IfBrace yourselves, I have some judgemental thoughts about shiplap that I have to walk back. I’ll just quietly eat my wall covering crow over here, thank you very much…
About the Episode:
What’s in a wall? Well, in my old house, I’m far more interested in what goes ON the wall. We took our house down to the studs, and removed mountains of old lath and plaster. We opted for drywall, but there are plenty of other materials that could make up the walls in an older house. So let’s talk about walls!
In this episode, you’ll hear:
- The many things besides drywall that can make a finished wall
- Why I was wrong about where shiplap is allowed to be (even in an old historic house!)
- About all the wallpapers I can’t afford but love to look at wistfully
And so much more!
Follow me on Instagram @FarmhouseVernacular!
Hello and welcome to the Vernacular Life podcast, where we talk about anything and everything that goes on in our turn-of-the-century, vernacular folk Victorian farmhouse. I’m your host, Paige, as usual, and today we have a really great topic. This is a little bit more of an informational episode. And I guess as a disclaimer, I’m not a historian. I’m not a house historian. I don’t know all of the things, but I do know a little bit. And so I want to talk to you today about some different common wall coverings that might be found in old houses.
By wall coverings, I mean something that is covering the raw studs. In modern houses, we think of this usually as drywall or maybe tile, which usually has something behind it, but those are fairly modern inventions. And so I’m going to just be talking about some of the things found mainly in pre-1920s houses, because that’s pretty much what I know. And some of these are in our house. Some of these are not in our house because they were far too fine for our house, but I’m hoping to just give you a little bit of an overview of what could be on your walls.
I’m recording in a new location today, and I feel like I’m hyper-aware of all of the noises around me. So, if you hear dogs coming in and out of a dog door or drinking water in the background, I apologize. They are quiet all day, and then I sit down to record and they have to make all of the noise.
So anyway, the first product that we’re going to talk about being on your walls is probably the most common and the most thought of when it comes to old houses, and that is plaster and lath. Let’s start from the inside. What is lath? Lath is traditionally thin strips of wood that are nailed in between the studs. And they’re about an inch wide, maybe about three feet long. Sometimes they’re longer. We’ve just only ever found roughly three to four-foot sections in this house, and they’re spaced apart by maybe a half an inch, a quarter inch, somewhere around there. And what that does is it serves as a screen or a false wall that you can put plaster on.
Now, plaster is basically a setting compound. I’m not going to go into the history of plaster. I am not a plaster expert. I have never done plaster, so we’re going to have the 10,000 foot view here, okay? So, plaster, essentially, you mix it up and then you have a certain amount of time until it sets. And the way the plaster and lath works is that the first coat of plaster, the scratch coat, goes on the wall.
It squishes in between that lath, so all of those openings of the lath, the plaster squishes in there, falls down behind it and creates a key. That key is continuous with the plaster on the front of the wall. And so it wraps around the lath and it hardens and it creates a pretty strong mechanical bond.
Then on top of that first coat, a master plasterer could put additional coats to smooth out, and that’s what forms your wall surface. Plaster is basically like a rock. And this is why it’s hard to hang pictures in it, because you have to drill into that rock. You have to make sure it’s anchored properly. It’s not quite like drywall.
Plastering was also a skilled trade, so it’s not like you can DIY, put up a panel of drywall. And you might have some imperfections, but for the most part, you can stumble your way to a smooth wall. A plasterer was a trade. And something that’s very interesting about plaster is because it is essentially a wet compound that goes up on the wall, you can make it do some really funky things. You can have it make some beautiful curves. You can have it make very interesting angles. You can use it to mold, trim, and wall details. But the other thing that it does is that it is so organic and undulating that the studs behind it don’t have to be perfectly in plane.
And this is something that we’ve run into in this house, is that we have to… And by we, I mean Brandon, basically check how in plane all of the studs are before we put drywall up, because some of these studs are out of plane from each other by half an inch, three quarters of an inch. And what I mean by out of plane is that if you were to just put an imaginary sheet of paper on the wall, that paper would probably not be flat because some of the studs would stick out farther, some would go in farther.
And when you have those differences and you put drywall up, the drywall is not meant to handle that. It’s meant to handle nice flat surfaces. But plaster doesn’t have those limitations, so you can rough cut lumber. You can have things be a little less precise, and the plaster will hide a multitude of sins.
Now, why should you save your plaster? Because you should save your plaster, pretty much always, unless you have a very good reason not to. Firstly, it’s part of the historic structure of the house. It’s the same as saving your old windows or saving your original trim or saving the original floors. It’s part of what makes that house a 100-year-old house or a 200-year-old house.
