Painting Plaster Walls in 5 Easy Steps

Old Plaster Walls Ready for Painting
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.
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Plaster Walls are worth saving and painting

Painting Plaster Walls
Painting Plaster Walls Photo painting plaster walls is not at all difficult. Runder

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 whereas 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!

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38 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.
      Brad
      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.

    Thanks,
    A

    • 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.
      Brad

    • 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.
      B

  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.

  4. I have a hallway that I’ve scraped the paint and repaired the cracks in the plaster. Now I’m almost ready to paint. My question, I know I need to wash the walls after all the sanding but did I also wash over the repaired areas..making them moist again?

    • Well, don’t really ‘wash’. Is it greasy? If it is just dusty, no need for water..in fact you’ll damage drywall and patches with water. Just use broom at first, then maybe vacuum, then use dry rag or wide dry paintbrush type tool, then mop floor (so you don’t kick dust up into wet primer/paint).
      So do all this after the last of the sanding is done. How to make sure it’s done? Use a good light up close to see the sanding/patching job.
      Hope I helped!
      Brad

  5. Hi, I have taken all the painted wallpaper and glue off this old plaster wall. Cleanned real well with TSP. The old walls are very smooth with few waves. My question is do I need to sand all these walls and ceiling or can I just use a good oil based primer over these walls without sanding everything down. Will the primer adhere to these slick walls? Thanks in advance

    • Hi Charlie. You sound like you are all set to prime. Why oil based? Not necessary from what I can tell. Do you have water stains? Just use basic drywall primer and if stained areas, use BIN or some quality sealer. Stains will bleed through the primer and all paints forever, so you have to seal.
      If in any doubt, do some drywall primer in one square meter, let dry, put some paint and see if you like it. The hard work is done !
      Have fun.

  6. Hello,

    I will be painting my bedroom wall, which is drywall or plaster, my house was built in 1920 and I think my bedroom has the original walls. What would be the best sheen to use? Should I use a primer, the walls are white.

    • Hi Jason. Unless the walls are pristine, which I doubt at 100 years old, you would want to lay a primer on: this seals any stains and ensures your final paint will not have stains (latex paint will not do this for you). So, have a look at some low-toxic primers with some sealing qualities. They are not too expensive and you can apply quickly.

      Sheen is totally up to you: flat is nice unless you have little ones with messy hands on walls. If so, eggshell still looks nice and you can clean it well. Some flats today, esp Ben Moore, can also be cleaned but may show some wipe marks.

      Good luck. Let us know the result. Photos before and after are always helpful to others.

      Brad

  7. Hello:
    I have plaster walls throughout the house, circa 1860, and have noticed a dark patina above and around the walls of cast iron radiators, hot water, not steam. The dark patina shows the outlines of the underlining lath. The house is only mildly insulated. Could the dark skeletal image of the lath on the walls be caused by mold or the combination of cold plaster and rising hot air?
    I notice the further along the wall from the radiator the less dark is the image. Also, the ceiling directly above the radiator does not shows signs of darkness.

    I suppose I could wait until warmer weather, clean the walls, and see what happens but would like to attack the problem now.

    • Hi Mike. Depending on your location and atmosphere (near water?), and age of last paint job I would think it could be mold, but that is obvious: black spots, colonies of cells. If you can send a pic, that would help me, but for now, I’m guessing the on/off heat cycle near the radiators has allowed common dust to settle into the wall leaving a permanent mark. This does happen over time. If this is the case, we hope it is, just paint a test section with your top coat and see if the mark bleeds thru. Certainly, not a bad idea to hit it with a bleach solution first, but please open all windows for some time and/or wear a chemical respirator. Bleach is a deadly poison. I have a post recommending the best respirator for the money. When you are done, if you can reply here, and I can post the pics of before and after. This will help others in the future. Good luck!

  8. Brad:
    Thanks for getting back to me so quickly: I think if you copy the link above and paste you should see a good picture of the problem.

    The ceiling has about a 60 degree slant at the top – which is where you will see shadows of the lath extending from the corner for another 8 feet. The shadows also do extend downward toward the radiator and slightly across the adjacent wall, also somewhat across the ceiling above the radiator. The walls and ceiling are old plaster painted with latex. The walls had been previously papered ( approximately 50 years +-) with vinyl paper.

    Mike

  9. Hi, I’ve just removed paint & wallpaper from my ~1920 browncoat plaster walls here in Oregon. There was no plaster finish coat, I think the original paint was possibly calcimine? Anyway I’ve gotten off as much as I can, and in the process unleashed some godawful stench — decades of cigarettes, and some staining around cracks near the door. I’ve spot primed damaged areas with BIN before I patch & tape. Should I BIN everything to seal? Before or after skim coat?

