Den Renovation: Plaster Repair, Insulation, Drywall!

I think people assume I like demo, but I honestly kind of hate demo. Demo in an old house renovation, specifically. Partially because it’s often tinged with some sadness and guilt if it means disturbing or destroying original parts of the house (like plaster walls and ceilings that are beyond the point of saving, for instance). Partially because it’s hugely messy in a way that can never truly be contained to the space you’re working in. Partially because it typically involves hauling very heavy bags of waste and debris out of the house and then to the dump, and then paying money to get it out of my life…it’s not fun sledgehammer times like it looks on TV.

You know what I kind of secretly love, though? That part after the major demo work is done, when you get the chance to really prep everything for the next steps. It’s so satisfying? I like tedium. So after the ceiling in the soon-to-be upstairs den space was demolished and disposed of, I got to work* on what I really like, which is pulling all those little tiny lath nails, scraping off any stubborn bits of plaster, and ShopVac-ing what was left of the old cellulose insulation off the joists. CLEAN SLATE! It’s stuff like this that makes me immediately feel like I’m ready to go, and not just looking at a big mess I made.

*after several months of semi-successfully ignoring the situation completely

With the joists all cleaned up fancy, it was time to address the walls!

I feel I deserve the smallest amount of credit possible for mostly never really touching these walls until it was really time to deal with them. The entire second floor of my house is like this—the original wallpaper is covered in tons of layers of paint, possibly other wallpaper, masking tape and and caulk and joint compound in some places…and it all gets stripped off. This is not always necessary, but in my case the original wallpaper adhesive is barely holding on so it seems unwise/lazy to try to skim coat over it anyway. It’s just a matter of chip-chip-chipping away with a regular old putty knife and it all scrapes off fairly easily. I figure anything that’s really stuck can stay. The goal is just to create a solid, stable surface for the skim-coat to adhere to.

Wouldn’t it be great if I had the discipline to lay down some plastic sheeting first? When I’m a grown-up, I’m gonna prep like a champ. Until then I’ll just be…living my authentic truth. Or something.

Anyway, it’s a sort of messy process. What isn’t.

So fresh and so clean! Ha. But it is sort of satisfying right, if you ignore the mess on the floor?

Then, plaster washers! Or “plaster buttons,” depending on your mood. These things are amazing, and way more effective than you’d think from looking at them. Essentially it’s a small perforated stainless steel washer—a bit bigger than a quarter—with a hole in the center for a drywall screw. Often over time, the plaster “keys”—formed by the first layer of plaster squeezing through the lath and hardening on the backside, which holds the plaster securely to the lath—will have weakened or failed (or the lath itself has pulled away from the studs a bit), resulting in plaster walls that have some give when you push on them. This is not a good reason to demo the walls, I promise! Plaster washers are the answer! That small maybe 1/8″ gap between the wall and the door casing in the image above is the result of the plaster buttons pulling the whole wall back toward the studs, and now it doesn’t have any give at all.

Some people just use plaster washers around cracks or where it seems necessary, but my attitude about plaster washers is that more is more. Nothing wrong with some added security even for areas that appear to be in good shape.

Luckily, plaster washers are inexpensive and easy to install. If you’re working alone, I recommend inserting the screws on a bunch of washers first to get them prepped for yourself, but if you have a partner it’s nice to have one person install and one person prep each washer. It goes pretty fast.

Plaster washers are most effective if you’re hitting studs (or joists, for a ceiling), but stud-finders are pretty worthless with plaster walls. My wall framing tends to be close to the modern standard of 16″ on center, but it can be pretty irregular and you can’t count on it. That’s why god invented test-drilling! With a small bit (this is 1/8″), drill small holes every inch or so along the wall, and eventually you’ll hit a stud. Mark your location, and then measure out about 16″ and drill around there until you find the next one. When you have your studs marked, use a long level and a pencil to draw vertical lines along the length of each stud.

Test-drilling seems intimidating (how do I know if I’ve really hit a stud if I can’t see it?), but you get a feel for it very quickly. Become one with the drill. Become one with your walls. Use the force. I don’t know. Stop complaining.

Boom, look at all that secure plaster! I just eyeball the spacing but go for one about every foot on the verticals. This means that you need a LOT of washers—they come in packs of 25 but this room took about 250 of them. I know that sounds excessive but…that’s just the kind of guy I am? By the way, these are often hard to find in the hardware store and employees usually don’t know what they are, so ordering online isn’t a bad idea.

