It’s been a long time coming, so I won’t drag it out: WE HAVE CEILINGS AGAIN! SEE?!?!?!?
Backing up *just a touch*, since you know how I like to get into the nitty-gritty of it all…wayyyyy back in December, I got it in my brain that it was high time to see what was going on under the acoustic ceiling tiles in the dining room and front parlor (which we’re calling the library now, I guess!). I don’t even totally recollect my logic with this one…we’d been in the house 6 months, we’d basically JUST gotten heat, I was working on the upstairs office, the laundry room was pretty much next on the list…and for some reason I decided to destroy two relatively functional rooms? And not only that, but remove ceilings in the dead of winter in an uninsulated house? I can’t be accountable for my actions. Going back and reading the posts, apparently I didn’t really know why I did it then, so I especially don’t know now. It just happened.
To review: the ceilings both looked basically like this. I was not a fan. The tiles were probably installed in the 1960s or 70s, and then bad crown molding was installed around the edges.
I was HOPING at the time that they’d just been put up over the plaster to add a little heat/sound insulation. I had grand delusions of removing the tiles and finding a pretty plaster ceiling above it, in need of only mild repairs. Hell, there could even be the original ceiling medallions, hiding right up there! Who could know!
It quickly became clear that the tiles were installed as a quick and easy solution to conceal the original plaster ceilings, which were COMPLETELY trashed. I really wanted to save them, but they were just way too far gone.
The demo of these ceilings was HORRENDOUS. It took days and was so incredibly dusty, and heavy, and generally completely hellish. Even considering the condition of the ceilings, it still felt crappy having to remove so much original material from the house, but we had to do what we had to do.
After the demo, things pretty much looked like this. At the time, I was completely delusional about how long it would take to get new ceilings in the rooms. I literally remember telling people that I thought we’d be drywalling in a couple of weeks. All we really had to do was run a little electrical and slap some drywall up. How long could that take? I’d have ceilings in no time!
Man. So untrue. So terribly false. I’m basically the village idiot of Blogland.
First of all, having the ceilings open just seemed to afford more and more opportunities for “invisible” improvements, so what started as just re-running the existing electrical (which was, like, 3 circuits) ended as re-running all the existing electrical as well as adding a bunch of new circuits to feed receptacles and light fixtures and coaxial ports and crap upstairs. We also took the opportunity to do some alterations to the plumbing, which I’m really excited about. Next post! It’s too much to get into all of it right now.
ANYWAY, the whole ordeal seemed to drag on forever. Even though the ceilings were wide open, the walls were not, and there was a lot of fishing wires from the panel in the basement, up through the walls, and across the ceilings, up through the second floor, up those walls, up into the attic, through the attic floor joists, and down into the ceilings upstairs…it was hard work. And since my electrician is both busy and flakey (and cheap, and licensed in Kingston, which is why I keep working with him…), what was really something like a 4-5 day job got spread out over MONTHS. Then we had to get it inspected, which took an additional couple of weeks to schedule…and maybe I added some more things to the plumbing list…it just went on and on.
The plus side of the slowness is that I feel like it really gave me the time to think everything through. So in the end, we’re basically DONE with electrical and plumbing for a while (until the downstairs bathroom rough-in, I guess), which is very exciting. I feel like I really took advantage of the opportunities presented by having no ceilings and I can look back without regrets. I think. I hope.
SO. After months of hemming and hawing over whether I’d attempt to do the ceilings myself (and hearing lots of input on both sides—thank you!), I hired it out. The general consensus seemed to be that this was a job better left to the pros, and since we’re talking about big, important spaces in the house, I REALLY didn’t want to spend weeks trying to DIY this and then end up with bad-looking ceilings, especially after all the work and expense of everything behind the ceilings. Max wisely flat-out refused to be involved, so between all the materials, renting equipment, and at least hiring a second set of hands, it’s not like the DIY option was all that cheap, either.
Part of the serious complication with this job is the joists. The house is post-and-beam construction, so the wood is hand-milled and irregular. With plaster and lath, a lot of that irregularity can be compensated for by a smooth plaster job. Drywall isn’t really like that, though—it’s rigid but has some flex, meaning that unless we wanted a really wavy ceiling where you’d probably see every joist (and worse, every seam!), it was imperative to level everything out. In the dining room, the archway molding in front of the bay window is only about 2″ below the joists, meaning that dropping the whole ceiling wasn’t really an option. Even if it had been an option, who wants to do that? So the goal was to keep the ceilings as HIGH as possible while still making them as level as possible. Big task. Scary to entrust to a stranger. Scary to DIY. Everything is scary. Hold me.
