Let’s kick up a little dust
All summer we were focused on getting the house painted before the weather turned against us, and for the most part, we made it. All summer I told myself that when the rain came, I would return to my plaster repair project in the living room. October and November broke records for rainfall, and we looked out on this drippy landscape from our living room window. It was time.
Last spring I left off with a sizeable hole in the plaster above the mantel, lath stretching across its mocking grin, and the promise of problems just to the right of the fireplace. I’d resurfaced two-thirds of the west wall when summer weather lured me outside.
When I finally did psych myself into restarting, I was so eager to get going that I forgot to take a picture of the whole wall. I continued just as I had before, chipping and peeling away the finish layer of plaster and its paper surface anywhere it was no longer attached to the plaster base coat, which turned out to be the entire wall above the mantel and casement windows.
My intention was to repair and paint the west (fireplace) wall and a portion of the north wall (up to the French doors) before a Christmas tree sprang up to stall my progress—a pretty sporty goal. I will have two weeks off over the holidays, which I’ll use to paint miles of white trim throughout the living room, dining room, and foyer.
As before, I applied two coats of joint compound, smoothed the wet compound with a foam knock-down knife, and, when the mud had set up a bit, gently smoothed it further with a damp wallpaper sponge. The wall still needs sanding, but I won’t have to grind away as much as I did on the south wall. I’m learning as I go, but I’m always disappointed that I haven’t developed a fluid technique … the way professional plasterers swoop the mixture onto the wall with such precision and economy of motion. No, I just plop it on and smooth it the best I can. No magic technique here.
Let’s get back to the west wall and that trouble spot next to the fireplace. When I bought the house 34 years ago, that section had been damp, and the finish paper on top of the plaster sagged in defeat. When I reroofed in 2004 (what I still think of as the “new” roof because it seems like yesterday), the wall surface dried out, thank goodness. However, I knew damage had been done.
As I whacked at the wall surface with a pry bar and a rubber mallet, pulverized plaster poured from the hole. Plaster turns to powder after having been soaked for very long. I knew that I’d wind up with a sizable area in need of patching. I kept going until the plaster seemed firm again. Yes, it was messy.
I was under intense scrutiny throughout the process.
When I used my little shop vac to clean up, it ate the chunks, but I didn’t realize that behind me, it was belching out a cloud of fine plaster dust that now coats everything in the living room and beyond. Thinking that the tank might be full, I emptied it outdoors and discovered inside the tank a filter sheet that I’d never installed. Well, who’d have thought to look inside? I just plugged in the new unit and started vacuuming. Not that it matters … sanding is next, and what didn’t get covered in plaster dust will soon be covered in joint compound dust.
After excavating, some good news: The area beneath the slumping paper was bone dry, and the lath wasn’t rotten. Some bad news: The skinny strip between the window casing and the fireplace felt damp. If the new roof had eliminated the leak that pulverized the plaster, where was the moisture coming from? We looked at the chimney outside. Hey—who forgot to paint this little strip of shingles? It’s so skinny, the asbestos siding people didn’t even bother to cover it back in the 1950s. Eric applied caulk to the gap at the fireplace side. I mentally added the strip to the list of things to paint in the spring.
Back inside, Eric pressed a paper towel into the damp space for several minutes. When he removed it, it was perfectly dry. Was what I interpreted as “damp” simply “cold”? And, it was hard as rock. My pry bar didn’t dent it. I think it’s actually wood. Maybe the plasterers were as puzzled as I was about how to spread plaster in that tiny space. I’m leaving it just as it is.
I scored the top layer of plaster and chipped it away to create a straight edge at a stud. The powdery plaster continued to pour out of the bottom corner of the excavation. Then I gouged the plaster out of the keyways and vacuumed everything up. I was glad to find that no cold air was coming in. It might have been a giant hole in our wall, but it was a tidy giant hole, and even that was an improvement.
Back at the fireplace, I made an interesting discovery: Once I had all the plaster out of the lath, I could peer in behind the lath and see the bricks of the chimney. The painted bricks that face the chimney on the living room side stick out beyond the red brick, as if they’re a thin veneer applied on the portion inside the house. I know they’ve been painted a zillion times, but the increased thickness can’t all be paint! Kind of fun to think that this lath and brick last saw the light of day in 1913, and now they’re back in the dark again. How many years will they last?
This hole was getting too big for me to dare to use plaster patch. I chickened out and we decided to fill the gap with ¼-inch dry wall. Eric cut the dry wall to fit and screwed it in, and I finished up with three coats of mud. It looks pretty good. I’ll know how good when I paint it.
I picked off a good bit of plaster off the north wall to the left of the French doors, too. There was an ancient outlet in the baseboard on north wall, into which we plug our TV and cable box. As I bashed at the plaster, every time so much as a flake fell onto the TV plug, it lost its connection and the TV went off. So annoying.
It’s been like this forever, which makes cleaning that spot a real pain. I couldn’t finish picking away the plaster until Eric replaced the outlet. Why do we sometimes live for years with a problem rather than make a simple repair? Finally, we have an outlet that grips the plugs. Eric saved the Hubbell parallel-and-tandem ungrounded black ceramic receptacle—rated 10 A, 250 V. Notice that it takes plugs with horizontal or vertical prongs. It’s probably original to the house.
Also on the north wall, I finally found out what the bilious green stuff was under the paint. For the first time, I saw a hint of pattern. It was wallpaper, not finish paper or paint! I took the time to pick a section clean so I could imagine the entire living room and foyer, and probably the dining room, too, covered in green paper with cream and pale pink furled leaves. Judging from what I’ve seen of vintage wallpapers, I’d say this pattern was from the late 1930s or early 40s … pre-war.
I was on a roll. I decided to try out the hot mud we bought months ago to patch that gaping grin over the fireplace. I mixed the powder 3:1 with cold water to make a stiff dough. I had six to ten minutes to apply the stuff, so I worked like the devil to fill the hole. It spread like elastic pizza dough, pulling a little as it went. Of course, I ran just a little short and had to scurry to mix more. In short order the hole was filled. Hey—that was pretty easy! Although it’s supposed to set up in about 30 minutes, I let it cure for 24 hours. It was sticky, and I couldn’t work the surface smooth, but that was okay because I covered it with joint compound to match the rest of the wall. Now you can’t see that old hole at all. Wait until it gets painted!
I wanted to end this post with a nice photo of the painted wall … but this is as far as I’ve gotten. Maybe next time! Now it’s time to bring in the tree.