As the least visited room in our home, my office has essentially gone unchanged since we moved in, but likewise, as the least visited room in our home, it felt like the perfect place to try an experiment that’s been on my mind for a few years now – exposing the original beams from our ~250 year-old cape.
Owning and maintaining an old home has its ups and downs. It can be both charming and frustrating. We’ve come to terms with the fact that there will hardly ever be a straight edge in the entire house, I will forever have to deal with hitting my head on short doors in the middle of the night, and insulating and heating will almost always be an uphill battle. However, there’s definitely a sense of pride in the home’s history, and a sense of mystery and excitement in the little discoveries around every corner and with every change (like a painting flipped over and used as a board to block an old fireplace, or a corked bottle of whiskey in the rafters of the attic).
One such mystery that has bugged me for a while now, has been how the ceiling in every room downstairs from the “old” front half of the house (the “new” back half was added on 100 years later… in the 1850’s), ended abruptly into the top molding of the doors and windows – like they had been trimmed-out, and then the ceiling had been built around them. It didn’t add up, and combined with the fact that the 7ft. ceilings made the rooms feel a little claustrophobic, led me to do some reconnaissance with my iPhone camera, through a small hole in the knee wall attic upstairs. To my surprise, there seemed to be some sort of old-fashioned drop ceiling, suspended by hand-hewn pegs from (to my delight) beautiful rough-sawn red pine or balsam fir beams.
Note: From here I’ll probably wax poetic about the trials and tribulations of the process, so if you’d rather skip to the fun parts, you can just scroll to the photos below.
Once I knew they were up there, it was only a few (8+) months of debating the merits of creating a huge mess of my office and possibly finding some unforeseen obstacles that would prevent me from completing the project or blow my budget entirely, before I finally decided to give it a shot. With some encouragement from Meredith, and a rainy Sunday afternoon, I made the first 3×1 cut from below to see what I’d be getting into.
Lesson #1: Sheetrock and plaster demolition is messy.
I placed a few drop cloths directly below that first cut to catch the falling dirt, but after making four small cuts, turned around to a blanket of white. Every inch of my office was covered in sheetrock and plaster dust. The blinds, the picture frames, my computer and router (?!?)… everything. Lesson learned – score sheetrock and plaster with a utility knife, then break it away in chunks with a pry bar before cutting through the lathe with your saw. And move every last thing out of the room – the clutter in the rest of the house far outweighs cleaning up the mess when you’re done.
Luckily, wisdom came to lend a hand, in the form of Meredith’s stepfather, Ed. With his trailer of tools and headful of experience from renovating old homes, we blocked off the following weekend to tackle the project. Ed taught me that if you pre-score the sheetrock and plaster, you can pry the lathe down from the substrate in large, manageable chunks, with a fraction of the dust. Don’t get me wrong, it was still messy – just infinitely less so than my 1×3 hole had led me to believe. It took a full day of demolition to tear down the layer of sheetrock, the older plaster and lathe beneath it, and the 15′ drop ceiling supports, to clean the floor of debris, and to cart most of it off to the dump. Much Figgy’s fried chicken and beer was consumed that night to celebrate.
The next day, we set about cutting a faux header joist for the inside wall (the real joist was too far inset behind the wall), and laying the nailers and foam board insulation in the joist bays as a base for the new sheetrock. After we secured the header, we started cutting the 8′ sheetrock boards to fit inside the bays.
Lesson #2: Sheetrock and plaster installation is messy.
After a tiring two full days of working above our heads, Ed and I loosely cut the sheetrock to fit inside the bays, leaving up to 1/2″ gap on either side between the joists, thinking that we could easily caulk and plaster the gaps before painting. In hindsight after almost four days of plastering, sanding (more dust), plastering again, and sanding again (more, more dust), it would’ve been worth the time up front to cut the boards as tightly as possible to fit the joists. I even later read online that fitting the sheetrock in four foot lengths will allow you to make accurate cuts and provides for one-person installation.
Between the sheetrock taping of the added four inches of wall above the windows, and the plastering and taping of all the screws, joints, and gaps in the bays, this is probably the most frustrated I became with the entire project. Ed, having sacrificed more than a full weekend, returned home as it began to bleed into the following week. I initially used pre-mixed joint compound for my sheetrock work, but with a 24 hour dry time, was left waiting for an entire day before returning to the same area. If I had been more experienced in plastering and only required one coat, this might have been okay, but as the uneven spots appeared, I was faced with multiple coats and switched to the one hour dry time sheetrock mix.
Fortunately for me, while I bumbled about with batches of plaster that were either too wet or too dry, Meredith began diligently applying the first coat of paint to the walls and trim. We’ve always loved neutral paint colors, where the furniture and woodwork become the accent, so we settled on Benjamin Moore’s Gray Owl, lightened 50%, for the walls, and in keeping with most of the other parts of the house, Super White for the trim work. While we were at it, I went ahead and replaced the old tan outlets (all eleven of them for a 11×15 room!) with new white ones – only skirting electrocution just once when I found out that some random outlets on the wall were running to an unmarked (now plainly marked) breaker in the box.
After what seemed like ages, but in reality ended up being almost 10 days of work mixed between our day jobs and the renovation, with more splinters than we could count, sore backs, a perpetual coating of sheetrock dust in our hair, and having fully exhausted our podcast backlog, we couldn’t help but smile at the finished product. It only added about 10 inches to the height of the room, but there’s something oh so cool about sitting under the same beams that the earliest families in this neighborhood did. I couldn’t be happier with the finished product, and although it might be a few (8+) months before we’re ready to go again, I can’t wait to see the other rooms of the house in the same way.
Oh, and before I forget, we literally found a bone, right beside a very old leather shoe in the drop ceiling cavity. Big enough that I’m not ruling out human. 😉
- Paint: Benjamin Moore Gray Owl (wall) and Super White (trim)
- Blinds: Smith & Noble
- Furniture: Hedge House Garfield desk (walnut), West Elm side table and couch, inherited leather chair
- Art: Old Try, Rebecca Atwood, Gray Malin
Photos by Meredith Perdue for Map & Menu.