Crazy different, huh? Here are a few more before shots so you can better see what we were working with.
As you can see, the living room felt dark and a bit gloomy. Everything just looked tired and shabby with cracks in the plaster, dingy walls and ceilings, and art glass windows in need or repair (you can read more about the windows here). This whole project took us 3-4 weeks to complete, working mainly on the weekends with a few hours in the evenings here and there. The most time consuming tasks were stripping all of the woodwork and windows - I'll elaborate on that further below - and the plaster repair.
There is a common adage that things get worse before they get better, and that would be the perfect way to describe this process. After working for 2-3 weeks, it was a bit disheartening to see that everything did indeed look worse than when we started, but it was very necessary to ensure that everything was done properly and we were left with a quality end product.
We do have plaster walls, which is to be expected in a 1925 home. Frankly, I love them. They dampen sound like you wouldn't believe and are a lot more durable than drywall. However, one thing that you can be sure of (along with death and taxes) is that over time, plaster will crack. While significant cracks in the plaster can be indicative of excessive structural movement and potential foundation issues, minor and hairline cracks (less than 1/8"-1/16" of an inch) are pretty normal and not something to worry about. We did not have any large or questionable cracks, so we moved forward with plaster repair.
*If you have an old home, especially one that was built before the 70's, I urge you to test for lead before scraping, sanding, or otherwise disturbing a paint finish. Lead exposure can cause all kinds of nasty problems, especially for children and expectant mothers. Testing for lead is super easy. You can pick up a lead test kit from any big box store or from a number of online retailers for just a few bucks. We used this kind here. You just pinch the tube on either end to release the chemicals and shake it up to combine them, then rub the solution on the wall in question for 30 seconds. It the solution stays yellow, your'e clear. If it turns red, bad news, that's lead paint. Keep in mind that this method tests only the layer of paint that is exposed. We had some areas where 2-3 layers of paint were exposed by chipped plaster, and we were sure to test each of those layers as well. For more information on the dangers of lead and resources for homeowners with lead based paint, click here.*
The first step in plaster repair is scraping away any loose paint or plaster. Anything that has detached from the wall needs to go as you can't make it stick again (unless you use plaster washers and go through that whole crazy process, but fortunately, we didn't have large chunks of loose plaster so it wasn't any issue). The next step is to dig out the cracks. While it does seem counter intuitive to dig out plaster cracks (why am I making the crack I want to make go away bigger?) it is actually super important to make sure that crack doesn't come back. Opening up the crack allows the the joint company and/or joint tape to fill the crack, rather than just lying on the surface. This will give you a much better, long lasting repair. For smaller cracks, we just used joint compound. Anything larger than 1/4" of an inch or so, we used tape in combination with joint compound. Since this was our first time tackling this plaster repair, we chose the slow drying joint compound. This allowed us plenty of time to working with the product to get the finish just right, and it because it dries slowly, there is less shrinkage. The down side was that we needed to wait at least 24 hours for each coat of compound to cure before we could sand it down and apply another coat. Expect to go over cracks 2-3 times with joint compound, sanding between each coat, to get them to blend seamlessly into the wall. Also, sanding the joint compound down was not a lot of fun, as evidence by my sweet hair style below...
No i'm not prematurely graying - that's joint compound dust!
And now, let's chat about the woodwork, shall we? As you can see from the before photos, it was not painted and in the afters, it is. I know that this is a hot button issue for a lot of historic home restorers and preservationists. I struggled with this decision quite a bit, but in the end, we chose to paint our woodwork for a number of reasons. While we were fortunate enough to have (nearly) all of the original trim and millwork in place, it was not in the best of shape. In addition to the nicks and gouges that you would expect in a 90 year old home, the prior owners thought it was a great idea to drive large finish nails through the window stops and some other trim pieces, splitting some of the wood. There was a lot of wood putty needed to get the trim where I wanted it to be.
Whether we painted the wood or not, we knew that we would have to strip it. In some areas, the finish was crazing, making it impossible to just paint over it. Also, I was not digging the high gloss poly and the dark stain was just bringing me down. So, we went ahead and stripped every. single. inch. of woodwork in the living room. It's messy and smelly, and 18 different kinds of NOT fun. After days of stripping, we made a fun discovery that we had 4 different kinds of wood in there; the majority of the trimwork is ash, the frames on the stained glass windows are oak, the baseboards are a combination of maple and pine. This was all disguised by super dark stain, and a thick, gloppy coat high gloss poly. This discovery was the nail in the coffin for any dreams of beautiful, glowing natural woodwork.
So, we sucked it up and broke out our paint brushes. We primed the wood using two coats of the Behr Stain-Blocking Primer and Sealer Interior. Just with the primer, you can see how much the white trim brightens up the room.
Next, we painted with Behr Ultra Pure White Satin Enamel Zero VOC Interior Paint. I was on the fence about going with a super white paint on the trim, fearing that it might look stark or cold. I was leaning towards Behr's Polar Bear, which is a soft, creamier white. Moises convinced me to go with the bright white and I have to admit, it was the right choice. The satin finish in the trim gives a nice pearly glow without emphasizing flaws or imperfections.
Next was the ceiling. We just went over that with a coat of flat white ceiling paint. As you can see, we have embossed ceiling tiles. I am still on the fence about them... While I kind of like the floral texture, I don't like that they are ceiling tiles. We've decided to keep them for now (they are on the ceiling in every room on the main floor, and the crown moulding overlaps them, so taking them down would be a heck of a project).
Finally, we primed the walls with Kilz and then painted two coats of Benjamin Moore's Gray Cashmere. Our house is south facing and packed in so close to our neighbors, we don't get a light of natural light. I didn't want the paint color to be too dark, so I had the folks at Benjamin Moore mix it at 50% strength and the color turned out perfect.
After going through this process, I do have some tips, tricks, and/or other helpful things I wish I would have known in advance:
- When sanding joint compound, be sure to put up plastic or a tarp of some sort to contain the dust in the room you are working in. This stuff gets EVERYWHERE.
- Where a mask when sanding joint compound! It's not healthy to breathe that junk in.
- When using chemical stripper, be sure to wear chemical gloves and eye protection to prevent it from eating the skin off your bones or blinding you - regular work gloves or vinyl gloves will not cut it. Also, be sure to keep some water and clean paper towels or rags near you to wipe off the stripper when it inevitably gets on you. Because it will, no matter how careful you are, and it STINGS like you would not believe.
One of the most time consuming parts of this project that I didn't touch on here was restoring the windows. I will be doing a follow up post on that shortly. Next on our list is to tackle our little entryway foyer and the dining room!