Some areas with cracks might need some special attention. Again, feel it out. Many of the cracks in this room appear to have been filled a long time ago with straight up concrete, so I scraped out what was loose or lumpy and left what remained. In general with plaster cracks, you want to scrape out the crack, cover it in fiberglass mesh tape or screening, and then proceed with patching with joint compound. People like to skip the first two steps and then wonder why their plaster cracks again in a year. Don’t do it to yourself.

I like to keep joint compound work contained to one lively stage of work, so even though the walls are now prepped we still gotta put in a ceiling! I added some metal brackets where the joists meet the top plate from that section of Lowe’s where joist hangers and stuff live, just for a little added structural strength. There are joist hangers specifically for this application, but none them fit the thickness of my joists so I improvised. Can’t hurt.

Then, insulation! I used fiberglass batt for this. I think the Olivebridge project forever scarred me against using fiberglass insulation because by the time I dug into those walls, the mice had turned most of it into nests and that shit is nasty (and doesn’t provide insulation value at that point). But assuming you don’t have a horrendous pest problem that persists for years, I guess fiberglass is fine. It’s whatever. Insulation is rated by R-value (higher = better, basically), but you also want to pay attention to the depth of the wall/ceiling where you’re installing. Even though a really thick fiberglass batt can be squeezed in to fit in a shallower wall cavity, this actually reduces the R-value and the insulation itself costs more. These joists are about the size of a modern 2×6, so I used this R-21 that’s ideal for 2×6 walls.

Now, if you’re installing a significant amount of insulation or especially if you’re doing it alone and on a ceiling, get yourself an electric—or, better yet, pneumatic—staple gun! I bought this little pneumatic guy for $50 and it was a total lifesaver, and I’ll get plenty of use out of it for all kinds of stuff. I should have bought one years ago!

FINALLY, DRYWALL!!! YAYYYY!!!! Somehow I transported 12′ sheets of drywall home by myself (we needed 10-footers to span the width of the room, but Lowe’s didn’t have them), and then Edwin and I tag-teamed putting them up. I’ve never installed a drywall ceiling before, but honestly with two people (each armed with their own ladder, drill, and supply of drywall screws), it wasn’t that bad at all. We had the whole thing put up in under an hour. We used 1/2″ drywall primarily because I already had a sheet or two and that saved a little cost/thinned the hoard, but 5/8″ would also be good/fine/maybe better.

You may note that when I had sheetrock ceilings installed three years ago, I was FREAKED OUT by the prospect of my ceilings not being perfectly level and flat, so Edwin and Edgar sistered new, flat 2×4 studs along each joist and then installed the drywall onto those to compensate for any wonkiness in the original joists. At the time I remember being very concerned that the ceiling would appear super wavy, like it would follow the high and low spots of each joist and look a total mess. Here, I didn’t do that. And the ceiling is, in fact, NOT quite level and perfect, but you definitely can’t see the impression of every joist or anything like that. Drywall has some flex but is a very rigid material, so any minor slants and dips happen so gradually over the span that they aren’t at all noticeable—and I think make the ceiling look more like a plaster ceiling and less like a perfectly new drywall one. #NoRegrets but I do feel like we could have skipped the sistering on the first floor and been just as happy if not more so. Live and learn.

Considering it wasn’t that long ago that looking up in this room meant seeing THIS, drywall made a huge and dramatic difference. All of a sudden the room was so bright! And so room-like! Fancy that!

I know, it’s all very exciting. Contain yourself!

Next, I did the thing I pledged I’d do years ago, then didn’t do for the bedroom, then really wish I had done for the bedroom: I hired Edwin to do the skim-coating. Edwin has been doing drywall and skim-coating work for years and years and is SO good at it, and it’s really the one part of renovating a room that I truly loathe, am not good at anyway, and takes me forever. A skilled skim-coater can knock out a room like this in a couple of days, achieve pretty perfect results, and allow you to move on with your life and do stuff you find more stimulating.

I did not do the thing that I also pledged I’d do, which is to use real lime-based plaster rather than joint compound. I talked to Edwin about it and we’re going to do that next time (hopefully from Master of Plaster—an amazing company down in South Carolina who make the real deal!)—he’s so good with a hawk and a trowel that I know he’ll pick it up quickly even though he’s never used it. But here, momentum led us to going with the devil we know that could be picked up from the hardware store a mile away. NEXT TIME, though. Kitchen, I’m looking at you.

