Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Great Dustbowl

Getting smooth(er) historic plaster walls is a simple matter of filling holes and sanding ... sanding ... sanding high spots ... really. That's all it is. Oh ... and then cleaning up the DUST ...

After pulling all the paint and paper off the plaster in the parlor, I now am in mid-patch and sand mode. One thing I already knew is that sanding dust - especially spackle and dry wall mud sanding dust - is "sticky" and it gets everywhere.

I covered the 2 doorways to the room with plastic sheeting (one opening is 9 feet tall and 12 feet wide ...) to contain the dust a little. No amount of prep will thwart it, though. It's all about limiting, not eradicating. I know I'll need to clean it up later, I just don't want to spend 3 days doing it and having it end up in my bedsheets.

One thing I discovered is that you can sand a small patch of spackle with a damp sponge, which really cuts down on dust. This morning before work I "sanded" a few areas that way and then this evening I'll actually sand the whole wall one last time before priming it just to be sure to get it as smooth as possible before skim coating.

This weekend I'm diving into the skim coating part ... cross your fingers.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Discovering Wallpaper

We've been in the house just 2 months - since Thanksgiving. We have: a brand new roof, new gutters,repaired the outlet for the dryer, repaired the ceiling plaster and painted the second floor living room, watched/watching the second floor bath ceiling droop (water), held 2 dinner parties, built a few fires in the foyer fireplace, unpacked innumerable boxes and even created a plan for the basement apartment - that we need to scrap and redo.
... and we also have spent some time since Christmas (now and then) scraping the layers of paint, sand and wallpaper off the music room walls.

How do you know its original?
From what I see, there were 3 layers of paint on the original wallpaper in the room. The final blue layer was paint mixed with sand and ruined my knuckles every time I walked by. The paper was pasted directly onto the raw plaster–never painted.Its not pretty and chalky and smooth like most plaster you think of ... its kind of rough and pitted and shows some trowel marks. But in pulling it off, I get to see the room as it was shortly after the house was built - that's pretty exciting to me. 

Interestingly, while casually reading reprints of nineteenth century architectural renderings (which include things like colors and textures to be included in the house) I noticed notations for "plaster finished for wallpaper" or "hard white 3-coat plaster." Now, in stripping the paper off the plaster walls it was evident to me that these walls were just never finished super smooth to be painted. So from my really limited observation (mine and my neighbors houses) and the architectural reprints, I am going to officially surmise that these walls were intended to be papered form the get-go.

During my 6-hour home inspection there were moments of boredom while Russ the Inspector shuttled himself onto the roof looking for crummy shingles and loose chimney stones. 

The 3 inch tall patch of paper and paint that I snapped off during the home inspection. Strangely, it was repaired when we did the walk thru and I subsequently yanked it back off ...

Tough photo to take, but this is what sanded paint looks like. It's sharp,  thick, and very tough to eradicate. 

I was pacing in the parlor and saw a small turned up edge on the wall near the baseboard ... so I flipped it up. I wanted to see what was under it. I didn't know it would be so brittle as to break right off in my hand. but I did see that there was plaster under there ... and an odd maroon smear that I couldn't quite figure out. So I knelt down and looked closer at the plaster and saw that the maroon smear was overlapped stain from the wood baseboard. WOW ... I don't even own the house and I am learning from her. I then spent an hour trying to get the little scrap of paper to stick to the wall, including the old standby, "spit and hold in place."

Matthew easily pulling the dried up paper off the wall in large sheets. some at the top stuck, other areas, where the paper was repaired and filled with drywall spackle, were stuck pretty good. I think they used plastic model cement to glue it down.

About half of the wallpaper lifted off in huge sheets with just a plastic putty knife the glue was so dried up. Some areas just didn't budge. Against my better judgement, and figuring by this point that I would be skim coating the walls, I grabbed the metal scraper and headed for the stuck stuff. 

I was able to scrape off about 1/2 of what was left (1/4 of the total) using the metal putty knife and a wiggle technique to slooooooowwwwwwllllllyyyyyyy chisel away at the stuck tight paper. After testing some areas, I realized that the final 1/4 didn't have paper beneath, so I left it. 

Heres a typical pattern of stuck on paper. The top section had a border (I could not soak it off the paint) and was stuck on tighter than the wall area. The vertical seams must have been glued back down before they painted the first time with some crazy stuck kind of glue (It looked like model cement.)

End of day one - all the missing paper came off easily - no water needed. Yeah, thats garland hanging on the window on the left. We always start our projects without clearing out the room so they will prove extra frustrating and create tons more work having to clean everything that got dirty.

