How to Tell if Your Lath and Plaster Ceiling Needs to Come Down

period charm

Period Charm….how much can you take away?

It’s a difficult decision isn’t it? We all love the period charm of an older house but what to do when repairing something as notorious as a lath and plaster ceiling? It can be difficult to find that point where you need to stop repairing a ceiling because removing the ceiling is the cheaper option.

I always shed a tear when an original old lath and plaster ceiling comes down, as I can’t shake the feeling that the house will lose a little of its character.

But times change and our expectations with them, for example, modern light fittings simply do not sit well in lath and plaster. At least not without a lot of work or compromise. Cost is also a big factor, during major renovations ripping out a ceiling and plasterboarding it is not that big a deal cost wise, especially in comparison to hiring in lime and plaster specialists to repair the ceilings. Whereas any competent DIY enthusiast or local builder can replace lath and plaster with plasterboard relatively cheaply.

Since you are here though, you’ve probably got a sagging ceiling or one that is badly cracked and falling off the laths.

Caveats first though OK. This ‘how to’ explains how to evaluate whether to repair and/or to take down a lath and plaster ceiling. Plaster ceilings in some listed houses may need to be retained and repaired rather than removed (check first!).

OK, enough blurb, lets take a look at your plasterwork

Evaluating whether to repair or remove your lath and plaster ceilings

Stand underneath one corner of your ceiling on a suitable ladder and with your head almost touching the ceiling look across the surface, do a 90 degree sweep looking for any unevenness, sagging sections, cracks etc. Try again from the opposing corners. Your ceiling may look flat from the floor, but once you get up there and have a closer look, you will get a much better idea of its condition.

Lath and plaster in ‘textbook’ condition

A sagging ceiling does not necessarily mean that the plasterwork has broken away from the lath though. Old houses settle and the ceilings go along for the ride. So, if your ceiling is sagging or sloping, it may still be OK.

In any sagging areas where you suspect that the plaster has separated from the lath, stand underneath and gently push upwards with the palm of your hands. A little give is normal but if you feel the plaster move up and down, this means that it is not attached to the laths. Dust and debris may fall from cracks as you do this.

NOTE: Don’t go crazy here, if you push and shove a really bad ceiling hard a few times, you might end up ‘wearing’ it! Go gently :-?

lath and plaster and how it fails

Lath and plaster and how it usually fails

When a ceiling fails completely the lime mortar or plasterwork separates from the laths and drops down. Effectively this means that the plasterwork is hanging underneath the laths, virtually unsupported.  Sometimes it is only the horse hair strands in the mortar that is holding up the plasterwork! This rarely happens over the entire area though. Some areas may be perfectly fine.

If left in this perilous state, chunks of plasterwork will eventually start to crack and even drop away, either in small pieces or in large sheets if there is a water leak or even someone jumping on the floor above etc.

Keep or start over?

It becomes a question of percentages. Once more than a third of a ceiling has failed, replacement may be a cheaper option than repairs. Check the entire ceiling as described above and mark any areas that you think have separated with big pencil circles. From the floor try to judge how much of the ceiling has failed from your marks. More than a third to a half?

Because repairing a lath and plaster ceiling like this can be expensive, or beyond your ability as a DIY enthusiast, you might say enough is enough and sadly, “I want to take the ceiling down” and start over.

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.

http://handycrowd.com/amazon.co.uk/books

All available from amazon.co.uk, (or here at amazon.com for the rest of the world), just follow the links to have a peek!

  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…

Stay well

By Ian Anderson

26 thoughts on “How to Tell if Your Lath and Plaster Ceiling Needs to Come Down

  1. Thanks! This was really helpful. We’ve just had a section of plaster fall away in one of our downstairs rooms and wasn’t sure what the right ‘repair’ should be—think the whole ceiling needs to come down.

    • You’re most welcome David, glad it helped. It is difficult to assess the condition isn’t it? Sometimes a part falls away and the rest of the ceiling isn’t too bad, but usually it’s a sign that more extensive work is needed to make a lasting repair.
      Good luck with the work!
      Regards
      Ian

      • My lathe and plaster ceiling seems fine. However, I am refurbishing the whole house including rewiring and re-plumbing and putting in new lighting. My guess (but I am no expert and happy to be corrected on this point) is that this is likely to require extensive access into the ceiling areas and therefore cutting through it. So I may as well replace all the ceilings. What do you think?

