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Repairing plaster walls and other animals.

Walls and other animals

Repairing Old Plaster Walls

 kitchen disaster

There’s certain house fixes that are more difficult to accomplish after moving in. You get all your heavy furniture in there, days pass, months pass, your apathy grows and you never get around to doing what you had intended, but it still eats at you. Like that time we hung plasterboard in our apartment bedroom and then didn’t put the architraves back on for another 18 months.

With that thought in the back of our minds, Jamie and I dove in right after we got the keys. Nights, weekends, taking days off here and there. We’ve been putting in the hours. The kitchen and bathroom are fully functional, so our pre-move-in list came down to three things: walls, ceilings and floors in all general living areas. This includes the living/dining room, all three bedrooms and the hallway. Repairing plaster walls was a job in itself.

WALLS:
The living room and two of the bedrooms have wallpaper trim, so, that’s going. All of the rooms have a bunch of cracks that need to be patched. We’re giving all of the walls a fresh coat of paint too.

CEILINGS:
Two of the ceilings have a textured surface, which I want to remove. All of the ceilings need light patching and a repaint; not one of them is white, they all match the walls, which are predominantly the same shade of cream. As for light fixtures, we’ll get there eventually.

FLOORS:
All that carpet is going. There’s decent hardwood underneath that’s waiting for a polish.

It’s all pretty straightforward, mindless work, and tasks just happen all at once, rather than going room-by-room, or sorting out walls and then floors, or whatever. Hooray?

First fix on the walls: removing the wallpaper trim from the three rooms that had it. SO GLAD the whole walls weren’t covered in it. All I used was a putty knife and spray bottle with warm water. The paper came off in layers: the top layer, with the nice shiny finish, and then the papery/gluey layer which scraped off easily after wetting it down.

Then we removed all of the existing fixtures that we didn’t intend to keep. The smoked-glass mantel shelf went, I’m afraid. So did the tiered pine shelving installed in the study. We took off the picture rail in the study, because a) it was too short in places and badly patched against the windows, and b) a section of it was already removed when the shelving was installed. I like picture rails, but removing this one was no great loss. We let friends and family claim any furnishings that were removed, and it all went except for the smoked-glass shelf.

The wooden cabinet in the living room was trickier to take out than expected, since it was attached to a board that had been screwed in and the screws were sealed in with wood putty. Jamie had to grind them out and it left some pretty good holes in the wall. This cabinet was also hiding a square of faux-grasscloth wallpaper! I didn’t grab a photo, but it must have been 50+ years old and it was a bitch to scrape off. I don’t envy whoever scraped off the rest of it first.

Rough materials list, for fixing a bunch of cracks in walls:
Angle grinder, earmuffs, respirator, joint compound, bandage tape, plastering knife, spray bottle, sandpaper, sanding float, disposable gloves, dropcloths.

Heads up: patching your walls right is messy and horrible. Our walls are plaster over cement board, which is old and had a ton of cracks that wanted fixing. It definitely had us asking, maybe we should have just replaced all the walls. NB: If you’ve got FIBRO cement board walls from the 40s-80s, then you’ll want to put on a moon suit and respirator because the walls may very well have asbestos, so, watch yourself.

1. The first thing you want to do, after you take out all your furniture and whatnots, is to put dropcloths EVERYWHERE. Floors, windows, anything you don’t want to scrub over and over. Secure it good around every inch of the edges, or else you get to clean up little piles of plaster dust in all the corners and wedged into all the skirting boards. Ask me how I know.

2. Jamie busted out the angle grinder and gently dug out each crack into a shallow trench. This is where it gets fun and messy real fast. Wear earmuffs to go with the angle grinder, that shit is loud! After the plaster dust settles you can replace the dropcloth if you want to minimize kicking up clouds of dust, but it’s okay if you don’t, you’ll still be making lots more dust yet.

3. Get a wide putty knife and fill in the gouges with joint compound. For particularly big, open gouges, stick bandage tape in there for extra reinforcement. Give them a misting with a spray bottle, it’ll cut down on the dust and help the compound adhere to the surrounding plaster better. Don’t worry about filling it all in or getting it perfectly flush with the wall, you’ll be back with your knife before long.

Spare bedroom, living room. We’re TOTALLY ready for visitors.

4. As the joint compound dries, over the next day or two, it will shrink slightly. Yeah, it sucks, you just troweled in a ton of joint compound and it re-forms a trench to fill once again. The first pass hits the worst of it, though! Sand the joint compound smooth with a sanding float; we used 80 grit, non-clog paper and it was great. Then fill in that trench again.

I have a steadier hand than Jamie, so I did a lot of the plastering. Disposable gloves are handy, because plaster dust dries out your hands like nothing else.

5. Repeat for what feels like a dusty, crummy eternity, until the whole surface is smooth and flush with the wall. For final, very thin passes, using skim coat (up to you; we were happy with an all-in-one finish compound), a wet sponge will easily smooth out the surface.

6. Finishing it all up: smooth out any cracks/gaps in the cornices with a bit of paintable caulk, and give every plaster-covered surface a light wash with sugar soap.

We felt like such winners after taking out the dropcloths and putting a coat of primer on the walls. There’s plenty of work to go, but the blank white surface seemed to say, breathe easy, that’s one major gross task you can check off your list now.

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