How to Take Down Lath and Plaster Ceilings

take-my-lath-and-plaster-ceiling-down

Ready for the skip after 150 years…

Uh oh…..so you’ve got a period lath and plaster ceiling that needs to come down hmm?

Luckily, it’s not all bad news, but we won’t lie to you, it can be hard work and very messy! That said, taking down a lath and plaster ceiling is an perfectly possible DIY project, even for relative beginners.

Taking lath and plaster down should arguably be a last resort though, (if you want to repair your lath and plaster ceiling, follow the link to the “How to Repair Lath and Plaster Ceilings” page next door instead).

But if your ceilings are economically beyond repair, it’s understandable that you want all the mess out of the way now, while you are still upside down. Fair enough then, enough with the burb, lets get on with the job.

What you need to take down a lath and plaster ceiling….

Some Tools You Will Need

Fortunately you won’t need many and you may already have them in your tool kit.

  • Working platform, sturdy step ladders or builders trestles etc
  • Claw hammer or other lightish hammer.
  • Gauging or brick trowel.
  • Crowbar / Wrecking Bar / Pry Bar
  • Pick axe (optional but useful for getting the old laths down).
  • Clean up gear. Shovel, sweeping brush, dustpan etc and vacuum cleaner (preferably not the missus’s best one!).

Optional other gear that you may need

  • Dust protection such as Polythene and dustsheets.
  • Rubble sacks (or Gorilla style tubs if you have a skip).
  • Electrical screwdrivers for removing old light fittings.
  • Temporary lighting if required.

The mess…….

Before you start please consider………”The mess”

removing lath and plaster ceilings gets a little bit messy

Did I mention that removing lath and plaster ceilings can get a little bit messy………?

It gets messy?……Oh yeah. It gets really, really, really messy. Seriously, it makes so much dust that I recommend that you remove everything from the room and seal off the doors with masking tape before you start. Oh, and in case you were wondering, this kitchen was coming out. You can also just make out the trestles which, when coupled with scaffold battens made a perfect working platform for removing this high ceiling.

All that mess comes from dust that accumulates on top of your old plasterwork and from within the plasterwork itself. The dust is very fine in particle size and it gets everywhere, really, I mean it, everywhere!

If you have to sheet down some stuff, I would recommend that you include a polythene layer as the dust is often fine enough to go through the average dust sheet. Don’t ask me how I discovered that little gem!

Lighting

Once the room is cleared and sheeted down, including the floor, you may need to install your temporary lighting and remove any light fittings in the ceiling and make safe any wires that you disconnect (don’t forget to isolate the supply first!). Obviously if you tackle the job in broad daylight and there are windows……

Ventilation

Bit obvious this one, but you should open any windows if you can and don’t forget your dust mask!

Step by step guide to take down your lath and plaster ceiling….

Removing a lath and plaster ceiling is a three stage process (assuming that you are removing it from underneath). Read removing lath and plaster from above if applicable.

  1. Remove the plaster using a claw hammer or similar and a stout trowel. Working in front of yourself, tap the plasterwork with your hammer to break it up and if it doesn’t drop away, keep tapping it and then either use the claw on your hammer or lever the plasterwork off with the trowel. On really poor ceilings the trowel can be slid underneath the plasterwork and large pieces can be levered away.
  2. First clear up. It’s really important to clear away at the end of stage 1, when all the plaster is on the floor. You don’t need to sweep up necessarily, just get the big stuff cleared away using a shovel (otherwise the next stage will make a huge pile of lath reinforced plaster that is a bugger to clear up!).
  3. The next step is to remove the laths. I usually use a ‘pick axe’ of all things! I slide the blade through a few laths and then place the head of the pick-axe onto the bottom of a joist and lever down large sections of laths. You might want to start small and use a claw hammer or pry bar (crow bar). The laths usually break into smallish sections.
  4. The final step is to remove the nails (apart from clearing up!) that were holding up the laths. This is usually fairly tedious and time consuming as they are very numerous and rusty. Oh, and you must not miss any, not even one. Believe me, you will curse  when you are plaster-boarding if you try to put a board up and there is a nail in the middle somewhere! Sometimes you can pull them out with a claw hammer or pry bar, sometimes they snap off sideways with a blow from the hammer and sometimes you just need to hammer them in! You’ll work out what’s best for your job quickly enough.

Go and have a cup of coffee and a break to let the dust settle :-D

Back so soon? Right, next is the dirty clearing up bit.

When clearing up please take your time, if you work slowly and carefully you will cause less dust to ‘go airborne’. Slide the shovel slowly under the rubble, lift it gently, being careful not to spill dust off the side and gently put it into the bucket/sack slowly sliding the rubble off. Whereas, if you throw the stuff all over the place the room will quickly fill up with dust.

