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!