The first order of business was essentially rebuilding the top of all the walls, where the multiple layers of ceiling demo had left a lot of crumbly bits and big gaps. My instinct with repairs like this would have been to cut out more of the plaster to create some clean level lines, patch with sheetrock, and then skim-coat, but Edwin just went right to filling these spots with copious amounts of joint compound. We used Durabond for this, which is a powdered joint compound that dries much harder than the pre-mixed All Purpose joint compound or EasySand alternatives. It’s also much more difficult to sand, so this is part of why having someone with skill do it is a huge asset.

I put up fiberglass mesh tape over the drywall seams while Edwin filled major gaps, and then we put up fiberglass mesh over about the top foot of all the walls, which effectively acts as a really wide mesh tape.

For this, we used a tip I picked up from Alex at Old Town Home years ago (along with the plaster washers—thank you, Alex!) and used window screening! It’s cheap, it’s fiberglass mesh, and it comes in rolls of various sizes that you can easily cut to whatever size you need. There’s a product in the drywall section for big applications like this, but it’s WAY more expensive and the window screening seems just as good. The only challenge is that the window screening doesn’t have an adhesive on the back like mesh tape does, so it’s a little tricky to get it into place and embed it in the joint compound. Still pretty easy, though.

With the top of all the walls repaired and the first coat of mud on the ceiling seams and screws, I got to work on the newly-rebuilt exterior wall! With sheetrock, you want to start from the bottom of the wall so you can rest subsequent sheets on the ones below while you install.

YES this looks insane but I used the same strategy that I used in the bedroom, which I’m pretty happy with: two layers of 1/2″ sheetrock, one on top of the other. A plaster wall including the lath is about an inch thick, so this allows the new drywall work to meet the original plaster in the corners and stuff, meaning your baseboards fall where they should to meet the existing baseboards on the adjacent walls. It also helps with the “hollowness” feeling of a single layer of drywall, adds a bit more structural strength to the wall, and has some minor insulation value. The first layer is also a nice way to use up all those little drywall scraps! This is a task for me, because I like being scrappy and using what I’ve got even when it looks insane and takes a while. Like a big puzzle!

The second layer gets much bigger sheets of drywall, primarily to lessen the likelihood of cracks developing along the seams over time. Then it’s just a matter of taping and mudding as normal, paying special attention to the corners where drywall and plaster meet.

CAN YOU SEE IT NOW? It’s almost a room! But not yet! Now the whole thing—plaster and drywall both!—will get skim-coated and sanded smooth, baseboard and window moldings have to go in, and then it’s on to caulking and painting and hanging up a proper light and putting in furniture and fretting about art placement and lounging forever on that massive sofa. Hooray!


56 Comments

  1. These progress pictures are so, so satisfying!

    And I’m on the edge of my seat to see the finished product!

    xx

    PS I like the sneak peek into the other room (ex-upstairs kitchen) which looks terrifying.

  2. Dangit, I was really hoping you were going to explain the Magical Way to Skim-Coat a Room Without Going Crazy and Without Paying Someone to Do It. I have a whole house of walls to restore and I am terrified. Sounds like I need to shift my focus to boosting the local economy by hiring a drywall person.

    But anyway. Your den looks so den-like! And cozy! And soon-to-be-lounged in! Congrats!

    • Definitely try the Magic Trowel – it’s like a big rubber squeegee and waaaaaay more friendly to the novice. No trowel marks!

      • We’ll talk about skim-coating next time! Really, it’s just about practice—start in smaller spaces and work your way up. It’s just the kind of thing that I know I *can* do, but a good pro can do MUCH faster and better, and so it’s something I don’t mind paying for. All the prep work is pretty fool-proof, though, so if you just have to hire someone to come in and do the actual skim work like I did here, it may not be as bad as you think! I wasn’t keeping super careful track (and all this stuff varies between contractors and regions, obviously), but between the sheetrock work and all the skim-coating, Edwin was in and out of here for under $500.

        The Magic Trowel is indeed a good product! Still doesn’t inspire me to skim-coat, but it’s definitely helpful if you’re not used to handling trowels or large spackle knives. :)

      • Thanks for the tip! I’m wavering between the fuck-it-just-do-shiplap approach and drywalling parts of it. I might just have to try that Magic Trowel.

