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.

—-

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. 

—-

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? 

Friday’s Quiz Answer

The Preservation Pop Quiz from Friday March 16 asked if you could identify this architectural material:

Quiz subject.

This is located in the bathroom of my 1920s bungalow, and at first glance it looks like subway tile (most people think it is, and with a fresh coat of semi gloss paint, it continues to look like subway tile).  There is a chair rail about 4′ up on the bathroom walls; what you see in the picture is below the chair rail, and above is the regular plaster surface. However, the peeling paint gave it away; this was not tile.

The truth is, until yesterday, I was not entirely certain as to this material. It looks and sounds like plaster, but without any holes in the wall, it is hard to accurately compare it to the plaster walls. I was not going to do any exploratory destruction. However, after some searching, I’ve learned that plaster scored to look like subway tile was fairly common for a 1920s bathroom. And it’s the subject of some online discussions (see This Old House).

After reading more on plaster, I came to the conclusion that my plaster walls have rock lath/plasterboard/gypsum board of sorts, meaning that there are only two coats of plaster necessary (brown and finish), as opposed to the typical three of earlier plaster (scratch, brown, finish). From NPS Preservation Brief 21: Repairing Historic Flat Plaster by Mary Lee MacDonald:

Rock Lath. A third lath system commonly used was rock lath (also called plaster board or gypsum-board lath). In use as early as 1900, rock lath was made up of compressed gypsum covered by a paper facing. Some rock lath was textured or perforated to provide a key for wet plaster. A special paper with gypsum crystals in it provides the key for rock lath used today; when wet plaster is applied to the surface, a crystalline bond is achieved.

Rock lath was the most economical of the three lathing systems. Lathers or carpenters could prepare a room more quickly. By the late 1930s, rock lath was used almost exclusively in residential plastering.

So, the answer? The picture shows plaster walls in my bathroom scored to imitate subway tile. The brown and finish coats are scored; beneath them is the rock lath.

Does your house have anything like this? I had never seen it before (or it was done so well that it fooled me into thinking it was tile).

For the Love of Painting

A historic house is sure to come into your life with paint problems. Whether it’s too many layers, peeling paint, cracking paint, lead paint or wallpaper + paint, you are going to have some quality time to spend with your house. If you bought a historic (or old) house, you probably expected and/or wanted some hands-on repair work. However, some people, preservationists included, find no delight in painting. On the other hand, I love painting.

[Sidebar] If you are a Gilmore Girls fan, you will recall an exchange from the episode, That Damn Donna Reed, in which Lorelai convinces Luke to paint his diner:

LORELAI: Ok, how about this? I’ll help you because I love to paint.

LUKE: You do?

LORELAI: Yes I do.

LUKE: You love it?

LORELAI: I want to marry it.

LUKE: You have strange passions.

RORY: She likes washing dishes too. She’s multifaceted abnormal.

LORELAI: Ah come on, we’ll drink a couple of beers and we’ll sing some painting songs.

LUKE: Painting songs?

LORELAI: Yeah painting songs like, um…you know the songs that goes, um…’Grab your brush and grab your rollers, all you kids and all you bowlers, we’re going paintin’ today’. Say yes or there’s another verse.

I do like washing dishes, but I do not have painting songs, or at least not that I would admit. Gilmore Girls often plays in the background while I paint, if I’m not in the mood for some good country music or a Billy Joel/Bruce Springsteen combination.

Entertainment aside, why do I love to paint? Is there anything more satisfying than physical labor that results in a beautiful, personalized transformation on something you own?

If you’re like me and have a house that hasn’t been painted in the past 40 or 80 years (not kidding), you know it’s time to show the house some love. Cleaning the walls, scraping, sanding, plaster repairs, priming many coats and finally painting: when else will you be this close to the walls and ceilings of your house for such an extended period of time? Prep work for painting is not my favorite part, but it’s a necessary evil in order to get to the fun part: COLOR.

It is a labor of love. It’s a source of pride. I feel as though I’m communing with my house and getting to know its quirks: where the hairline cracks are in the plaster, where the pictures have been hung, how the ceiling meets the wall, where splashes of the first coat of paint remain on the edge of the door trim, how the walls look at all times of day. While that first or second layer of primer hides the brush strokes from the original paint, it’s easy to imagine someone lovingly painting the walls before me. A change, even one as simple as paint color, is refreshing in a building.

Painting takes a lot of time, particularly when the walls and ceiling need more than one coat of primer and more than one coat of paint. But, the end result is always worth it. Suddenly the house looks like it belongs to us, as opposed to looking like we simply moved in and set down our belongings. A new coat of paint brings new life to the house, as we begin the next chapter of volume of its history.