So I got four quotes, and they were ALL OVER THE PLACE.
1. The guy who swooped in and repaired our box gutters the first time around, Shane, gave me a quote for the dining room and the library. He understood the issue with the joists, and I really liked working with him before, BUT he didn’t seem to have too much drywalling experience, so that kind of scared me. Then he came back with a quote: $3,200. Yikes. Everyone says drywall installation is cheap and fast, so I wasn’t expecting that!
2. Guy #2 I found on Craigslist. He was more of a handyman, but seemed to have experience with drywall. He was also super hot, which is a huge bonus in my book. Unfortunately, he didn’t really understand the issue with the joists, and kept telling me that it should be fine to just shim out a couple small spots and slap the drywall up, which didn’t sit well. His quote for the two rooms: $1,600, including materials. Definitely an improvement, but I didn’t feel like he understood the complexity of the job so I sort of knew I wasn’t going to hire him.
3. Guy #3 was recommended by one of the electricians. Electrician guy told me he was SUPER cheap, had done work in his own house that turned out flawlessly, and he was really friendly and responsive over the phone and showed up when he said he would and all that. I really liked him—he seemed to understand everything I was saying, had good solutions, and was experienced. He assured me before leaving that he’d give me a good price and that he wasn’t the type of guy trying to gut clients. I actually asked him to quote for the two rooms AND the pantry (since it’s small) and skim-coating the old drywall ceiling in the hallway (more on that in a minute). His quote: $7,800. ALMOST EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS. Jesus Christ. NO.
4. Then this guy moved in next door. I introduced myself, and he was really nice, and we’d talk every now and then through the fence. It took me a few weeks to notice that on the side of his truck, there was a decal for his construction business! And it specifically listed drywall as one of his services! So I asked him what he was up to, and if he wanted to come over and give me a quote, and he said yeah, and came over, and took measurements, and talked to me about my concerns, and was generally lovely and confident that he could do a good job. I asked him for the same quote as guy #3 (both rooms, pantry, and downstairs hallway skim-coating), but he said the hallway wasn’t really even worth skim-coating and we should just rip it down and start over. His quote: $1,800 + materials.
I honestly have no real idea how much this should all cost, just to be completely frank. $1,800 still seemed kind of high to me, to be honest, but that was more colored by everyone telling me how cheap drywall installation should be. The whole joist-leveling thing makes the job WAY more complicated, so I’m assuming that was a big factor. It’s not a small job and required several days of work and 2-3 people, so the number actually seemed pretty fair, even if it was higher than I was hoping. Thinking I could maybe save a little bit of money, I asked for another quote for JUST the two rooms, excluding the pantry and hallway, and the price dropped to $1,600 + materials. So for an extra $200, I can have both of those spaces done quickly and by professionals? I mean. OK. And this guy lives next door, which might make things awkward if he does a bad job, but also makes him easy to find and less likely to flake out on me since we see each other almost everyday.
SO. HE WAS HIRED.
In preparation for his arrival, I tore down the ceiling in the hallway. This ceiling was already replaced with sheetrock in the early 70s, but it looked TERRIBLE. I don’t really have any pictures detailing that, but I guess this was when drywall was still nailed up instead of screwed into place. There were seams EVERYWHERE because whoever installed it used fairly small pieces of drywall. You could literally see every single nailhead, some of which had been slathered in caulk. There was about a 1-2″ gap between the ceilings and the walls, which had been stuffed with newspapers and paper-taped over. Paper tape doesn’t really adhere to bare plaster, so the tape had all separated over time…the whole thing was just a damn mess. So even though I wasn’t super excited about MORE demo, it was the best option.
The first time drywall was installed on the hallway ceiling, they installed it over the lath (but had removed the plaster). Since the lath isn’t structurally necessary and just added thickness (which was a bummer, because the sheetrock covered the top of the molding around the front door), I opted to remove the lath, too.
