Plaster Problems

So we’re faced with our first homeowner problem here – the walls were literally crumbling as we removed the fake wood paneling, which I presume was put up eons ago to hide said disaster. We contemplated fixing the walls, believe it or not there are people who take pride in restoring these old, warped horse-hair walls. This sounded like a terrible idea to me, and yes you heard me right – the walls were not only distorted with bulges and indentations all over the place, but they were also the original horse-hair plaster walls. Obviously the first thoughts running through my head are how on earth is a picture frame going to look hanging on a wall that’s not flat? Or a clock? Or anything! More importantly, WTF is horse-hair plaster? Is it going to kill me if we leave it?


Naturally I did what any new homeowner would do and I Googled horse-hair plaster. And you know what google told me? That it contains ANTHRAX, like the stuff that terrorists plant in envelopes hoping to kill you. Thankfully I went on to learn that this is a very unlikely possibility, a longshot at best, and that no proven cases have surfaced. PHEW! Note to self – don’t rely on help forums for information on  life or death situations.


We knew our house was built in the 30′s so the plaster could have contained asbestos – a mineral fiber that that was commonly used in a variety of building construction materials for insulation and as a fire-retardant. If disturbed by remodeling or demolition, the fibers become airborne and can cause health problems (lung cancer, mesothelioma to name a few..) if inhaled – it’s not something you want to mess around with! We did a lot of research and found that asbestos typically was not used in horse-hair plaster but we were still a little hesitant to disturb it. Luckily, the town building code office provided us with information about the history of local building practices and we were relieved to discover that our walls were asbestos free. If you’re unsure if you house contains asbestos (commonly found as an insulator around pipes, on the backing of vinyl sheet floor tiles, in pop-corn ceilings, as a joint compound for walls, in cement roofing or siding and as insulation in houses built between 1930-1950) you can check with your towns building records or have a test done for under $100 – well worth it. As Mike Holmes would say, do it once, do it right!


Back to the horse hair – many moons ago, horse hair was mixed into plaster for added strength, and supposedly insulation. The plaster was then spread over lathing, a latticework of closely placed strips of wood, or as we called them slats. The plaster would ooze into the wooden slats before drying providing a strong, rigid structure. If you’re lucky, a thick coat of plaster was applied to give the wall a smooth, shiny finish.


Plaster & Slats


Looking at our walls, falling apart before our eyes, we decided to ignore the problem at hand and move on to removing this gorgeous pink shag rug, complete with a walking path of dirt.


Shag Rug


More information on asbestos

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Only Day 1

After waiting a long 6 months to get the keys to our house, the first thing I did (after changing the locks of course…) was 409 the heck out of every surface in that place. From floor to ceiling, there was that old smelly grunge looming in every room. I had no idea what would come of the walls covered in fake wood paneling, or of the floors with a few layers of linoleum covered up by filthy shag rugs. Even if they weren’t staying there for very long, giving the whole house a good once over at least made it feel a little bit cleaner and eased the germ-a-phobe inside of me.


Once the house was tidied up a bit (I’ll admit, I still refused to wear any good clothes or shoes in there), we looked around and thought this is simple, just a few cosmetic changes here and there, slap some paint on that wood paneling and we’re good! Yea right.


fake wood paneling
did you know even fake wood paneling comes in a variety of finishes?


Unfortunately we realized that the majority of the wood paneling probably wasn’t salvageable (I wasn’t that disappointed), so we would just take it down and paint the walls underneath, no brainer. This lightbulb quickly burst when we removed the first piece of paneling and a few chunks of plaster came along with it. Holes in the plaster? Not a good sign, and it’s only day 1.


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