Glacial progress

With the speed of a Pacific banana slug riding a glacier, new white joint compound is creeping across the face of the west wall. The glacial pace is due, I admit, to the fact that I am not having the time of my life doing this task. That’s a lame excuse, but it’s all I’ve got. Sometimes I just sit in my living room chair and look at the wall and wish it were done. So far, wishin’ ain’t workin’.

Greenish slug with black spots on forest floor hummus.

Banana slugs don’t really ride on glaciers. They prefer the forest floor. And my hostas. [Photo: Wildlife Fidalgo]

Work gets in the way. By the time I get home, I have other things to attend to and little energy for projects. Golf started this week. Facebook is a total time-suck. Now that Daylight Saving Time is in effect—hallelujah!!—I might have a chance to get something done in the evenings while I have decent light pouring in. (That sounds promising, doesn’t it? However, I know it’s BS, so don’t expect anything). Oh, and my back hates being on a ladder. There … those are all the excuses I can think of. For now.

Click to enlarge.

I took up the resurfacing again in the left corner of the fireplace wall, where I knew the narrow slice of wall between the window trim and the foyer opening would be difficult … and it was. I had a hard time maneuvering the putty knife to apply a smooth coat around the trim. Lots of sanding in my future. Can’t wait.

Joint compound on wall between trim and window

In a tight place

Then I plastered (or, joint-compounded?) across the top of the window. I found myself removing more and more of the old plaster finish coat, coaxing it gently off the wall. I grudgingly came to accept that nearly all of the top layer on this wall would have to go, so I helped it along. Only those places that were firmly stuck remained, and these islands of original finish plaster became tinier and tinier, as if the sea were rising.

Layers of paint and paper coming loose from the brown plaster

A topo map on our wall

I knew I’d have to apply a second coat because the first coat didn’t quite bring the surface out to the correct depth against the trim. And, one spot looked like this:

cracked joint comppound on part of wall

Crackle glaze?

I took the easy way out: I applied a second coat and hoped for improvement. This time, no crackle finish. Hey, maybe wishin’ does work!

The second coat seemed to slide on easier. You’d think by now my technique would have improved, but I suppose you have to have a technique before you can improve it.

After a while, it occurred to me that I might look up plastering technique online. The You-Tube videos made it look easy—it’s all in the wrist! I did learn a couple of tricks. One: They all use bigger trowels than I have (I’m using the biggest putty knife I can fit into the tub of mud (not a trowel). And two: Smoothing over the top coat with a damp sponge will virtually eliminate the need to sand. Well, heck … wish I’d known that 50 lumpy square feet ago.

First coat of joint compound next to window

Coat one. Each coat is only about 1/8 inch thick.

Inevitably and with considerable trepidation, I had to remove the damaged plaster over the middle of the mantel. I whacked the length of it with the handle of a putty knife and it all came away with alarming ease. After vacuuming up the debris, I was left with a neat hole down to the lath, right in the middle of the mantel. Barely noticeable when I pushed the mantel clock back into position! Cold air poured in from the uninsulated wall cavity. Didn’t humans of a century ago think of insulating their walls?

Plaster removed from wall

Dig here!


Plaster removed from wall. Pieces of horsehair visible.

Look closely–you can see the horse hair sticking out of the plaster.

When I had finished coaxing most of the wrinkles out of the area above the fireplace I cast my gaze upon the space between the right side of the fireplace and the casement window, which I knew to be a problem area because of the suspicious way the finish coat paper has slumped. True confession: When I bought the house back in 1984, I noticed some dampness there. It’s hasn’t been damp for ages (I don’t think), but the damage has been done.

I stabbed the offending area repeatedly with my trusty frog-green utility knife … and this is what I found.

Pulverized plaster pours out of damaged spot

Uh-oh …

Not good. Not good at all. What makes plaster pulverize like that? Water. What lurks behind? I’ll leave that mystery for my next post. OK, the truth is … I was busy this past weekend, and I didn’t get around to digging out this hole. We had company over for Duke’s tenth birthday dinner, and I didn’t want to deal with the mess and pulling the TV cabinet into the middle of the room, where it would surely stay for weeks. That’s right, folks—I’m blaming it on the dog.

Boxer with graying head

How can anyone resist this adorable face? Happy birthday, dear Duke!

Eric and I made a trip to the box store to get real plaster patch material—the kind you mix with water and then work like hell before it sets up. As soon as I get up my nerve to see just how badly that section of wall is damaged, I’ll try my hand at true, from-the-lath-up plaster repair. But first … maybe I’ll take a tropical vacation! 🙂

What will it take to patch these holes? I can’t let it go. I can’t! There must be some way to bring them back. Oh, I can’t think about this now! I’ll go crazy if I do! I’ll think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day!*

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

*Extra credit if you can identify this.

9 thoughts on “Glacial progress

  1. curt

    Don’t worry, D’Arcy – it’s not all Gone With The Wind- you are on the right track with ‘Hot Mud’ (the stuff you mix) repair. If the surface is too deep. you can build it up with thin plywood or drywall. I have several patches that have held up great for six years. Use the mixable mud first and apply a bit shy of the finished surface, as it’s hard to sand. Then finish with a topcoat – of lightweight joint compound – just a thought.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Curt, you win for the only mention of the GWTW reference! That’s exactly how I plan to tackle the bad spots … reassuring to hear you’d do the same, since I have big confidence in your abilities! Thanks!

  2. Karen B.

    Where is Chip Gaines when you need him? I get tired just reading the descriptions of work involved in your current project. Phew, maybe the next chapter will be easier. I’m always looking for the easy, that is why I’m not a good DIYer. I know it will look wonderful when your finished, in 2 years! Haha.
    I love the pic of the banana slug. He looks like her could eat an entire hellebore.
    Happy birthday, Duke, you’re adorable.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      I get tired, too, Karen! Maybe I’m getting too old for all this DIY stuff. But I’m so used to thinking that way, I’m not sure what I’d do in a house that didn’t need constant attention!

  3. Jessica@CapeofDreams

    I’m impressed with your progress, however glacial you are getting more done than I. Here’s to hoping there is not a nightmare behind the pulverization of your plaster. Lastly, Duke does not look pleased that you are blaming things on him. I hope he had a happy birthday! His east coast friends send greetings.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Duke was happy to get your birthday wishes! We are both playing inside the walls lately, aren’t we? Sounds like you’ve gotten the upper hand with yours. Now if I can just fix mine and add “plasterer” to my DIY resume!

  4. Jo

    As I’ve stated before I’m no good at plastering. Yet my father was a master plasterer before the age of dry wall set in. He even worked on the fanciness of the Naval Academy chapel. It is not a hereditary skill however I do know the red spackle tray and wide knife are helpful. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

  5. Nine Dark Moons

    looking good Darcy! any progress is good progress, well, mostly… DIY can definitely be a few steps back for every step forward. but i think it’s looking good! i am going to remember the damp sponge to alleviate sanding trick! happy birthday, duke!

  6. Dan

    I hear you with the skim coating malaise – it gets tedious fast doesn’t it? I’ve never tried the damp sponge over wet top coat trick, but whenever I hear about someone doing plaster repair, I always recommend the magic (squeegee) trowel. It definitely minimizes sanding – it’ll change your life! And if your disintegrated plaster hole ends up being bigger than a few inches, you might want to patch it with a piece of 1/4″ drywall cut to size. Once the drywall patch is screwed into the lath, you can skim coat over the whole mess. Good luck!


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