Painting Plaster Walls in 5 Easy Steps

Painting plaster walls is not at all difficult.  If your house is old, it will have plaster, sometimes called ‘horsehair plaster’ on the walls. The old workers used the tail hair from horses to mix in with the plaster to give it strength.
Painting Plaster Walls
Painting Plaster Walls Photo painting plaster walls is not at all difficult. Runder

Plaster Walls are worth saving and painting

Plaster walls are harder than the modern drywall, but it is great to save them, and that will probably cost you less in the end.  Often plaster walls have a lot of lime so mold cannot grow in them.  Great news.

Also, just as a point of interest, the reason people put wallpaper over the plaster walls was not just for decorating.  The wallpaper also gave strength and stability to the walls!

This plaster wall is usually cracked but is worth saving. If the plaster wall is still firm and has just separated from the backing “lath” which was usually cedar strips, you just need to re-attach with drywall screws.  This will cause some cracking which you just patch up with spackle (sand all when dry).

Painting plaster walls in 5 steps

  • Use a putty knife to remove any loose plaster. If you see a brown discoloration, that is probably water stain from years of moisture and maybe leaks in the roof etc.  You’ll have to prime that with a white pigmented shellac such as spray Kilz or liquid Kilz or a good product called 1-2-3. For mold, please read our post about mold resistant paint.
  • One trick is to fill tiny cracks with a paint-able caulk.  It’s faster, and it gives a little where as other spackle and mud compounds will not.  You have to assume those cracks will keep moving.
  • Patch the hole with pre-mixed drywall compound and give it a day or so to dry, and add a second or even 3rd coat if the dried patch keeps shrinking.  Deep patches will shrink no way around that.
  • Large repairs will need tape and you can find how to do that in this post.
  • Sand with rough then transition to finer sandpaper and prime with drywall primer (apply one coat). Please don’t buy paint-and-primer-in-one: here is why.

You should be ready to paint at that point. Paint your walls with 2 coats of paint.

Make sure you have all the painting tools that you need.

If you are working with a lot of sanding, read our respirator mask guidelines.


How to paint plaster wall – summary

Painting plaster walls is just like painting any other drywall. The primer that you use is the key. You need to us the best primer for plaster walls to seal the wall. On that point, watch the toxins you are putting into the air that you and yours are breathing.

Plaster walls will drink anything you put on them, so you want to put an end to that with the primer, and at the same time if you have any stains you want to seal them at that level: most water stains from plaster walls will bleed through every coat of latex painting work. After your primer, you painting on plaster walls is just like any other interior paint job, which you will read about all over my site.  Write to me with any question about how to paint plaster walls!

9 thoughts on “Painting Plaster Walls in 5 Easy Steps

  1. We are moving into a home that was built in 1960 by a man who was a Colonial Williamsburg enthusiast. All of the walls are raw plaster with the trim being the only thing painted. The walls now are all dingy. I believe they are lime plaster. I assume following the instructions on your site will work for us when we go to paint the walls but there is one wall in the dining room that has a mural painted directly onto the wall. I would like to save the image but the wall itself is dingy like all of the others. Is there any technique I can use to either bring back the wall to a brighter white or seal the whole wall with some tinted sealer that will give the plaster an antiqued color but still allow the image to be retained?

    • Hi. Without seeing the wall, I’d say ‘no’ from within the world of painters, but I am sure that there are sealants that are used in professional sign-making etc… That can seal it for you. You don’t want it to yellow over the years, and that is going to be hard to find. All those old houses with dark wood trim were not always that way: the varnish darkened. For many years, it was much lighter. But chemistry has come a long way.
      Send a photo if you like and I’ll ask my painter buddies around the world for a recommendation. It is not what we do ordinarily. An art store would be a good first stop. They chat too.
      I also know a woman who restores old Tibetan art. That is very expensive…museum-level work, but if you find out what they use to clean the paints, you could do it yourself perhaps.
      Good luck and thanks again.
      ps, yes, the primers we recommend will seal in the other plaster walls’ dingy spots. Buy a small can and test on the worst spots, then get more. Try to stay as low-toxin as you can and open windows etc to stay healthy.

  2. Hey Brad,

    Here is a full shot of the plaster wall with simple mural on it and two close ups of the birds in the mural. How would I brighten, or clean the white background of the mural wall while saving the artwork on it? Can I do a wash over it all to give it all an aged look and then seal it? I am at a loss as to how to attack this. The other walls have nothing painted on them so I was going to follow your instructions for painting plaster walls but this one must be handled differently.


    • Plaster with mural

      Hi again.

      What is the mural attached to? A painted wall? Or plaster?

      If it is a painted wall I would suggest carefully cleaning around the images and painting carefully around the images. Even if it is a plaster wall I would suggest the site. But as for the images, I would take a damp soft cloth and carefully clean it.

      Remember that if the wall is already painted, it does not necessarily need a primer. The primer never hurts, and it depends on the color that you want to apply but is not necessary to seal anything if the wall is not porus. Primer and sealer is only for a porous wall as you know.

    • Got it.
      So my advice would be to paint around the images with a small artist’s brush, then a larger brush as you have room, then roller for 3 coats: 1 primer, 2 color.
      To clean the images, probably a damp sponge/rag. Test a small spot to see if water dissolves the paint: I bet it will not.

      Good luck.

  3. Hi Brad,

    We’ve bought a fairly new home with plaster walls and as we begin to paint the very white walls, we’d like to know what brand/s you recommend for drywall plaster.

    Thinking of using RustOLeum.

    Thanks! Elaine and Steve

    • Hi and thanks for writing.
      I am not sure if the walls are ‘very white’ because they have new plaster (unpainted) or white paint.
      If paint, just have at your favorite (check out the Benjamin Moore Historical Series—all warm and soft)

      If plaster, then use the primer I mentioned in the article above, then paint as you like.

      Key point is that some primers also seal stains: if you don’t have stains, just use the simple primer (not primer-sealer).
      Yes, the Rustoleum is a good one and there are many others as well. Stay well-ventilated, like the Rolling Stones! Get it?! Ha ha.

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