  3. I love everything about this! Really nice work, as always, Daniel!

    I know you love your air compressor tools, and your mention of the pneumatic stapler made me want to ask: how do the dogs manage the air compressor (or how do you manage their response to the air compressor)? Our dogs go in to a full-blown run-through-a-plate-glass-window panic whenever a neighbor uses an air compressor, and so we’ve never used them in the building of our house. Do the dogs go somewhere else on those days? Do they not mind? I’ve heard of dogs that seem to be unperturbed but I’ve never met any. :)

    Since we tend to live where we remodel/build, and the happiness of our dogs is more important than an air compressor, any advice here would be much appreciated.

    • I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m very helpful here! Linus is pretty much deaf and unperturbed by anything, and Mekko doesn’t care at all!! If I’m working on something really messy or containing potential lead hazards (like scraping all that paint/wallpaper off the walls) the dogs aren’t in the room, but they actually like keeping me company when I’m doing other projects that include loud saws and compressors. They can go elsewhere in the house if they don’t want to be around it, but they tend to like being as close to the action as possible (within reason of course—safety first!). I guess I have a couple of weirdos!

      That being said, you might already be aware that Paslode makes various nailers that are gas/battery powered—you have to change the little gas canisters every now and then and remember to charge the battery, but they’re very good. The upfront cost is higher I think, but they’re great tools—Edwin LOVES his Paslode framer and finish guns. Plus no hoses or loud compressor. They’re very quiet (until, of course, the split-second when you actually shoot a nail), so that might be a good answer! Corded staplers and nailers are OK, but I wouldn’t rely on them for anything other than staples and brads…I don’t think they have enough oomph to be reliable finish nailers. I hope that helps!! Gotta keep the pups happy!

  4. Edwin….what a star!
    hopefully you are feeding him while he is doing all this skimming…..:))

  5. Have you (or any of your dear readers) tried Big Wally’s Plaster Magic for securing old plaster back to the walls? You drill holes until you hit lath, spray in some conditioner thing then use their fancy adhesives stuff. No buttons/washers to worry about save for some big temporary plastic ones while the adhesive cures, so the skim cost doesn’t have to cover near as much. It’s stupid expensive, but I suspect the adhesive is just some re-branded Liquid Nails or something. I even found a late 90s article from the inventor of the system recommending just that.

    Fabulous project and great inspiration for me before I tackle the walls and ceilings at Gay Gardens! My old Queen Anne was built by a plastering contractor and has some beautiful original walls…too bad he wasn’t as great at foundations and much of his work is delaminated or cracked. I don’t think I have one perfect wall. Can’t wait to see how the den looks finished!

    • I’ve never used it, no! I’ve heard good things and I’m sure it can’t hurt, but it’s always seemed like more hassle/cost than it’s worth if I’m getting good results with this method. The plaster buttons are sort of slightly rounded out of the package, but the idea is that as the screw drives in, it flattens the washer out so it’s flush with the wall. A real skim-coat (as opposed to just spot-patching) is going to add about 1/8-1/4″ thickness to the wall either way, so getting the necessary coverage over the washers has never been an issue. Does that make sense? If you try it, report back!

      • Definitely going to try it in a few key spots – There’s this cool diamond-pattern plaster below the chair rail in the kitchen and dining room (seriously, how did they even do that to begin with?) that I don’t dare skim coat over. I’m a little less scared or plaster washers after your comment, I guess I just gotta throw more plaster on the wall!

      • Interesting! Sounds like you might have Keene’s cement on the lower half (or something like it)—it’s similar to plaster, and I guess the tile lines are basically drawn on after application. I have it in my upstairs bathroom! There’s some info about it on the web—quick-ish google search pulled up this forum with lots and lots of discussion!

  6. Those little lath nails. Just an all-around pain in the ass. Tedium indeed. And you are living your best life with those scrap plaster puzzles, I love it.

  7. Ah yes, I see a lot of plaster washers in my future. I am of two minds about drywall vs plaster. If money and time were no object I would insist on plaster, but the realities of trying to get it done, on a budget, and in a reasonable amount of time give drywall with a skim-coat a serious edge. I really like the idea of using two layers of drywall topped with a skim-coat to add a bit of solidity to the wall. Looking forward to where this goes!