    Thanks much, Alan

    • Yes Alan, you got it spot on. A full coat of the best stainblocker out there: BIN which is alcohol based and very nasty (read about the alchol based version which we use on all wood ‘knots” here, and here is a 5-gallon pale of water-based product), or the latex version in KILZ, also very good and easy to clean. Lay it on in a heavy coat.
      You would block those stains and smells with those for sure. Warning on the alchol-based primer: deadly if you breathe it too much! so open windows and see my post on respirators: I pointed to the one for you, and these are good when bleaching the bathroom too etc. I wear this mask for anything I think the EPA lies about: so much toxic stuff in a paint store (we were told for years we were safe, which was a lie).
      Now, you could prime after a skim coat and this would do the priming for both the new skim and the old smelly layer. Normally, I would do this, but since you have the smell, prime twice: once for the existing mess, then your skim coat or drywall. Then do your 2 coats of color. Done.
      Easy? No, not this time, but you need to make sure of blocking that smell. Note that that smell will now try to get out in other ways if it can: up and back and out the sides. So, after you are all done, maybe put the same sealer on the backs of those walls: by this I mean the adjacent rooms when you get to them. Good to have that 5 gallon pale I’d guess. Use your nose in the meantime to see if any smells get out. Wait a couple of months for all the new paint to off-gas. Even go above and below the wall with your nose, if you can.

  10. Hello,
    I have an older home with plaster walls. I took the wallpaper off and we repaired parts of the wall. Now we are ready to paint. I started with 1-2-3 primer and I have orangish stains coming through still. Do I need to do 2 coats of primer? Or do I need to use an oil based primer? I don’t really want to use an oil based primer because I have a small child in the home.

    • Hi and thanks for writing. I think you are ready to paint. Sometimes the primer will show the stain, but if you test with your top coat, you may find that the primer has done its job. 123 is a very good stain blocker and you were right to choose it. So do some testing. If the stain comes through one coat it will come through 10 or 100. You will have to use more stain blocking power. I’d jump to the nuclear option in that case: BIN which is alcohol based. See my “primer” posts for the link. Search for bin. The alcohol will evaporate fast. Smart to keep the child out of the house and open windows for an hour, but this stuff off-gasses quickly. Let me know if any problems and good luck!

  11. Hi Brad,
    I have a 1899 Queen Anne in Colorado (very dry) with plaster walls throughout. All the rooms upstairs have cracks, some larger than others, and a few layers of wallpaper to boot. I have managed to get about half the wallpaper off down to the plaster in each of the rooms. The remaining wallpaper is painted and a real bear to remove. Last weekend I had a drywall man, who also said he did plaster work, look at the walls. He said that I didn’t have to finish removing the wallpaper. He said if I painted each of the rooms with Valspar PVA drywall primer, he could skim coat the walls down to a smooth/mostly smooth finish (it would take two layers). He said the trick is the PVA primer. I read the specifics for the Valspar PVA and it seems possible that it could cover both wallpaper/painted wallpaper and plaster. It certainly mentions that the product “can be used over bare or previously painted drywall, plaster, wood and masonry plaster.” What are your thoughts to this process as presented by this drywall/plaster man?

    • Hi
      There is no easy way to get off wallpaper. Whoever thought that up? But I’ve seen some 100+ years old, and still nice.
      Skim coating could be the answer: very expensive, but very nice if your guy is good. Go look at some of his previous work if you can before you buy. I would think Kilz Original would be better for priming, but if you trust him, … Also, ask local paint store owners, managers and you can ask to talk to the district rep. Benjamin Moore and S.Williams generally hire very good people. Good luck and let us know!

      –B

  12. Hi Brad,

    So my husband and I bought this house built in 1946. It’s our first home that we are able to do what we want with. Well the upstairs is a cape cod style and there’s ugly old brown paneling on the walls. Most of it is falling down already but I tore some down and there’s a few lines of some dark brown glue ( or whatever they used) under each panel so far. I don’t see any cracks though. How should I go about taking the glue off and ready for primer?

    Also, my husband painted our living room ceiling white but you can see every bit of texture through it. it’s horrible. All the plaster ceilings throughout the entire house has lines going every which way so is there a way to make it not show through a primer? My husband wants to just spackle the ceiling but I’m not sure…

    Please refer me to some products to use for primer on the walls too please. I’m not worried about the smells or fumes…
    p.s. I hate plaster

    -JK

    • Hi. I understand that the textured wall is 3-D, right? He’s probably right about a new coat of mud, but applied as what we call ‘skim coat’. That means going over the whole thing with a wide knife and smearing on drywall compound, then sanding. This may need 2 coats to make smooth. It’s a huge job and one I would not do for myself even tho I’ve been doing things like this for decades. Ceilings are the hardest and to get it smooth takes an experienced hand: a real pro, not some 20-something hungry to take any job.
      Primers and paints don’t fill cracks or even out texture…they just coat the surface. I’ve never tried some of the paints that promise both… I’d not trust it. So I’d say do the skim coating, then primer (simple drywall primer) and one coat of Ben Moores Ceiling White. If primer is white, that paint will be fine as one last coat.