So it’s very much part of the history, and that in itself is worth saving. The second reason you should save it, is it is a lot of work. It is so much work to take down. Plaster is heavy. Lath is a nightmare to get off. There’s 9 million nails. You create so much work for yourself by taking out that plaster, especially if the plaster is in reasonably good shape. Don’t do that to yourself.
As far as heating, it’s actually very interesting, but because plaster is rock-like, when it heats up, it actually holds the heat. So, once you get your house up to temperature, it’s going to maintain that a little bit better because all of the walls are basically heating up and helping to hold that heat. As a totally personal aside, I also think plaster is amazing to sing in if you’re in an empty room, so just for the acoustics alone you really should hold onto it.
But of course, the big question: “Paige, if it’s so good to save your plaster, why are you guys taking it out?” Well, because I think we fall into one of the rare categories where you actually do need to take the plaster out, and there’s three reasons. Firstly, our house had a lot of settling. The foundation is not very deep.
It’s only about 18 inches below the sill board of the house, and there were some very bad gutter issues that led to very, very severe settling in two corners. Combine that with a ton of water damage around the windows, and the plaster had settled, it had cracked, it was falling off. The lath was rotten around a good portion of the house and the windows, so we figured it might have to come off for that.
The second reason is that I have a hypothesis that this house was not built by top level craftsman. I think it was fine, but I definitely think they cut corners in a few places, and one of those is the plaster. Plaster has multiple layers. You have a scratch coat on the bottom, and then the final finish coat should be very, very smooth, and those two should be bonded together really well.
They’re not in this house. When we take down the walls and we get to the original plaster, you can take a putty knife and just run it in between that top coat and that scratch coat. Most of the keys are still intact and it’s still holding onto the lath pretty well, but where there was any kind of water damage or moisture, that top coat just comes right off. So that was our second clue that, okay, we might have to take all this plaster down.
Now, the third reason, and honestly, the biggest reason, is that in about 1980 this house was majorly renovated and they filled all of the stud cavities with spray foam insulation, but not just any spray foam insulation. They used urea formaldehyde foam insulation, and this stuff is no longer in use because it shrinks.
So all of our stud cavities were half filled of foam, and that means that they’re not insulated, they’re not doing their job. There’s no way to put more insulation in there, like we couldn’t put mineral wool insulation in there, because half of the stud cavity was taken up with foam. And so all of that plaster has to come down, because that’s the only way that we can get proper insulation in this house.
So for our house, those were the reasons that we had to take all of this stuff down, but wherever I could save it, I did. I saved it on the ceiling, in the downstairs hall, on the two story stair wall going up the stairs, and then a few small places in the downstairs hall as well. And then of course, the upstairs ceilings, and that was really done out of practicality, because there’s blown insulation on top of the upstairs ceilings. I didn’t want to have to gut the insulation and then gut the ceiling and then haul it all downstairs, so I said, “Let’s just try to save the ceilings,” and it worked.
So, plaster and lath is pretty common. If you have it and you can save it, you absolutely should. If you have to take it down, it’s not the end of the world. You can either put drywall back, or there are people who will put plaster and lath back for you if you’re working on a particularly historic project.
Now, if they didn’t do plaster and lath, what else might they have done? Well, if it was a kitchen or a summer kitchen or a porch, or possibly an attic or a stairwell, they might have used tongue and groove, and tongue and groove is a wooden wall covering. We have it in two places in this house. One is original, one is not. But you call it tongue and groove because of the joint that joins the boards together.
So I want you to use your imagination with me. Okay, we’re looking at the end of the board, all right? So if the board’s 12 feet long, that’s going away from you into the distance. If we’re looking at the end of the board, on the top of it, it’s going to look like a little tongue. So if you split the board into thirds, the middle third on the very top will stick up higher than the first and last third, and that’s just on the top. That forms the tongue.
The groove part of it looks like exactly the opposite, so the first and the last third will stick down a little bit and then the middle section will be empty. And that means when you put them together, that tongue will slide into that groove and will connect those two boards together. And what this does when you have a whole wall of them is make a pretty darn rigid situation. You have all of those boards connected, acting as one, not really moving, and it really works very, very well. Tongue and groove is not shiplap. We will talk about shiplap in a second.
But in this house, we had tongue and groove beadboard, and you can have tongue and groove not beadboard, and you can have tongue and groove beadboard. But it’s called beadboard because there is a milled bead or a semicircular cutout on the middle and the top of the board, and when you put it all together, you get these nice aesthetic lines.