    • Thanks Devyn! To be honest, I do not know how the materials cost of lime-based plaster compares, but I was surprised to learn a few things about restoration plaster over the years that’s led me to wanting to use it…

      1. Lime-based plaster (which is very different than the gypsum based plaster veneers available at lots of hardware stores—I only figured this out recently!) arrives pre-mixed and ready to use at just the right consistency. I’ve gotten good at mixing joint compound so this isn’t really a selling point to me, but it’s nice to not have to worry about too thick/too soupy batches.
      2. Lime-based plaster is essentially very finely ground up stone, and cures by taking CO2 from the air to re-calcify and complete the lime cycle on your interior surfaces—essentially, turning back into stone. That’s why it has that nice cool-to-the-touch feeling and hardness. It naturally has the ability to deal with large swings in temperature and humidity levels.
      3. Lime-based plaster dries to a PH of 12, making it naturally mold and mildew resistant. It’s supposedly the healthiest material to live and work with.
      4. In terms of time, it’s actually about the same as the type of skim-coating I’ve done. Hydrated lime plaster comes already wet (because it relies on the CO2 in the air to cure, it won’t harden in a bucket. In fact, it’s typically aged at least a few months after packaging), and the cure time is about 16 hours. So there’s a comparable working time to all-purpose joint compound (the gypsum ones are the ones that harden up on you really fast), and longer than if you’re using a quick setting-type joint compound, and you typically do three coats over the course of three days. For me that’s actually faster than joint compound skim-coating has been, assuming I’m actually able to do it correctly.
      5. I’m sure you know this, but no sanding!! And potentially, no painting. Hydrated lime is “workable” after it’s up on the wall—you basically keep spreading and spritzing until it’s smooth, whereas with joint compound you have to wait for it to dry (or get that sweet spot where it’s still wet enough to burnish, but dry enough that you don’t screw it all up, and you have to sand regardless but maybe less) and then sand and sand and sand. And then it’s a finished surface, so while you CAN paint it, I think part of the appeal is the way it looks unpainted! Or you can live with it a while and paint it later. Ya know. So if you do three coats over the course of three days, don’t have to sand, and don’t have to paint, it could be done much faster as a DIY project than a typical skim-coat, sand, and paint job.

      That’s what I know!

  8. The previous owner of my 1930’s cottage apparently wanted “texture” on the upstairs wall and mixed what i believe was the non-slip coating one painted on basement stairs. Honestly if you accidentally touched the wall, your hand would bleed. And that’s what started me on my skim coat adventures….and I actually enjoyed it…who knew?

    Okay I’m still laughing on the scrap puzzle drywall….I do the exact same thing….it’s like crazy quilting with drywall pieces…but it does look nice at the end and is sturdy…but don’t ask for a building inspection on drywall because it would simply “not” pass inspection. Ask me how I know.

    Great job…I too take great satisfaction in the final room clean-up….lath nails; carpet strips and tacks….love getting that stuff done….

    Great tip on the window screening BTW.

    • Yikes, I guess that’s one way to keep people from getting their grubby hands on the walls! Haha!

      (I can’t believe you enjoyed skim-coating!!)

  9. I used the plaster washers to reconnect the plaster to the wall going up the stairs. It was majorly disconnected from the lath, but now is solid as can be. I also used two drills and am still pretty darn pleased with the job I did. (btw, I was able to buy the washers in a pretty big box with a few hundred washers in it from a sheet rock contractor supply business just north of Latham (NY) on Rt. 9.)

    Kathie

  10. You really know how to build up suspense! Even though I don’t know anything about plaster repair, I am sucked into the story. In total admiration for such skills.
    Long ago, I rented an apartment in an old house that had bas-relief climbing roses in the plaster. The place was a dump, butI put up with it just to have those fabulous walls.

  11. Daniel, you’re on a blogging spree. Don’t. Stop. Love it!

  12. Man, you are really trucking along in here! Looking so good already. I laughed out loud at that patchwork drywall pic!

  13. It’s looking good! I’m stuck in skim-coating hell right now. I’m over it. So over it.

    • Awww, I wish I could tell you that it gets better, but…well, it DOES get better, but pretty sure for me it’ll never be fun. You can doooo it!

  14. Will I ever get bored with watching you take a space from I-can’t-look to hey-that’s-a-room? No. No, I don’t believe I will. Reading this post was my gift to myself in between spray painting cheap metal bowls for my toddler class to throw things at (don’t ask) and starting the next piece of homework. Thanks for taking me away from all of this! So looking forward to seeing you get to the painting and furnishing part of this room…

    • Awww, glad to be of service!! Good luck with the work! (although I am curious about the cheap metal bowls!!)

      • For real? Okay. Toddlers like bright colours, so giving them something fun to aim at was the goal. I neglected to take into account the non-spray-paint friendly weather, and miiiiiiight have attempted to do some of it in my bathtub with a dropcloth taped up all around and the exhaust fan on. Let us never speak of it again. And then: bowls (and cookie sheets) because their aim isn’t great, but these things can be attached to a fence and make an entertaining BONG noise when struck with balls or beanbags, and so we get the sensory properties of the different objects we’re throwing, as well as the sound to reflect on (and laugh about), in support of the gross motor skill. These are the things that occupy the minds of early childhood educators!

