Dig here

What happened to me in the 12 years since I last painted the living room?? It seems I aged twice that much, because every time I come down from that ladder, my body expresses its extreme displeasure. All that twisting and balancing and trying to outwit my bifocals made painting the ceiling and crown molding less like fun and more like torture. But it’s done, and it looks good!

Corner of ceiliing with half box beam and crown molding

Ceiling and crown molding are painted

Now I could get on to the next stage: plaster repair. I was anxious to see just how much of the plaster I’d need to fix. Using my fingertips, I began to tap-tap-tap my way around the room. It was easy to tell where the plaster had loosened. As I tapped, the intact places went thunk-thunk-thunk, but the places where the finish plaster had separated from the base coat went pock-pock-pock. I was dismayed at how pocky the fireplace wall sounded. On each wall I drew a dashed line in felt pen where the pockiness started. The pocky line. Eric annotated it for me.

I decided to start on the south, interior wall, which had the least amount of damage—just a crack the size of Hell’s Canyon.

Crack in plaster outlined in felt pen

Start here

Eric presented me my very own utility knife in a bright froggy green that will be hard to lose. (I never lose things. I still have the ballpoint pen I bought when I went off to college … which may explain some of my clutter problem.)

Bright green utility knife

The “upstairs” knife

I used the knife to score the wall just outside the pocky line and slid a putty knife under the cracked surface—and what do you know!—the unattached surface plaster, finish paper, and layers of paint neatly separated at the scored line and peeled effortlessly away.

Section of detached plaaster cut away from wall


My excitement abated when I found more and more of the surface had severed its relationship with the plaster base coat, and I continued to peel away nearly all of the surface layer over the foyer opening. It just … kept … coming. Oh, dear.

Loose plaster peeled from over doorway

A new kind of map?

I couldn’t stop picking this scab. I picked away at a pocky bit above the fireplace. Same result: I peeled and peeled and peeled until only a few small islands of finish plaster clung to the wall. I didn’t want to risk gouging the wall by trying to remove plaster that was still attached. It was fine by me if it wanted to stay! Please, stay

Some of the surface layer had separated from the base coat by as much as a half inch. And, to my dismay, I found some deeper plaster damage above the mantel. You can see that the brown coat is gone in a small spot in the photo below. An even more ominous problem lurks behind the mantel clock, but that’s a topic for another day.

Finish coat of plaster separated one-half inch from base coat

These layers of plaster haven’t met for years

Putty knife standing in front of plaster damage with spider's nest

That fuzzy blob on the left is a spider’s nest

I stopped when I couldn’t reach any higher. Sigh … the Tuscan antiquity look would be interesting if this place were an Italian restaurant, but it isn’t what I’m going for.

Loosened plaster cleared off wall above fireplace

A wall in Tuscany?

I kept telling myself that this wasn’t a fail. I wasn’t in over my head—it was just prep work. Resurfacing a large area wouldn’t be any different than resurfacing a lot of small areas, right? And I knew I could fix a small area because I’d done it before, in the kitchen.

Now, most people would move the mantel clock to a safe spot during this messy project, but I simply scooted it over a few inches. And it began ticking! It’s been silent for years and I haven’t wound it. It kept time for four days. I think it was trying to encourage me to keep going.

Antique mantel clock

Alive and ticking

I began with the Hell’s Canyon crack. After lightly sanding the whole exposed area, I filled the crack with joint compound and applied plastic mesh tape over the chasm. Then I applied a thin coat of compound over the exposed brown coat and carefully smoothed it out with a rubber knock-down knife (more of a squeegee). The replacement top coat is only about 1/16 in. thick. I treated several other finer cracks the same way. The whole section, minus breaks for my achin’ back, took less than two hours to cover.

Yellow mesh tape repairs cracked plaster

Bridging the canyon

I always wonder how a wall feels when it’s opened up and exposed to light and air after over one hundred years in the dark. What does that 1913 plaster think about this 2016 yellow plastic mesh tape and joint compound? Will I awaken one morning to find that the wall has rejected the transplant and—ptooey—spat it out onto the floor? So far, my patching job is still on the wall.

