July 1, 2014

Restoring Plaster Walls: Bringing Stephanie's Room Back to Life

The last we left off on the progress of wall repairs in Stephanie's room, we looked a little something like this:

What started out as a simple painting update turned into a year-long set of home repairs after discovering there was a moisture problem with these exterior facing walls. We ended up pin-pointing the moisture problem and fixing it with a combination of roof, gutter and brick repairs — the background on why the wall looks like this and how we fixed the moisture problem is all detailed out in this post.

We hired trained professionals to take care of all the exterior work and in the months it took to get quotes and schedule those needed repairs, we had plenty of time to research what it would take to repair and restore the interior wall (since we couldn't tackle that until the moisture problem was fixed). We originally figured we'd hire a professional to do the inside work too, just getting us to a point where we could then prime and paint ourselves, but after chatting with local wall specialists, hardware store experts and watching hours on end of exciting wall repair videos on Youtube, we decided to try and take on the interior wall restoration ourselves. Today I'm going to break down each of the steps it took to completely restore this mess of a plaster wall we had above! The good news is, we're now on the other side of this project with smiles on our faces!

While researching the problem and potential fixes, we came across this Youtube video of local wall specialists repairing an old plaster wall right here in Richmond:

While it's a long (and boring) video to watch if not directly related to a project you're working to fix, we found it incredibly helpful to be able to watch exactly how these guys demo'd the walls and refilled them step by step until smooth again. It was this video that actually gave us the confidence to try tackling the restoration ourselves. Heck, if we didn't get it right, we figured we could try to contact them to come help us, ha!

Outside of how terrible the wall looked, our biggest concerns were around making absolutely certain the moisture problem was taken care of. In the photo below, you can really see how the wall is dry with flaky paint, instead of the moist wall where we could pull entire sheets of paint off at a time.

To get started, we prepped the room by lining the floor with a plastic clear drop-cloth and paint tape along the baseboards of the room. We knew there would be a lot of debris, wet sandy compound and dust that would ensue, so the ability to just wrap everything up in the drop-cloth after the fact was much more appealing than sweeping!

Oh and yes, I'm hammering the wall apart in the photo above. It might seem crazy, but demolition was actually the first step in repairing the wall. The goal was to go around and hammer out each of the weak areas in the wall, leaving the strong, undamaged areas in place.

I have to admit, this step was both terrifying and extremely fun at the same time. Terrifying in the sense that the idea of taking a hammer to the wall in our home could be a terrible mistake and fun in the sense that I was taking on a pretty major project that I never imagined being able to do myself.

During this step I carefully tapped along the weak areas and large crack in the wall, watching the sandy plaster and mortar crumble away:

It became evident where the weakest areas were from where the water damage had been. These areas would crumble away with gentle hammer taps and the undamaged wall pieces would stay intact, adhered to the wall. As I worked, I was left with large holes and exposed areas of wall, all the way down to the brick. The objective was to completely clear away the weak areas, leaving only the strong and undamaged points. From there, you fill in the holes to repair the wall:

We've heard you never know what you'll find underneath the walls in older homes like ours since there were so many different methods for construction, so it was super interesting when we hit a solid layer of brick underneath the sandy plaster. It was at this point we gave each-other that "what did we just get into" look, then legitimately considered whether or not to just pull the entire portion of this one wall section down to create the look of an exposed brick wall:

In the end we decided to just go ahead and repair the wall (not biting off more than we could chew), knowing that if we ever wanted to expose the brick in this room, that this section would be a great place for doing so.

Outside of this one brick wall, I peeled and demolished weak areas in the plaster to expose wooden lath, another more common foundational element of 100+ year old homes. It was the same concept as hammering down to the brick — just demolishing as far as the good areas of the wall still holding well in place:

Once completely finished breaking down all the weak areas of the wall, I went around the entire area with a broom to pull down any remaining loose sand and debris. It was stressed over and over in our research that we'd need to get the walls completely free from weaknesses and debris before moving on to the actual filling in:

That's a nice collection of demolished wall we amassed along the floor there, eh? Yeah, it was definitely an adventure.