  • Start with gathering up all the fallen laths, breaking up any long lengths and put into rubble sacks, skip or wood pile for burning.
  • Now you will see lots of plaster on the floor again. This is the mortar (snots, nibs or keys) that was sitting on top of the laths after being pushed up through the gaps in the laths to provide a key for the plasterwork. Scrape up the mortar with a shovel or dustpan and remove again.
Did I mention the dust when taking down a lath and plaster ceiling

Did I mention the dust when taking down a lath and plaster ceiling………?

  • That leaves the dust. This can be swept up and bagged for disposal. You might want to try minimizing the airborne dust by damping down with a garden sprayer, but I’ll be honest, it is not that effective and the existing mess will be considerable anyway.

Lath and plaster and nails all removed and celing is almost ready for plasterboards

Now you are ready for re-boarding with plasterboard, but first you will probably be getting the electrician to install new cables for those fancy new down-lights that you want!

  • TIP 1: Don’t forget to grab a pencil and put a vertical mark on the wall about an inch and a half long (40mm) that indicates where the center of the joist is. This makes finding your fixing point so much easier when you are boarding.
  • TIP 2: If the ceiling joists are anything other than straight across along the whole length, i.e. if there is any ‘trimmed’ areas that won’t be logical once the plasterboard has been offered up. Consider taking photographs of the joist layout; you’ll be glad you did if you get stuck and can’t find anything to fix to once you are boarding!
  • Tip 3: Now is a good time to check the joists for ‘flatness’, extra timber can be fixed to the joists to level up slopes or dips etc at this stage. Some people even ‘cross batten’ the ceiling with 2″x2″ timber at 90 degrees to the joists..

Hopefully that gives you a good understanding of what’s involved in taking down a lath and plaster ceiling or even how to repair your plaster and lath ceiling. Make no mistake, tackling lath & plaster is not a decision to take lightly and certainly not a job to attempt yourself, unless you can tolerate a heck of a lot of mess and drama for a few hours.

Good luck with yours and feel free to get in touch you need more help.

Related useful information

Removing a lath and plaster ceiling from above

We can briefly mention removing a ceiling from above here, as it is a popular method if you have access to a ceiling from above. Either from inside the loft space or if the floorboards have been taken up on a full renovation job of an empty house.

Working from above you can simply push the whole lath and plaster ceiling down into the room below, using a shovel, sledge hammer or even your boots. Simply tap the back of the laths close to and either side of the joists with your preferred tool (I recommend a lightish long handled 7lb sledgehammer)

Although we can see the merit of working from above (easier work and less mess lands on you), we don’t recommend this method as it is inherently dangerous. Great care must be taken not to fall through the joists. Jumping around on ‘open joists’ requires years of practice.

We also find the resulting heap of debris very difficult to clear away, because the lath and plaster become so impossibly tangled and mixed up that separating them is very time consuming. Thus losing any time saved by kicking the ceilings down quickly from above.

What have you learned from taking down your lath and plaster ceilings? Leave a comment, you might help someone else!

Need More Information or Help?

Urban legend has it that you only need to read six books on a subject to be classed as an ‘expert’. So, here are some books I found interesting which will be useful to get you started! Or drop me a comment and ask a question.

Available from… handycrowd.com/amazon.co.uk/books (or here at amazon.com for the rest of the world), just follow the links to have a peek; you’ll be suporting this site if you do!

  1. old house handbook

    Not destined for the coffee table……..

    Old House HandbookA Practical Guide to Care and Repair, by Roger Hunt and Marianne Suhr. Hardback.

    Don’t be deceived, this book may be at home on the coffee table, but it packs a lot of really useful information into its 208 pages. Passed and approved by my favorite ‘Institute’, the guys at SPAB, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

    The book teaches you to work with your house, not fight it. Repair not restore or renovate. If you are into minimalistic, white flat surfaces and recessed downlights, this book may be a shock for you, as it educates us to live with a buildings character, not destroy it.


  1. book about the maintenance of historic buildings

    maintenance of historic buildings

    Maintenance of Historic Buildings, A practical Handbookby Jurgen Klemisch.A practical, hands-on guide to the maintenance of your older house. Based on many years of experience, this book teaches you the current best practices related to maintenance and is presented using a straightforward logical format.

    In two sections the book deals with maintenance for use by owners and how to conduct condition surveys  The book makes extensive use of helpful checklists, work cards detailing routine cleaning, deep cleaning, inspection, servicing and redecoration; and even spreadsheets to help plan your maintenance.
    Following the books recommendations would also (over time) build a useful record about your house, which will be helpful when deciding the timing of future repairs and allow you to assess costs accurately.