        • Hi Jay,
          Well, services are normally accessed from underneath the floor boards as this is better in the long term for later alterations and future maintenance if something goes wrong. Services are only run in from underneath if the ceiling are coming down anyway.

          So, you shouldn’t take down the ceilings just to sort out the services!

          Most older houses have several ‘runs’, you’ll recognise these as floorboards that have obviously been up before, sometimes many times! This is where you’ll find pipes and cables.

          Re the lighting though, it’s unusual to try and fit recessed downlights in a lath and plaster ceiling, so you might need to replace them with plasterboard if this is your intention.
          Hope that helps, thanks for dropping in and good luck fixing up your place,
          Regards
          Ian

  2. I have regular drywall ceilings, when I push on them they make cracking sound. I have no cracks. Is there a problem with my ceilings? I also hear a lot of cracking and popping sounds from time to time, like settling cracking . I have a townhouse that is about 30 years old. Who do I get to inspect my ceilings.

    • Hi linda,
      Well, 30 years ago plasterboards were nailed up instead of the drywall screws that we use today, and also it sounds terrible but lots of houses built around then were lightly built, which means they do move around little. Nails didn’t pull the boards up as tight as the screws do, which is why there are less creaking problems today.

      But to be honest, if you don’t have any cracking in the plasterworks, it’s unlikely that there is a problem. I had a house built in 1981 that made the most horrendous noises when you walked around upstairs, even after I put three boxes of extra screws into the chipboard in a misguided attempt to quieten the floor! I think that the floor joists were a little too small for the size of the house and flexed a lot. Contractors working down to a spec huh!

      The cracking you can hear is probably just the materials moving up and down on the nails/screws/etc. as the floors flex or the house settles down for the night. Have you asked the neighbours if their houses are the same?
      Hope that sets your mind at rest a little!
      Thanks for stopping by Linda,
      Stay well
      Ian

  3. Hi Ian,

    My husband and I have just bought a 1917 house with lath and plaster ceilings. We are both useless at DIY and have no experience with owning an older property so would really appreciate your advice! We have builders in at the moment sorting out the damp, taking down a wall and rewiring the whole house. The previous owner at some point over the last 40 years has taken down a different wall on the left side of the house and replaced the lath and plaster on that side only with boards. We cannot decide what to do with the right hand side or the upstairs ceilings. Would taking the wall down affect the lath and plaster? Are we silly not to take the ceilings down whilst we are having so much work done? One of the ceilings upstairs is sagging a bit and the landing ceiling has quite a few cracks. The builder says to just leave the lath and plaster up there and board over the top of all the ceilings and skim over but my father in law says they need to come out. We would be grateful of your advice!

    • Hi Tracy,
      It’s a dilemma isn’t it, especially if your builder shows little inclination to take them down!

      But. There are pro’s and cons to taking the old stuff down….

      Pros. There is no doubt that taking out rotten old stuff makes a better job over the long term, less potential for the weight of the old plaster sitting on top of the new boards to cause cracking etc and boards screwed directly into the joists are obviously tighter, stronger and possibly even flatter.
      Cons are that it might cost a little more and there is definitely more mess to clean up which also costs.

      If the house is a building site right now anyways, I consider it’s a perfect opportunity to take them out, plus it makes running new cable for new lights easy etc.

      Or as a half way measure, what’s the ceiling height like? On my list (lath and plaster, opt.7) I talk about screwing up some thin battens (say 47x22mm or even 47x19mm at a push), underneath the existing joists. This sandwiches the old plasterwork up securely and gives a good surface to screw your new plasterboards to, plus it still gives you good cable runs. Some people even opt for 47x25mm and pop in a little extra insulation/vapour barrier etc.

      Sorry, too many options! In part it does depend on how much you want to spend and of course you have to work with your builder, even if it is your house. “If in doubt, take them out” has always seen folks in good stead though…….

