One of the hallmarks of a historical home is the ornate plasterwork that adorns the ceilings and moldings. Artisans came from Europe with these skills and made ornamental plasterwork extremely popular in the United States from the early 1800s to the Great Depression. As a result, many homeowners with period homes wonder how to go about restoring ornate plaster in their homes.
What is Plaster?
For modern homeowners only familiar with easy-to-install drywall, plaster walls aren’t a familiar finish in homes. Plasterers make it from gypsum and lime and apply it to a lathe frame inside the walls and ceilings. It’s easy to mold and color. As a result, many architectural supply or salvage stores have a wide selection of premade temptations, including medallions and cornices.
Common Forms in Ornamental Plaster
For the most part, restoring ornate plaster can be as simple as replacing the damaged decorative elements with new. Plasterers have used three main architectural forms in the past:
These ornate pieces graced the center of the ceiling. Shaped as circles or ovals, home builders of the past installed light fixtures to hang from the middle of the medallions. The medallion gave the chandelier a polished finish, and this added elegance to many homes.
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Builders installed plaster cornices in the grandest of homes. Much like the crown molding currently popular in upscale homes today, plaster cornices provided a stately look in formal rooms as they added a decorative frame to the high ceiling.
Plasterers achieved this dramatic look by creating ornate plaster tiles that were then installed on the ceiling in a grid. Usually square, these decorative tiles created depth and interest on previous century’s high ceilings.
Causes of Damage
Although plaster is incredibly durable, often times historic homeowners will find themselves restoring ornate plaster usually due to one or both of the two main reasons. The first is structural shifting. Over the decades, a home can settle, and even move slightly. This can cause stress cracks in the plaster. Furthermore, the cracks will commonly happen at the corners of doors and windows. The plaster cracks where wood framing is most likely to shift. Most importantly, when the cracks reach the ceiling, they can cause the molding and decorative elements to detach from the plaster walls.
Water damage is another common reason for restoring ornate plaster. Water intrusion can cause the plaster to discolor. In unheated rooms, water that has soaked into the plaster can freeze, thereby causing cracking.
Sometimes, the adhesive method used to install plaster decoration fails. Ornamental plaster pieces can be heavy, and sometimes nails rust and fail, and pieces simply break off.
Repairing or Replacing Plaster Elements?
The decision of whether replacing decorative plaster elements or restoring ornate plaster is the right path is largely up to the current state of the plaster. Often, simple plaster repair can achieve the desired look.
The National Parks Service website that describes the restoration of historic homes suggests that pieces that can be patched should be repaired by expert plasterers. In some cases, elements will need to be replaced completely with pieces that match the originals in every possible detail. Most importantly, this will preserve the authenticity of your historical home.
Restoring ornate plaster cornices:
With luck and without extensive damage, skilled plasterers can repair ornamental molding with careful patching and sculpting. Lengths of molding that are beyond repair should be removed carefully. Architectural elements manufacturers can use the removed pieces to create a matching mold from galvanized steel. They can then cast the mold in plaster to slightly longer than needed and fit it into the missing runs.
Additional decoration on the original cornices can be carefully removed to create rubber molds for the new cornice. These are called “enrichments” and generally take the shape of plants, fruits, and scrollwork, etc. Consequently, plasters can attach these new castings to new molding to match the appearance of the original.
Restoring ornate plaster ceiling medallions:
Ceiling medallions are the most likely candidates for replacement when it comes to ornate plaster moldings. Additionally, builders in a hurry did not attach the medallions to the ceiling lathe properly in the first place. Most importantly, homeowners should take every care to duplicate the original medallion to maintain historic integrity. Removing the existing medallion carefully can provide a guide for a new mold. If there is none, you can also look in adjoining or paired rooms to see if the same medallions were used throughout.
The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties recommends not installing medallions in historic homes where they didn’t exist previously in order to retain authenticity.
Additionally, the guide also suggests that for intact medallions in danger of falling, homeowners hire a contract to remove the floorboards above and inject epoxy or elastic acrylic to fortify the attachment of the medallion to the lathe and the lathe to the ceiling joists.
Restoring ornate plaster coffered ceilings:
Damage to coffered ceiling tiles is often due to poor maintenance and the careless installation of electrical wiring by previous renovations. Roof leaks can also cause damage. Restoration pros should shore up the structure, then remove damaged tiles for replication. Inspect the hanging frame for the ceiling tiles for damage. New channel iron can stabilize the intact times. Repaint the replaced coffers to match the existing ceiling.
In a historic home, particularly in a registered property, homeowners should consult with a professional contractor for restoring ornate plaster. Furthermore, it may seem tempting to go DIY, but the chances of doing it incorrectly and even causing more damage are too high.
It seems that many historic homeowners fall in love with details like ornate plaster ceilings with elegant medallions and stately cornices. Therefore, it’s worth restoring ornate plaster professionally in order to preserve those marvelous details.
Featured Image: CC by 0, by Hieta Parta via Pixabay