Trained Eye

 
 
 

Smoothing Over Ceiling Stipple

Question:

Recently, I purchased a 1914 two-story home in the Crescentwood area, which retains many of the original beautiful interior finishing details.  However, at some point in the house's past, several of the bedrooms have had a spackle finish applied to the ceilings, presumably as a nod to the 70's decade, or to hide cracking plaster ceilings.  I don't particularly care for this rough ceiling finish and want to restore the ceilings to a simple, flat finish.  How might I accomplish this?  Can this rough finish be plastered over, or sanded?  I have also heard that it is possible to simply screw drywall sheets over old plasterwork.

Answer:

Adding a texture or stipple to ceilings is a practice that has gone on for many, many years. Ceilings in a home reflect light differently than walls, making cracks and imperfections much easier to see. The texture on the ceiling helps hide slight imperfections and may add more definition to a stark, flat surface. The ease of removal or covering of the ceiling texture in your home is a function of the type and thickness of the finish. These finishes range from a very light stipple that is often sprayed on in a method similar to paint spraying, to heavy plaster textures. We will address these textures in ascending rates, from the lightest and easiest to remove to the heaviest and hardest to cover.

The light spray-on finishes are normally seen in newer homes, but may be present in your home, if done in the last couple of decades. Often, sparkles or coloured flecks are added to the mixture to give an added dimension. If this is the “spackle” you are referring to, it is often very soft and the most easily removed. It can normally be scraped off with a large putty knife, but will require substantial patching to give a smooth surface. It is common for this very light finish to be removed without the need to re-drywall the ceilings.

The next level of texture is one that is often installed by the homeowner. All home centres and many paint suppliers sell pre-mixed or dry stipple that may be applied with a roller, or trowelled on. These coatings are plaster or gypsum-based and can become quite hard and durable when dry. They are often thicker than the spray-on finish and may be quite difficult to scrape off. If this is the finish on your home, you may be able to remove any loose material and float the entire ceiling with drywall compound or plaster and achieve a smooth finish, but it will be very difficult. This is the style of finish that many do-it-yourselfers have nightmares over.

The last finish we will address is that originally used in homes built over 40 years ago. This is often a heavy plaster-based texture and may be seen in conjunction with heavy plaster cove around the perimeter of the ceiling. This material is the most durable of all the textures, but may become brittle and subject to cracking with age. Removal of this stuff is often impossible and patching and repairs of cracks may be difficult to do without professional help. This style of texture is the most difficult to cover without re-sheeting the ceiling.

If either of the latter two styles of texture is the case in your home, re-drywalling the ceiling may be the best or only practical method to achieve the smooth surface you desire. If the texture is secure and quite even in thickness, drywall may be installed directly over the old surface, once any loose material is scraped off. The ceiling joists must be initially be located with a stud finder and marked or chalked. Once this is done, new drywall can be installed by using screws long enough to go through the new drywall and the old ceiling.

In your home you likely have very old plaster and lath ceilings and may have difficulty in penetrating the ceiling with normal drywall screws, or find that the screws required are excessive in length. In this situation, the original ceiling may initially be strapped with 1-inch-thick boards, to allow easier installation of drywall with standard length screws. This strapping may also be necessary if the old ceiling is very uneven in the thickness of the texture. The strapping may be shimmed to provide a straight surface for the new drywall sheets.

If the old ceiling is loose or damaged, it should be re-secured to the original ceiling joists with screws before strapping or sheeting. Once the new drywall is in place, standard drywall compound and tape may be used to cover the seams and corners. After sanding and priming, the ceiling will be ready for painting with the finish you desire. If done properly, the newly repaired ceiling should give you exactly the smooth texture you are looking for.