  1. damp houses a guide to the causes and treatment of dampness

    A damp house is a dying house……

    The Damp House: A Guide to the Causes and Treatment of Dampness. By Jonathan Hetreed. Hardback.

    I thought that I would include this book because as the owner of an older property you will soon come to learn that water or damp is the mortal enemy of your house!

    Managing the moisture and water, on, in and around your home is vital in the battle to preserve and protect it.

    From the patio to the ridge, water is trying to get into your house and cause damage! Read Jonathan’s insights and learn how to keep it at bay.


  1. haynes Victorian house book image

    The Victorian House manual from Haynes

    The Victorian House Manual By Haynes
    A no nonsense book that even Conservation Officers like and use! This book covers some of the most common problems found in houses built in this era, along with some of the more common misconceptions about some of the repairs commonly touted as being able to “cure all ills”.As you would expect from Haynes these books have great photos and easy to understand and follow instructions. A hard to beat primer for anyone owning or thinking of buying a Victorian (or Edwardian for that matter) house.


  1. A step by step guide to using natural finishes in your old house

    Guide to using natural finishes

    Using Natural Finishes: Lime and Clay Based Plasters, Renders and Paints – A Step-by-step Guide By Adam Weismann

    Adam Weismann’s book is more specialized than those above and would suit the hard core enthusiast who wants to have a go at repairing their old walls and ceilings themselves.

    Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs comments that it is “A splendid book. A real addition to what’s out there and very complementary to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings’ new technical manual on Old Building Repairs”.

Endnote….

Lath and plaster carpet

lath and plaster carpet from bev hisey

Carpet inspired by lath and plaster walling

Bev Hisey was so inspired by the look and feel of the lath and plaster when renovating her home that she has dedicated a brand new carpet design to it! Click the image to see more…

The Handy Crowd

4 thoughts on “How to Take Down Lath and Plaster Ceilings

  1. Have a home with lath and plaster walls and a lath and plaster popcorn ceiling built in 1972. What is the best way to remove the popcorn( which is lath and plaster) ceiling so I can have a smooth surface to paint.

    • Hi Dan,
      Unfortunately, 1972 is before the 1978 ban on using asbestos in popcorn ceilings, so it’s possible that yours might contain these dangerous fibers. I would get a sample tested in a lab before you do anything (it doesn’t cost too much). If it does contain asbestos its removal should only be done by a licensed professional. Of course if the lab doesn’t find evidence of asbestos you can remove it yourself, although the process is messy!

      The popcorn texture is softened by water and can be easily removed after damping it down with a garden sprayer to soften it, then scraping it off with a large scraper (drywall type is good). Several dampening sessions will be required and allowed to soak in to get it all off.

      Lets hope yours is safe and you can go it alone, asbestos is nasty stuff and despite what folk law says, once can be enough.
      Good luck and let us know how you get on!

      One note though, it’s likely that you’ll need to ‘tidy’ up the plasterwork underneath unless you are very good with the scraper! It’s very easy to dig into the plaster, especially as it will be damp from the spraying. Expect some filling and sanding of scrapes and gouges. Maybe a lining paper afterwards?
      Stay well
      Ian

  2. My builder has come and had a look at my very bumpy sort of saggy Victorian ceiling which was also covered in I think 1970s cork wallpaper stuff? V common in our neighbourhood. He says if he pulls the wallpaper off, the plaster will fall and its probably worth addressing the whole room (also with the horrid corky bumpy wallpaper). This would mean tearing everything out. Do I want to keep the lath and re-plaster or remove the whole lot and go with plasterboard? I think he was proposing plaster, not sure. With some sort of lining paper.

    • Hi Alice,
      I would be very impressed of your builder is proposing to keep the laths and re-plaster, as most builders are happier to take everything out and replace it with plasterboards and skim!

      It’s up to you and your budget, plasterboards are a permanent fix and will give you a brand new room with flat finishes. Re-plastering the existing laths however will give you a more period finish although might cost more, especially if he uses lime plasters (he should really).

      Lining paper wouldn’t normally be required on a new ceiling (because they are new, nice and flat) whichever method you use, unless it’s to fit in with other existing finishes.

      Conclusion then. If he wants to re-plaster existing laths with lime products go for that, if he wants to re-plaster using modern (read less flexible) materials then I’d opt for plasterboards and skim.

      Hope that doesn’t muddy the water further! Don’t hesitate to get in touch again if I can help.
      Thanks for stopping by!
      Cheers
      Ian

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