Few things are more stunning than intact, intricate ceilings in historic buildings.
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.
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:
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:
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?
The Preservation Pop Quiz from Friday March 16 asked if you could identify this architectural material:
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).
By Nicholas Bogosian
I have now reached the fifth quarter of my training at the Building Preservation & Restoration Program of Belmont Technical College. That’s five out of seven. I started this series at the beginning of my training with the intent of highlighting the trades function in the preservation of our built environment and as an open scrapbook of my experiences through the duration of the training. I am happy to say that the zeal I came into the process with hasn’t wavered a bit. Now the time has come to begin seeking out internships and think more forwardly about my place in the field.
I know, like most of my peers, that I find satisfaction in making an unhealthy structure healthy again. I enjoy even more knowing why it is healthier and why it was unhealthy in the first place. This maintenance ethic may seem concrete in our minds, but I bet most of the world doesn’t view maintenance as a technical skill, a science, or an art (or even a priority). The beauty of the craftsman is not only their ability to work with their hands – truthfully, their handiwork would have no value without the intellectual understanding of the materials they are working with.
It is not enough, however, to be proficient in the historic building trades (i.e. plastering, blacksmithing, masonry, timber framing, faux painting, etc.) A modern preservationist (or conservator, or preservation technician) must take their knowledge of these highly specialized professions and view the building holistically and understand the process of deterioration. What good is a plasterer’s handiwork in repairing cracks in a wall when significant differential settlement is taking place in the building? A preservation-sensitive structural engineer would do more good.
So I suppose the conservationist shares in the same delight of the chemist, in knowing something at its atomic and molecular level – to know something through and through.
By Nicholas Bogosian
The Spring quarter is coming to a close and many of us are busy putting the final touches on a slew of school projects. This month I figured I’d just share some photos and let you in on some really exciting work students and I have been a part of in the last few weeks.
Field Lab: Wall Plastering
Abbe Popescu applies the browncoat on the chimney wall of the Morristown House. Jon Smith, our field lab instructor, has done plaster work on major projects including Edith Wharton’s ‘The Mount.’ It was thrilling to watch him mix his ingredients and apply the plaster with such ease and fluid technique. Abbe quickly became the plaster queen and has also plastered another wall in the house.
Field Lab: Plaster Stabilization
Abbe and I endeavored on a plaster stabilization project under the stairs in the Morristown house as well. One section of the ceiling was missing a significant section of plaster. We were wanting to stabilize the remaining historic plaster and apply new plaster to the exposed hand-hewn lath. We chose the washer method where a metal washer is counter-sunk into the loose plaster with a screw to help hold the plaster firmly against the lath again. A more conservation-oriented method involves drilling holes in the existant plaster and injecting acrylic fills to bind the loose plaster to the lath again.
Paints & Clear Finishes
In my paints and clear finishes class I’ve been experimenting with creating different paints, stains, and “clear” finishes from “scratch.” A large part of this is just understanding the major characteristics of each and the varieties of components one can use in the final recipe list. All final experiments are displayed on wood sample pieces.
Of the many historic paint finishes I experimented with, egg tempera was one:
In Plaster class, the creation of my medallion continues. Most all of the aplique has been cast. Now that I’ve made my tin tooth, I can now begin the process of running my medallion base. Once all aplique has been set, I can prime and paint.
Field Lab: Timber Framing.
The basement at the Morristown House has been supported for a while now with shoring devices until we were able to re-build the timber brace supports. This morning we worked on creating mortise and tenons and fitting the final pieces together. All final pieces are fastened with treenails.
In other news, I’ve begun the planning stages for my project in Advanced Material Sciences class. We can choose any material we want and design an intensive preservation project based around it. I’m interested in wood conservation, specifically the conservation of early framing styles. Jon Smith, our field lab instructor is a timber framing and covered bridge aficionado and he told me about a local Farmstead with some really amazing (no, TRULY amazing) old timber construction.We went and looked at it, and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had since I’ve been here in Ohio. Floyd, the current owner of the farmstead talked to me for at least an hour and seemed to have such a deep connection with the place and with what it represented of early rural vernacular life. It’s still an operating farm and a popular site on the Drover’s Trail. It’s called the Kinney Farm and dates to the 1860s.
I’m still in the process of learning more about it, but there are currently five structures on the property all on the National Register. With Jon’s guidance, I’m going to document the Carriage house on the property (which is falling into quick disrepair) and repair the rotted sills and any other timber conservation needed. I am excited because this will involve some structural shoring techniques which I have yet to have any experience with. It will also be great because we will be dealing with early American building techniques/joinery/tools – all for a Nationally Registered structure! Can’t wait to share the experience with you PiP readers.
By Abigail Watson-Popescu
Belmont Technical College’s hands-on approach to teaching building preservation breaks into two divisions: the construction track and the decorative track. While I learned quite a lot in my carpentry class this past quarter and found it to be good fun, as a student with a keen interest in historical interiors, I have chosen to pursue the decorative track. The decorative track focuses primarily on teaching the preservation and restoration of interior decorative work. This line of focus features courses in wall finishes, gilding and composition, marbling and wood graining, ceramics and plaster, as well as introductory courses in model and mold making and paints and clear finishes. As our director Dave Mertz likes to say, if you repeat the information often enough and there is enough repetitive practice using the information, it will hopefully stick once the students are out of the program and in the field. I find this to be entirely true regarding the building block sort of architecture upon which this program is designed.
