Plaster Vs Drywall: Historic House Repair, Tips & Restoration

Save the plaster! This could have been Julia Child’s rallying call if she had been more of a conservationist than a cook.

“Getting beautiful plastering work is always worthwhile when possible,” Themis Haralabides, president of reBUILD Workshop LLC, told Brownstoner. “After all, it’s usually one of the reasons people like older homes in the first place.”

Plaster walls and decorative details are high-quality, handcrafted surfaces that give an old house character. They should not be replaced with substandard materials without a compelling reason. Plaster of paris is preservable and, fortunately, easy to maintain – all you need is a little knowledge.

A Fort Greene Italianate brownstone with moldings in the drawing room. Photo from Town Residential

What is plaster of paris

Plaster of paris is an ancient material that goes back at least to the Egyptians. Its exact composition has changed significantly over the centuries, but in modern times it is typically mostly made of plaster of paris, also known as gypsum.

It’s hand applied and dries to a very tough finish that can pretty much last forever – as long as it’s not damaged by water or torn by movement or separated from the underlying material.

Decorative, decorative and architectural plastering work is applied to flat plastered walls and ceilings. Examples of this are wall moldings, crown moldings, ceiling moldings, plaster medallions and imaginative flower decorations or scrolls directly under crown moldings or on vestibule walls. The most elaborate plastering work can usually be found in the salon.

“In the 19th and early 20th centuries plasterwork was a way of expressing social status,” said Haralabides. “The more ornate the plastering, the richer the owner.”


Manufacture of molds for plaster medallions and other decorative details. Photo by Urban Plaster Restoration

Benefits of plaster of paris

Plaster has many advantages over modern drywall. It offers better insulation, fire protection and soundproofing than drywall. Also, unlike drywall, it does not contain mold as mold cannot grow in it.

Since it is applied by hand by experienced craftsmen, it is a higher quality and more expensive material. When building a new house, real plaster walls are more expensive than drywall. In an old home that already contains plaster of paris, it is almost always cheaper – and more attractive – for the homeowner to keep the plaster of paris than to replace it.

“Plastering appeals to people who care about the long-term quality of their interior,” said plastering expert Jason K. from Urban Plaster Restoration to Brownstoner. “As is the case with many other high-quality materials, the material has properties that can enhance an interior both aesthetically and physically. People feel better in a room where high quality plastering has been done. Additionally, good quality plaster can be a boon to resale value, especially in a market where people appreciate the pre-war details preserved, ”he added.


Moldings can be created in place using a mold profile. Photo by Urban Plaster Restoration

How to care for plaster of paris

If the plaster walls and ceilings are in good condition – not cracked, peeling, or falling apart – all you need to do is paint. If there are nail holes or a few cracks, a painter can easily fix them.

For major damage, Brownstoner recommends overpainting and more specific repairs by an experienced plasterer. (See below for more details.)

Plaster should not be removed and replaced with drywall or covered with drywall. Covering will make rooms smaller and ruin the appearance of neighboring details such as moldings and door and window panels.


Restore crown shape. Photo by Urban Plaster Restoration

Avoid intestinal renovations

If plaster of paris and original details are important to you, you shouldn’t exempt. There are many misconceptions about what colon cleansing is and when it is needed. During an intestinal rehabilitation, everything is removed except for the studs, including plaster of paris and a lathe.

Unfortunately, this means that all moldings – from baseboards to crown moldings – except possibly window and door panels, will be lost. This looks unsightly in an old house, and the drywall that replaces the plaster also looks different (flatter) than plaster walls.

A bowel is not required to freshen up tired surfaces or to improve mechanics such as plumbing and electrics. A contractor can cut selective holes and channels in the plaster walls to swap out the mechanics, and then fill the holes with plaster or a combination of drywall and plaster. For example, electricians typically employ plastering specialists to close walls after an in-house electrical upgrade.

Reasons for complete or partial colon can include water damage, extensive structural repairs, restoring tiles in bathrooms or kitchens, or moving walls to change the floor plan.


Part of the ceiling has come down and shows the lathe below. Photo by Urban Plaster Restoration

How to skim plaster of paris

A lean coat leaves the plaster in place, but smooths the surface of walls and ceilings with three or more thin layers of plaster. Prices vary significantly, but they usually start at about what you would pay for an extensive paint job and go up from there.

When skimming over, an expert in plaster (not drywall) can ensure a fine, smooth, even, and durable surface that easily picks up paint or wallpaper. After the repairs are complete, the plasterers usually start by applying a thin layer of adhesive material such as glue. B. a pink plaster of paris weld, then a layer of fiberglass mesh, followed by three or more very thin layers of plaster of paris coating. The mesh layer ensures that the plaster does not tear months later.


The pink layer is plaster of paris welding. Photo by Urban Plaster Restoration

Repair holes

It is acceptable to mend large holes with drywall, covered with thin layers of coated plaster, to blend the repair into the rest of the plaster walls. Alternatively, a plastering expert may choose to fill the hole with an underlying sub-surface like a lathe, followed by a layer of plaster of paris scratch and several thinner layers of plaster over it.


Recreate missing plaster details. Photo by Urban Plaster Restoration

Repair sagging plaster

If a section of plaster has come loose from the lathe underneath but is otherwise intact, a plaster professional can reattach the plaster with cleaning pins and then skim over the pins so they are not visible. If the separation occurs on a ceiling, the problem should be resolved immediately to prevent a dangerous breakdown.

“These ceiling collapses can be prevented by a process called ‘fixing’ before they become a potentially dangerous problem,” said Jason K. “Fixing is a pioneering conservation technique in which the plaster is reattached to the ceiling joist.”

Making a ceiling perfectly flat and stable is one of the more skilled and costly types of plaster repair.

Repair of damaged plaster details

If decorative plaster details are broken, missing, or melted, a plaster professional can use shapes, forms, or freehand techniques to reproduce them exactly. This type of job requires advanced skills and can be more expensive than skim coating.


The ornate ceiling restored. Photo by Urban Plaster Restoration

When should a plastering specialist be employed?

Brownstoner recommends hiring a plaster specialist to take care of the overpainting, extensive repairs and decorative plaster details. (The typical building contractor employs drywall specialists and not plaster specialists.)

A plastering expert can create perfectly smooth, even, and durable surfaces that can easily pick up paint or wallpaper. Transitions to adjacent surfaces such as molded parts are appropriate and attractive. Plasterers don’t have to grind as often and generate less dust than other workers.

They have special materials and equipment, including extra-thick rosin paper and modular internal scaffolding, to protect homes and speed up their work.

Someone who is only familiar with drywall, on the other hand, can damage homes with walls that are not straight or that are all cracked six months later.

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