What this ceiling taught me is that I never want to hear ANYONE complain about demo’ing drywall. It was literally child’s play compared to plaster demo. The whole thing came down in about an hour and was bagged up and in a Bagster in another hour, and I barely even broke a sweat. The hardest part was taking down the lath and cleaning up all the plaster keys that were hanging out above it, but it wasn’t so bad. Max helped me and we had it knocked out and cleaned up in a couple of hours.
ANYWAY. Then the plumbers did some more stuff with that ceiling opened up, and then it was time for the drywallers to come in! EEEEP!
The drywallers brought in all the drywall first (they overbought by a couple of sheets, but that’s OK…I’ll end up using it elsewhere, I’m sure!), and some 2″x3″x8′ pieces of lumber. Their original plan to level out the joists was to nail 2x3s to a few of the really wacky joists and get on with things.
Once they really got up in the ceiling, though, they realized just how wonky everything was. Some of the joists were off by a good couple of inches, the whole ceiling was sloped, all the joists were bowed in the middle…yikes! So my contractor quickly re-evaluated and went to buy enough 16-foot 2x4s to sister in every joist. When they got back, they ran a laser level to figure out the low point, and then ran the 2x4s *slightly* above that level so that we’d still be able to see the top of the moldings when the drywall went up. They then planed down a couple of really low spots on a couple of joists—it was a negligible amount, so it definitely shouldn’t affect anything structurally or anything like that.
This is about the point at which I became really glad I hired this out. Yes, it’s a good chunk of change, but I don’t think this is a solution I would have come to by myself, and it literally probably would have taken me weeks and ended up mediocre and I would have been so sad forever. They had the tools and the know-how and enough hands and bodies to get it done.
The guys spent almost the entirety of Day 1 working on leveling out the joists, which I was so grateful for! Once the new, straight 2x4s were in place, you could really see how wonky the original beams are—all of the sistering really made all the difference, here. Since I opted to go with a flat fee instead of an hourly rate, I’m so glad they really took the time to do things right.
I decided to add some R-38 fiberglass insulation just to the exterior walls, basically butting up against the brick nogging. A lot of readers suggested insulating the whole ceiling both for heat and sound, but you actually don’t really want to do that in a single-family home. If the house was still divided into apartments and on two separate heating systems, then yes, but here you actually want the heat to rise in the winter to help heat the upstairs and in the summer so that both floors don’t turn into oversized saunas. There is blown-in cellulose insulation between the upstairs ceiling and the attic floor, which is pretty much exactly how it should be given the house’s current arrangement. If we ever get around to finishing the attic, we’ll likely remove that insulation (that should only be, like, the worst job ever) and insulate the attic walls and ceiling (probably with closed-cell spray foam insulation, because technology).
Watching the drywall go up was, like, the most exciting thing EVER. Even before the taping and mudding, the difference in the rooms already felt HUGE. After living in these cavernous, dark spaces for almost nine months, the drywall immediately made everything feel infinitely brighter and taller and more complete. After all that time, I think I sort of forgot how amazing the natural light is in this house. Of course it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place, but getting more of an inkling of how it will look all finished and painted and beautiful is super duper thrilling.
I’m SO glad we decided to spend the extra time and money doing the hallway ceiling. The guys only used 5 separate pieces of sheetrock (instead of, like, 15, as before!), and it’s all level and smooth and very *slightly* higher than it was before, and it just looks great. The guys taped the seams with fiberglass mesh tape and did 3 coats of joint compound before sanding. I think this photo is after coat #2 of joint compound.
I spent a lot of time fretting with the contractor over how important it was to be able to see the top of the archway in the dining room after leveling out the joists and installing the drywall. It was a tight squeeze, but it’s ALL THERE, which is all I can really ask for. Considering it’s been covered up with acoustic tiles, crown molding, and a mess of caulk for the past 40-ish years, it feels really good to be able to restore this funny feature. I need to finish stripping the paint and caulk off of it (I’m definitely not stripping all of the molding, but this is too messed up to just paint), but I think it’s going to look amazing once it’s all done! I tried Peel Away 1 on a section of the arch just to see how it worked, and it works well! Cleaning/neutralizing the stripped wood indoors is sort of a huge messy hassle, but it’s one of those things that’s just going to require a little extra time and care. What else is new!