  15. I have a question about the plaster buttons. How far are they supposed to stick out? Can you just joint compound over them? If so, how thick is your joint compound? We tried this in a bedroom that needed plaster repair and the results were unsatisfactory.

    • I’m sorry to hear that! Is the issue that you can see the buttons after the skim-coating? That definitely shouldn’t happen! I’ll discuss skim-coating more in the next post, but the finished skim-coat (three coats!) is probably about 1/8-1/4″ thick, depending on the area. I think plaster buttons are really designed for a full skim-coat rather than spot repairs—maybe that’s part of the issue? Installed, the plaster buttons should sit about flush with the wall, slightly indented even. As the screw sinks into the stud, they flatten out and become a bit concave. I’ve found that if I screw in a little too far, I might get high spots where the button kind of folds on itself that are easy to lightly tap flat to the wall with a hammer. Does that help/answer your question?

  16. I’m always surprised how I can find these technical post interesting, since I have never lived in (or worked on) anything but houses made of brick or reinforced concrete, where walls are a very different story. I guess, I am fascinated and horrified by American walls and therefore find this topic surprisingly exciting ;)

  17. I have to say that it is so awesome that you are posting more regularly again. Everything else in the blogosphere has turned into a sponsored ORC mess of sameness, with a homogeneity of style of both design AND writing that is scary. It is like dsign blogs have taken a massive step back from writing ivy league-dissertations to simply plugging bits into a ninth-grade five-paragraph essay template. Yuck. Your writing is wildly yours, original, and always, always enjoyable to read – and besides, your wonky old house is an adventure to learn about. Thank you!

    • Thank you very much Emma! Prob not cool of me to say, but honestly I’ve noticed that shift a bit with a couple blogs I follow, and it’s too bad. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bloggers doing a certain amount of sponsored content or product-based posts (we gotta eat!), but unfortunately I think it becomes difficult for bloggers to remember to stay in control of their content instead of allowing their profit-generating content to control them. I think much of it has to do with this fairly new climate of lots of money being made with affiliate links, which incentivizes bloggers to basically exclusively buy/use/own products that are widely available and can be profited off of via commission-based sales, regardless of quality or durability or how/where it’s produced or even whether the blogger really loves it or just settled on it because it had a good commission rate. Unfortunately for me bc I could totally use the cash, I can’t really imagine living in a house entirely full of Wayfair and Target and Overstock and…well, the list goes on. Where’s the fun in that? To me it’s kind of trading a quick buck for really loving the things in your home, which is just kind of depressing because at the end of the day, we’re all doing this because we love our homes and, theoretically, the things in them! Sigh. Everyone’s situation and financial pressures are different, and I do think it’s important to bear in mind that all us blog people are constantly trying to adapt to this bizarre internet economy that changes overnight and for which there are very few rules, standards, or established best practices, and it’s a challenge. At the end of the day though, blogs succeed because people like the content…if this strategy turns readers away, it won’t last. What a strange fucking time to be alive!

      • I don’t think anyone finds it problematic that bloggers want to eat, and of course people should be paid for the service they provide – I totally agree with you. But surely there must be a happy medium between sponsored content and retaining a semblance of integrity and authenticity? Yet sadly, I cannot think of a single [other] design blog that has managed to navigate that balance successfully. It seems to be an all-or-nothing model that leads to an all-or-nothing end: either the content suffers in quality due to a lack of authenticity and readers leave, irate because of the flood of affiliate links, or the blogger suffers financially and the blog content stops because the blogger has to get a non-blogging job. A major reason many of your readers – myself included – enjoy your blog so much is because it stands head and shoulders above all others in terms of authenticity. I do wonder, though, how you could use this platform toward greater financial stability without using the affiliate-link-elevator-to-hell. I have no answers, only a selfish hope that your blog will continue to stand its own in this sea of ugly sameness, and that your writing (something else we all deeply enjoy!) will not do what the writing style in all these other design blogs have done and transform to what can only be described as programmatic PR language designed by the company that pays for the post. It did not work in ninth grade and it does not work now: it alienates readers, makes the content seem even more disingenuous, and escalates the Demise of the Blogosphere, TM.

