How to Remove Plaster Walls & Replace with Drywall

Historic homes have an old-fashioned
charm that homeowners try to preserve as much as they can. But as
time passes, various issues will come up that will require fixing.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done; fixing a historic home
is not as simple as working on a contemporary one. And if even if it
can be done, it will cost a pretty penny.

That is why these homeowners are often torn between practicality and aesthetics – should they go for fixes that they can afford but will change aspects of their home, or do they still try their best to retain the look of their home even if it means going beyond their budget?

One common instance for this dilemma is involving the lath and plaster walls typical for such homes, as they have their own character that cannot be easily replicated by modern means, especially if it has a unique texture. Drywall may be more readily available, but it just does not look and feel the same.

If you are considering changing the walls of your home, knowing how to remove plaster walls and replace with drywall is important before you can make a final decision. Once you are aware of the processes involved, it may be much easier for you to decide on this aspect.

However, did you know even the ground around your house could be contaminated with lead, and could poison someone?

Should I Replace Lath and Plaster with Drywall?

Most historic homes use lath and plaster for the interior walls. While wood lath is commonly used, some of these homes also use metal or rock laths.

But whatever material is used, the method of construction remains the same: lath strips are nailed to the timber studs present on the walls, which are then covered up by typically three layers of plaster.

It starts with a render layer that is used for bonding and filling up the gaps in between laths, followed by a floating layer that will provide a smooth surface for the third layer, known as the setting layer, where the decorative elements will be placed.

But before you decide whether to replace the lath and plaster wall with drywall, you need to keep these in mind:

Keep your lath and plaster wall if:

  • You are prepared to get it regularly checked out by a pro and do periodic maintenance if you want to preserve its appearance
  • You are after its benefits, like soundproofing, better fire resistance, and insulation, among others, that drywall cannot provide
  • You do not want to deal with the mess and hassle of tearing down the walls, which can make your home inhabitable for as long as several weeks
  • You are willing to spend a minimum of $15 per square foot to professionally install new lath and plaster walls if you plan to expand your home and have a uniform appearance
  • You have had your home tested for the presence of dangerous heavy metals and asbestos, which are dangerous but common in historic homes, and are clear of it or have gotten them encapsulated
  • You have curved or irregularly shaped walls that cannot be easily replicated by drywall

Because replacing a lath and plaster wall with drywall will involve a lot of time, money, dust, and debris, the most practical option is to replace it only when necessary. Fortunately, minor issues with lath and plaster walls are repairable, and even doable by DIY work.

But if the damage on the walls are extensive and may affect the structural integrity of your entire home, sticking with your lath and plaster walls is bound to be expensive. Not only that, you need to find a certified plasterer and contractors who can install this type of wall correctly to avoid any potential issues.

And if lead or asbestos, or worse, both, is detected on the walls, replacing it with drywall is recommended if encapsulation is not possible. And if there are any cracks or missing sections and you see some chalking or dust on those areas, immediate encapsulation or replacement is needed. Asbestos and lead dust are very dangerous and can cause all sorts of illnesses that can be fatal to anyone who gets exposed to them.

It’s important to note that our recommendation is always to make use of a pro if there is the slightest chance that your home may have lead in it.

How to Remove Plaster on Walls

Before doing a drywall replacement, you must remove plaster on the walls of your home first. This is to either to check if the existing lath framework is still in good condition to support the drywall panels to be installed, or to get rid of the lath and plaster completely and make way for a new wall.

A tear down of a lath and plaster wall is not as simple as using a hammer to smash everything and remove the plaster. You need to be methodical about it due to the safety risks involved, ranging from lead and asbestos exposure to having plaster come crashing over your head, and so much more.

