If there's one thing I absolutely love about old homes, it's their plaster!

Before we get started, this is the first of a series of blog posts about Master of Plaster's Lime Restoration Plaster. Be sure to check out the rest in the series for our progress and more of our thoughts on the product.

With all of the beautiful details that fill any home of a certain age, my love of a traditional lime wall covering may seem a bit odd. Given the more modern trend to rip out old walls in favor of modern gypsum drywall, I feel like plaster walls are one of those things that give an old house its soul. The slight irregularity to the finished surface, thicker feel, insulating qualities (both sound and temperature), smooth finish, and ability to withstand centuries of use with regular upkeep make keeping and restoring plaster walls a no brainer if they can be saved.

If you've read our posts on plaster in the past, there's no doubt you know the lengths I don't mind going to in order to retain that classic plaster look. Whether we're restoring our own plaster or detailing how our friends decided to go with new plaster instead of drywall in their old house, we have no shortage of plaster shoutouts in our blogging past. In fact, we've gone into enough detail over the years that one of our favorite magazines, Old House Journal, actually contacted us to see if we minded if they include us in a DIY plaster repair article they have in the January 2016 issue. 

Their article features several of our favorite tips and even a few of our photos, including that awesome photo of me sanding while sporting a mustache. That photo was taken during the one week in my entire life where I had a real mustache (we go all out for our Halloween costumes), and much to Wendy's dismay, it's now immortalized as part of a magazine article. She's a lucky lady, y'all.

However, as much as we've talked about plaster repair and restoration in the past, the simple fact is that I've not been doing it in an truly accurate and appropriate manner, especially when it comes to skim coating. Yes, that's right, we've been doing it wrong and didn't really realize it for quite some time! 

Over the years I've used a combination of materials that are all from the gypsum joint compound family. Whether I was using the pre-mixed bucket, easy sand variety, setting type, or any other variation, joint compound isn't necessarily the best option. It certainly is not the most historically appropriate type of finish coat to use, or even the easiest to work with, especially when it comes to most plaster installed in the beginning of the 20th century or earlier.

Sure, joint compound may be readily available, and might work "just fine" because it pretty much sticks to everything, but joint compound is not necessarily the ideal material. It's sloppy, unforgiving, often requires extensive messy sanding, isn't very durable (especially the pre-mixed variety), doesn't let lime plaster beneath breathe, and you almost always end up with air bubbles somewhere in your finished work. If you need to be convinced of this ongoing conversation, just head over to any one of the old house message boards and see how the debate rages.

Doing a little Googling you'll see people's opinions that range from saying it's acceptable to use joint compound, to essentially stating that you're inviting the apocalypse by using joint compound over plaster. In reality, the valid opinions reside somewhere in the middle. 

Traditional historic plaster, as I said above, is a combination of lime, sand, a bonding/strengthening material (like animal hair) and water. It's a tried and true material that offers more flexibility and longevity than gypsum plaster, but it can take a long time to fully cure before it can be covered or painted, can be difficult to work with, and is somewhat hard to obtain or store. But the traditional lime plaster finish has a certain look that purists, enthusiasts, and hobbyists (like myself) love. And achieving this look without using the right materials is often an exercise in futility.

Back when we started our attempts to repair our plaster we were newbies and unaware of options other than joint compound. As time has gone by we've learned of alternatives to joint compound that are both more historically accurate and easier to work with, but we only learned of them because we did more digging as we finished more projects. These aren't readily advertised and aren't available at the big box since they're more of a niche item. One such option is the Master of Plaster restoration system. 

This system is made up of a pre-mixed lime based plaster skim coat two part product (base and finish coats). Its unique recipe uses a green and traditional lime based mix and is suited for both historic preservation and new construction or renovation projects. The application is a multi coat and no sanding approach to plaster finishing with extremely smooth and high quality results.

I first learned of Master of Plaster (or MOP) a few years ago while looking into traditional hydraulic lime plaster. I felt I'd done enough skim coating and wanted to see if I could take the plunge in using a more traditional approach to plaster. Through my research I kept seeing MOP referenced as a user friendly option for a lime based plaster finish. To say my curiosity was piqued is an understatement, but I didn't really have a good project to try this out on.

