Bob Vila, Where Are You Now?


At least I’m not having to do this all with a video camera and microphone in my face.  On the other hand, the This Old House Homeowners don’t seem to be on the spot like this either.  Usually, they don’t seem to be living in the house while it’s being renovated.

When last we talked, Patching Dude was off to the store for more “mud” and was going to check in on the remaining 10% of pointy stucco-style texture on the ceiling.  I was holed up in my study finishing grading and some work for my class.  I did persuade Patching Dude to let me through the elaborate drapery of thin plastic so that I could access the upstairs of the house, which has the advantage of a world that 1) is not coated in a fine white dust, 2) has floors that can be walked up on with bare feet, and 3) does not require maneuvering through a Construction Zone in order to use the bathroom.

So there I was, relaxing alone with a journal article I’m reviewing, and enjoying the sounds of dedicated scraping coming up from the floor below.  And my, what sounds those were.   Virtually indescribable, those sounds.  I’ve just tried three times and haven’t managed to capture them.  If you imagine the sounds of fine porcelain saucers and teacups, with a few dinner plates here and there, being hurled onto a carpeted floor from eight feet in the air, I think you will have some sense for these sounds.  A sort of fragile, shattery, breaking, showering and raining down, sort of noise.

Then they stopped.  Then they started again, more lightly, and in an area that I surmised meant that Yes! The stairwell ceiling WAS going to be affected by this process too!

Then they stopped again.  I considered dozing off, but then I realized I was hearing two voices downstairs, which meant that Painting Guy (my contractor, where Patching Guy is his sub-contractor) must have returned from his other job.

The suspense was oppressive.  Especially because there was no real way for me to safely make my way through the blowing tatters of plastic without creating more of a mess than I already had.  And given how much of a mess there was, that’s a Bold Statement.

Just look:

That’s actually a six-foot tall window there at the end. And the door to my study. And TWO bookcases. And quite a lot of the stucco finish.

My oriental stair rug. I don’t know how the big chunks of finish made it all the way down, especially given the billowing plastic drapery.


You’d never know it, but this is ordinarily a spacious hallway with a wooden floor.

Anyway, eventually there came a knock at the door at the bottom of the stairs.

“Aah,” it was Painting Guy, “do yah have a minute?  We needa taahlk.”

What now, I wondered.

“Sure,” I said.

“Aaah, there’s a prahblem.”

Stap my vitals!  Another problem?  It can’t be.  Tell me it isn’t so.  Say it, and I won’t believe it.

“Aaah, yah outta come over here and have a lookathis.”

Sure.  I went over here, and took a look.

Quite a bit more of the, er, ceiling (for lack of a better word) was exposed in the 10% than we’d seen so far.  What we’d seen so far was stuff like this:

Old plaster, covered with a coat of calcimine, and cracked…when I got the bid from Painting Guy last month, I told him I expected that the REASON that half of the rooms have this finish and the others don’t is that the corner-cutting renovators had found Inconvenient Cracks and just plastered right over them instead of dealing with them properly.
Turns out I was right.


What Painting Guy had summoned me to inspect was a Whole Different Kettle of Fish.  This is what I saw:

I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I asked it anyway.

“Good god, is that horsehair?”

“Aah, yah, prahbahbly.”

Back in the dawn of time, “plaster” was made of horsehair mixed with lime and slapped up over lath.  Some other stuff, too, but mostly horsehair.   I thought they’d moved to other things by the time my house was built, but evidently not.

I have the hair of dead horses in my walls.

I’m sure I’ll find that a little creepy, once I get a few minutes.

The contractors, Click and Clack together, chimed in. “Yah, when we scraped the finish off ovah heah, all thaht stuff just fell raht off onna the flahr.  You can see it, it’s a hahlf-inch a stuff that’s been slahpped up on these ceiling fah a hundred-twenty yahs.”

Why so it was.  When I swung around in the other direct, I could see it clearly.  Including the original slick of gypsum to finish it.  It’s about a half-inch of crap that’s been slicked over the original plaster over the last 120 years, and it’s positively geological in terms of identifiable strata.

The history of the world, in half-assed ceiling finishes.


“Yaaah.” <sound of throat clearing> “We gotta tahk about what to do nahw.  We can’t do any cheap fix on this cause it’ll just faahll raht apaht.”

“Yes, I understand this.  Half-assed work is what got us all here” and I swept the disaster area with a gesture “and I don’t feel like we should propagate that any further.”

“Ah, that’s good, becahse this is gonna mean cahst ovarruns.”

More cost over-runs?  Say it isn’t so.  Thank the lord this isn’t my first time around the block with this kind of stuff.

“What is it, exactly, that needs to happen now?” I said.

“Yaaah.  We’re gonna hahf to pull down the entiah ceiling here and replace it with drywahl.  We’re gonna hahf to pull dahn the entiah ceiling ovah the stairwell too.  Then we’re gonnah have to hang a new drywall ceiling, and then paint it ahl.”

“I see.” I said. “The whole ceiling here has to go, does it?”

“Yahh, saahry abaht that.  It don’t sound lahk yer too surprahsed though.”

“No, I’m afraid I’m not surprised at all.”

“Aahn theah’s more.”

More?  I can hardly wait to hear this.

“This wahsn’t exahctly in aahr schedule.  I’m not gonna just leave ya hahngin like this, but it’s gonna be a litttle hahd to schedule.  I think we cahn get ovah heah to pull the old ceiling out tomorrah, and then hahng the new one on Wednesday, then paint on Thahsday.  I don’t suppose you know what the paint is.”

“There,” I said, “we are in luck.  Cedar Keys from Benjamin Moore matches this wall color.”

“Ah, great! Lemme go run the numbahs.  Dammit, my battery just died.  I gotta go to thah van. Be right bahck.”

And he was.  The original estimate was about $650.  The new situation added about $1,500 to that amount.  I was right on the money when I developed my Pre-Contracting Estimate of a three-fold increase in scope and price.

Well, it looks like the plastic shrouding is down for the night.  Time to pull down the artwork and move the furniture.

I wonder where the cat is.


About Lori Holder-Webb

I'm a Southern Woman by birth and a Texan Woman by upbringing...and yet I find myself living in New England and married to a New York City boy. Up here we use the same currency as we do at home, and I don't need to travel with a passport, but the commonalities pretty much end there. The language is different, the jokes are different, the people are different, and the weather and terrain sure are different too. I moved away from Texas in 2002, and ever since then, I've been the stranger in the strange land... I've had some questions about the name of the blog - if you were not alive, or living abroad or under a rock, or in grad school during the late 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to shuck its stodgy image with a series of commercials intended to bring brand appeal to the younger generation: this car, they said, is not your father's Oldsmobile. If you have a morbid curiosity, hit YouTube for William Shatner will take you right there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s