House painting = maintenance = care = preservation = love.

Having Izzy watch me paint is helpful throughout the long process.

Are you still so sure that you don’t like to paint? Or do you love to paint?

p.s. Next week, I’ll follow up on the Paint Chatter post about the specific paint problems in my house.

The Bungalow: Paint Chatter

How about some homeowner fun on this Monday morning? Let’s talk paint.

All houses have their mysteries, and ours is no different. One of the things that we loved most about this house was the minimal updating. In fact, the paint colors even gave the impression of decades ago and the shadows on the walls showed where picture frames and shelves had hung for those same decades. We placed “painting the entire interior of the house” on our list of aesthetic priorities. There’s just something so satisfying about a new coat of paint suited to your own tastes.

I love to paint. Honestly. Give me some work lights, good music or Gilmore Girls for the background, and I will paint all night long (I don’t really have time to paint during the day). Prepping and priming aren’t my favorite tasks, but I’m warming up to them. But I love colors: thinking about them for days or weeks, matching them, choosing lots of different colors, etc. And the end result is always worth all of the effort and the paint that somehow ends up on my face.

So far I have painted three rooms (living room, bedroom, guest room) with four to go (dining room, kitchen, bathroom and office).  The guest room, which is the smallest room, took the longest amount of time and the most effort because of peeling paint on the plaster ceiling. And then I was inspired to paint horizontal stripes (which, by the way, sound scary and require a lot of painters tape. but turned out great). I owe a great deal of thanks to a few flamingos and my sister Sarah for their help.

Now I am moving on to my next project: the office. It is currently a pretty shade of blue, but there is one big problem: the paint is chipping everywhere in this room. By chipping, I mean something akin to alligatoring. See below.

The chipping blue paint.

Another angle of the chipping or about-to-chip paint.

And that is only one small section of this room.  See here:

Most of the room looks like this.

More chipping. It’s on every wall. And some ares of the ceiling.

Fun, yes? Good thing I like a historic house puzzle. However, this one is driving me crazy. Why is the paint chipping like that? It is the only room in the house where this is happening. For reference, aside from the wall with the windows, all of the walls are interior walls. I’ve asked everyone who walks through the door, but no one has come to any conclusions, yet. Perhaps you can help. Here is what I know about the paint in our house (with thanks to the sellers who were kind enough to answer my questions):

The upstairs rooms have only been painted once, probably with one coat. Downstairs rooms have been repainted in the same color, except for the kitchen (new color). Any room that was repainted was done in the 1970s. The house was built in 1928. In other words, there is very likely lead paint in this house (pre-1978 as all preservationists know).

My questions relating to this information: How has one coat of paint lasted 83 years? Why is the blue room chipping and the other rooms are not? And, how am I supposed to remove that chipping paint? And will this happen again when I repaint?

Regarding the one coat of paint: it’s good to know now that some rooms have been repainted. But was lead paint that durable to have one coat last 83 years? Isn’t that impossible? So far in my paint endeavors I have not found evidence of multiple coats. Others have suggested that the house was wallpapered, then stripped of its wallpaper and painted. (I would not want that job.) Others have suggested that the house (the walls) froze last winter when it was unoccupied and unheated. And others have suggested it’s just a bad application in the blue room. That was my first instinct, but I’m still amazed at the other rooms that have had only one coat of paint.

Regarding paint removal: scraping creates dust particles and scratches the smooth plaster. Chemical stripping or something like citrus stripper is not effective.

While I love colors and painting, I am not an expert. If you have experience with chipping paint or can help me solve the old paint questions, I’d be very interested to chat. This room will take a while to finish; but, I will share what I learn and the end results.

Frosty Windows in the Bungalow

A few of the windows in our house turn frosty on extremely cold days. The ice is on the storm window some on the interior window, too.

Look familiar? That’s quite typical for my house, now.  I remember some icy windows in my parents’ house, too. To combat the ice, every winter my parents would blow dry the plastic over the large metal frame picture window in our 1957 ranch house. While we would lose our windowsills for the winter and the cats would sometimes scratch holes in the plastic, my parents assumed it beat the alternative of having icy window panes. It made sense to me. About 10 years ago, they replaced some of the windows, including that old picture window (with larger double hung windows).  After that, I didn’t see frosted windows or plastic over windows until this winter in our bungalow.

The 1-over-1 wood frame windows in this house are all original, glass included. They are in good condition (some TLC needed such as the sash cords) and I love them. Unfortunately, 16 of the 19 original 2-over-2 wood storms have been replaced with metal triple track storm windows. Perhaps they were cheaper or considered more efficient at the time, but those metal storms are a pain. The windows get stuck in the tracks and some of them hurt my fingers when I try to slide the windows up or down.