That is why anyone who will be involved in plaster removal must always follow basic safety measures and preparations, such as:

  • Wearing safety gear that typically consists of safety goggles, hardhat, ear plugs, work clothes that can completely cover up the skin, and face mask. An asbestos mask will work best, especially one that can also protect the wearer from lead exposure.
  • Removing furnishings present in the room or space where plaster will be removed. If this is not possible, covering them up with plastic sheets may do. Outlet plate covers should also be removed, and the floors and entryways must be covered up to avoid getting damaged and to limit the mess. Floors are best covered by plywood to avoid damage.
  • Switching off the HVAC system and covering up vents, air ducts, and other openings to prevent dust from entering and being blown off to other parts of your home. Lead and asbestos dust can settle inside these vents without you noticing and can affect your household even long after the work is done; exposure to them can happen immediately once you switch on your HVAC system.
  • Turning off the power and water supply and identifying the location of any supply lines that may be running along the walls, as their lines may be accidentally damaged and cause even more problems and even injury.
  • Checking blueprints and floor plans to see if the work will compromise the structural integrity of your home, especially if you are working with load-bearing walls
  • Only going for the DIY route if you are knowledgeable with home improvement and construction projects. If not, you must let the pros handle the work.

This task is guaranteed to be messy, so it will help a lot if garbage cans are present in the workspace to make cleanup a lot easier, as well as a dumpster that will hold all the dust and debris generated.

You may also add support to the wall where plaster will be removed, especially if you are unsure of the condition of the framework of the wall, and this is done by attaching boards measuring 1×2 inches to the perimeter of the wall.

Once all the safety measures are in place and the prep works are completed, that is the only time to start removing the plaster on the walls. Again, it must be methodically done; it normally follows these steps:

  1. Carefully remove the decorative elements you want to preserve, such as the wood molding and baseboards.
  2. Start working at the center of the topmost section of the wall. Using a crowbar or hammer, repeatedly tap the area until a hole is created and you finally see the lath behind the plaster. You may either do this lightly or forcefully, depending on the condition of your wall.
  3. Place the claw end of the crowbar on the hole on the wall and drag it downwards to create a tear or gap.
  4. Use this gap as the starting point for plaster removal. Use a spade, crowbar, or any other tool to separate the plaster from the lath, making sure to do it in a horizontal manner. This allows you to remove the plaster in larger chunks and with less dust created than by repeatedly striking the wall with a hammer.
  5. Continue peeling off the plaster from the wall, making sure to do it slowly to prevent accidental damage to the lath. For stubborn plaster, you can use a scraper or putty knife to separate it from the lath.

If you prefer installing the drywall panels over the existing lath, it is only possible if the wall and lath framework is still in good condition and shows no signs of rot that is common to wood laths.

Be sure to inspect the wall after the plaster has been removed; many homeowners used to leave stuff inside the wall either as mementos or in belief that placing certain objects inside the walls can protect them from harm. Unfortunately, you may also be in for nasty surprises, as animals can burrow inside the walls and become trapped; finding bones of animals in these walls are quite common.

How to Remove Lath

Lath removal must be done carefully and while still wearing protective gear, as the wood used is very brittle due to its very dry state and will easily break apart, and its splinters can cause injuries.

Lath removal is normally done this way:

  1. Find the timber studs where the laths are attached to. It is better to start working on the end of the lath strips so that they will be removed in one piece. A broken lath strip is much more difficult to remove than an entirely whole strip.
  2. Using a crowbar or the chiseled end of the hammer, pry one end of a lath strip from the timber stud that it has been nailed to. Since the nails and laths are easy to remove, you can remove multiple strips on the same side before removing the opposite ends of the same lath strips.
  3. Carefully set each piece of lath aside to avoid stepping on the nails embedded to it.

While the process of removing lath strips is a lot more straightforward than removing plaster on walls, it is still a very time-consuming and messy work. Dust and debris may likely settle behind the laths, and these may also contain traces of lead and asbestos.

Only the studs will remain, as this will be reused for the installation of drywall, acting as the base for the drywall panels.

