Plaster Man

Recently I was out in the field with my producer, Mark Wilder. We were getting ready to shoot another video on doing repairs in the field, and I thought this would be a good series for us to discuss by means of some of the pictures taken at that session. (I’ll use the same PATCH system format I did last month, which gives us five areas to look at: Problem, Approach, Time, Cost and How.)

Picture #1 shows Mark and me standing on the landing overlooking the staircase. The first step in any project is to figure out what the problem is. This one threw us a curve. There was a bulge hanging down in the center of this ceiling. There is an attic above and no signs of water damage between the bulge and the window. I look for this, as sometimes water can run across a ceiling, or at times it can follow a beam or piece of wood and then drop down onto another part of the ceiling. In this case, however, it was different. I was anxious to open the ceiling up and find out what exactly was causing this bulging affect.

Sealed off during plaster patrol

Picture #2 shows our approach. We sealed off the area around where I would be working and I put down a double layer of plastic drop cloths. I find this is the best way to approach demolition work, as it keeps the rest of the house dust free, and it also provides a way for me to take the debris away after I complete the demolition. I simply fold the debris into the top plastic drop and I now have a clean area to complete the work in. If large chunks of plaster are loose, it is very important to make sure anything you are working over (i.e., a staircase, hutch, furniture) is protected. Often, plaster (or a piece of board) will break loose in a chunk. Three sides of it may break clean, with one side still being attached.

The piece will naturally swing down in the direction of the side attached and will then break loose. If you’re not in control of it, it can fall and cause damage.

Another tip I use when dealing with large areas to be demolished is to put a piece of plywood (whole or part of a 4-feet-by-8-feet sheet) directly under the damaged area. This can be leaned up against the wall or in front of your ladder so that anything falling will be deflected.

With this project, we were in for a little surprise! As I removed the loose plaster, I got a hint that there had been repair work done on this area before. The house was rock lath and as I took the loose plaster down, I came on a piece of metal lath about 2-feet-by-2-feet square. Then something else appeared.

I saw something that looked like a Frisbee. Actually, it was the bottom of a plastic bucket! Now the homeowners told me they had the house for about 16 years and the ceiling had just slowly gotten worse and worse. They never had it repaired before, so the previous repair work was more than 16 years old.

We figured out that whoever patched the ceiling years ago realized the roof was still leaking. To ensure the repair would last, the repair person simply placed a bucket above the repair! As it rained, water filled the bucket and then evaporated over time. This was fine until it rained too much—and the bucket overflowed and leaked onto the ceiling. At first, the leak appeared as a few discolored spots on the ceiling, then gradually got worse. As the plaster got wet, the weight of the full bucket pushed down on the ceiling, thus causing a larger and larger bulge. The mystery was solved!

Picture #3 shows the hole with rock lath installed and now I’m rolling on a bonding agent. I like to put this on about a foot or better around the perimeter of the area to be repaired. This gives me a lot of room to feather out the repair into the existing ceiling. The bonder took about 10 minutes to dry (probably because we had about 1,800 watts of light for the cameras!) and then I applied basecoat to fill out the area (picture #4) with fiberglass mesh being embedded into the perimeter to bridge the old and the new. I rubbed the basecoat around the edge to blend it in and to ensure the finish coat would blend even better when applied over it. I accelerated the basecoat so that it set within about 10 minutes.

The last plaster show?

Picture #5 is the final smooth coat being applied. I spread a thin coat to cover the entire area, then doubled with a second coat with the same mix. In picture #6, I use a wet sponge to smooth out the entire area. No sanding is required and it’s ready to paint. I always like to emphasize safety. Rubber gloves keep hands protected from any lime burns that can occur with finish coat and safety glasses are important on every project.

The amount of time it took from start to finish was about two hours. We were filming, so this made for a few stops and starts, but the actual work, from bonding to smoothing the finish coat, was just at two hours.

The cost for a repair like this can be figured several ways. I steer people I train away from going per hour because even at $50 an hour you would come in around $100. This is simply not an acceptable amount. Again I refer to the point I’ve made several times: Plaster repair is an “art.”

In fact, I’m finding that when I travel to areas of the country to speak, historical societies can actually apply for art grants that cover my speaking expenses because I am trying to preserve a “dying art.” And keep in mind that I like to look at it from another angle: The value the repair brings to the property. This repair could be the difference between this house’s selling and not selling.

With this in mind, I like to go from a half-day and whole-day rate. This particular project fell into the half-day rate. With a whole day being $750, the half-day rate is $450 to $525. This repair I would have punched in at $495.

Answering our final how question that rounds out the PATCH system, I would say the project went well, even with a surprise thrown in! The amount of work I planned was about what it amounted to. The material was a few hawk fulls of basecoat and two hawks of finish coat. It took about a cup of bonder at the most. Most importantly, the homeowner was very happy.

If you have any questions or comments about this project or any other topic related to plastering and plaster repair, just let me know. I appreciate your letters! Again, may your quality standards remain high and your overhead costs remain low! Until next time, keep your momentum!