However, these metal storms are better than nothing. I say this based on accidental winter experiments and casual observations about my house so far.

(1) The windows that have metal storms with the glass down (screen up) are icy on the exterior rather than the interior (mostly) (see picture above).

(2) The windows that have the metals storms with the screen down (meaning I haven’t slid the glass down yet) are icy on the interior wood frame window (seen in the picture below).

(3) The windows with the metal storms that aren’t set in the tracks properly allow for a bit of ice on the interior window.

(4) With the metal storms set properly, these windows do not feel drafty.

(5) As for the wood storms? Two of those windows do not open, and if they did, would open to the enclosed front porch, so they are completely ice free. As for the functional wood storm? It is the one window in the house that does not allow any moisture or ice on the interior wood window and barely collects  ice on the exterior storm.

Not as bad in this window. Notice that the screen is down. Ice has not formed on the inside yet, but at night it will.

What’s the point of sharing all this? We are attempting to study the energy/moisture/air flow in our house this winter in order to assess heating bills and weatherization measures that we may need to take for later in the winter or next year. Vinny and I are in favor of the original windows, always, but we understand that some might need to be covered that hair-dryer-blown plastic sheet. That’s okay – it certainly is cheap enough. For now, we’re making observations like those listed above and we’ll see how it changes throughout the winter — and how it changes once our furnace is replaced (no central heat in Vermont in January – ah, another story for another day!) What are your best weatherization tips?

On a different note, I like the look of the wintry, frosted, icy windows – it certainly is winter in Vermont!

Mold Removal + Concrete

As you know, water or moisture can cause the most damage to buildings. Whether from a leaking roof or something as disastrous as a flood, water can be considered the root of all building problems. Water and moisture often lead to mold growth, sometimes in visible locations, but also in unseen locales throughout your building. One of the most important tasks after water damage is to remove all items from the building that have been touched by the water: sheetrock, insulation, rugs, furniture, everything.

Following the removal of flood water and then the removal of mud, we removed all items from the basement. It took days to remove all of the mud and over one week to get the basement to where it looked dry.  We washed our belongings, sanitized them, and have yet to return anything to the basement.

Now we are dealing with mold issues on the concrete basement walls, generally in locations at or below where the muddy water settled for a few hours. Originally we thought bleach would do the job, but it’s been a few rounds of bleach (one of those rounds was undiluted bleach!) and the white, fuzzy mold on the walls keeps appearing.

We have heard conflicting information, too. First, we heard that bleach would remove the mold and that the other products were all marketing. Then we heard otherwise. So, like a good homeowner and preservationist, I turned to my books and online resources. I learned that the chemicals in bleach are inactivated by organic compounds.

Darn. But, that explains why the white fuzzy mold keeps returning.

The concrete walls in our basement are certainly not of the non-porous variety. They are 83 years old and quite porous. In a handful of locations, I can see the aggregate that composes the concrete. It is not like today’s concrete, that’s for sure. Thus, the dirt and whatever else has migrated into my concrete walls is deactivating the bleach, and allowing the mold to grow.

We’re stumped.

All of the literature I have read, whether it’s from the National Trust or a university or any random website, simply talks about the importance of mold removal and safety precautions. The articles discuss the importance of drying out the basement and air circulation and a dehumidifier, of course. But, I need to know what to use in order to remove the mold and keep it away. I have yet to find a resource that mentions specific products proven to remove mold from concrete.

Can you offer a suggestion? What should we do?

I think our next step is to suit up and scrub the walls. But, with what? I’ll keep looking, but if you have an idea or even better – a proven solution – I would love to know.

Thank you!

More on the Hardwick Stove

Last week I wrote about my mysterious stove/oven manufactured by the Hardwick Stove Company. Thank you to Elyse for comments. However, I realized that more pictures would be helpful for accurate guesses. Rather than ramble on without images, here are some photos of the unit and a description to the best of my ability. Click on any image to enlarge (and then you should be able to zoom in from there.)

Just a refresher: the hood is not part of the stove/oven unit.

The gas burners when the metal plate is lifted. There are four burners.

The oven is on the right, and a compartment box is on the left. There is a lever that says open/shut. Don't mind Izzy - she just likes to get in the way. Beneath the left door is a storage compartment. Beneath the oven is a broiler.

Another shot, but Izzy is in the way...

A close up of the box when opened. I believe it has wood ashes, but since I know nothing of this stove, I'm not making any bets.

When you lift up one of the warming plates, this is what appears below.

Any thoughts? I’ve just found myantiquestove.com, so perhaps I’ll find some leads there. Thank you readers for being my sounding board on this matter. I appreciate it. I hope you enjoy the puzzle.