      Thanks for reaching out, I know it is a lot to take on with an old house, especially the first time, but feel free to keep me informed, if I can help I will!
      Best regards
      Ian

  4. Hi. Thanks for the info. We’ve had to do some replastering of sections of our victorian ceiling before, but this time, I’m here for a relatively small repair, but it’s in a strange place: it’s on a stairway where the upstairs wall meets the downstairs hallway ceiling. Right about where you’d bump your head going down the stairs, the ceiling plaster has separated, but only by 1/16 or 1/8th of an inch, leaving a 3 foot horizontal crack the width of the stairway. I’m not worried about it falling down, but it’s an unsightly flaw that I’d like to fix. My first thought was to squeeze some wood glue or something in the crack and use a long stick to squeeze it together. Or is there a more ‘professional’ way to do this? Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks

    • Hey Paul,
      Sticking it should work well, but I would use a flexible adhesive / caulk instead of wood glue which is relatively inflexible. Something like this from screwfix…. http://www.screwfix.com/p/big-stretch-flexible-strong-sealant-caulk-clear-310ml/19214.

      There are a few paintable caulks that act as an adhesive around, so just go with what your local store has in stock. Just make sure that its: flexible, paintable and is ‘sticky’! Cost is usually indicative of quality when it comes to sealants, although some of the ‘home’ brands are getting pretty good these days, even if they do have silly names sometimes……

      Go gently when you’re propping it up, oh and vacuum the crack out before filling it. That’s it I think!
      Thanks for stopping by.
      Ian

  5. Hello, our house is around 100 years old, and in my bedroom I have a lath and plaster ceiling that has about half a dozen diagonal rather long cracks all going in the same direction. The cracks have been there since the house was bought around 17 years ago now, and seem to have changed little if at all. We had a leaky roof many years ago but that has been sorted and there is no sign of damp anywhere as far as I can tell. The house has signs of natural settlement, and I’m just wondering what you think the chances are of the ceiling falling down if the cracks have been there so long but haven’t changed? I’m probably getting the ceiling checked out within the next 6 months, but I’m starting to get worried about sleeping in here in case I get some plaster falling on my head!

    • Hi Sarah,
      Well, if you’ve been there 17 years and seen little change I think you are safe! Plaster usually only actually falls down on the very worst ceilings or when they get overloaded by live water leaks or sometimes after folks go banging around in the loft etc.

      You can try going up on a step ladder and following this guide… But go really gently, fingertips really. Watch the cracks carefully as you gently push up on the plasterwork. Minimal movement and a little dust is OK, but if the plaster has separated from the lath you’ll see more movement and significant dust from the cracks. Separated plaster is not good. Not saying that it will definitely fall down, but it’s the first stage if you like.

      Good luck with your inspection and thanks for ‘calling in’.
      Stay well
      Ian

  6. Hi Ian,

    This article is great. I am currently living in New York and am the proud owner of a Brooklyn brownstone built the 1880’s. We have a lath and plaster ceiling with detailed outer and inner mouldings and a medallion. In attempting to removing the artex (popcorn) finish that had been used to cover up cracks over the year my contractors have discovered a number of large cracks and holes so stopped the work. They say this is due to wear and tear and neglect. We have spoken to 3 pasterers, 2 say the its too far gone and needs to be replaced (which will mean loosing some of the mouldings unless pain stakingly recreated by hand) and 1 says the cieling can be repaired without taking it down. I guess this is a judgement call but would prefer not to take it down if possible. Would it be possible to email you a photograph to get your opinion? Thanks, Mark

    • Of course Mark, be glad to have a look!
      I know that you can’t beat seeing it for real, in the context of the surrounding areas etc, but it can’t hurt to have a look.

      Wear and tear I guess I can just about live with but neglect; just how does one neglect ones ceilings? I doubt missing a few dusting sessions or even the odd re-decorate would be the cause of any problems!

      Simply put, houses move (all the time actually) and over long periods this leads plaster to break down etc and there is not much you can do about it in all honesty.