        Anyway! This was not meant to turn into a rant, only an acknowledgement that your sentiments are shared by many and that we are many who hope that your corner of the internet will retain its sense of authentic self in terms of both content and style for a long time – but we also want you to be able to eat!

      • Thank you Emma. This is such a big and complicated topic. I think that all-or-nothing feeling you get is at least partially justified. I think some of it has to do with the feeling that money = success, and people are kind of programmed to try to capitalize on their success and make the most money possible, and the content suffers. Then again, not making enough money to feel like blogging is worth the time investment, or at least isn’t motivating enough, can lead people stop blogging or blog less frequently (oh, hello), in which case the content also suffers. And that happy medium is going to be different for everybody because of their own pressures…don’t forget that I’m saying all of this as a single guy who lives in an area with a low cost of living and never has a bunch of much money in the bank. I don’t have to support a spouse or kids or pay a high mortgage or…ya know. To me, it has not been and never will be worth it to promote a product/service/company/whatever that I don’t truly believe in or use or like…can’t do it. Which is why I turned down 95% of what comes across my proverbial desk. Also why twice that I can think of in my time blogging, I’ve given sponsors the option of me writing a negative review of something or just canceling the whole thing. I’m not going to lie about my experience with a product…which honestly is difficult too, because I think some people automatically assume that anything sponsored amounts to a big lie anyway. Which is…discouraging. And those people are not entirely unjustified in that reaction, but like anything else you need to consider the source. I HOPE people can extend some trust my way that what I’m saying is true, because otherwise I guess I’m a fool for walking away from opportunities to get paid to promote something I only feel so-so about!

        I hear what you’re saying about the tonal/writing style shift, and THAT I find very unfortunate because I really don’t think it’s necessary. I can tell you that increasingly, sponsors want to see draft versions of posts before they go live and provide feedback, but in my (somewhat limited) experience, they really do encourage bloggers to write what they want and use their own voice. That’s what they’re paying for! If they wanted an ad, they’d buy an ad. But I think what ends up happening is that bloggers want very badly to please the people that are paying them (totally understandable), and so they write what they think the sponsor might want to hear. For what it’s worth, I’ve NEVER been provided specific language to use in a post (aside from a disclosure that the post is sponsored—sometimes the company is very specific about that), and I would never agree to that. I don’t think that’s at all typical. I think it has much more to do with internal pressure that the blogger is putting on themselves to kinda be a team player with the sponsor. And also has to do with background, because in this niche writing quality is not generally how bloggers value themselves (or how sponsors value them, really). I certainly don’t think of my writing here as, like, “serious writing” but I DO have a writing background and education, and am used to thinking of creative ways to convey information that I think most bloggers in this niche just aren’t. I try to treat every post (with varying degrees of success, of course) as a creative writing assignment…that’s a fun challenge FOR ME because I’m always talking about stuff that’s not inherently very interesting unless you just REALLY LOVE renovation, but that’s me. Everyone handles that differently…and if you’re really about the DIYs or pretty things or pulling a nice room together and the writing is just a way to convey all of that, I can see why that kind of programmatic writing happens without it actually being written by a PR firm, which I suspect is really the case.

        And JUST to address the affiliate link thing…it’s hard to figure out. I think a lot of bloggers (myself included to some extent) really LIKE the affiliate link thing because it’s a way to make money without doing sponsored posts—meaning there’s more flexibility to write what I want, when I want, and still see some financial return on that post. But again, it’s hard to keep in check—particularly for bloggers who don’t buy/own/like a lot of vintage or handmade stuff that’s not “shoppable.” And again, for me personally that’s just never going to be the driving force behind me buying something for my home, but if I do buy something that is able to be linked to with an affiliate link, you better believe I’m gonna use one. It would just be dumb not to. I think that’s OK.