Hardwick Stove Company

Some of the best things about historic houses are the antique appliances and lighting fixtures and bathroom fixtures… assuming that they operate safely and effectively. Our new (old) abode boasts such features, but right now my fixation is on the kitchen stove.

Gas and wood (or coal?) stove by Hardwick Stove Company.

It is made by the Hardwick Stove Company, but that is all I know. The house dates to the late 1920s. Looking at this picture: the right side has four gas burners, an oven, and a broiler at the bottom. The left side has a large compartment for wood (or coal?) with warming plates on the top. There is a Robertshaw temperature control on the exterior. The entire stove is cast iron. The hood does not go with the stove.

Does anyone know how to find a particular model name or number? I want to date it to the late 1920s/early 1930s, but that’s just a guess. Has anyone restored such a stove before? Is it safe? Is it expensive? My online searching has not been fruitful yet, and the Hardwick Stove Company is not mentioned often.

Can anyone pass along information about the Hardwick Stove Company? So far, I have found a bit of history from rekitchen.com:

A brand name that is now owned by the Maytag Corporation, Hardwick was once a company that produced wood cooking appliances and later gas and electric stoves for residential use. Hardwick stoves are no longer produced, but used or antique versions are still sold by individuals and specialty companies.

Hardwick’s History

The Hardwick Stove Company was started by Bradley Hardwick in Cleveland, in the late 19th century as a manufacturer of cast iron stoves. Control of the company stayed in the family, passing to Bradley’s son Joseph, who in turn passed it down to his son C.L. C.L. maintained control for the rest of his life.

During World War II, the company switched its production from stoves to airplane parts. In 1945, it resumed its production of stoves, with a new process of quality control. The next decade brought changes, as they began to manufacture electric stoves, as well. The company was finally acquired by Maytag in 1981, which later combined it with several other brands to form Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products.

I’d really like to find information about particular Hardwick models, as well as learn of successful stove restorations. Any help is much appreciated!

The Difficult Part of Regulatory Review

As mentioned before, I love the regulatory world of historic preservation. I love working for the Agency of Transportation and having the opportunity to see historic preservation affect everyone and every place. It is exciting and practical and challenging.

Interpreting the legal language and implications of Section 106 and Section 4(f) can seem like a puzzle, but it gets easier and makes more sense with practice and experience. However, I have found that the most difficult part of interpreting and applying preservation law is realizing that the laws cannot help everything. What do I mean? Well, if a property is not historic or a Section 4(f) resource such as a park or a wildlife/waterfowl refuge, then the preservation laws have no control over the direction of the project. Other reviews, such as those pertaining to natural or biological resources or storm water control may still apply regulations, if the situation warrants it. Legally, that makes sense. And in terms of historic preservation, it makes sense.

But, every so often, I think about a project that doesn’t make sense, whether it’s in the media or something that I know of from experience, and I wish that there was a law to stop or fix the project. Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair that ineligible (for the National Register) houses and neighborhoods are not protected by preservation laws. After all, people live everywhere! Don’t all existing buildings deserve some sort of chance, under somebody’s law? Shouldn’t an existing, new building be exempt from demolition because of embodied energy? Where in the project review line will something like this be addressed?

This particular desire to protect everything, no matter what sort of resource, probably dates back to my Mary Washington days, when the flamingos and I first declared that we could save the world through our historic preservation efforts. It still keeps us going.

Well, everything cannot be and is not historic. Obviously, one law cannot control or have a say over every aspect of every project — that sounds a bit too power crazed; but when you spend your days looking at projects and determining what is eligible for protection and what is not, it’s hard to ignore everything else. When that happens, it is important to remember that historic preservation review is only a small part of the review process. My job is historic preservation compliance, and that is important to remember. The best way to solve this dilemma is to keep a good working relationship with colleagues in order to understand the entire scope of the project, as well as its purpose and need, and the project review process. Luckily, I’m learning this day by day: how review functions, when to question the process and when I need to better understand the process.

Readers, what do you find most difficult about your job?

Lake Champlain Bridge Photo Update

You can read the full construction updates on the NYSDOT project webpage, but for those who are only interested in the short version of the story, here are two of the latest pictures that I’ve taken on site for use in my preservation monitoring reports (also available on the NYSDOT webgage).These are large files, so click and zoom in for amazing clarity and perspective!

April 14, 2011. The view from Vermont. Seen from background to foreground: Pier 3 (tall pier), Pier 4 (with forms), Pier 5 with falsework), Pier 6, and edge of Pier 7.

April 14, 2011: View from Vermont.

Note how it is finally looking like spring after this long, cold winter.