How to Replace It with Drywall

If you will replace the lath and plaster walls with drywall, there are two ways of doing so:

  • Simply installing drywall over the existing lath after removing the plaster
  • Complete removal of the old lath and plaster and replacing them with panels of drywall

Homeowners like you may have a hard time deciding whether to remove the laths or not when replacing it with drywall. But before you decide, here are some things you need to know:

  • If you are only replacing the plaster with drywall, installing panels over existing laths will not require you to adjust any existing components attached or connected to the walls, such as window casings and door jambs. But if the laths are removed, the new wall with drywall panel will be deeper than your old wall, requiring you to make a lot of adjustments.
  • With laths present, it will be very hard or even impossible to install new wirings and insulation on walls. You are free to do so on drywall.
  • If you install drywall over a lath in poor condition, this can be evident even when covered by drywall.

Whichever way you choose, the installation process is essentially the same. Here is how it is done, with or without the old laths present:

  1. Make sure that the lath strips are completely secured. Inspect each lath strip and nail them back into place if necessary. If there are loose nails, they also must be hammered back, as there should not be any nails that are sticking out.
  2. Clear the laths and studs of dust and debris.
  3. Starting from the topmost corner, place a drywall panel horizontally on the wall, directly below the ceiling. Make sure that the ends of the panel are located at the center of the wall studs to ensure that they will be screwed in properly.
  4. Place drywall screws measuring 2 inches on the ends of the panel. These screws must hit the timber studs, and a 6-inch space should be present between each screw.
  5. After finishing with the first drywall panel, install the next one beside it. If it is done correctly, the ends of the two panels must meet at the center of the wall stud. Aim to have as little gap between panels as possible; even if you use tape to cover up the gap, it may still be visible even after painting the drywall.
  6. It is likely that you will have to cut the last panel to finish a row. To do that, you can simply score the paper face of the panel with a utility knife. Then turn it over and bend it near the scored line for a clean break.
  7. Once the first row is completed, install the next panel directly below the first panel installed. Repeat this entire process until you finish installing the panels on the entire wall.

How Much Does It Cost to Remove Plaster and Hang New Drywall?

While DIY work is possible when it comes to plaster removal and installation of drywall, it should only be done by those who are already versed when it comes to construction work. Otherwise, you need to call the pros to do the work for you.

You may be wondering how much it will cost you to remove plaster and hang new drywall in its place, and this section will aid you in coming up with a budget for this project. Note that your budget should not be limited to the actual task; you also must consider your expenses for the prep work and cleanup.

Asbestos and Lead Testing

The plaster and paint used in the walls of historic homes may possibly contain asbestos and lead, which are known to be toxic. This is why it is vital to test your home for their presence before anyone can start working on them.

Professional asbestos testing will cost you $500 on average, while professional lead testing is a bit cheaper at $300 on average. This amount will only cover the actual testing, and not the necessary fixes in case your home is positive for lead and asbestos.

To cut down on costs, you can opt to purchase asbestos and lead testing kits and do the testing yourself. The process is straightforward, but make sure to completely follow the instructions. It is also advisable to do the test twice per area to get a more accurate result.

Since each kit will only allow you to test a handful of times on average, which is typically enough for only one room, buying asbestos and lead paint testing kits in bulk is recommended, especially if you are replacing the plaster walls with drywall in more than one room.

Prep Work

If you recall, we already mentioned various preventive measures to protect your home from damage while work is ongoing. This means transferring your stuff to another place while work is ongoing, or simply covering them up with tarps, plastic sheets, and the like. But if you do the latter, you still at risk of getting your stuff damaged, especially if large chunks of plaster come crashing down.

To save, you can opt to transfer your stuff in other areas of your home that still has space or will be unused. Otherwise, you may have to pay around $500 for movers to place your stuff in temporary storage.

And because plaster removal is guaranteed to be messy, you will also need a container for all the debris that will be produced. Renting a dumpster is ideal because there will be a lot of dust and debris for this type of project, especially if you are removing the plaster of all the walls in your home. The cost of renting a dumpster normally ranges from $300 to $400.