      On the paneling, the glue will have to be scraped. On our main painting tools post, I point out a ‘5-in-1’ tool: very sharp and will shave off the glue. Another hard job.
      This will keep you out of the pool halls for the summer!!
      Good luck,
      Brad

  13. I have a house built in 1956. It is cinder block construction and plastered inside walls. I am not sure of the insulation material used. On the outside east wall the paint on the inside dining room wall peels. It peels within months of painting. And it also goes back to the same color layer which I have had tested and it is not lead based. And that layer is the original paint used. There is no other layer beneath. However I don’t know if it is oil based. It only peels on that wall. What should I do to stop it from peeling in that wall? I have thought that it might be moisture in the cinder block causing this. If it is, what can it do.

    • Hi. Well, I hate to bear bad news, but you are right about the moisture, I’m afriad. Paint will not adhere to moist surfaces and the water vapor will keep coming through until that wall is dry which may be never.

      Can you find how it is getting wet? Soaking up from the ground? Dripping from roof? Hard one.

      I’d say call an old time building contractor and get a free estimate on how to handle this.

      If you can bear covered walls, perhaps lay cedar over it… like a cedar closet look. Paneling would be the least expensive if you don’t hate that.

      Good luck… Let me know!
      Brad

  14. Hi, Brad. I appreciate your insight and great information. My question deals with my bathroom ceiling.

    My house was built in 1955 and has plaster walls and ceilings. The previous owner used a textured paint on the bathroom ceiling, but did not have good ventilation so there was some mold. I’ve used a mold killing spray product to kill the mold and have fixed the ventilation problem, but don’t know how to best paint over the stains that remain. Any thoughts on how to best prime and paint for a permanent fix?

  15. Hi, about 10 years ago we removed the majority of the painted over wallpaper on the plaster walls in our dining room. Anything that was really adhered to the wall stayed on the wall. We skim coated the entire room, then later primed and painted. I’ve been repainting the woodwork and my painters tape didn’t want to stay on the walls. When I took the tape off, some wall paint came off with it. The paint has always felt tacky in this room, and after pulling some of the paint off with painters tape, I’m realizing that I can peel big chunks of paint off the wall. What should I do now? I don’t know whether to scrape off just the paint, or scrape off everything down to the plaster. The wall under the paint feels completely dry. Thanks!

    • Hi. Yes, it feels dry, but it still may be too moist to paint. Do you know what paint it is (do you still have some?) I guess you can go 2 ways. One is to go the labor intensive way and yes, as you suggest, scrape it all off. I hope it’s just one room. Often a paint district rep will come to look at it for no fee: it’s what they do. I hope you know the paint you used: they’ll want to be sure it’s their problem. Anyway, the other way is to re-prime and paint. Perhaps this seals in any moisture still there, and you’ll have the same problem, but maybe not, and this would be much easier. Use Prime-Lock, the oil-based strain blocking primer…it’s is simply the best, by Ben Moore. Then use any paint you like. Do a test in a section. Let the primer dry fully, paint twice then let it cure (keep it warm for a few days) then test the adhesion. Let me know? Good luck. -brad

      • I’ll try the test area first. I will try it where I’ve already scraped off the paint, and also where I have not. And yes, I still have the paint, and it’s only one room! Can it still have moisture 10 years later? Thanks for the fast response!

  16. Hey Brad! My husband and I recently purchased a home built around 1760, we are finding as we take down wallpaper in some rooms that there are beautiful plaster walls underneath. Your notes and recommendations for prepping and priming the plaster walls are so helpful!! We believe we have horsehair plaster walls, that appear to be in pretty good condition in most rooms, just a bit uneven in color. I was wondering if you could recommend a paint roller style or brand to apply our paint colors to keep a somewhat smooth finish? Considering going with eggshell finish but don’t want the subtle texture that rollers sometimes leave. Any help would be awesome, thank you!!

    • Hi. What a nice find. Two things come to mind right away: spray (I know, big involvement) and Benjamin Moore’s Advance which comes in matte, satin and semi-gloss. When rolled, it does not hold the texture/dimple pattern, but slowly evens out and ‘enamalizes’ which means it becomes totally level, or flat, but not in the sheen sense of the word flat.
      Spraying other latex paints would get you there too, but still, there will be some feel to the wall. My advice, try gallon of satin (most like eggshell in this line of paint) and roll on some samples. See if I’m right… I have never used Advance on walls, but I’m very confident in this answer. Let me know back here? Thanks and good luck! PS, with that link above, you just email the seller in the right-hand column with your color number and name. The price is amazingly decent for online paint.

  17. Hi Brad
    We bought a home built in 1954, plaster walls throughout. The bathrooms are peeling, ceiling to floor in just 4 short weeks of the move in. One bathroom has a ventilation fan, the other does not.
    We wondered if it would be better to rip out all the plaster and replace with Sheetrock or try to scrape and repaint?

    • Do you mean fresh paint is peeling? You need to get a few pros to give estimates: get older guys and talk to them first to see what their experience with this is. Yes, it may be best to rip it out if it’s all wet. You cannot paint wet walls, that’s an axiom. You can always scrape a section, repaint and watch it. In fact, do that as a test to show the pros. Good luck. Let me know? Thanks

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