It is too easy to underestimate the work involved in restoring period ceilings. Justin Vogler looks at some tricks of the restoration trade.
They add a mint to heating bills, attract dust, take days to decorate and even make changing light bulbs a challenge. Yet it is the grandiose high ceilings, replete with graceful cornices and trim picture rails, that set period properties apart and give them their distinctive elegance and charm.
This, unfortunately, has not prevented generations of decorators from “papering over the cracks” of Victorian ceiling with an array of incongruous products. Stock favourites are (notoriously hard to remove) woodchip wallpaper and textured plaster finishes, generally known by the generalised trademark “artex”. Care must be taken with the latter as it often contains white asbestos.
Lincrusta on ceilings, though often not original can be attractive. If intact this can be restored. Loose edges of thinner varieties can be glued up with wall paper paste. With thicker neo-classical designs it may be necessary to cut out loose areas, clean and re-glue either with paste or spray-on contact adhesive. However, it is notoriously difficult to find matches for damaged or incomplete lincrusta which looks shoddy if incomplete.
If you are lucky and the damaged section is in the middle it could be covered with a wide fibrous plaster ceiling centre. (Or a cheaper resin imitation). However, if the damage is elsewhere more drastic measures may be needed.
Where possible avoid stripping paper, artex or lincrusta off old ceilings. Hours of hard work and aching forearms and neck are usually rewarded by a chaos of cracks and loose plasterwork that will prove costly to repair and rarely results in a totally smooth unblemished finish.
Odd cracks in old ceilings that don’t have textured coverings can be repaired. Cut a three inch wide section out of the finishing plaster or backing paper along the crack. It there is movement along the crack either remove all loose plaster and/or screw the loose parts up into the nearest beams. Paste the prepared section with diluted PVA glue, working it into the crack, then apply plaster’s scrim and skim with sandable filling plaster. Once dry sand over and re-skim/fill any imperfections and re-sand.
Ceiling covered with textured finishes or crisscrossed with lots of cracks generally need re-boarding with 9 or 12.5mm plasterboard before skimming. I would only take down the old lath and plaster if it was wet or really loose, or if I wanted to get to the joist void to insulate or put services in. Otherwise board straight over the existing plaster. This double plaster layer will actually improve the fire proofing and acoustic insulation between floors.
Likewise it is generally a waste of time stripping paper or artex and simpler (and safer) to overboard straight over any covering.
Boards should be screwed straight into the ceiling joists using long drywall screws and it is best to join boards along the joists. That said, anyone who has over boarded a lath and plaster ceiling soon discovers that screws bite almost anywhere thanks to the wooden laths concealed in the plaster.
When over boarding rooms with cornices plasterers tend to butt the edge of the boards up against the top lip of the cornices. This creates a joint between plasterboard and fibrous plaster that is likely to crack. Furthermore, running the boards into the cornice like this shrinks the moulding and erases the crisp top edge of the moulding that so pleasingly exacerbates the contours of classic rooms.
A better solution is to stop the boards 20 or 30mm shy of the top edge of the fibrous plaster work, skim the boarded area and then pin and glue a wooden moulding around the perimeter to hide the edge of the boards. Once painted in, this will just look like a small additional detail of the cornice.
In a future blog I will look in more detail at repairing cornices and reinstating picture rails.