March 6: Experimentation

I feel like I’ve emerged from deep freeze. My day job has been exhausting lately, a state of affairs I doubt will let up until at least May. There have been days when I got zero done on the house. But the last couple of weeks I’ve made major moves forward…none of which are going to visualize well.

The kitchen continues to be two steps forward one step back. First, I took down the newly hung bathroom door so I could do some touchup trim work without getting paint all over the hardware. Where did it end up living for two weeks? In front of the kitchen counter, of course.

Not pictured, but just about where I’m standing to take the picture, is the future dining room table (currently shrouded in cardboard and loaded down with tools), which I moved out of the dining room for over a month because major work was happening in there, and which I kept tripping over (there are reasons I don’t want a kitchen island.)

So, the major and yet somehow almost totally unpicturesque work in the living and dining rooms. First, I spent a week of spare moments scraping loose paint off the ceiling in the living room and dining room, trying not to totally kill my neck in the process or get too much paint in my eyes/nose (yes I wore a mask). This was the hell of a lot of work even though it doesn’t look like much:

the more tan parts are the parts I scraped; the whitish squares were where the paint was well-adhered, so I washed and left it.

Next, my new BFF Jose taped and skim coated them.

This was so worth it. I suck at anything to do with joint compound that’s more complicated than filling a small hole in the wall. There was no way I was going to do a decent job covering an entire ceiling. Having a serious pro do it meant that it came out beautifully, plus it was fun to watch him working on the stilts. Look at how nice this looks halfway through:

The next step with the ceilings is primer and paint. Nate came over and helped me prime the dining room on Friday afternoon while we talked about Vatican II, and then I actually pulled myself together and did a perfectly respectable job painting the ceiling that night.

also primed the walls in advance of wallpaper

The living room ceiling is going to wait for a while because in there, I’ve embarked on a major project: taping cracks and then plastering all the walls using Master of Plaster.

An excursus! In my book, I wrote about how modernist church architects loved using experimental new materials. There were a lot of these in the postwar period because World War II had huge knockon effects on all kinds of engineering and design materials. It wasn’t just reinforced concrete, which at that point had been around for a while; it was new kinds of glass and waterproofing skins and plexi — tons of different kinds of plastics, mostly. Some of these things worked pretty well, others leaked or broke down quickly, either because the material wasn’t quite what everyone hoped it would be, or because people didn’t know how to install it correctly because it was so new, or a combination. The point I wanted to make was that these architects and builders liked to use new materials not “just because” but rather for two theological reasons. First, some new materials allowed buildings to create a visual theology that wouldn’t be possible otherwise — for example, using translucent wall material to allow a unity of inside and outside. And second, it was important to use new technology and material in churches because it was important to make it clear that all this was part of God’s creation and headed towards redemption along with the rest of the universe — there wasn’t really such a thing as a “secular” material.

I guess I have a bit in common with these architects because I enjoy the experimental aspects of this house project. I like to research options for solving different problems, and to try out new-to-me products and tools to see if they work better than the first five things I tried. This can get expensive, but it keeps things interesting, too. And I do accept that some of the things I’m trying won’t work in the long run. For example, I’m not at all sure that my oiled wood countertop is going to hold up forever. Maybe in five or ten years I’ll be replacing it with stone. Or maybe it’ll work great for the next forty years. Who knows?!

This brings me back to the living room. Did I mention that I really dislike working with joint compound? This is too bad because it’s really cheap and readily available. But I’m bad at it. I don’t keep my pressure terribly even and I get a lot of surface variation as a result. I tend to let it build up too thickly and then when I try to even it out I mess up the surface or I take too much off in sanding. Oh, and sanding is awful! The two rooms where I have done a fair amount of work with joint compound (the downstairs bedroom and the kitchen) don’t look great to me. I can live with the unevenness of the walls and ceilings in these two rooms — mostly — but as I got into the two big downstairs public spaces, I started hoping to find something that would be better. And this time as I poked around the internet, I found this blog series on plastering. It kind of sold me on the idea of skim coating (original) lime plaster with (new) lime plaster, rather than with gypsum. (Other posts in the series are here.)

NGL, Master of Plaster — the product described in that blog — is quite expensive, especially compared to joint compound, and you can’t buy it locally unless you live near their factory in South Carolina, so shipping adds $$ too. And you need a bunch of it to cover a room. But I thought, what the hell, and ordered a five-gallon bucket to try out. It wasn’t quite love at first sight, actually. It took me a while to get the hang of applying it without dropping giant globs everywhere, and I made the mistake of starting on a wall that had a bunch of obstructions to manuever around. I was hot and sweaty and my throat felt a bit coated with lime. BUT. Having paid for this expensive bucket, I felt obligated to at least use it all, and as I practiced with it, I found that I started to get the hang of it. It’s sloppier than joint compound, so it goes on in thinner coats, and it spreads beautifully. I learned experimentally not to worry much about the first coat. Just wet the wall, get it covered, and sweep the trowel (or taping knife, which I have found more comfortable to use even though I do actually own a trowel and tried it out) around to get up any excess. The second coat is worth working more, but it’s also got something to grab onto in the rougher first coat.

And now, a hilarious photo of two white bits of wall. I told you this post would be visually boring as all get out.

