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Ceilings and Floors

What to look for:

  • Cracks
  • Bulges
  • Stains
  • Damp
  • Detachment
  • Squeaky floors

Ceilings are generally attached, on the top floor, to the roof timbers and, on floors below, to the underside of the floor joists. Cracks in the plaster may either show there are problems with the roof covering, probably allowing water damage, or that floor joists have settled, with damp patches indicating leaking internal pipework.  

A simple gauge to whether the ceiling is formed of plaster board or lime plaster is any cracking - straight lines, or those of right angles, tend to indicate sheets of plaster board, whereas random cracking generally indicates lime plaster. This can be re-secured by a professional, or in some cases, the damaged section carefully removed and repaired using the same lime mortar. Over time however, some ceilings have been repaired with a mix of original lime plaster and sections of plaster board.

A skilled plasterer can re-attach cornices and other enrichments which are preferable to modern alternatives such as plasterboard.  Missing or damaged sections of plaster can be repaired by taking a rubber ‘squeeze’ of remaining plaster ornament and casting a new section or re-running a length of plain cornice.  

Do not assume that all decorative work is plaster as it may be papier-mâché or ‘compo’ (a mix of powdered chalk and linseed oil).  Their repair or cleaning will require expert attention.

Square-edged floorboards can be repaired with care. SPAB leaflet on Patching Old Floorboards describes techniques that require minimum damage.  Worn boards and sloping floors that may have been caused by movement in the structure add character and may not need repair.  Gaps in boards can be repaired by inserting a timber slip. 

Sand old floorboards only as a last resort.  Paint can be removed using proprietary paint strippers and varnishes and stains most effectively with a solvent poultice.  When washing and cleaning wooden floors, do not use to much water as this may cause damage, such as warping or lifting sections. The National Trust has good advice on cleaning old floors, and their suggestions are often cheaper and easier.  The best finish is wax rather than a modern polyurethane varnish which can produce an unsuitably high gloss finish, be very slippy and stop the building from breathing. 

The ventilation of suspended ground floors is an important feature and the air gap below, linking to the outside air, should be kept clear to avoid fungal infestation and timber rot.

It is best to avoid damp-proof membrane in buildings with traditionally constructed walls as they are likely to cause the moisture to travel up the wall taking any wallpaper or plaster with it.  Similarly, flagstones need to breathe so it is better not to apply a sealant to the stones. The mortar between the flags should be lime based with no cement additives. This will help protect the flagstones, as will also allow the building to breath and adjust as required. If there are concerns about the cleaning of flag stones, then a mild solution of washing liquid and water will bring out most stains. Strong cleaners and abrasives should not be used as this will remove the natural ’protective’ layer of the stone surface.