      Re the mouldings, it is usually possible to cut through the ceiling next to them and then board out the main ceilings upto the mouldings using a flexible decorators caulk at the join. I’ll try to find an old answer I gave to someone else about the same…

      You can send the pics to ian@handycrowd.com and I’ll see if I can help.
      Cheers
      Ian

  7. Hello ian I have a lath and plaster bedroom ceiling which is showing its age a few cracks and some sagging don’t really want to drop the whole ceiling do you think its possible to cover with reed matting and then lime plaster over this to keep the house as breathable as possible. Thanks for your time.
    Steve

    • Hi Steve,
      Interesting proposal but I suspect I don’t have the whole story! Mostly because finding someone who can install a reed and plaster ceiling is surely more difficult than removing the existing ceiling and starting over, no?

      Practically though, I’d have thought that installing reeds and plaster is more work than removing the damaged parts of the ceiling. If you do have access to someone happy to plaster using lime, rather than fix up reeds, I’d go for removing the old plaster and re-plastering (assuming the existing lath is sound and/or repairable). Then you’d have an authentic ceiling that will perform well in every sense.

      If you’re determined to go for the reed and plaster I’d still be tempted to remove the old sagging plaster to avoid it sitting on the top of the reeds over time.

      Thanks for stopping by Steve, let me know what you decide,
      Cheers
      Ian

  8. Question from Boston. We have an old house, 1920, that we purchased 3 years ago and slowly did improvements and repair. We are getting at the phase of replacing the ceilings in the dining & living room who evidently had cracks and the previous owner covered them with some wave design plastering, that is horrible, and now the crakes are resurfacing.
    I was thinking of completely remove the plaster and lath [and in the process run more up to date electrical] but i recently spoke with a contractor working in a total rehab of a nearby house of the same period, and he leaves the lath in place as much as possible as a base on which to drill the sheetrock.
    He says it is better so runs have a place to go and because creates a buffer between the joist and the sheetrock.
    What do you think? total removal or leave the old lath?

    thanks
    sandro

    • Hi Sandro,
      Well it is of course perfectly fine to leave the lath in place (if they are in good condition), but his argument for doing so doesn’t make much sense! You don’t need a ‘buffer’ between the joist and the sheetrock unless you are trying to match a level with another area and I frankly don’t understand “so runs have a place to go”? You’d pretty much have to remove at least some of the lath wherever the new cables are going… no?

      In truth the main reason to leave lath place is to save a few bucks and a little mess. But since the plaster is going to make a mess anyway most folks opt to take down the lath as well. The only notable exception to this (in the UK at least) is when there are fancy/large cornice/coving, oh what do you guys call it? Oh, yes, just remembered! Mouldings? then the lath is often left in place to avoid the risk of damaging the plasterwork around the mouldings.

      But his reasons apart, you’ll get a good job leaving the lath in place and an ever so slightly better one taking them down. It also depends on the quality of the lath (to get a flat ceiling after sheetrock), they are rarely left in the UK because we used split or riven lath, but I believe that you guys used sawn lath, which should be more uniform in size etc. Like I say, it sometimes saves a few bucks not having to rip out the lath and de-nail the joists and the laths do hold up some of the mess and any insulation etc sitting on top.

      I can’t quite tell if you are doing the work yourself or you have someone coming in? But removing the lath is up to you really, I’d nearly always take it down but it’s not worth ‘falling out over’ as we say!

      Hope that doesn’t muddy the water!
      Thanks for dropping in Sandro,
      Good luck with your project!
      Ian

  9. I live in an old cob cottage. The first floor bedroom floor has rotten joists. The lath and plaster ceiling below is being held somehow by these. So far we have removed two joists and caused quite a bit of damage to the ceiling below. The new joists are being help to the ceiling by screws and screws with wire ‘woven’ through on the ceiling. There is some 6 to 10cm gap now between joist and ceiling. My builder say enough and to pull the ceiling down. It is so beautiful though. Do you please have any advice? With thanks.

    • Hi Anita,
      Sorry to hear that your old house is causing you trouble! If the ceiling is fixed to the bottom of the old joists, how are you removing the rotten ones without removing the ceiling? If from above, what is supporting the ceiling during the work? To be honest, saving a ceiling whilst replacing joists would only be carried out on ceilings with significant historical value. Under normal circumstances replacing joists would necessitate the removal of both the floorboards above and the ceiling below for sheer practicality of getting the old joists out and the new ones in.