The top photo is of a section of wall where I just threw up the first coat without worrying too much about it. You can see it’s pretty rough, with lots of trowel marks. And yet at the same time…it’s quite even (you’ll have to take my word for this). Unlike the joint compound, which tends to mound up and undulate for me, this went on in a roughly even thickness. After a few days when I was basically just doing my day job, I finally went back and started on the second coat, and that’s where I started to really feel the magic happening. In the bottom photo, you can see by contrast how much smoother the wall is. It’s not totally smooth — there are lots of small imperfections — but I worked the plaster more as it went on and using spritzes of water after it started to set up, and it got to a point where I was pretty happy with it. I didn’t keep going because I intend to apply a finish coat, but I think if I’d worked harder at it I could have gotten this second coat smooth enough to paint and not hate it.

More importantly, I’m really into the way it feels as I work it. I’ve got a better rhythm down now and I’m not dropping globs everywhere, and through some trial and error I figured out how big a section I could realistically work on at one time before going back to smooth out the partially set old stuff. It really is very friendly to inexperienced idiots. The worst you can do is make a mess by using too much water and creating soup on the wall. Solution — let it dry a bit and then get in there again. Even if you let it over-set, if you spray it and wait a minute it’ll free up enough to be workable. And you can’t really over-work it either, which is very unlike joint compound, where I was constantly trying to fix one error only to create fifteen new ones.. You just kind of stop when you’re happy with a section.

I’m no professional plasterer; I’m sure it’s taking me ten times as long to get a result that’s half as good. But this is a product and a process I can actually see myself working with over much of the rest of the house. I’m super glad I decided to try out something new.

The living room, before I got into the plastering business
the living room, after two coats (wall on the right looks patchy because it’s still drying; the greyer bits are fairly wet)

Meanwhile, two other quick updates! First, Eric put the last of the kitchen drawers in today and also rehung the door jamb:

Obviously, this is not the end of the kitchen. But I’ve decided to cook in it for the next six months or so before I move on to finishing it. It’s functional now — drawers, cabinets, appliances, shelves — and while part of me feels weird about just leaving it so raw and unfinished, missing face frames, trim, final countertops, a soffit above the built-in, etc, the rest of me thinks it would be a good idea to just live in the space for a while and see if I want to move anything else around. I’m leaning in to the experimental spirit, that is to say.

Second, I have a mostly bat-proof bedroom door!

It closes and latches and everything! Obviously a bat could get in if it worked at it; there’s a huge gap at the bottom. But nobody’s going to just come swooping in because they get lost. This is a pretty big relief, tbh.

I had a really big day and I’m pretty wiped out now. But this week I’m looking forward to starting to put the final coat of plaster on the living room; continuing to chip away (literally) at the old paint in my future bedroom upstairs; and choosing and ordering the dining room wallpaper. If I don’t keel over from day-job stress first!

Published by Catherine R. Osborne

Historian, theologian, editor.

3 thoughts on “March 6: Experimentation

  1. The wood in your house from the floors to the doors is just so gorgeous. Deep and rich with red undertones. That ceiling looks great. It is not boring and is a much needed element…it makes the room look so much more finished. I am sorry to hear work has been so exhausting although I am not surprised, it is very much that moment in the semester. Sending you good vibes until May. Living with the kitchen to see what you might want to change sounds like a great idea…anymore thoughts on the colors?

    Okay, the most interesting thing about this post is your reference to your book and the discussion about theology and materials. I am a nerd and immediately went to go see about getting it but even the Kindle version is…not cheap 🙂 Will have to budget for it. May I ask if anything changed in 1975? It makes sense to cover a shorter period of time so that you can have something stronger to say but I was wondering if changes in technology/fabrication of materials at the time changed the Catholic Church’s approach?


    1. Oh good lord, you work for a university, don’t buy it; get it out from the library! 1975 is both accidental and on purpose. I actually had a hard time figuring out exactly where to end, and ended up going with the last church building that I mention in the book. But sometime in the mid-70s, give or take a year or two, was also a bit of a natural stopping point in the story. There was a ton of upheaval in the late 60s and early 70s brought on by the aftermath of Vatican II (ended 1965), which among other things shook up how Catholics did liturgy and seemed to demand some pretty major changes to buildings as well as practices. That ten-year period was really exciting and also really confusing as folks tried to figure out what it all meant practically speaking. By the mid-70s things are settling down some and there’s not really a ton of upheaval on the same level again until there’s a big organized backlash movement in the late 1990s forward. There’s a lot to say about the interim (and my lamented second book that I never got to write was going to deal with some of that) but more or less, it just felt like the mid-70s was a good place to stop. Also, one of my main sources, the journal Liturgical Arts, shut down in 1972 and by 1975 its longtime editor had died and some short-lived efforts to revive it had failed.

      Back to my kitchen, I’m very happy with the new cabinet color (Eastlake Gold) and it goes really well with the dark wood countertop now that I finally got around to staining and oiling that. So that’s one thing settled!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ahhhh! So they are painted! I thought so but (maybe because I have a crappy laptop) couldn’t tell if it was my screen or if you had replaced them with some sort of pine. I really like the color.

        How did I not think of that? I miss the academic side of universities. I will definitely be borrowing your book…the combination of old edifices and human ritual is too tempting. Thank you so much for sharing more with me.


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