But something you’ll notice is that in our kitchen, the beadboard runs horizontal, which means from left to right. And this is a little bit different from a lot of stuff that you see on Pinterest, because the way that this beadboard, this historic beadboard, is installed is different from how modern plybead is installed. So modern plybead is usually in four by eight sheets of plywood that have this beadboard texture put on the surface of them. And they work really great. We’re using it upstairs in the office. We’ve used it in closets. It’s a really great alternative if you don’t need the boards to run longer than eight feet.
But traditional beadboard was installed horizontally, and this is because of how it has to be installed. So if you imagine a room without any drywall, without any beadboard, with nothing on the walls, you’re going to have wall studs. And those wall studs are going to run from the floor to the ceiling. If you want to put a thin piece of wood across those, you are going to have to run from left to right so that those wall studs can be used to attach that board every 12 to 16 inches. This is why beadboard was traditionally run horizontally, is because that’s the way it had to be run in order for the studs to line up.
With plybead, you have a few more options. Because it’s a four by eight sheet of plywood, you can actually run it vertically, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s historically accurate. We have a door in the downstairs hall that’s made out of beadboard, and that runs vertically. A lot of times, the servants’ areas or attics or stairwells or places where the framing is wonky to begin with so they could put in some extra framing in order to make it work for beadboard, those areas sometimes have vertical. But if you are putting beadboard in your house and you want it to look as historically accurate as possible and you’re doing the whole room, make sure that you run 90 degrees opposite the way the studs run.
So as far as types of beadboard, what is in our kitchen… Actually, it was in the kitchen and the study. We salvaged it out of the study so that we could fully repair the kitchen… That is traditional beadboard. The other kind of tongue and groove that we have is in the mud room, and that’s just flat. It’s about five inches wide and it still has a tongue and groove joint, but there’s no detailing on the front.
And I actually think that that wood is a little bit later in time period than our wood in the kitchen. I think it’s from about the 1920s or ’30s. There’s no right or wrong. You can have whichever one you like. But that was another common option, especially for harder working areas, servants’ areas, attics, kitchens. Anywhere that needed a little bit more durability than plastic, they could use beadboard as an option.
Now, I mentioned that we were going to get to shiplap later. Shiplap and beadboard are not the same. And I really didn’t have too much familiarity with shiplap, because it’s not really something that we see here in Kentucky. It seems to be more of a Southern and a true Midwestern thing, Kansas and Oklahoma and places like that, and obviously down in Texas.
But shiplap is a different kind of joint. So we talked about looking at the end of the board and splitting it in thirds to figure out what a beadboard joint would look like. Shiplap, we only really need to split it in half, and on the top part, the half on the right is going to stick up, and on the bottom part, the half on the left is going to stick down. Instead of that tongue and groove interlocking joint, it’ll just create a lap joint on the wall.
Now, I know if you’ve hung around with me for a long time on Instagram, you’ll probably remember some of my very colorful rants about shiplap, because the biggest thing about shiplap is that in general it was not meant to be exposed. It was an alternative to create a flat surface that you could put wallpaper on.
So if you follow any kind of renovation account and they are pulling down wallpaper and pulling down drywall and finding shiplap underneath, a lot of times there will be a layer of fabric under the wallpaper. So they would put up the shiplap, and usually in fairly wide planks, 8, 10, 12 inches, and then they would put on fabric and then they would put on wallpaper. And it was an alternative to create a smooth wall surface that wasn’t plaster.
And I’m just speculating at this point, but I’m thinking that if you had maybe a lumber mill on site or you were cutting your own lumber, you wouldn’t need to find and hire a master plasterer to get those flat walls. You could just mill your shiplap and then put your wallpaper up.
Now, obviously there has been a very large trend recently, but I do think it’s starting to shrink a little bit and go away, of painting shiplap or creating faux shiplap with the lines. And for a while, I was very grumpy about this trend, because… I’ve cooled my jets a little bit, but I used to be a pretty hard stickler for historical accuracy, at least where you had a choice.
But then we went to visit… Let me see if I can remember. I think it was Charleston. It was either Charleston or Savannah, I don’t remember which house, but in one of those cities, there was this house. It was a historic house and we could tour it. It had a fabulous staircase and an old kitchen and all of these things. And we were upstairs in a ballroom, and we went into this little room off the ballroom that was a bedroom. And wouldn’t you know, there was shiplap on the wall. And I was like, “Oh, okay.”
And so I was talking to the tour guide, and I said, “Well, that really shouldn’t have been exposed, should it?” And she was like, “No, it’s fine. It can be exposed.” My whole world just went, “What? What do you mean?” Because as far as I knew, it was supposed to be a base for a wall covering, but what this room was, was essentially a child’s room or a servant’s room or not an area that was a public space. It was a private space. The trim was less fancy. Everything was less fancy. And in that room, there was this whitewash over it. It almost looked like very thin plaster, I’m not exactly sure.