However, roughly one year ago, we were presented with a unique situation. After we started our living room renovation in our early 20th century four square we made a wonderful discovery. The walls of the room were all drywall, but when we removed the initial layer of drywall from the walls, we found that the room's original plaster was hiding just below the surface, and it was in relatively good shape (though covered in layers of very old wallpaper and tons of liquid nails). The odd thing, it was just a brown and scratch coat, no finish coat. This is because the walls only ever had wallpaper on them, never a finished or painted topcoat.

Given our original plaster wall discovery, and our desire to restore them while keeping them intact, rather than ripping them out and starting over, we had a perfect opportunity to use MOP. We started to discuss our specific project with the experts at Master of Plaster and whether this would be a good candidate for their products. They felt it would be perfect, and through our conversations with their staff, they offered to send us some of their restoration plaster to try on our living room walls. A few weeks later we had a palette of base coat and finish coat plaster, and my anticipation was beginning to grow.

The black lids are the base coat buckets and the gray is the finish coat.

Before we get into the project description, let me say that again, "roughly one year ago!" If you've been reading along over the last year, you know the issues we've had with our four square freezing, all of the HVAC and plumbing needing to be replaced, and the huge amount of derailment this meant for our projects. This blog post has essentially been a year in the making. And the fine folks at Master of Plaster have been unbelievably patient, understanding, and helpful throughout this whole process. It's rare to work with a company that is so completely and totally customer friendly. But they're a small business and understand that the renovation process in old homes doesn't necessarily follow an anticipated timeframe, especially when you're doing it yourself.

Well, over the last several weeks we finally started to move forward on our four square's living room plaster work, and we have some great initial experience to share in working with the wet finish plaster restoration system.

One of the major advantages of the restoration plaster system that stands out to me is that it is a pre-mixed plaster system, which offers great convenience. No need to worry about messy mixing or properly measuring out lime, water, and sand, it's all ready to go in the five gallon buckets. All that's needed is a quick turn with a mixing paddle to reincorporate any liquid that's settled in shipment and you're ready to start plastering.

Another huge advantage to using this system is the fact that it sticks to everything. No need for bonding agents or special surface prep. As long as the surface is clean and free of debris, flaking paint, and wallpaper, you can start to apply Master of Plaster right away. This means that the material can be applied directly to original plaster and drywall patches without worry of how it will react between the differing materials. You do need to tape seams and any major gaps or cracks, but we'll be covering everything in fiberglass screen in the first base coat, so essentially everything will be taped.

The tools I'll be using for the first coat include a few trowels for application, taping knives for transferring the plaster from the bucket to my trowels, and the "Magic Trowel" for smoothing the fiberglass mesh (window screen) into the first base coat of plaster.

We planned to start our project in the corner of our room that included large sections of original plaster, several minor repairs and patches, a large drywall patch above the door, and several sections secured with plaster buttons. This represents the extent of our surface differences and how the material can easily cover all of it.

When I started working with the material I noticed the consistency of the base plaster is somewhat looser than I expected. This was a good surprise as the first lump of base plaster on the trowel almost slides around a bit and wants to move from the trowel to the wall. 

This consistency and experience is very different from joint compound that tends to stick to the trowel and constantly needs to be scraped off, gathered up, and applied. The byproduct of this is how much quicker I feel like I can get material onto the wall, which helps speed the project as a whole.

My other first reaction when applying the base coat to the wall was in response to the silica lime aggregate in the material. Essentially, the whole base coat is full of little tiny beads that give the material structure. As I applied the base coat to the wall, these little beads give the layer a much more consistent depth and application across the wall. This allowed us to easily see where we didn't have good coverage, and also made sure the coat was much more even. 

Though it's completely doable for one person, we tackled this as a duo. I applied the base to the large field of the wall while Wendy got some material in the corner. I then followed Wendy in the corner to tie it all together for full coverage.

To give our overall first base coat a solid structure and isolate it from any cracks or movement of the substrate, we opted to embed a layer of fiberglass mesh, which is really just common window screen, into the applied layer of base coat. 