In the introductory courses of Model and Mold Making and Paints and Clear Finishes, students have a chance to explore and experiment with a particular medium, whether it is molding rubbers, plaster, aniline dyes, milk paints, or the production of homemade walnut dyes, to name a few. These introductory courses allow us to plunge into the process of getting our hands dirty all the while learning the chemical properties of each component and media, resulting in an understanding of what works with what (and often vice-versa). This occasionally requires learning the hard way, involving extra work to make up for novice mistakes. (For instance, learning never to use a nylon brush for oil paints, or a natural bristle brush for latex!)
Dave Mertz also likes to say that students usually don’t believe they have a free hand to experiment (often because there is grading involved)—but in these intro classes, we really have been given free reign to plumb the great unknown (once armed with a great deal of encyclopedic knowledge from our sage professor, of course). This process of experimentation in the introductory courses allows us to really find out how the various media work for ourselves. Once we’ve got a handle on the media, students in the decorative track then go on to employ their knowledge of paints, stains, molding rubbers and plaster in more refined ways, with the end goal of reproducing historical finishes and plaster decorative features.
As a student pursuing the decorative track, I have, up to this point, delved into producing rubber molds of three-dimensional objects, from which I then produced plaster reproductions.
This spring, I will take my experience of creating molds and producing plaster casts to a more practical and applicable level in the advanced plaster course. In the forthcoming plaster course, we will learn how to repair and reproduce decorative plaster elements, such as the components of a plaster ceiling medallion, via the mold making and casting process. In this course, students will also learn how to repair and reproduce traditional three-coat plaster, as we work on our ongoing restoration of Belmont Technical College’s Field Lab house in Morristown, Ohio.
Another pair of advanced material science courses encompassed in the decorative track that build upon knowledge learned in the introductory classes include Wall Finishes and Graining and Marbling. Having taken the Wall Finishes course this past Winter Quarter, I found it grew organically from the knowledge I acquired from the Paints and Clear Finishes class. My final project for Paints and Clear Finishes involved producing a wood sample board, featuring various types of wood in a variety of finishes.
I experimented with making dyes out of natural earth pigments such as Prussian blue, as well as producing homemade dyes from walnuts that I picked in the fall. I even went so far as to make my own encaustic paint out of beeswax and pigments from a recipe I discovered in The Painter’s Handbook by Mark David Gottsegen. I relished the experience of making traditional finishes, which allowed me the feeling of putting myself in the place of a historical artisan, even though I occasionally found it to be very hard and frustrating work (particularly in producing the very labor-intensive traditional French Polish!)
This experimental introduction gave me a familiarity with paints and clear finishes that enhanced my creativity when it came to producing an interesting and visually pleasing finished wall in the more focused course. The wall finishes course taught me the intricacies of a variety of paints and decorative finishes, which culminated with the production of a finished mock-up of a room, including walls, moldings and ceiling. When it came to deciding how I would undertake developing a color and decorative scheme for my wall, I took my instructor Jeff MacDonald’s advice to heart: “Never underestimate the power of a limited palette.” And, indeed, I chose a limited palette of golds and sage-like greens. I found that choosing a limited palette allowed me more room to experiment with a variety of finishes to produce a visually interesting but cohesive wall.
In going with a historical sort of feel, I decided to depict a parchment paper-like effect for the main portion of my wall. I did this by creating a glaze treatment made of raw sienna oil paint, primer, and an oil-based glazing liquid, which I thinned out with mineral spirits in order to achieve the appropriate weight (not an easy task!) This resulted in a yellowish hue that was lighter than my gold wall. The weight and hue of this glaze would give just the right effect of crinkles of parchment paper, when ragged on with crinkled newspaper-weight paper. I chose another glazing treatment for the portion of the wall below the chair rail. For this treatment, I used the sage green oil paint of my trim, glazing liquid and mineral spirits, which I applied in a horizontal wave pattern using graining combs. Lastly, I turned to the traditional stencil (which I traced and cut out of Mylar) in a thistle pattern for the corners of the ceiling to add the finishing touch to pull the whole scheme together.
My work on finishes will culminate with the Graining and Marbling course this spring. In this course, I will learn how to create marbling, or stone-like effects, on wood using paints and glazing liquids. The wood-graining portion of the course will likewise involve the use of glazes and combing techniques to produce a faux-wood grain finish, much favored in many historical buildings.
I was pleasantly surprised by a wonderful and expansive example of traditional wood graining of the late 19th century while I was investigating the Italianate YWCA building in my hometown of Titusville, Pennsylvania for my building pathology report last quarter. The cabinetry and woodwork in the kitchen and main office of this building is beautifully finished in wood graining, albeit unfortunately suffering from serious damage over time. Seeing the damage to the original wood graining in this building has piqued my anticipation for learning how I might combine my knowledge of repairing the damaged wood (which involves epoxy-consolidation and sanding) with restoring the artistic element of the traditional wood graining.