      One thing I didn’t quite understand, where is the 6 to 10cm gap coming from? Are the new joists not as deep as the old ones (very unusual)?

      Regards the beautiful ceiling, well, yes I do understand. But don’t look at it as removing the character, but rather as an opportunity to breath new life into the room and ensure it’s long term survival. If funds allow, try to replace the ceiling like for like. The construction of a new lath and plaster ceiling, using lime mortar is a joy to watch and will give you another beautiful ceiling that will last many decades. Plus you’ll know that you did the very best job possible and not everyone gets to say that.

      Let me know how you get on and feel free to post pics if I can help.
      Thanks for stopping by and good luck, whatever you decide.
      Ian

  10. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for a really interesting page. I hope you might be able to give me a little independent advise.

    Whilst getting some polystyrene tiles removed and replaced with plasterboard and plaster, we’ve discovered that our recently purchased (3 weeks!) 1900 house has lath and plaster ceilings. The plasterer is therefore, screwing the plasterboard into the joists over the lath and plaster.

    We were focussing on the rooms with polystyrene ceilings for this initial work, but with this new knowledge we are concerned about one of the rooms which has lining paper over lath and plaster. A crack (could almost be considered hairline) is running in a jagged line from about 2 foot from one corner, diagonally across the room, to about 1 foot from the opposite wall (about a metre from the diagonally opposite corner). The room is about 2.3mx3.6m. The crack is about 2 metres long.

    If I gently press around the crack, there is about 1mm movement. Is that what would be considered small? How worried should I be about this movement?

    We’re planning to fit plasterboard and plaster to all the ceilings when we’ve recovered from the initial hit of purchase and moving (in this house, the lath and plaster is so straight and smooth, it doesn’t add any more character than modern plaster). In the room with the crack, as a longer project we wanted to remove the fitted wardrobes, so with that in mind, we didn’t want to do the ceiling just yet.

    However if the ceiling is dangerous (and there will be people using it over Christmas) it could be an option to do it now, whilst the plasterer is here, and then whatever has to happen later when we get rid of the wardrobes.

    Do you think replacing this ceiling is urgent? Do you think it would remain safe for a while?

    Thanks

    L.

    • Hi Laura,
      Of course without seeing it it is difficult to say for sure, but in my experience ceilings are very rarely in danger of actually falling down. Even the really bad ones. If it was dangerous I am sure that parts of it would have started to peel away and fall down already. What does your plasterer think, since he is on site? 1mm of movement is normal, I would expect more than that if the plaster had fully left the lath, you would even see ‘bellies’ as it sags down.

      Get the opinion of the plasterer (he might say, may as well do it since he is there, depending on how short of work he is lol!) but since the crack goes across the room it’s likely a normal result of the whole house settling a touch rather than a specific failure of a part of the ceiling.

      Good luck with the project and hope you get it all ship shape for Christmas.
      Regards
      Ian

  11. The plasterer mentioned in passing that he ‘would be more worried about that ceiling’ (we were discussing something else at the time).

    Didn’t give it much thought, but discovered one of his height extension boxes left in the room just now, under the crack, which is a bit of an indication that he is a bit worried by it. That got me searching on-line, and a more worried myself!

    I’ll have another chat to the plasterer tomorrow. I’m certain he’ll be able to do it whilst he’s here since we’ve already considered adding a hardboard wall to the list and he said he would be able to do that.

    I do however get the impression that the plasterer doesn’t like lath and plaster at all, and that his opinion would always be to plasterboard it as soon as possible.

    It is good to hear they rarely entirely come down! I’ll have another chat with the plasterer in the morning.

    • Must admit it’s usually cheaper if they are already on site, versus calling him in to set up again for a small ceiling. Not many plasterers do like lath and plaster, usually because of bad memories from taking them down and all the mess! I do a lot of restoration work so I have learned to ‘love’ them!
      Let me know how you get on.
      Ian

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