Plaster vs. Drywall

November 24, 2011

blogging

If you live in a home built before World War II, chances are you have plaster and lathe walls. Plaster goes way back– the the pyramids, even — ever since man got the idea to use crushed limestone or mud and slop it to the walls. Nobody knows for sure when the first plaster and lathe walls were built, but it must have been thousands of years ago.

KitchenGutted

Plaster removed from the kitchen. The lathe is next!

Among the “old house” social circles, keeping your plaster walls has a bit of snob appeal. Old house folks are always saying that plaster is better than drywall because… well, just because. Plaster looks better, they say. It insulates better, it’s more historic, it improves the value of your old house, it’s a “higher end” wall covering, it’s soundproofs!

Every single house I have EVER lived in except for ONE has had plaster walls. And you know what? I think plaster STINKS. I care a lot about history, too. When I bought this house, I spent a few years researching the original builder’s genealogy and local history. But in my experience, I think there’s something good to be said for modern technology. I LOVE DRYWALL.

Drywall is so easy to install. SO EASY. It’s not messy. When you need to patch it, just swipe some joint compound. I love drywall.

I offer my own two cents on the Plaster vs. Drywall debate:

Snob Factor: Plaster insulates and soundproofs better.
Reality Check: Says Who?
I’d sure like to know if there have been any scientific studies on this theory, because I have not found this to be true at all. Old homes with plaster walls are usually uninsulated. Please tell me how uninsulated plaster walls insulate and soundproof better than drywall walls (which are almost always insulated). One of the main reasons I gutted the plaster walls was to insulate (and re-wire the electrical system). My home has never been cozier– and the difference is striking. Of course, the real difference lies in the insulation– insulated drywall obviously insulates and soundproofs better than non-insulated plaster walls. But that’s the WHOLE reason for drywall- to insulate! Today, most building codes require that house walls for new construction are insulated. So in the typical situation common in most homes — non-insulated plaster walls versus insulated drywall walls — drywall wins every time.

When I had plaster walls, I could put food requiring refrigeration on my kitchen floor (such as fresh fruit, like apples). The drafts and cold temperatures kept the fruit fresh. If I do that now, after renovating, the apples get mushy in a couple of days. The difference is just staggering. Sounds from the street do not permeate my living rooms AT ALL like they used to. Upstairs, where I have not renovated and where plaster remains, it’s freezing cold. And a screaming little kid on the street or the rumbling 18-wheeler trucks sound like they are in the room with us. I don’t see how plaster is better in this respect.

Snob Factor: Plaster is more valuable.
Reality Check: Valuable to whom?
If plaster is truly more valuable, this may be the ONLY thing going for plaster, in my estimation. But how much more value does it add to the home? In a historic district, plaster walls may be worth keeping. But I live in a middle-income small town (like 95% of Americans) and plaster walls are a definite deterrent to home buyers. Here in real life where we want to hang our photos or the kids run around the house, plaster is a pain. It cracks, it breaks, it’s messy, it’s dirty. One thing to note about plaster walls– the home insurance policy changes. Some insurance policies have the “complete replacement” or “as is” rider, so you pay through the nose for a higher replacement cost. This means that, in the event of a fire and the house needed to be rebuilt, the estimated replacement cost includes full replacement of the plaster walls and ceilings, even though NOBODY (but wealthy people) rebuilds their house with plaster anymore. It’s so expensive and time-consuming to do so. But we were paying for that in the “as is” policy.

Snob Factor: Plaster is a high-quality wall-covering.
Reality Check: Plaster gets in the way. It inhibits the installation of electric wiring and insulation.
Ever try to fishwire electrical wiring behind plaster walls? One or two times isn’t bad, but try to update an entire house and it’s agonizing. The main reason I ripped out the plaster was for electrical. The whole reason WHY my electrical system was totally obsolete and dangerous (we were still running on knob-and-tube) is because of plaster– the previous owners didn’t want to gut the walls but they also couldn’t fishwire the new electric, either. So they left it, decade after decade, for somebody else to do it (namely, ME). The wiring had deteriorated to such a degree that if you moved the old wires, the copper wiring inside cracked and split into pieces. This kind of wiring prevented me from insulating the walls, too. Knob-and-tube overheats when covered by insulation, and therefore it is against building codes to add insulation! Removing the plaster was a win-win job.

Snob Factor: Plaster is timeless.
Reality Check: Plaster is outdated.
If you have lived in an old home, you know that nothing is ever straight– the walls and ceilings are so crooked. Some folks blame it on old house settling, but I wonder if plaster is to blame. There was really no need to perfectly square a room before drywall. Studs were willy-nilly because lathe was tacked on to them. Lathe was willy-nilly because plaster covered everything. Does the ceiling of the room dip too low? Add more plaster and even it out! Of course, back in the “olden days,” framing wood was rough sawn and not planed like it is today. So plaster was the medium that covered the underlying faults.

Plaster Removal UGH

Removing plaster is a messy job, but it's worth it for the new electric and insulation.

Snob Factor: Plaster is historically accurate.
Reality Check: Save the history for the museums, I have to live in this place (and pay the energy bills).
As I’ve said, plaster walls are fine for historic landmarks or super wealthy homeowners. For the average homeowner, drywall is better. It’s less messy, easier to install and repair, allows for the installation of insulation, electric, and plumbing in an old home, and more. As a renovator, I visit a lot of forums and “how to” communities. When someone pops in to ask if they should replace their plaster with drywall, the snobs take over. A group mentality forms, and everyone nods their heads and all agree that it is “not cool” to remove plaster for drywall. I’ve considered both sides — I’ve been on both sides — and I come to the conclusion that the snob factor is not a good enough reason to keep my plaster walls.

Now, make no mistake- installing drywall in an old home is no task for the faint-hearted. It’s actually the WORST job in home renovation, I think. I’d rather wire my circuit breaker panel or wrestle with fiberglass batts than install drywall. It’s SO HARD, making all these wonky cuts and trying to stuff them into unsquared corners and ceilings. And then there’s the spackling– gah! I hate spackling!

DRcornerceiling1

I'm still pinching myself that this difficult job is done. Whew!

But given the choice of the two? Drywall wins. My home is neater, is insulated, has less dust, and no longer smells like that sour plaster-y smell.

Drywall ROCKS. Ha! šŸ˜€

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4 Responses to “Plaster vs. Drywall”

  1. Secondary Roads Says:

    Plaster walls are certainly nasty to deal with. šŸ™ You’ve outlined the reasons well.

  2. Maxwell Says:

    Veneer plaster costs the same as drywall around here (Massachusetts), in many cases cheaper.

  3. New old home Says:

    I can’t stand plaster either. I don’t why people think it’s better or why it matters. The reason it’s historic is because they didn’t have drywall back then.

    To me, you are going to paint or wall paper this surface anyways so for the most part people won’t be able to tell the difference. It’s not like Wood floors versus linoleum or carpet. Or Wood siding versus aluminum. Those things you can instantly tell the difference and look nicer. Plaster versus drywall you wouldn’t notice unless its falling apart or inspected very closely.

    People say it last longer. I’m about to buy a historic house and half the plaster has fallen off. Never seen that with drywall unless there was water damage. And damaged drywall is an easy fix.

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