had gone unscraped, same process as you. I drove it over, practically cried when the lab technician told me that it probably had it, and headed home to wait for the emailed test results. Five hours later, I got the email and……NO ASBESTOS. I thoght I was going to die. I hate that stuff.

  62. Daniel, I thought I couldn’t love you any more, then you went and showed you’re as picky about ceilings as I am.

    In our last house I knocked down and mudded and sanded all the 80’s textured ceilings flat. It is a truly awful job. My advice is to hire out ceiling plastering if you can find somenone to take it on. Drywall dust falls downwards. But if you insist on doing it yourself (which f course you will), make sure you hold the handle of your sanding pole down low around your waist for best leverage.

  63. Hey Daniel,

    I also love the ceiling decorations you’ve mentioned – we call them Ceiling Roses in England. One of my friends teaches plastering (again we need an American-English Dictionary for home improvements as I think you call this drywall??) and for part of the course they make them and then have nothing to do with them. So, he has brought me some for my house for free! The best price! Do you have college’s near you where people learn that kind of stuff? Maybe they could help you out?

    They really do look super-beautiful when up – and I love it most when they are painted black or dark blue, next to a crisp white ceiling.

  64. Man, that’s a relief. I know that feeling. When we renovated our last home, I had the popcorn insulation from the attic tested. Never really thought to test anything else… and then one day while I was living in a mass of plaster dust and debris during another phase of demo (my roommate affectionately referred to the house as “Baghdad” during that time.. it was 2003 after all) and I saw a This Old House episode where some inspector pointed out that plaster can contain asbestos too. After several days of near panic, I had some plaster tested and it came back clear. Crisis averted.

  65. Thanks to Alex’s recommendation (and from the source he linked on Old Town Home), my son and I did a major plaster repair on the ceiling below the upstairs bath on his Craftsman era house. There had been a major leak and a huge chunk of the ceiling plaster had come off the lathe. The buttons worked VERY well to snug up the sagging area – be generous with them, BTW. You do need to do at least two skim coats to cover them, but the ceiling now looks fantastic.

  66. I used the same lab to test my popcorn ceilings in my 1976 ranch. Mine unfortunately are asbestos. I’m debating whether to do them myself (it is no danger when wet), paint them (but be stuck with popcorn forever) or cover them (and deal with drywall dust EVERYWHERE). My next door neighbors who are original owners of their home (1976) had their ceilings scraped over 30 years ago never knowing they were asbestos. No health problems. I hear you really only need to be worried if you are around it a long length of time, or you are a smoker.

    • FlagirlinTN – neither of those are true, or safe.

      It is just the luck of the draw if the fibres make it into your lungs. If the fibres are attached to other substances, they are less likely to make it into and lodge in your lung. You get the cancer or you don’t, and there aren’t any mitigating factors or cross-your-finger solutions.

    • I totally understand where you’re coming from, FlagirlinTN, but unfortunately I think the issue is that we just don’t know enough about how asbestos effects health over time, and as MJ points out, it’s probably best to be cautious! There are a lot of people who will claim that a little exposure (such as from a home renovation project) isn’t likely to pose a health risk, but there are just as many people who claim the opposite——that there is no “safe” level of exposure. I do think that homeowners can remove asbestos containing material by themselves (as long as it’s allowed in your state!), but it’s important to follow a pretty intense and strict procedure when doing so (you can find resources for this online).

      In your particular case, I’m not sure that scraping your ceilings is going to be any less messy than just having them covered up with new thin drywall! From what I hear, popcorn ceiling removal is incredibly messy and dusty, and then your ceilings will need a lot of prep work to be paintable, anyway (including, probably, re-taping and mudding the joints, which will just create more dust when sanded!). If I were you, I’d really consider the option of covering.

  67. I just came across your blog and HOLY CHEESE am I in love with your house. Will definitely be following to see what you do with it! When I was 13 my whole family completely renovated a 1890s victorian, so I love this crap. Me and my husband now own a 1930s tudor we’re (slowly) working on renovating:)

    Congrats on not having asbestos! That’s awesome:)

  68. Hoping for a new post soon! I worry every time I come here and see the damn asbestos close-up! SO happy your place was clean!

