Today's post is a little later than usual since a few coworkers and I were running around the Lincoln Memorial this morning taking photos of the Space Shuttle as it arrived and flew around the city on the back of a 747 transport. Here's one of the better photos of the morning.
I'll try to get some more and my experience up in the next couple of days. Coming from someone who has always been a bit of a space nerd, it was really something cool and I'm very glad I had a chance to see it. But now, back to your regularly scheduled Toolbox Tuesday.
One significant aspect of old home ownership and restoration is the general appreciation for and retention of the materials or items that are original or period to your home. I've spent a lot of time in previous posts talking about the particular attention to detail I tend to give to authentic and salvaged hardware in our home, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to hardware, you'd be hard pressed to find any old house that retains much of its historic fabric that doesn't also posses its original thick plaster walls.
Plaster and lath, often mixed using horse (or even human) hair in the scratch and base coat, is one of those characteristics of old homes that are too quickly torn out when many begin undertaking a renovation of any magnitude. The perception that is it difficult to restore, even harder to maintain, and an inferior product compared to the cheap as flimsy drywall options are all as incorrect as they could possibly be.
Throughout our time renovating the house I've gone to great lengths to ensure that we save as much of the home's original plaster and lath walls and ceilings as possible. During this time there have been few items more useful than plaster buttons when it comes to bringing our cracked, sagging, an near ruined plaster back from the brink and ready for another hundred years hanging in place.
"Plaster buttons you say?"
Exactly. Other old home owners take notice, this could be one seriously valuable blog post if your house was built prior to the mid 1950s.
When we purchased our home, every single room had a ceiling that had seen better days. Most were textured, crumbling, cracking, and suffering from a series of bad and uneven patch jobs. After digging out the poor attempts at patching, we were left with rooms that looked like this.
The biggest issue with restoring plaster is the fact that, over the years, the plaster and lath have often shifted or sagged, especially with ceilings. This causes the plaster "keys" (part that oozed through the lath and dried) to crack, which results in surface cracking, weakening, and ultimately, failure in the plaster (especially noticable when shit ends up falling on your head). But wait, you don't need to just throw up your hands and play Chicken Little, you can easily fix this. Before you end up with a plaster disaster on your hands, you must somehow secure the plaster back in place without causing any additional damage to the already cracked surface.
Using regular drywall screws is pretty much out of the question. The surface area of the screw that comes in contact with the plaster is far too small. This means that too much pressure is put on too small of an area and the result is a much larger and more unstable crack in your wall or ceiling as soon as you tighten the screw. Honestly, using a drywall screw alone will result in pretty much the last thing that you want to happen.
This is where plaster buttons come into play. Plaster buttons are essentially small and nearly flat thin metal discs with little holes all around and a larger hole in the center.
Today they come in two sizes, small and large, but back when I started using them, only small we're available. Ever since the larger buttons came out I've been pretty much using them exclusively on all of our projects.
The key to these buttons is the fact that the center accommodates the screw, and as you tighten the screw, the button flattens against the wall or ceiling. As it flattens, it pulls the plaster back into it's proper position and distributes the weight across the surface area of the button, which helps prevent the cracking you'd get with a smaller means of securing the plaster.
When I apply plaster buttons I like to place them every eight inches along the joists in the room using a 1 5/8" drywall screw, even if the ceiling paster looks to be in good shape. Remember, lath was nailed to the joists, and gravity has been working against those nails for over 125 years in our case. Sometimes, as with the dining room, each button I put in you could visibly see the ceiling move up between a half to a full inch. If this happens in your project, don't fully tighten them one at a time. Work your way around the room tightening a little more each time. This way the hole ceiling moves as one and won't crack at a specific spot when too much pressure is applied.
Once all of the joist screws are secured, find the true trouble spots in your plaster. Things like large cracks, water damaged areas, the areas immediately around large holes, or places where you see some noticeable sag. In these instances, use a 1 1/4" drywall screw and secure the buttons in a way that ensures it goes into the lath. The lath and button will be sufficient to hold the plaster in place but the lath isn't as sturdy as the joists and won't hold a screw as well, so don't over tighten.
You'll want to put buttons in these problem areas much closer together and follow either side of a crack or around the perimeter of a holes. I always feel like I'm overdoing it, but this is the right way and it will end up looking very good in the long run.
Once all of the buttons are in place you can skim over the buttons with your covering of choice (typically with lime based plaster or joint compound, depending on your application). The small holes all over the buttons give you some traction so that your plaster or joint compound can really stick too the button. You might need to do a few coats over these buttons to get them totally hidden and smooth, but the appearance of the finished project is almost perfect.
The end result of this effort is a beautiful and intact original plaster wall or ceiling that is ready to continue standing the test of time. Too often the plaster and lath walls are being lost to the "gut it all" crowd, but this is often an overly aggressive approach to a situation that can be solved with a few dollars of metal buttons. It's more Eco friendly, often more energy efficient, allows for less sound transmission, and retains that historic character that has been far more elusive over the last few decades.
I hope you'll consider using plaster buttons to restore and save some of the historic fabric of your home. The best place I've seen to buy them (and the place I've been ordering them for years) is from Killian Hardware.
Have you ever used plaster buttons in any of your projects? I know plaster walls can be intimidating at first, but learning how to love them will make living in an old house much easier.