Cracked walls show what makes house home

November 23, 1996|By Rob Kasper

CRACKS IN the walls are like wrinkles in your forehead. You learn to live with them. Yet every so often you feel compelled to take cosmetic action.

Last weekend I got the urge to patch some of the cracks in our plaster walls. I started with a 2-foot-long fissure in the hallway ceiling on the top floor. This crack appeared several months ago after one of the kids jumped up and slammed his hand into the ceiling.

You might ask why anyone would slam his hand into a ceiling. But you would not ask this if you shared living space with aspiring basketball players. During basketball season, roughly from November through April, kids randomly take flight. In the case of our kids, boys 15 and 11, the minute that one has demonstrated that he has reached a new height, such as the top of the doorway lintel in the family room, the other kid immediately tries to conquer the same ground.

This activity loosens quite a bit of household plaster. When I encounter bounding youths, I have two reactions, I holler and I patch. My paternal litanies: "Don't Do That! "Not in the house!" "Take it outside!" can probably be heard in many households this time of year. But shouting is only a temporary remedy to the assault on household plaster. As soon as the shouter moves out of earshot, the leapers are likely to resume their efforts, and the cracks in the wall will grow wider.

A more satisfying response is to mix some joint compound with water and fill in the cracks. Fixing wall cracks is not exactly a day in the park, yet it offers its quiet pleasures. When you dig into the innards of an old house, you also delve into its past.

Poking around in the old walls of our house, for instance, I sometimes find a piece of horse hair buried in the plaster. The hair reminds me that when the house was built, in the late 19th century, animal hair was put in the first two coats of plaster to bind materials together. Those were the days when plastering a wall was done in three stages. According to descriptions I have read, the horse hair went in the first two coats of plaster, called the scratch coat and the brown coat. Finally the last layer, a finish coat, made with plaster as soft as butter, was smoothed on.

It took a long time, sometime weeks, for each coat of plaster to dry. Later this time was shortened as drying agents such as gypsum or cement were added to the lime plaster mix. The end result of this three-stage plastering process was a substantial structure, a wall worth looking it, a wall that was going to be around for a while.

Nowadays most walls are often made of prefabricated plaster-board. Plasterboard is fast, but it has no horse hair, and not much history.

Another time, when I was fixing a crack in the ceiling of the master bedroom, I looked out the window and noticed that someone had etched initials in the glass. The initials in the window glass served as a gentle reminder of the fact that other people had lived in this house. They had slept in these rooms, gazed out these windows at kids playing in the alley, maybe even patched this plaster.

One of the appealing things about living in an old house in Maryland is that from time to time, you come across people who have lived in the place you now call home. When this has happened to me, at a big neighborhood Christmas party or in the middle of some business transaction, I have found myself listening in wonder as a stranger tells me about what once went on underneath the curved stairs that I now climb.

Your house has a history. Around here, you are sometimes lucky enough to bump into people who can tell you a chapter or two.

These thoughts rolled through my mind the other day as I repaired a crack in the ceiling. I cleaned the loose plaster out of the long crack, then sprayed the edges of the crack with cold water from my wife's plant mister. The misting increased the chance that the marriage of new joint compound with the old plaster in the wall would be a lasting union. To fill the crack I dragged a putty knife loaded with joint compound across the fissure. To smooth over my patch, I swept the putty knife lengthwise along the crack.

Later, when I get around to painting the wall, I'll use sand-paper to smooth off any rough edges along the patch.

But for the time being, another crack caused by leaping lads had been mended. And another small part of the history of a house had been completed.

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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