DIY Home Improvement, Remodeling & Repair Forum > DIY Home Improvement > Walls and Ceilings > Plaster & Lathe or Modern Drywall & Insulation?

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Old 09-13-2012, 08:40 AM  
Mr. Victorian
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Normally, I would favor plaster for all its benefits over drywall (insulation, fireproof, soundproof, mold-resistant, etc), even in the face of major repairs (and have done so), and I additionally prefer the look of it, especially for historical homes. It's subtle imperfections (faint waviness) lend some historical character, especially in the right lighting. Drywall has always looked sterile to me, and easily damaged. I intend to build a home myself one day, a Queen Anne revival, most likely, and definitely using lime plaster walls. (And yes, you can still buy lath & lime plaster, and relatively cheaply at that.)

In a 1916 home, there's a good chance that the plaster is a gypsum plaster (same stuff as in drywall) rather than lime. Lime is actually more flexible and more waterproof. Gypsum is harder and sets faster than lime, and nearly dissolves in water, but being harder actually lends it to a lot more cracking than lime. My home was built in 1906 and uses gypsum plaster; The repairs I've had to make were far more extensive than those in my mom's late 1800s home, which uses lime plaster. Hers was even subjected to heavy leaking from an incomplete roofing job, and still required far less repair than mine. Plaster can be deceptive about it's condition as well: it can look terrible, but be structurally sound, or it can look good and be on the verge of falling off the wall (subtle bulging would be an indication), or anything in-between. If you look at a piece of your plaster, everything under the top coat of gypsum plaster would be gray, whereas lime would be white. (The top coat, often called the finish coat, would be lime in both cases.) Modern plasters, however, cannot as easily be distinguished this way, as there is white gypsum on the market now.

During the early 1900s, as others have pointed out, asbestos began replacing horse hair in plaster (known as "asbestic plaster"), so you risk releasing that into the air by removing it. Even disregarding that, removing plaster is an extraordinarily dusty job.

It may be worth noting, as an example of insulating properties, that I have a 2500 sq. ft. plaster home with no insulation, and I only pay about $200 a month in utilities (based on a year-round average). I have one room in the house that's drywall & insulation, and it's the hottest room in the summer and coldest in the winter. One of the reasons plaster usually feels cold to the touch is because it doesn't change temperature very quickly.

If the plaster is still secured to the wall and not loose, repairing cracks is fairly easy: Stick some fiberglass mesh tape over the crack, and cover it with setting-type joint compound. (Regular drywall mud can be used, but setting-type is better since it's technically a plaster that fully sets up chemically rather than just drying out like drywall mud.) The mesh tape allows the underlying plaster some leeway to move without causing the repair itself to crack each season (plaster expands & contracts seasonally). If the plaster is loose from the wall, check out some products like Big Wally's Plaster Magic. There are some cheaper alternatives, like using plaster washers. I've used them, but I'm not sure I'd use them again just because they're a bit challenging to conceal correctly unless you're skim-coating a whole wall, plus you end up with metal embedded in the wall.

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Old 09-13-2012, 02:49 PM  
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Mr. Victorian; That's all very interesting but cutting holes in walls to do wiring and plumbling and just moving walls still puts all that nasty stuff in the air. Removing it to the bear bones allows all repair and upgrades and firestops and value when you can garrantee no asbestos, lead, framing problems.
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Old 10-09-2012, 09:19 AM  
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Sometimes, you have to move on from the old tech. This is why we gave up on mud huts. Plaster is just one of these things too. You can use drywall and then skim coat it if you want an historical look. You can use batt insulation to achieve both teamperature control and sound proofing easier and faster.

Ripping out old walls allows for easier repairs and discovery of problems. Working around the plaster is inefficient and allows defects to go undiscovered.

Plaster is great -- in a book on historical building techniques next to thatch roofing and out houses.
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