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.


  2. 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.


  3. 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.


  4. 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.


  5. 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

6 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

I'd love to hear what you think...