We left off on our in-depth "how to fix plaster and skim coat like a boss" series of blog posts after having applied the initial rough coat of joint compound over top of the screen/scratch coat we had applied in the previous steps. And while any wall or ceiling that had been previously cracked, sagging, full of holes, and generally near disaster is undoubtedly looking much better at this stage of the repairs, it's nowhere near finished. However, we're just a few arduous steps from turning that old plaster on its ear and creating a beautifully smooth surface on which to finish the remainder of the room.
I know, I know, I can barely contain my excitement too, I'm right there with you! But hold on just a second. Bottle that exuberance up for just a little longer. There are a few critical items left before we can declare victory over the plaster demons, and these steps can ruin the project if done wrong.
Before we can go on with skim coating we need to prepare the first and fully cured layer of skim coat we had applied. Unless you're a true pro, there's a good chance your first coat has its fair share of bumps and ridges. These can be large or small, but we need to knock them down before going forward.
How do we knock it all down? Sanding. Ugh!!
If you've ever sanded joint compound before you probably know the massive dust bowl it can create. I'm not kidding! The first time I sanded joint compound and wasn't properly prepared it looked like I should have been riding a tauntaun through a blizzard on Hoth looking for Luke Skywalker (and I thought they smelled bad...on the outside).
Joint compound dust seems to quite literally get everywhere. I had closed the doors and taped up plastic, even put a fan in the window blowing the dust all over pedestrians and cars (not my finest DIY moment), but by the time I was finished that damned dust had reached just about every surface of the house, settling like a fine film of filth. Though I couldn't see it, the dust had apparently also encased Wendy's last nerve. I had to come up with a better solution if I ever had hopes of fixing up the rest of our house.
With the simple charge from Wendy of "Don't you ever f@&$ing do that to our house again!!" I was inspired to come up with a new and improved approach that would result in a reduction in dust. While I was at it I also wanted to come up with a method of sanding that was far less manual and labor intensive.
Not sure what I mean? Well, the dust gets all of the glory when people talk about sanding joint compound, while the toll is takes on your neck, shoulders, and back is quickly forgotten, in spite of the massive effort.
I had heard about the possibility of wet sanding joint compound to take off more material with less mess and effort. I gave it a go but really didn't like the results. It doesn't work well on the setting type compound, and it leaves a somewhat rougher surface than I prefer. So I was left with the task of building a better approach to sanding.
The first step to our dust remedy comes by way of a sanding pole with integrated dust collection. There are quite a few options out there for a "dust free" sanding experience, but they all rely on the key of a vacuum connected to a sanding device of some sort. Primarily, the sanding poles rely on the use of joint compound sand paper that's actually a rigid grid of sanding material. This grid allows the joint compound dust to transfer through the paper, and if connected to a vacuum, get sucked right up, rather than falling to the floor or settling on every other damned surface in the house.
I swear, the dust is like the pink tub ring in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, it just keeps multiplying, and we have no VOOM under our hat!
Once we determined that something needed to connect to the vacuum, it presented a secondary problem, the vacuum filter. If you've ever used a Shop-Vac with very fine particle dust you know one of two things happens (or possibly both).
- The dust is too fine to be caught by the filter, which means the vacuum just spews the dust into the air and causes an even bigger mess.
- The dust is caught by the filter, clogging the filter, and reducing the suction of the vac, which allows the dust to blow into the air.
Both of these scenarios can be resolved by configuring your Shop-Vac to use a Hepa filter and fine particle "drywall filter bags."
By using the two of these miracle items, along with your adequately powered vac, and a sanding pole with the right paper connected right up to that vac, you'll have a completely bearable sanding experience that doesn't make you feel like you're stranded in the wilderness in the midst of a massive blizzard, fist fighting wolves just to stay alive.
Now, we could leave the "sanding tools" part at that, but there's one more little trick I use that I've now been so thoroughly spoiled by that I simply can't live without it. Be forewarned, it's not cheap, but now that I have it, it's irreplaceable.
