I’ve been so excited to get it together and finish the little office room upstairs. I talked about some of the early progress back in the middle of November, and then shared my big exciting plan for the space, and I really wanted to have it done by Christmas (HAHAHAHA). And then things happened, like the holidays and the new year and tearing out a ceiling and then another ceiling and closets and…I don’t know. Life. The little office room more or less sat there, leading me to feel like a sad failure.
As you might recall, the walls of this room were riddled with pretty much every problem plaster can have. What looked like a fairly regular white room was actually layers and layers of paint on top of the original wallpaper on top of the original plaster walls. Unfortunately, over the years, the adhesives in the original wallpaper (and probably the wallpaper itself) began to break down, leading to lots and lots of cracks and flaking. In order to really restore the walls and prevent this problem from recurring over and over again forever, I decided that the best course of action was to strip ALL of the old wallpaper/paint off the plaster.
There were other major problems, too: all of the corners of the room had been repaired with a crazy (and very bumpy) layering of masking tape, joint compound, caulk, and paint. Same with the cracks, areas of missing plaster, and places where the plaster had come away from the lath but was still present. All of this was problematic because:
1) I want an office with solid walls that are not falling apart and looking a mess and made mostly of masking tape.
2) I plan to wallpaper the main wall of the room, and wallpaper really needs to adhere to smooth walls. None of this bumpy flaking crazy business.
It’s long been common knowledge that once plaster comes away from the lath (you can tell by pushing on it…a solid plaster wall will be, well, pretty solid, while a damaged one will give under pressure), the only thing to really do is tear it all down and replace it with drywall. Not so! Even plaster that looks pretty damaged and messed up can be revived with lots of plaster buttons and TLC. Plaster buttons are those little metal disks. They have a hole in the center, so all you do is insert a drywall screw into the hole and screw it in to either a framing member or lath underneath to pull the plaster back into position. I’m still getting my buttoning technique down, but that’s the basic principle. They’re great for ceiling repair but effective for walls as well.
This main wall of the office (the one that I’m planning to wallpaper!) was a disaster! Huge cracks, crumbly parts, missing parts…yikes. The first step was to scrape out any areas of plaster that were truly beyond saving, then implement the plaster buttons, and then patch missing areas with drywall. I used 1/2″ drywall—it’s best to just find the thickness that’s closest to your plaster. This might vary pretty significantly by the room, or even the area of the wall that you’re patching.
After this stuff is done, it’s time to start filling the voids and taping and patching the cracks and seams. Then the skim coating! Skim coating is the process of coating the wall in a thin layer of joint compound (or actual plaster, if you’re fancy/skilled/are applying it to bare plaster). It’s typically done over the course of 3-5 thin coats, depending on how much texture your wall has.
The reason that the skim coat is pretty necessary is not only to smooth out areas of major damage, but also to create a smooth surface on areas that aren’t really damaged. I tried to take a close-up to show the actual texture of the walls before the skim coat. This is what all the walls in the hallway/entryway look like post-wallpaper-stripping, too. Just lots and lots of small areas of pitting and damage to the outer plaster coating, which will NOT look good if just painted over. You really need to smooth that stuff out for your walls to look like…walls.
Now, I was pretty pumped to be great at skim coating. I read over the Plaster Repair Series over at Old Town Home (Alex is such a wealth of knowledge and detail if you’re renovating an old house) probably 25 times to make sure I really understood the process. It didn’t seem that hard, and besides, people on the Internet tell me sometimes that I’m really handy (not really true at all, but I’ll take it). I bought all my tools and supplies and I was feeling pretty confident and amazing about the likelihood that I was a plaster repair prodigy and the whole thing would be a cakewalk and I’d have smooth, beautiful walls in a couple of days.
NOPE. NOPE NOPE NOPE. I have no idea which part of skim coating was so incredibly hard for me to grasp, but I could not do it. Seriously. I made one attempt, felt like I destroyed one wall, and had to walk away for a few days just to recover. Then I made a second attempt on a different wall and felt like I had destroyed that one, too, and I couldn’t even walk back into the room the next day to survey the damage. I think there was a third attempt in there, too. I just could not.
I think this is why I started demoing so many things. Destroying stuff made me feel like I was still in control and capable of making forward progress. Skim coating made me feel like I was completely inept and my chances of fixing this house were hopeless (seeing as I have to do this in…pretty much every room?). Things were not going well. At all. Like really badly.
I think it had to do with the consistency of the joint compound, or something. You want it to be fairly watery and loose, but actually getting it from the bucket to a trowel and onto the wall and making it smooth is a whole different story. In high school I took Physics and received a B- in the class, so this kind of thing has never really gone well for me. Gravity. Friction. Mass. Slipperiness. Science.