Next up, the expert at our local hardware store, Pleasant's, gave me a tip to save some time. You can see where there are a few outstanding cracks in the sandy mortar in the wall below:

Instead of needing to completely demolish and rebuild this portion of the wall, he said to drill a bunch of small holes through the thick layer, then squeeze in liquid nails, pressing down the wall for a good 30 seconds to help provide extra adhesion. We figured it was worth a try and if the wall was too weak to handle the drilling that it would simply break off and we'd just have a larger area to rebuild. To our delight, the tip worked like a charm:

While waiting for the liquid nails to fully dry, we cleaned up all the debris from the floor and I got to work ripping out a ridiculous amount of old wires from around the perimeter of the room:

This room was evidently the hub for landline wires, cable wires and the old alarm wires when the house was set up as a duplex. There was a thick collection of them stapled along the trim of the entire room that serve no current purpose and we've been meaning to remove them since moving in. Man, that felt liberating:

After all this initial demolition and wire removal, I called it a day and returned to tackle the first stages of rebuilding the wall the next morning. First up, another pro tip from the local hardware store expert — applying Link super bonding agent to the bricks and lath portions of the broken down wall:

The can even says, do-it-yourself, how's that for motivational messaging!? We were told that a bonding agent like this will help provide better adhesion for the sandy base-coat we'd build back up the wall with in the next step. While probably not completely necessary (not shown in the original Youtube video), we figured every little bit could help and in the end, we're the ones living here, so took the extra precaution for avoiding weak walls in this same space down the road:

The bonding agent brushes right onto the brick and lath, goes on as a blue tinted shade that dries clear, letting you know it's set for the next step:

That next step for us was a sandy basecoat of Structo-Lite wall plaster and this part won the award for "most hated" step of the project from my standpoint since it had a bit of an odor once mixed and was very drippy/unwieldy to work with:

This stuff was new to us — it's a plaster basecoat that acts as a wall filler and insulator. You just mix it with water to create a working mudlike material that conforms to the wall, helping achieve durability.

The point here is to fill in the demolished areas of the wall with this plaster basecoat to literally build back up the wall before adding the final finishing plaster on top:

Once mixed, I applied it with a trowel, which allows for smoothing the plaster after applying it to the wall. I also used a flexible joint knife to push the basecoat in and around all the surrounding crevices:

I was able to build back the smaller areas of the demolished wall with one application, but the largest areas required two layers to get a big enough build up in order to work with the final finishing plaster.

Here's a shot of the first application of basecoat drying:

Once dry, I went back over it with another layer, which dried a bit crackly (we hear this is OK) but definitely worked to build the wall back up:

Here's a panned out view of where we ended up after applying the bonding agent and two applications of plaster basecoat. It still looks pretty crazy, but we were feeling a huge sense of accomplishment at this stage:

It was also another good breaking point to allow the basecoat to fully dry before moving onto the final stages of wall restoration.

After months of research, YouTube videos and chatting with local experts, we opted for Durabond setting joint compound to finish the walls:

It acts similarly to the basecoat, needing to be mixed with water, but dries much quicker, so I needed to work quickly:

This stage was also a little more nerve-racking because I needed to try and achieve a perfectly smooth application since it would be the final layer on the wall repair.

A flexible jointing tool came in handy here and I worked quickly and methodically to cover the entire area of exposed wall until I'd matched up with the normal painted areas of the wall:

Because the Durabond dried so quickly (we went with the 45 minute setting time), it made it easy to go back and scrape away any lines or bubbles bumping up off the wall to keep trying for an overall smooth surface. At the end of the final application stage, we ended up looking like this:

You can really start to see how the wall is coming back to life at this point. It was also another breaking point for me before moving on to the messiest part of the entire restoration — sanding.

Sanding was another fun and methodical part of this process for me — it's a straightforward job, shows immediate progress and is one of the final restorative steps. The point is to sand down the finished layers as smoothly as possible, creating a seamless wall finish. Because this part of the job is so messy, I recommend wearing protective eyewear and a mask. I'm telling you, it's about to get real dusty in here:

For smaller wall patch repairs, a good piece of sandpaper and a little elbow grease would do the job just fine. Since I was going over entire sections of wall, I opted for the electric hand sander to help speed up the process. 

It's a good idea to make sure all furniture and decor is removed from the space you're about to sand, along with closing all of the doors — the dust particles that result from sanding are no joke and very tedious to clean up.