  69. Having patched up and repaired a fair amount of plaster over time in our house (either 1890s or 191ish, depending on the records we’ve found) in terms of hogging out and restoring settlement cracks, patching large holes from water damage etc.) I would say that the screws help, but only for certain kinds of problems of large pieces of plaster that have lost their keys, and there are also other solutions that involve screwing them in and then injecting a compound that keys around the lath again on the backside.

    All that being said, we pulled down a ceiling like this, and could have gone with (I still think this might have been wisest) 1/4″ drywall directly onto the furring strips, jointed into the edges where the molding is. What we did was pull down the furring strips, and even with a pretty decent, non-collapsing plaster ceiling we had so many large cracks, loads of nail hole craters from the mounting points of the furring strips, and all manner of other stuff, that we ended up paying about $800 and change to have the molding pulled and reinstalled after a local guy with plaster experience did a clean structolite/joint compound/plaster of paris skim over the entire surface. Plastering is not only physically draining, and a matter of working clean, patient and EXTREMELY quickly, it’s as much an art as a science, and a ceiling is probably the toughest place to start. It needs to be exceedingly flat as the ceiling light will show all uneven-ness, and it is obviously harder to mix and then get on a scaffolding and press vertically upward and manage to put a good coat in place above your head.

    By all means go ahead, but I would probably suggest painting the paperboard tiles a clean white, and leaving the tear-down until later. Just my 2 cents.

  70. I am totally late to this party, but I am 100% obsessed with your blog and will be following your adventures since our houses sound very similar. Except, my ceiling tiles are like the ugly, fat friend of your pretty ones.. :) Rip that stuff out and get that chandelier, stat!

  71. Hey Daniel! Regarding medallions, I also struggled with whether to install a fancier, more ornate pattern throughout the house versus a simple egg-and-dart pattern, especially since our Victorian circa 1906 is actually a very casual cedar-shingled style Victorian, with very simple woodwork, where present at all. However, when I finally bit the bullet, my heart just told me to go with the more ornate (but still period- appropriate) medallions, and I love them. They really dress up the first floor spaces, which I think actually act the way the original fancy wallpaper or something would have, except that we’ve painted literally everything white (except the floors). Especially in your house, I vote go fancy!

    Good luck with those ceilings, and I cant wait to see them all finished (but not as much as you, I am sure)!
    Allison

  72. Late to the party, but congratulations!

    I had a few experiences with asbestos. My last apartment had it (I think the percentage was low) in the sheet vinyl in the kitchen. I was going to cover it with a cork floor. My contractor was explictly told, “There is asbestos. Do NOT touch it.” He ripped it out. I was pregnant at the time and agonized over it. I called the EPA (or some agency) and asked about it, and they said that as long as I put another floor down it should be fine. That said, that answer makes NO sense to me. It’s the ripping it out that makes the fibers float around.

    In my next apartment, built the same year as the other one, I was convinced the floor tile would have asbestos. It did not. YAY!

    Now, I inherited my mom’s home. One room, added in the 70s, has a popcorn ceiling. I would like to sell the place soon and am terrified to test because if it does have it, I’m not sure what to do (but it will be an expense and I’ve spent a ton of money already on this house) and will have to disclose it. If it doesn’t, I’d just do some kind of ceiling tiles to cover it. (There are actually some decent ones now.)

    Such a dilemma!

    • I hear you! We still have asbestos in various places around the house, and probably others we don’t know about…it kind of comes with the territory! For your popcorn ceiling, it’s probably worth having tested. Reasonable buyers shouldn’t really be turned away, even if it does contain asbestos, but for everyone’s safety it’s good to know about. You also don’t have to install tiles or a drop ceiling—lots of people just cover it over with 1/4″ drywall if they want a smooth ceiling, rather than scraping it off and dealing with abatement. The only time that ever really becomes a problem is if you need to drill into the ceiling to install lighting or something, but it’s good to be aware of so you can take the necessary precautions.

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