        ALL of this being said, I think one of the best things we can do as content creators, readers, and consumers is to try to have some understanding for the fact that these things ARE complex, ARE always changing, and everyone is kinda just doing their best. I know bloggers don’t want to turn people away—not even from a traffic standpoint, but what makes this FUN is connecting with readers, and feeling like you’ve broken that connection is sad. Being critical is very tricky, because that criticism is typically based on a lot of assumptions—how much the blogger is being paid (typically less than people probably think) or off-base/outdated ideas about how money is actually made from blogging (no, I cannot just “put up more sidebar ads” and never write another sponsored post…banner ads aren’t what they used to be!). And unfortunately, I think from a blogger perspective, a lot of it comes down to a fundamental idea held by some (not saying you!) that don’t like seeing bloggers making any money off their blogs, period. Which isn’t the same thing as really feeling like bloggers shouldn’t make money, but then they disapprove of any actual mechanism to do so, so functionally it’s the same thing. And then they go complain about it on *a certain third party website with a forum section* which is not remotely helpful to anyone—when criticism becomes that removed and that anonymous, it’s easier to write off. There is zero function that I know of, other than the (typically mean-spirited) critic letting off their steam. Which is why I think some empathy and understanding can go a long way…posting mean shit about me on a third party website that I’m never going to read is not going to address a problem, but if a reader comes to me with a real concern or disappointment or something, as a blogger I will at minimum consider it. If someone tells me a sponsored post feels programmatic or canned or dishonest, I would legitimately like to know that because that’s how I know I haven’t done a good enough job—not with conning anyone into liking something that I’m also getting paid for, but with conveying my honest opinions or feelings. Unfortunately I think that criticism tends to get expressed either in silence and just abandoning ship as a reader (which is a fine thing to do) OR with some level of rage/anger/anonymity that, truly, is not at all constructive. No one is going to listen to a “hater” so I don’t really understand why disgruntled people so often turn to the “hater” model of critique…unless they just want to be hurtful and aren’t actually interested in affecting change. We can ALL do better, you know? Readers and bloggers alike.

        SO ANYWAY. Thank you for the kind words, and I’m glad we can talk about this stuff, and I hope you find other reads that you love or the ones that are currently disappointing you come back around, and I’ll shut up now! :)

    • Yes to this! I have been looking for different folks to read because of this exactly (well, different folks NOT named Daniel).

  18. Every time I read one of your posts what runs through my head is “Damn, you’re amazing”. So, yeah. Damn you’re amazing.

  19. That photo of the first-layer drywall puzzle! You beautiful monster <3

  20. Edwin sounds like 2nd most interesting man in Kingston, NY (2nd to you, obvi). I feel like I want a feature article on this guy and his amazing skills (as well as his thoughts on the projects you’ve gotten him in to!).

    Very excited to see the steady stream of progress!

  21. Go team plaster!

    I feel like freshly skim coating my walls was the best renovation decision – it makes a world of difference! But, it’s a mystery as to why nobody else seems to love the smooth plaster walls. I have yet to have a guest approach my walls with such passion as artist Andrea Fraser. (http://www.ubu.com/film/fraser_frank.html) Maybe one day – well, hopefully not.

  22. Your house is going so much faster now! The force is with you! It looks so neat,solid and all around great

  23. When we put a new ceiling in our sunroom, my husband worried — like you — about it being wavy and uneven. Then a friend told him to go look at all the other, original ceiling in our vintage-1937 house. Huh. They all had wavy imperfections that we had lived with for years and not noticed.

  24. When you install the two layers of sheetrock/drywall, do you do anything to the first layer (like tape and mud the joints, skim coat, etc?), or do you just screw in the first 1/2 inch layer and then screw in the second 1/2 inch layer on top?

    Also a big fan of plaster buttons here. I’ve used them for spot repairs, but am not put off by uneven, lumpy walls where I have plastered or skimmed over just a partial section which winds up being more raised than surrounding areas. Cover with wallpaper and lumps are barely noticeable!

    • I haven’t done anything between layers. I’m sure it couldn’t hurt, but who has the time! I SHOULD probably at least liquid nails them together, but…my tube had dried up and I just said fuck it! And yes, nothing wrong with some lumpiness and irregularity! I prefer it actually…old walls just shouldn’t be perfectly flat like you’d get with a conventionally good drywall job. I kinda feel the same way about painted moldings…I DO sand down imperfections and fill holes and stuff, but I’ve realized I kind of prefer woodwork where the profiles are *softened* a bit with a bunch of layers of paint…it just looks right in an old house! Plus I hate stripping paint. :)

      Want to hear something crazy? Edwin did a job not too long ago for some new construction project where they’d hired a team of plasterers to come in and do the whole house with plaster veneer. Then the homeowners got there, looked at what *I* considered a gorgeous job, and freaked out that the walls weren’t perfectly flat…so Edwin had to come in and skim-coat OVER ALL THE BRAND NEW (and I’m sure extremely expensive) plaster job with joint compound so it would look like brand new drywalll. I’m glad he got a paycheck out of it but that still boggles my mind!

      • Yeah, there’s no accounting for taste, is there? Give me a lumpy old house any day!

  25. I hope you buy Edwin nice birthday presents :)

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