BEHOLD!!!!! THE PORTER CABLE 7800 4.7 AMP DRYWALL SANDER WITH 13 FOOT HOSE!!!!!!! (Did you hear the angels sing just then? Yeah, me too.)
This thing was the splurge of all splurges back when we bought it in 2003. We barely had two pennies to rub together having just moved into our house, but I feared our marriage would not survive without this tool, and that the weight we might lose having to forgo food in order to save up for this beast was just an added bonus. In retrospect, I was 100% correct and it was undoubtedly the best specialized tool purchase I've ever made. You know how special it is? It's so special that I'm talking about it on a day other than Toolbox Tuesday. Yeah, that special.
I've been through a lot with this tool. From the hallway, to the dining room -- the kitchen to even the master bedroom, it's stuck with me through thick and thin (joint compound), doing the one thing we purchased it to do: sanding walls and ceilings like a badass mo-fo!
As you can see, it's such a badass tool, I have to grow a mustache and have weird facial expressions just to use it. (Don't worry ladies, buying the tool alone will give you the ability to grow the required mustache. Your hair follicles just know you own it.) I'm pretty sure I'm actually singing to the sander in that photo, siren songs of tool love, I'm sure.
This thing works on ceilings...
...and it works on walls.
My favorite way to sand is to place a work light of some sort below the area I'm sanding. This allows the light to dance across the surface, highlighting any serious area of imperfection where I need to focus. This is actually a good rule of thumb whenever you're trying to create a consistent surface, give the surface harsh light from the side so you can really see what you're working with.
The multi-directional pivot head articulates based on your position and the position of the surface you're sanding, while the variable speed sanding discs (think large random orbit sander pads) leave a consistent and smooth surface. Best of all, it all hooks up to the Shop-Vac to make the dust practically (okay, so there's still a little) nonexistent.
I actually learned of this sander, and the whole idea of skim coating, while watching an episode of This Old House when they were doing a large Bunker Hill house in Boston many years ago. The homeowner was the one using both the tool and doing the work, so I figured, "Hey, if that person can do it, so can I."
When you're using this sander the most important piece of advice I can give is to place the head in a flat position onto the work surface. Don't ease it on at an angle as this will scar your wall or ceiling. Placing it flat will allow you to begin working and then just move it around as you need. Also, if you're in tight quarters, or the sander head is near your hands, you can actually position yourself to grab the head by the rigid attachment pieces, working the sander around the wall with more precision and force.
Man that Halloween-grown mustache looks horrible!
While this sander is great, it's not light. You really need to put your force behind it and by the end of the work, you're tired and sweaty, but it's still easier than hand or manual pole sanding everything. The sander also can't get into the corners or right to the edges of the wall. This is usually okay since there is crow or baseboard going over the unsanded parts, but in the corners you still need to hand sand with a sanding block. If there's a lot of material to take off, I'll use a flat wide knife to scape it down first, then hit it with the sanding blocks.
Though "sanding the wall and ceiling" may not sound like a major step, it's such a critical item in the process that I usually break each layer of skimcoat, and each successive sanding out into its own item on our checklists. Not only do I give each step its needed attention by listing it this way, I'm able to feel that great sense of accomplishment when I can complete an important step in bringing the walls and ceilings back to the way they should be looking.
What are your steps for keeping dust down when it comes to sanding joint compound or plaster? Do you have a method, or are you more of a "dust bowl free for all" type of person? And what do you think about this massive overkill but now can't live without it tool? Does it look like something you'd like to add to your tool arsenal? Is anyone else thrilled that this mustache is a thing of the past?
We have a whole series of plaster repair/skim coating posts you should check out if you like this or are trying to tackle the same thing. Here's the whole list for convenience:
- Plaster Repair for DIYers - No Need to Rip It Out
- Plaster Buttons to Fix Your Crumbling Ceiling
- Plaster Repair Part 2: Laying a New Brown Coat
- How To Fix Plaster Like a Boss: Sand Baby Sand - this post
- DIY Plaster Repair: We Finally Put the Skim in Skim Coat
- My Skim Coating Nickname is Mr. Smooth - The Tricks I Use to Earn It
- The Final Steps to Perfect Skim Coating