A little elbow grease was needed to sand the joint compound to a reasonable finish. I didn’t want a perfect, flat surface that looked like Sheetrock. A few irregularities will help it blend with the original wall (I told myself). It was at this point that Eric bought me an adorable mini shop vac, who will be my buddy for the rest of this project. I pointed out how lucky he is to have a wife who gets excited by the gift of a shop vac. (It also has an 8-ft. hose extension to allow me to get up to the ceiling. Spiders beware!)

Mini shop vac


Final prep step: a coat of Zinsser Bull’s Eye 2 Multi-Purpose Primer & Sealer. I was surprised at this primer’s gluey, gloppy viscosity. It pours from the can like angel food cake batter. At last, I’m ready to paint wall color! Stay tuned—in my next post, you’ll finally see the new wall and trim colors together. I can’t wait!

Repaired plaster wall primed and ready for paint

Ready for paint!

Hey, that wasn’t so hard! If I can repair this section of wall, I can do the rest of the room. But why the sudden craving for angel food cake?

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it


17 thoughts on “Dig here

  1. Karen B.

    You’re a rock star where repair work goes. Honestly, I would have whined that I just couldn’t do it, hoping the mister would say, we better call the guy that can fix this mess. It looks great and it’s cool you got an area cleaned and ready for paint. I’ve got pom-poms and I can send them if Eric needs to cheer you on! 🙂

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Hi Karen–I can’t quite picture Eric with pom-poms, but thanks! 🙂 We are basically to cheap to call the pros, except for plumbing and electrical.

  2. Anita Jensen

    wow….This would seem so overwhelming to me! It amazes me you find this pleasurable. But it’s on its way to being beautiful!

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Hey, who said it’s pleasurable?? It’s not–it’s work! But I do enjoy the challenge of learning how to do something I didn’t think I could do. And I feel good about improving my house. It’s more a sense of accomplishment than pleasure. Sometimes I think I’m nuts, though! 🙂

  3. Cathy Lee

    Spiders? I am really enjoying seeing what you’re doing with this lovely old home, but I love seeing your new tools, too. I may go out and buy myself a mini shop vac. I think I need one to vacuum up the spiders in my house!

  4. Tom & Judy

    I admire your tenacity and skill in repairing the walls. I can’t even get this house cleaned out, much less tackle the huge jobs you and Eric are taking on. Keep up the great work.

  5. Connie in Hartwood

    I was nodding my head in agreement with everything that you described here! How is it possible that one little crack, a simple repair, can lead to such a dramatic demolition? I think I told you that I have a parallel situation here. I feel your pain.

    I offer you my mad-scientist compound for crack repair, for situations where you need a little extra bit of stabilization. Mix a bit of dog or cat hair into your drywall mud for a repair’s base coat. (This is my modern-day interpretation of horsehair plaster.) It works! To date, I have hair from two cats and two dogs worked into our walls. I like to think that this makes them somewhat immortal.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Oh, too bad we have NO dog or cat hair here! I don’t know where I’d find any! 🙂 That sounds like a fun and genius solution. OK, kids, start shedding!
      PS – Connie, for some reason I can’t enter a comment on your blog. I’ve tried many times, but I get a message that I don’t own my WordPress ID.

  6. John Stewart

    Well done on removing all the separated plaster instead of ignoring it and simply fixing the crack. I’m freaked out by the number of cracks and missing plaster in our house. Some have two or even three overlapping repairs on them. While I enjoy the generous space in the old rooms it does mean each wall covers a huge amount of area so plastering and painting will take forever. Seeing what you have done really encourages me and I know I really should start this work somewhere. And sooner than later.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Thanks, John … Sometimes I really think I’ve gotten in over my head, but it’s just a matter of forging ahead and (literally) “chipping away” at it. I’m glad my house isn’t as big as Cliftoria! 🙂


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