One area that I’m particularly impressed by is in the back of the hallway. Only this patch of the original plaster remained in the entire space, and because of the way it curves and slopes and seemed very solid overall, I didn’t want to demo it and try to replicate it with drywall if I didn’t have to. On the last day of work, the contractor brought in a different guy to do the final skimming and sanding on the ceilings and sort out this mess. The new drywall sat about 1/2″ above the placer, and you can see how a lot of a previous skim-coating job had failed and fallen off over the years, and I was just crossing my fingers that they could get it to look acceptable.
WELL. HOT. DAMN. This skim-coating guy was a MAGICIAN. He did this in, I don’t know, a couple hours, and it’s FLAWLESS. It’s so, so beautiful. I keep just walking to the back of the hallway to admire it.
This is when I made the most big-boy decision ever.
You guys, this hallway is really big. Over the stairs, the wall extends, like, 20 feet high. I’ve already done the work of demo’ing non-original walls, opening up original doorways, and stripping all of the wallpaper from the plaster. In the intervening months, several new large holes had to be made in the plaster to run the new plumbing and electric stuff, and now the walls need significant patching and repair and then all need to be skim-coated. Since I spent so much time and effort up in the tiny office teaching myself this skill, and I know I’m technically capable of it, it’s always been the plan to do the hallway walls myself.
Well, after seeing the dope-ass job this guy did on my ceiling in a few hours (which definitely would have taken me days, and probably never looked as good), I asked how much it would cost for him to just skim-coat the entire hallway, upstairs and downstairs. The answer was $500. I debated for a couple of days…and then I decided to go for it.
Here’s the thing. Skim-coating is not fun. I’m OK but not great at it. I’m sure it would turn out fine, but it would also take me weeks and be super boring and messy and exhausting, and that’s a LOT of time to dedicate to something so relatively inexpensive to just get someone else to do faster and better than I can. I can think of about a thousand things I’d rather be doing with that time. I don’t overwhelm all that easily, but the list of projects on this house is a bazillion items long and if throwing 500 clams at this hallway gets it paintable and way more complete within, like, the next WEEK (omg, I know), I’m soooo down.
So that’s that. I’m so excited for the skim-coating wizard to come back and work his magic. I’m excited to not have to do it. I’m excited to clean up all of the drywall dust all over the house without feeling like it’s a waste of time because I’ll just be making more dust for weeks on end.
Oh, and WHAT’S THAT NOW? I ordered a ceiling medallion as a test to see if I liked it.
Choosing ceiling medallions, for whatever reason, has been one of the most agonizing parts of this entire renovation/restoration thing I’m doing. I’ve literally been thinking about medallions since before we even closed on the house, and bookmarking various products for over a year. I think it’s so hard because the house does have so many of its original features intact, but the ceiling medallions are long gone and we don’t know what they looked like. I’ve always felt strongly that the medallions need to look appropriate to the house, which means they should be appropriately Greek, elegant, and grand, but also sort of blend in so that what’s essentially a big piece of foam glued to the ceiling doesn’t end up being the stand-out architectural feature, you know?
I did a fair amount of research on what would fit in style-wise with the Greek Revival of it all, which led me in a more ornate direction than I was originally inclined to go. I didn’t want to go crazy with something super intricate and Corinthian, for the aforementioned reason of wanting it to blend in, but I also feared going too simple would end up looking kind of 1920s and all wrong. Finally I just closed my eyes and hit the order button on this guy at Home Depot (which really has an amazing selection of medallions online, but not in the stores) and hoped I wouldn’t hate it when it came. I chose it because I felt like the size would be pretty grand, and it’s kind of middle-ground on the intricacy spectrum, and it has that acanthus leaf motif which is typically Greek Revival.
Even when I opened the box, I kind of wasn’t sold. It seemed like maybe it was too big and maybe just completely wrong. But then I had Max stand on a ladder and hold it up to the ceiling, and I pictured it all caulked and painted and with a light fixture hanging from it, and now I’m ON BOARD with this thing. I need to order two more, which kind of sucks because of COURSE I picked, like, the most expensive piece of foam on the planet, but I think it’s just right.
I think I’m going to paint it with some watered-down joint compound or something before hanging it, to kind of fake some age into it. It looks a little too new and the pattern looks a little too defined to me.
ANYWAY. WOW THIS POST GOT LONG.
Now that the ceilings are done, next up on the agenda is finishing repairing the walls in the dining room and prepping everything for paint!! AND THEN PAINTING. AND THEN MOVING FURNITURE BACK IN. AND THEN CRYING TEARS OF JOY.
It’s all happening!