We tried to cut the pieces of screen in as large and consistent of swatches as we could in order to minimize seams and overlap. Then, once it was largely on the wall, we could cut around the door frame, outlets, and other obstructions. The biggest key here is making sure the screen is applied without any wrinkles. It needs to be completely flat so we aren't competing with any unnecessary ridges in the next coats.

Applying the screen to the wall is greatly simplified when you use the magic trowel. It essentially allows you to squeegee the screen into place without applying too much pressure to make ridges, but enough to get the mesh fully embedded into the base coat. We have a short video that shows the middle out approach I prefer to minimize the bubbles and ridges.

For the first major step we're going to keep working around the room with the base coat and mesh. This process is a good one to get some familiarity with the material and how to best work with it. My first reaction is that it is a very DIY friendly material. It didn't take much time to get used to applying it, and the main thing I learned was to keep my trowel angle very low, otherwise it would begin pulling up the lime in the base coat and leaving little pulls and streaks. Instead we were left with a wonderfully consistent base plaster coat to build upon for our next steps.

I'm really excited to keep moving on this project and to watch this room transform from what it started as to a freshly plastered living room. Wendy and I are tackling this giant room as six individual sections (one wall length per section), so it's going to take a while to make the time to get it done. Just as a point of reference and perspective, here's a longer shot of the whole room when it was at its worst. 

But this project has been a long time in the making, and I feel like we're doing this room proud by restoring the walls. We still have to do a second base coat on top of the screen and a finish coat to smooth everything. Throughout the project we'll be giving you more updates on the plastering and what we think of the Master of Plaster system. So far it's going great and I definitely prefer it over joint compound, and we haven't even gotten to the point where we don't have to sand it. Can't wait to share more.

This blog post and project was done in partnership with Master of Plaster. Master of Plaster supplied the base and finish coat plaster but all experiences and opinions of the restoration plaster product are our own. For more details on Master of Plaster, and for information on how to purchase, please visit the Master of Plaster website.

Comments 9

Comments

TKraft Art & Interiors
1/18/2016 at 11:04 PM

Alex, thanks for another great read. Curious to learn, how did the MOP product work and hold up over that large Sheetrock patch over the doorway? I have my own set of photos that look very reminiscent to that view of the corner with the door and and the step ladder, my husband did a double take when I showed him your article and photo, he's been researching the MOP website and links. Great work and craftsmanship takes time and it shows in the end. - TK

Alex
1/18/2016

So far so good. No cracking or any issues to speak of after the base coat. Now that the screen is up and the first coat is on you'd have no idea where the patches vs original plaster are.

TKraft Art & Interiors
1/19/2016 at 12:20 AM

Thanks Alex! It's now on our radar to give it a swirl...

1/19/2016 at 8:14 AM

Fantastic post. This is why I love Old Town Home so much. I would never get to read about this - learn this product exists - anywhere else.

We live in a 1946 apartment in NYC that has plaster walls. The PO skim coated before selling so the walls are in fairly good shape right now. But I've noticed a few cracks in the 3 years we've lived here. There will be plaster repair in our future as this old building settles. I so appreciate the information you provide. And I'll keep Master of Plaster on file for future reference.

Great work, btw, the wall looks beautiful.

Tammara
1/25/2016 at 1:23 PM

Wow, progress to your walls! Thank you for another informative method of repair. Good thing my plaster is in good shape except for random patchin.

Earl Mariano
1/27/2016 at 1:41 AM

Hi. This is really inspiring!Alt smile I'm actually in the process of selling my house but its a mess. Seeing how you did this and you made it look so easy, I'm planning on doing repairs myself with the family. I'm pretty sure we will have a good time. And get a better appraisal in the process. Thanks again for the good read!

Alli
2/12/2016 at 6:22 PM

Please tell me you're limewashing all the new plaster vs painting it?? There's nothing like real plaster with limewash for texture.

TKraft Art & Interiors
5/19/2016 at 10:03 PM
Awesome blog post, sure got me motivated to move forward using Master of Plaster...
Bridget Shea Westfall
5/19/2016 at 10:03 PM
Do you have any advice on the best way to hang pictures on plaster?
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