After the sanding was complete and we'd mostly cleaned up the dust particles (we're not sure we'll ever entirely get rid of them), I absolutely could not wait to start priming the wall later that evening:

I opted for 2 heavy coats of Kilz Premium primer since it's durable, low-VOC, mildew-resistant, has advanced stain-blocking capabilities and protects walls in moisture-prone areas — perfect for this project, right!? I felt like these two heavy coats along this exterior wall were somehow working to seal in all the restorative work we'd put in and was the first step in bringing this room back to life:

After heavy coats of primer in each of the problem areas, I gave the ceiling two coats of fresh "ceiling white" paint (I rolled and Mary edged). It really is amazing what a fresh coat of paint can do for a room:

And yes, that's a glass of red wine resting on the ladder there, what good eyes you have. Since the painting portions of this project were an evening activity for us, Mary joined in and we cracked open a bottle, played some jazz and knocked out the rest of this room!

When the primer was dry and I'd finished the second coat of ceiling paint, it was finally time to break out the wall paint:

This was a momentous moment for us, since giving the walls in this room a fresh coat of paint was the original goal in this project (before discovering the water damage and embarking on a year-long repair schedule).

Stephanie had chosen Restoration Hardware's "Latte" paint color from the flax collection around this same time last year and we'd been storing the 2 buckets of paint in her closet ever since. We're big fans of the RH line of paints since they always seem to nail great shades of color, but are also engineered for environmental safety, are odor free, mold resistant and provide amazing coverage — we're usually able to use two coats of paint without primer on normal painting jobs, which is why you'll notice some areas of the room (outside of the exterior wall) where I didn't prime with Kilz.

In typical fashion, I rolled the room while Mary worked to edge. Stephanie went around and detailed the entire ceiling perimeter. The whole time, we couldn't believe just how big of a difference the more neutral shade of paint made in this room — it's unbelievable.

Once the paint dried, I went around and updated each of the receptacles with clean white switches and covers — as you know, it's one of my best tricks for updating and brightening a room down to the little details.

Even Basil could barely believe his eyes:

Last, but certainly not least — final cleanup! We did our best to wipe and sweep up every last particle of dust, but I'm sure we'll be uncovering it in this space for the rest of the time we live here!

Whew! If you're still with us at this point, you deserve a blog-reading medal of honor. From this point, I called my portion of this wall repair and painting complete.

Stephanie was eager to get furniture moved back into the room, bring in a few new pieces and get decorating. We'll follow up with some official "before & after" shots, but here's how things have currently shaped up:

Such a difference! You'll notice some bumps and bulges in the work I did, but I'm happy with the overall result and feel like some of it lends to the character of our old home. I have to admit, it feels like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders knowing not only is the room painted the way Stephanie wanted, but all of the root damage is taken care of. Like I said earlier in the post, it's also been a huge sense of satisfaction knowing I was able to do the interior restorative work myself — it's not something I would have ever considered taking on in my past life but am so glad we did.

UPDATE: We've posted some proper "before & after" shots of Stephanie's room — check out the full transformation right here!

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  1. well you should be proud of yourselves. Good work. My dad was a plasterer all his working life, so I've seen this kind of chaos a lot. And not once have I ever wanted to try and do any kind of patching up! It looks pretty good to me. Your wine was well deserved! And you've saved oodles of cash doing it yourselves.

    Loving the new colour. Really pretty.

    1. Thanks Sadie, we are quite happy and proud ourselves. I would not want to to do this everyday like your dad. A new found respect for that profession!

  2. Great post! Love my 100 year old RVA home and its plaster walls. Have few small spots that need patching. Thanks for the thorough DIY tips. Might give them a try.

    1. Thanks for reading the "mega" post and let us know if you have any questions once you decide to tackle your walls and also let us know how it turns out!

  3. Well done! Care to come to Denver and do a plaster job? :)

    1. Well everything has a price but I just do not think I could do this again so soon. There is probably dust that made it to Denver from this messy job! Thanks for the compliment!

  4. I know that some folks whose homes suffer severe plaster damage (especially if it's a ceiling collapse) choose to remove the plaster entirely and 'redo' with drywall. My 80+ year old home has water/leak damage to walls and ceilings and, like you, I have significant outside work that needs to be completed before I can consider inside repairs. Would like to know what factors helped you decide to repair the plaster (other than authentic restoration, which is almost always preferred when it can be afforded). You've done a fantastic job and I thank you for taking the time to share!


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