Having a historic home may also mean having unique flooring, which you will also want to protect. Unfortunately, plastic sheets may not be enough to protect them from damage; the best way to do so is to place plywood over your flooring. A 4×8 sheet of plywood can cost from $5 to $50, but you can opt for the cheapest one.

On the other hand, tarps and plastic sheeting that you can use as cover can cost between tens to hundreds of dollars, depending on your preferred thickness and size.

Removal of Plaster on Walls

If you go with the DIY route, your only expense for the actual removal job is in terms of the equipment you will use. This covers your safety gear and the tools you will need. Buying the necessary safety gear will cost you around $100 on average, and the cost of equipment will depend on what you prefer using.

Since you don’t need heavy duty equipment for this task, you don’t have to spend much to purchase the tools; even $50 may be enough. And if you already have them in your toolbox, you may not even have to buy anything.

But if you need to hire a contractor for this task, expect to pay between $300 to $1,600 for the entire plaster removal. Depending on your arrangement with your contractor, the cost may include the prep work and cleanup, or just the plaster removal alone.

Hang or Install Drywall

Drywall panels have different sizes, and the cost of each panel will depend on its size and thickness. The size commonly used in residential properties is a 4×8 panel. There are also bigger sized panels available, namely 4×12 and 4×16, but these are more challenging to install for a DIYer, so only professional installers typically use them.

A single 4×8 drywall panel has a minimum price of $9, while the price of the bigger panels starts at $16.

Drywall panels also have varying sizes for specific purposes. A 1/4″ drywall panel normally used for repairs and overlay costs $11 on average, the 1/2″ sheet best for walls and ceilings is normally priced between $10 to $20, while the 5/8” drywall primarily for fireproofing has an average price of $13 per panel.

There are also different types of drywall for specific purposes, such as:

  • Standard – $10 to $20
  • Water-resistant – $14 to $25
  • Mold-resistant – $13 to $15
  • Soundproof – $50

Do note that the prices indicated are the cost per panel.

Insulation is also a must on walls, and if you are replacing your lath and plaster wall with drywall, chances are you are installing it for the first time. Expect to spend between $0.75 to $1 per square foot of insulation on walls.

But for a professional drywall installation, you will spend between $1 to $3 per square foot. This normally covers labor, materials, and cleanup.

Cleanup

Before you can move back in to your home, cleanup is a must, unless you are willing to live with all the dust. A single pass of sweeping, mopping, or vacuuming is not enough to thoroughly rid your home of dust and debris afterwards. And because of the health hazards associated with lead and asbestos exposure, you must make sure that all the dust is removed.

If you choose to hire a professional cleanup service, you will typically spend between $50 to $85 for it.

Mistakes to Avoid for Owners of Historic Homes

Anyone who owns a historic home knows that preserving its original look and feel can be a daunting task. Some construction methods and materials used may have become hard to come by, and when you find them, you know it can get expensive.

Making decisions about the lath and plaster wall of a historic home is one of those that homeowners find challenging, especially if they see signs of damage or are planning to rewire their home and conceal them in the walls.

Unfortunately, it is quite common for homeowners to make mistakes when it comes to the walls of their historic home, such as:

  • Not considering doing repairs when they see signs of damage. They will immediately think that it is not repairable and look to replace the entire wall
  • Ignoring the benefits of lath and plaster walls, such as soundproofing and fire resistance, simply because they consider the appearance of plaster walls out of fashion
  • If planning to eventually put it up for sale, getting rid of the lath and plaster wall in favor of cheaper materials to renovate the home, not realizing that the original wall will drive up the selling price
  • Removing the lath and plaster wall without checking if it is a load-bearing wall or not, which can put your safety at risk
  • Hiring the cheapest contractor who claims to know how to plaster walls. Plastering is considered as an art form and not all contractors can correctly do this task, that is why those who can do so do not come cheap.

Keep all these in mind before you start removing the plaster walls of your historic home in favor of drywall. You don’t want to end up regretting your decision, like so many other homeowners experienced.

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