Horse Hair Plaster Walls In Home Renovation: Keep, Cover, or Remove?

Horse Hair Plaster Walls In Home Renovation

The Pros & Cons Of Plaster Walls In A Home Renovation

From around 1700 until the 1940s interior construction of homes lath and plaster was the material of choice used for finishing interior walls and ceilings. The method consisted of builders nailing thin, closely spaces strips of wood called “lath” to the wall studs, and the methodically smoothing multiple coatings of plaster over the substructure to create finished walls. 

If you live in an older home (built pre-1950s), you probably have at least some lath and plaster walls unless your house was renovated sometime after 1950. It wasn't until the 1950s that pressed gypsum or drywall came on the scene. It was an easier and faster way to finish the interior of homes.

Lath and plaster is an old school technique that, when compared to drywall, offers some surprising benefits. Of course, there are also some drawbacks. So, should you keep, cover, or remove your plaster walls during your next home renovation?

Let's take a look at the pros and cons of lath and plaster for your next home renovation project.

The Advantages of Using Lath and Plaster in Your Home Renovation

The truth is sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Lath and plaster walls offer plenty of unexpected benefits for homeowners. If you’re remodeling an older home with plaster walls, it may make sense to repair them rather than replacing them with drywall. Here are some of the distinct benefits you can enjoy:

• Lath and plaster, when properly mixed and applied is a stronger and more durable wall finish than drywall. A typical lath and plaster wall consists of a minimum of three coats of plaster creating a dense wall, rock hard, and nearly one inch thick. When combined with the lath, it's closer to an inch and a quarter thick. Considering that the typical drywall is 1/2” thick, lath offers better sound control. Older homes are often quieter than new homes with interior walls constructed of drywall.

• Lath and plaster walls have excellent insulation properties. The density of the walls can help to cut your energy bills by keeping your home warmer in winter and cooler in the summer.

• Removing old plaster and lath to replace it with drywall is very messy, generating lots of dust and debris that needs to be hauled away. Once you get the room down to the studs, cleaned up and ready to drywall, hanging new sheetrock over older uneven framing is seldom successful. Repairing your lath and plaster walls is less messy, easier to install, and will keep your home correct for the period, which for owners of historical or older homes can be an essential selling point.

• Plaster walls are somewhat more fire resistant than drywall.

• Plaster walls are smooth and flat, but they can contain sight surface trowel marks that adds a desirable Old World feel to your home. For many owners of older homes, these imperfections are correct to the period of the house and an alluring look. This is especially true of certain home styles like Craftsman, Tudor, and Victorian houses.

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• Lath and plaster is contour-friendly. Drywall is a rigid material, and many older style homes have graceful arches or curves around bay or bow windows. Lath and plaster is much easier to create custom curves and arches in walls and ceilings.

• From an environmental standpoint, your plaster walls are already there! It's always greener (and cheaper) to retain and repair existing elements rather than demoing walls and replacing them with sheetrock.

The Downside of Lath and Plaster

While there are many benefits to lath and plaster construction, like it's ambiance, craftsmanship, character, and insulating and acoustical traits, there are reasons why it fell out of favor. Drywall is faster to apply and often a less expensive option. If you want a clean, modern look, drywall is a perfectly flat surface that offers clean straight lines. Here are a few other things to consider when working with lath and plaster.

• Over time every house will settle naturally. When they do, old plaster, which is hard and brittle, can often crack. If the settling is substantial or takes place over a long period, chunks of plaster can fall off of the underlying lath framework. When plaster does crack or crumble due to a shifting foundation, it can be tricky to repair. Damaged plaster must be cut and scraped out without damaging the rest of the wall. If the damage is severe, the lath or wire-mesh backing may need replacement as well.

• If you need to update wiring, whether it's to add outlets or lighting, or to bring your home up to code, it's difficult to retrofit new wiring without cutting into the wall and needing to repair the damage. This is because the stud spaces are often filled with a few inches of fallen plaster which can clog the space making it difficult or impossible to “snake” new wiring through the walls.

• While plaster offers increased R-value over drywall (it actually has an R-value twice that of sheetrock) older homes with lath and plaster rarely contain adequate insulation. In fact, in many older homes, the insulation can be crumpled newspaper. Back in the 1970's many lath and plaster homes added blown-in insulation. But often, plaster obstructions and wood blocks within the stud space didn't allow for even distribution so entire portions of walls may not be properly insulated.

• When moisture from leaking pipes saturates the wood lath, it increases the risk of chunks of plaster being release and falling within the wall. It can also increase the incidence of mold.

• Installation and repair can be difficult. While a plaster wall takes less time to finish and produces less mess, it requires a skilled craftsman to achieve the best results.

• It can be pricier than drywall. Workers trained in the art of lath and plaster application often charge more for their time because they possess a special skill.

When It Comes To Horsehair Plaster Here’s The Bottom Line

It really depends on what you want, and your home. For older homes with existing plaster walls, it's often a good choice to repair damaged existing lath and plaster walls. While it can be challenging, and requires a craftsman with specialized skills, keeping your home “true to the period it was built” can add value when it comes time to sell. This is especially true with historic homes.

If you live in a home built before 1940 and it hasn't been updated, you most likely have plaster walls. As long as they're in good shape, it probably makes sense to leave them alone. For many homes, plaster walls are a big part of their appeal. If this is true for your home, the best way to ensure they stay in great shape is to regularly inspect them and have any cracks repaired as soon as you notice them.

If you're seeking to gut renovate a home with existing plaster walls, or if you're considering removing lath and plaster walls, it may make sense to replace the plaster with drywall. The best solution is to speak with a design-build-remodeler who has experience dealing with older homes. They can help to guide you to the best choice to meet your needs.

If you live in the greater Madison Wisconsin area and you live in an older home, or you're planning a home renovation, give the experts at Degnan Design Build Remodel a call at (608)846-5963. We're always happy to talk about your project, whether you live in a classic older home, or are looking for a new build!