What I enjoy most about pursuing the decorative track of Belmont Tech’s BPR program is that reproducing or conserving artistic decorative elements enables me to share in the historical process, allowing me to walk in the shoes of the historical craftsperson, as it were. While I certainly would not consider myself an accomplished artist by any stretch of the imagination, learning to preserve, repair and reproduce decorative elements allows me a certain appreciation of the work of the craftsperson at a level which I could not have had prior to this hands-on experience. In many ways, I feel that regardless of a person’s level of craft, having the experience of producing a decorative piece with one’s own hands gives one an in-depth appreciation of the level of skill and labor that has gone in to the making of so many of our incredible historical buildings. And while interiors might not be a number one criterion for the National Register (although it seems the tide is changing a bit on that front), I believe that the preservation of interiors is central to the preservation of the fine artistic accomplishments of the past. The decorative track of Belmont Technical College’s Building Preservation and Restoration Program cultivates not only an appreciation for the work that went in to the production of historic interiors, but also an ability to preserve and repair these interiors wherever they might be failing. In this way, the spirit of the historic artist lives on in those who practice and conserve their work going forward. As a student on Belmont Tech’s decorative track, I am proud to be a member of this movement.
By Nicholas Bogosian
Modeling, Molding & Casting
Molding compounds, long ago, were made from animal by-products. The molds would, in turn, attract all sorts of vermin. The shelf-life of the mold was brief. Today, the mold maker can still be found – in fabrication plants, in art studios, in special effects labs, and in the preservation trades, to name a few.
Since the days of edible molds, we’ve come quite far in our scientific development of more durable and lasting molding materials. Today the mold maker can select from polyurethane and silicone liquid rubbers as well as latex, alginate, and wax. The decision on which to use is not a mere preference, but rather dependent on what material you will be casting with, as well as the shape characteristics of the piece. The litany of casting materials is much more extensive: wax, concrete, plaster, epoxy, polyurethane, polyester, acrylic, and metal. Along with casting material and the shape of the desired piece, there are many other factors to consider before choosing your materials. These considerations can be found in molding and casting materials catalogues.
Model and mold making, for the preservationist, can be one of the few avenues to be creative and artistic, especially if he or she is given a restoration job. Say a Federalist style home has had many occupants through the years and many additions – and say one of those additions was dropped ceilings in a front office for a realtor. After research has been done on the property, it is decided to restore the ceiling to its characteristic decorative plaster ceilings which no longer exist, complete with an elaborate plaster medallion. It is then your job to create the Federalist ornamentation from scratch, with the aid of photographs and diagrams of the period’s style.
In a recent project at Belmont Tech, we were to find some section/piece of decorative architecture (whether in print or in real life), render the example, model the example from clay, create a mold of the model, then cast the mold with plaster.
I found my example out of a Gothic Architecture book – a small section from a c. 1500s woodcarving that encased a window. Then I rendered the photograph into an image that was the size I needed.
Second, with my design, I needed to roll out the clay to get a uniform thickness.
“Tracing” the image onto the clay is done simply by using a modeling “poker” to poke holes in the clay along the lines.
Then the process of carving out the image begins. Here, ready for touchups:
The degree of detail that one pursues on such complex modeling designs will be dependent on the time available, and the placement of the object in the structure. Our professor gave an example of someone trying to remove each and every fingerprint from the clay for an enormous medallion in a historic theatre which will be not only in half-light most of its life, but nowhere near enough its admirers for fingerprints to be seen. And at this rate, the preservation artist ends up making barely twenty-two cents an hour!
Next, a clay dam is created around the model to contain the molding compound as it cures.
Because my model had fairly deep crevices, lips, and some delicate shapes, it was best to go for a molding compound which would be soft enough to maneuver from the plaster once cast. I used a 74-30 Polyurethane Liquid Rubber, which has two parts: the 74 classifies the resin and the 30 classifies the hardness. Every molding compound has specific instructions for preparation. The two parts are designed to produce a chemical reaction when mixed, and will only do so if mixed properly. This particular polyurethane was a one to one ratio. The molding compound is poured into the dam and allowed to cure for a day.
Once the mold is retrieved, gypsum casting plaster in powdered form is mixed with warm water till a dip of the finger shows no skin. Once the mold has been sprayed with Spray-Release, the plaster is poured into the mold. The plaster should not sit in the mold for more than a day, as it will be more difficult to remove. The still-wet plaster casting can be removed after a half-hour and left to cure in the open.
Brush-on molds may also be utilized in pieces which are still attached, such as decorative cornices, capitals, or lion’s heads. In these situations, there would be no way to remove the object, and there would be no need to.
Having the technology of model and mold making makes the preservationist’s job efficient and more cost-effective because of the variety of materials at your disposal. If actual decorative pieces can be retrieved and molded, the modeling step is taken out altogether. Once a mold is created of a single object, it can be duplicated easily for repetitive patterns and used for many years to come.