I am mildly cursed with a form of insomnia that awakens me at 5 or 5:30 many mornings and convinces my body that it really must get up and stumble around in the darkness. Toward early evening, then, I’m often ready for a brief nap. That’s what I was doing on the couch yesterday when a heavy, crashing sound woke me.
“I think the sky is falling,” said Patricia, whose capacity for anticipating the imminent arrival of the apocalypse is large.
I swung my feet off the couch and measured the silence until it was interrupted by a sound like rocks rolling down the stairs. I opened the door at the top of our landing and fine, fine grit found its way into my eyes and, a moment later, between my teeth. When the ecologically friendly stairwell light finally brightened, I discovered that Patricia had been (in a limited way) bang on. The 12-foot-high plaster ceiling over the stairwell had suddenly decided, after 117 years, to collapse. The bare lath above me was still puffing out small clouds of the coal-black dust that lives in the walls of old houses. And, indeed, acorn-size pebbles of plaster were tumbling down the stairs and joining the great chunks that had preceded them to the bottom.
“The ceiling fell,” Patricia said, a little awed, as though a collapsed ceiling was as much a strain on credulity as a collapsed sky.
Plaster is great stuff. It’s concocted from lime or gypsum, sand or cement, and water, and it’s been used for everything from stabilizing the position of broken bones, to providing a fine-art painting surface, to making cool casts of whatever you wish. Those ancient Roman frescos that sparked so many classical revivals were preserved for us thanks to incredibly durable encaustic paintings on plaster.
In the “whatever-you-wish” category, you may remember a pair of 60s groupies who called themselves “The Plaster Casters.” They were known for making plaster casts of the erect penises of rock stars, the first of whom, if I recall correctly, was Jimi Hendrix. If you’ve ever used plaster of Paris, you’ve probably discovered that it’s exothermic—which is to say that it gives off heat as it sets. Was Jimi, I wonder, concerned, even for a moment, that he was about to be cooked?
Plaster was also used for a wall covering. It was squeezed between thin, horizontally nailed boards called “lath” for support, often strengthened with horse hair and, round about the 20s or 30s, fortified with a wonderful new material called asbestos. It was hard, denser than concrete, smooth when applied by a master plasterer, amenable to being cast as handsome crown moldings and medallions, and provided good soundproofing. An ideal finish material…as long as it lasted.
So, today, following the partial collapse of the ceiling, I undid the work of the master craftsman who applied it over our stairwell in 1893. With the help of a broom handle, I collapsed the rest of the ceiling. It was a tight, dark, hot work area, so dusty that I couldn’t see more than two steps down the stairs. That’s why I was wearing work boots, a white Tyvek suit, safety glasses, gloves, and, most important, a HEPA mask specifically designed to filter out not only dust but lead and asbestos. Anything less is plain stupid. Plaster dust and between-the-walls grime are not only filthy-nasty but, depending on what else they may contain, filthy-toxic.
Taking the ceiling down is only a minuscule part of the larger task of removing all the plaster—tonnes of it—from throughout the house. The decision to do so, and the understanding of how to do it, was the result of research and several months of experience.
The Point St. Charles Plaster FAQ
I live in an old house and the plaster has started to lift off the walls. Can I fix it or do I have to pull all the plaster and lath off and replace it with gypsum wallboard? I’ve heard that getting rid of plaster is a terrible job.
A lot of renovators will say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The problem with this advice is that more than the walls might be broke. A house is, among other things, a machine. Water, heating and insulation are those parts of the machine that your walls are hiding from you. What might you find underneath that attractive plaster?
–lead pipes; galvanized pipes so clogged they restrict flow and reduce water pressure; leaks real or potential
–knob and tube wiring (an old system of getting electricity from fuse box to outlet or lamp), also know technically as “it is only a matter of time before your house burns down”
–insulation in the form of sawdust, newspapers, rags, or uselessly retrofitted Fibreglas
–housing for raccoons or squirrels.
You may discover, as well, some of the half-assed fixes that I have, including: retrofitted wiring that not only violates code but also the instinct toward self-preservation; direct galvanized-to-copper plumbing connections (which, in combination with water, chemically deteriorates, resulting in a major leak); leaks into the wall from improperly sealed windows; and no insulation.
You can fix loose plaster, by the way, by pumping in glue or re-attaching the plaster with screws whose heads remain visible on the surface.
Or, you can gut it.
OK, so I have to take it down to the bones. But how?
Don’t smash it all down with a sledge or heavy framing hammer. That makes the debris difficult to handle. Instead, start with the loose plaster and pry it off. Bang the wall with the flat blade of a heavy shovel or the side of your hammer to loosen the rest. Be careful! That plaster is heavy, may contain asbestos, and may have been painted with lead paint at some point in its long life. Send samples out for testing before you begin. Don’t let one cubic centimetre of the dust get to an area with children.
Break the plaster up and bag it or cart it to a bin. When you’re done with that, ply the lath off, trying not to break it. That makes it easier to handle and, if necessary, to bundle for removal.
Work in manageable steps and try to clean up at the end of each day. Part of this is safety, but keeping the spirits up is important, too. It’s great to get to work the next day in a clean room.
This sounds like a hellish amount of work that’s filthy, exhausting, and potentially dangerous.
But when it’s done, I can easily re-wire, re-plumb, insulate, and put up new walls!
Partly right. Those old studs may not be evenly spaced. Their crowns (the direction in which they bow) won’t be the same. For the new wallboard to look as good as the plaster you just removed, you’ll need a flat screwing surface. But that’s another story.