Through all of this I wondered if I could ever see what the original paper looked like. So I tried soaking a large sheet in plain water overnight. The next morning, to my surprise, I was able to peel away the paint from the wallpaper in a fairly large segment - maybe I'm lucky it was all latex paint. The back side of the paint had the image of the wallpaper imprinted into it. It is exciting to have discovered under the paint the original 1906 wallpaper that graced the "music room" (so oral tradition says) of the house.

The paper is like craft paper - tan and kind of rough and unfinished - and has a block or cylinder printed (more likely) white paisley-scroll-like design.

This weekend I finished washing the walls and patching holes. Next step is sanding all the walls, priming, then, GULP, skim coating. Sure I'm nervous, but I'm in ... I own a 62 pound/5 gallon bucket of mud, a drill attachment stirrer, and a magic trowel ...

Still wet, it was very exciting to see the paper with the paint removed.

detail of paper

This is how much I was able to save.

Some stable cracking that was uncovered.

baseboard showing how the stain and finish overlapped onto the plaster.

above the main archway trim. left side is cleaned of paper residue left after scraping, right side needs to be wet and wiped down.

just funny that someone had to write this down ...

Monday, January 6, 2014


The restoration has begun in earnest now that the first room in the house has been "redone." Sure, I only repainted the upstairs living room - thats all - but it gives us a place to hang out that will be free from dirt, dust and messy walls in the upcoming year(s). It is one of only 2 rooms in the house that have painted trim (the rest sport various species of natural wood trim) which was white when we moved in. I painted it Benjamin Moore "Satchel" (a really nice leathery-brown color.)

While I was painting I got a little tired and bored (painting all those tiny dentils in the cornice was exasperating) so I stuck the wet brush in a grocery bag and shuffled over to the second floor linen closet to start painting it deep blue (yeah, I love rich, dark colored closets.) In order to paint the wall near the baseboard I had to crouch down with my head partway under the bottom shelf.

"Dammit, that gap between the boards on the back wall of the closet will need to be patched ...."

Bugs give me the willies ... can't have any place where bugs can get in. I'm going to have to seal that thing up ... right now. Not knowing what to patch it with I thought, too, that drafts might be wafting thru there, so I stuck my finger into it (it was only about 1 inch wide) to feel for air and see how deep it was … nothing .... no air ... no bugs ... just emptiness. That made me nervous. Bugs or mice - or worse - could be in there, ready to run out at me any time, now.

I grabbed the flashlight for a look.

Kneeling down on the floor of the closet, knees to my chest, head scraping the bottom of the lowest shelf, I jammed the flashlight at one side of the gap and practically blinded myself shoving my eyeball into another side ...

"HOLY CRAP, there's a room back there ...

How … in ... the … ???

I need to get a better look.

I layed on the floor, flashlight pressed against one side of the gap, head pushed even more up into the shelf above, eye practically bulging through the gap .... I looked.

How could there be a whole other room in there? Wait, the closet's back wall isn't plaster, it's drywall.  This is NEW ...

What's in that room ? dead things ? money ? antiques ?

The walls in there are glossy yellow - old oil based lead paint, I am sure - and in great condition. There was a bit of wood trim - or at least I thought it was wood trim.

I need to see even more … I need to cut out a chunk of this drywall and look inside.

I cut an 8-inch-square with my matt knife ... punched out the drywall ... was nervous and actually hesitated a breath before shining the flashlight inside.

There it was … looking freshly painted glossy yellow - the servants stair case.

Other evidence and some oral history confirms that the builder of the home had servants

It was filthy in there, but the door at the bottom was still framed out and the baseboards were in great shape. The stairs themselves were covered in thick chewy layers of dirt and dust, and there was even an old twist drill bit laying on one of them. Is that a Sylvania light bulb box at the bottom of the stairs ?

Of course I immediately started calling people. This is really exciting for me. The house seems so complete — sometimes I think I won't have enough to write about, here, and I'll have to start taking pictures of food or writing about making holiday decorations to fill in the gap — that I never expected anything of this proportion to show up.

one of the only decent understandable photos from my photo taking escapade. That's the old kitchen door on the left. It looks like there are 3 significant electrical lines (and their coordinating holes haphazardly hammered into the plaster) that run thru the stairway that will need to be dealt with 

I only have a handful of photos, most are confusing since I took them by shoving the camera into the dark hole and snapping, hoping to capture some evidence of whats in there.

I'd love to just open it up … but I need storage for linens, and the kitchen would loose 4 cabinets by opening the door back up. but the kitchen does need a serious overhaul, so … Or maybe it can be storage for both the kitchen and the second floor, or maybe I can open it and line one wall with shelving, or maybe ...

Thinking about the possibilities of "what could be" is often the best part of living in an old house.