The point is this: I was pretty stoked to rehash my skim-coating experience and break down my technique and be awesome. That will not happen because my skim-coating experience was basically just a lot of chaos and confusion and incompetence and emotional distress. BUT! I think I figured out a general technique by the end that worked for me, so I’ll be really detailed next time, when I’m not so frantic that I don’t really take any pictures because I’m too busy panicking.
Here is that same wall that was a disaster before. I borrowed Alex’s technique of using fiberglass mesh window screening material to do large-scale patching over areas that were really damaged and cracked, which worked out great! Since plaster will continue to move and crack over time, the idea is that the fiberglass screen isolates the top layer from the movement of the wall underneath, helping to maintain a crack-free surface. This is just after the screen was embedded in the joint compound (I used another screen on this wall, too, but didn’t take a picture apparently), but after a couple more layers of skim coat it’s completely embedded in the wall. You’d never know it was there!
CHECK IT OUT. Does that look like a smooth wall to you? It looks like a smooth wall to me! With crisp beautiful corners and no crazy cracks or visible patches or anything. Totally ready for priming and wallpaper!
The rest of the walls, like this one, will just be primed and painted, but that part seems comparatively easy and silly. Like being allowed to play with crayons for a while after having to read War and Peace in one sitting without blinking.
Also, take note of the new electrical! I said that I planned to have a ceiling fixture installed in this room, and now there is one! And a new plug! And a switch! It’s so modern you guys. Right now the ceiling light is just a temporary light, but I plan to buy a ceiling medallion and a real light soon (MEDALLION INDECISION ALL OVER AGAIN). I think I want to see more of the room come together before making a final decision on hanging vs. flush-mount for the light. It’s a very small space and the wallpaper is pretty bold and I’m worried that a hanging fixture will just be too much going on.
Ahhhhh. It looks so…real? Like being beautiful is realistic and within reach?
The one thing I’m already feeling a lot of regret about is leaving the tiny little crown molding in place. The ceiling of this room is actually drywall over acoustic tiles over furring strips over the original plaster ceiling (I know, I know, but it looks fine and there’s no real reason to take it all down), so the “crown” was put in place to create an easy transition between the plaster walls and the drywall ceiling. I was so overwhelmed with everything else during this skim-coating adventure that I opted to just keep it, and now I feel like the walls look so good that I want it gone. It’s just so dinky and damaged and it’s not even the same molding all the way around the room. But I also REALLY don’t want to spend several more days patching and taping and sanding and patching some more, and I feel like for this tiny room, I should just let it go, but…argh. I should have taken it down to begin with.
Maybe I’ll gather the strength. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just put up new, better crown, but that sounds hard too. And maybe expensive. And maybe like something that might not look great. But could it look worse? Maybe it could. It probably could. But it also could look better.
This is the type of thing that keeps me up at night.
I feel really proud of my corners. All the interior corners were restored with joint compound and fiberglass mesh tape, and the exterior corners were repaired with new corner beads. These corners are a little wonky (it’s plaster over a brick chimney, and there was a lot of damage and weirdness), so I chose to use vinyl corner beads instead of the more conventional metal ones, since they seemed more flexible. I have no clue if this was a good idea, but it happened and it looks OK right now?
So this is what I learned, I think:
1. For corners and small cracks, you want to use fiberglass mesh tape. Do NOT use paper tape to patch plaster. For large scale patches, fiberglass mesh screens are effective and WAY cheaper than large fiberglass screens made for this kind of thing. It’s very hard to work with sections of screen larger than about 4′x4′, so cut and plan accordingly.
2. Give yourself options with the joint compound. I used a mix of pre-mixed joint compound and lightweight setting-type joint compound (90 minute setting time) that you mix yourself from a powder. The powder kind is more cost-effective, but I found it helpful to have the pre-mixed on hand for various things. Somehow I used up almost an entire 65-pound tub, along with a few bags of the powder kind.
3. Experiment with tools. I honestly just could not get my hands and arms to do the things necessary to handle a hawk and a trowel. I think I’m incapable. I pretty much used a mix of a 6″ spackle knife, a 10″ drywall knife, a paint roller, a Magic Trowel, a spray bottle, and lots of rags. Also, corner trowels are VERY necessary. I really can’t recommend the Magic Trowel enough. It saved this project and my sanity.
I know that’s not specific at all, but it’s kind of all I have! I’ll get much more detailed with how I go about plaster repair when I’ve done more of it and really have a technique down, but I don’t want to pretend to teach anyone something I barely know myself just because I pretend to be good at this stuff.
Getting the walls to this point feels like a huge step. Next up is primer, paint, wallpaper, and the floor! The fun stuff.