Painting, Alligatoring Paint and Plaster Walls

Painting is one thing. Dealing with decades-old, failing paint on plaster walls is another thing.

The last post about this room, Paint Chatter, pondered what the problem could be. While I began the paint removal process before Christmas, I abandoned the project for a few months when my citrus stripper method proved unsuccessful. Clearly, this room was going to be difficult. Based on communication with the previous owners and their knowledge of the house’s history, supplemented by staring at and pondering the state of the walls while reading about paint and plaster, I came to a conclusion.

This one coat of blue paint was improperly applied 83 years ago. Beneath this paint, there was not a coat of primer; rather, it was applied directly to the finish coat of the plaster. In other words, this room had not been painted since 1928.

Before undertaking the paint removal project.

Over the course of these project abandonment months, the chipping/alligatoring/flaking increased in surface area and/or began to drive Vinny and me mad. If we were to run our hands over the wall, the paint would flake off easily. And the room looked horrible. It had been relegated to storing our books, boxes, files and power tools (during basement repair).

There comes a time when you just have to jump into a project and not look back. For Vinny and me, that time was two weekends ago. The oddly warm March weather allowed us to open the windows while painting.

Care to jump in and see how we tackled the paint problem? To refresh your memory, here is one section of one wall:

Alligatoring paint in the blue room.

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Before we proceed, I have to add this DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional painter or certified for lead testing or removal. Our house has not been tested for lead, but if your house or building was painted prior to 1978, you should assume that there may be lead. With that said, I am not recommending my methods, but merely sharing as a fellow historic homeowner. 

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First, the problems in list form:

(1) How do you remove alligatoring paint without removing all of the paint? Do you have to remove all of it?

(2) What do you do when citrus stripper does not work at all?

(3) What do you do when you are fairly certain that the only coat of paint on the walls has been there for 83 years? While I am not a certified professional in terms of hazardous paint (e.g. lead), I know that paint made prior to 1978 is likely to have traces of lead.

I love our house and value historic integrity; but, sometimes you have to conduct a few experiments and then make some decisions and/or concessions. In the case of our house we decided:

(1) Citrus stripper did not work on the walls. (I used it another room for peeling, not cracking, paint, where it worked well.) An orbital  handheld sander, with a bag for holding the dust, did not work either.

(2) We would remove the paint with a 1″ metal scraper. We would not to remove all of the paint from the walls. This would require an insane amount of work; but more importantly it would create more dust and paint chips than necessary. Rather, we decided it was best to tackle the failed paint areas and leave the rest undisturbed.

(3) Not to repair the surface cracks in the plaster, because that would possibly create more damage. The cracks are not structural or causing plaster failure, so we figured it was best to leave it alone. (If you are repairing your plaster, that is obviously a job prior to painting.)

(4) Not to build up the finish coat of plaster after removing paint. If our wall surfaces were uneven, we could live with that.

So, we set to scraping the loose paint while wearing respirators, covering the room in a plastic, disposable tarp. We set a fan to blow air outside and closed the door while we worked. It was not a fail-proof method, but it seemed to work well enough for our minimal purposes. (But because I was trying to keep everything neat, I did not take photographs of the paint scraping process.  And I’ll spare you from the frightening photograph of me in a respirator.)

We used a 1″ blade on a scraper and simply put enough pressure on the wall that when pulled down, it removed the paint. It was surprisingly effective in areas where the paint had completely failed. However, it did create nicks in the finish coat of the plaster, which was another reason to not scrape the entire wall surface (again – aside from the insanity of such a task).

A lot of paint came off very easily. We lightly sanded the edges of the paint-free plaster areas to hopefully insure that it wouldn’t flake under the new coats of paint.

After removing the paint and cleaning up the large paint chips that missed the tarp, we disposed of it and began to prep for painting, including taping all of the trim and window/door frame edges. We used grey primer, knowing that we were going to choose a darker color for the walls; on the ceiling we used white primer. This house likes two coats of primer, at least, because the shiny decades-old paint seems to slurp in that first coat of primer, making it look like it’s not there at all. A second coat seems to give a more stable looking coat. We also use two coats of paint on the walls and ceiling, for similar reasons. In addition, two coats or more coats of primer and two coats of paint help to even out the wall surface and hide some of the flawed areas.

And the finished product:

After! The color is Sailor's Sea Blue (eggshell finish) by Benjamin Moore. The wall on the right was the worst in terms of alligatoring paint.

Not totally after (pre-cleanup), but the walls and ceiling are finished.

The wall on the left in this photograph has a noticeable uneven-obviously-scraped surface, if you look closely in person. However, for now, my solution is to line that wall with our tall bookshelves.

How long will this repair last? I’m not sure, since the first coat of paint was improperly applied and is obviously still underneath the new paint. If it cracks and fails again, I’ll try a new way of paint removal. For now, this room has improved exponentially. Actually, I’m sitting in this room as I write this post.  The bungalow is an ongoing experiment, and I love it.

Now,  how have you dealt with paint related problems in your house? 

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12 thoughts on “Painting, Alligatoring Paint and Plaster Walls

  1. There is a tool called the Pro Scraper that is used for defouling boats. It has a carbide blade like a regular scraper, but the handle fits to a vacuum (HEPA is best) and sucks all the loose stuff in as you scrape. Still tedious, but cleaner. Room looks beautiful!

  2. Great color! I wonder if the infrared paint stripping tool can be used on plaster?

    If anyone’s interested in getting lead certified, The Preservation Trust of VT is offering a lead certification and window conservation workshop May 21-22 at the Grand Isle Lake House in VT. Total cost for overnight, meals and training is $250 for shared room and $300 for single. For more information and registration, please visit:

    http://www.ptvermont.org/preservation_retreats/retreat_program.php

    • Another good suggestion! Lucky for me, I have one additional room with failing paint (the kitchen ceiling). Maybe I’ll try out these suggestions when I get to the kitchen. thanks!

  3. I, evidently, think about paint way too often. We have a room at the Original Governor’s Mansion that has alligatoring paint as well. It turns out the paint is calcimine (it’s period appropriate for you house as well) and is actually water soluable – aka if you paint over it it’s chalky and the new coat will fail. You have to wash it off (aka a bucket and sponge, and a lot of water and time). I’m wondering if yours is as well.

    • Hmm… well, i don’t think I washed the walls first, so I hope not! Although, in one instance the paint came clean off with the painters tape. That was depressing, but more a result to how I applied the tape, I think.

      I still think the paint has been the same in my house since about 1930…well, until I painted.

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