But that’s what the wall covering was in this house, was the shiplap and then this kind of whitewash. And so that led me to revise my statement on what shiplap should or shouldn’t be, in that in general, it was used as a wall covering. And so in the same way that you wouldn’t leave your plumbing exposed or your duct work exposed, it’s not really meant to be seen. It’s not meant to be viewed, it was meant to be covered up by wallpaper. But I know of at least one exception to that rule.
So if you have shiplap and you want to expose it, knock yourself out. I’m not on that soapbox anymore. But that is the difference between shiplap and tongue and groove. Tongue and groove is an interlocking wood connection, and shiplap is just a lapped joint, it’s not pieces of wood just sitting next to each other. There actually is a joint in there, but it’s a different kind of joint than tongue and groove.
We’ve talked about the plaster, we’ve talked about tongue and groove, talked about shiplap, and shiplap as a vehicle for wallpaper, so that means that’s the last covering we have to talk about. We can’t get away with not talking about wallpaper. And for as dramatic as I am in this house, you would think that I would’ve done wallpaper by now. And I really wanted to. I was gunning hard for it in the upstairs rooms, but I fell in love with William Morris wallpaper, which is $200 a roll and that was just outside my price range.
So wallpaper, I’m sure you know, is basically just patterned paper that goes up on the wall. And this was particularly popular in the Victorian era when they were just here for patterns on patterns on patterns. And so you’d have a wall section and then a ceiling type of wallpaper, and then I think it’s called a frieze where that goes up. It’s either like on the border of the ceiling or on the wall up next to the ceiling. Basically, just however many patterns and colors that they could put together in one room, that’s what they did in the Victorian era.
It makes a lot of sense, honestly, because plaster is basically a wet compound on the entire wall, and so you are naturally going to get some tool marks and some divots and some dings, and wallpaper covers all of that. It hides all of that. So as a way to smooth out the final look, wallpaper is a very good idea. And I would assume this was how it worked with shiplap too, because once you had that layer of muslin or fabric over the shiplap to fill in all the spaces and the separations, then you put the wallpaper on top of it. And it looks pretty good to me as far as I know.
Now, this house did have a bunch of wallpaper in it. There was wallpaper I know at least in the master bedroom, in the front hall, on the staircase wall, and then there was a beautiful blue wallpaper in the dining room that was just absolutely gorgeous. But I don’t think those were original. I think those were roughly 1920s or ’30s if I had to guess. There is typical wallpaper, which is just kind of flat, and like everything else, there are a variety of textures and patterns and expensiveness and fanciness that goes into wallpaper.
But there are two that I want to talk about because they are fairly special, and those are Anaglypta and Lincrusta. This house was not fancy enough to have any of these anywhere. Usually you see them in some very, very nice houses. You see them in large builders’ mansions, and places that were really trying to show off their opulence and show off their wealth, that’s the kind of place that you would find these sorts of wallpapers.
And what they are, are three-dimensionally embossed or textured wallpapers. This is really something out of the Victorian era. You don’t see it a whole lot outside of that. The Craftsman era started to get a little bit simpler, and then before the Victorian era, they just had grand, large, enormous houses and sweeping rooms, but not necessarily this kind of detail. Where I’ve seen them is typically it will be like under a chair rail, there might be a detail of Lincrusta or Anaglypta. And a lot of times if you paint it a lot or if you shellac it a lot, it almost looks like embossed leather.
So if you’ve moved into an old house and you have something in there that’s like three-dimensional or textured, or it seems like wallpaper but it seems like something more, it could possibly be Anaglypta or Lincrusta, you never know. And you can still buy these. You can buy a lot of paintable versions, so sometimes people will buy them and then paint them really rich colors and then it looks like leather or something like that.
And they’re just really beautiful three-dimensional wallpapers. And the Victorians, as you know, were all about opulence. They were all about how much fancy can I pack into this one room? And so plain two-dimensional wallpaper wasn’t enough, obviously, and so we are now going to add a three-dimensional wallpaper. And so it’s just something, I love seeing it in dining rooms and parlors, just because it looks so utterly fancy.
That wraps up my knowledge of historical wall coverings in old houses. So we have the plaster and lath. Obviously, we have the beadboard or tongue and groove. We have the shiplap. And then if you’re very lucky, you might have some original wallpaper. Or if you’re also very lucky, you might put in your own wallpaper, which if you want to do that, more power to you. I need to one day. I don’t know when it’ll be, but I will wallpaper something.
So I hope that was a little bit interesting. I hope that was fun, thinking about all the different types of wall coverings that could go into your house. Thank you as always for hanging out with me. I loved having you, and I will see you next time. Bye.