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Common Plaster Problems
When plaster dries, it is a relatively rigid material which should last almost indefinitely. However, there are conditions that cause plaster to crack, effloresce, separate, or become detached from its lath framewor. These include:
Stresses within a wall, or acting on the house as a whole, can create stress cracks. Appearing as diagonal lines in a wall, stress cracks usually start at a door or window frame, but they can appear anywhere in the wall, with seemingly random starting points .
Builders of now-historic houses had no codes to help them size the structural members of buildings. The weight of the roof, the second and third stories, the furniture, and the occupants could impose a heavy burden on beams, joists, and studs. Even when houses were built properly, later remodeling efforts may have cut in a doorway or window without adding a structural beam or "header" across the top of the opening. Occasionally, load-bearing members were simply too small to carry the loads above them. Deflection or wood "creep" (deflection that occurs over time) can create cracks in plaster.
Overloading and structural movement (especially when combined with rotting lath, rusted nails, or poor quality plaster) can cause plaster to detach from the lath. The plaster loses its key. When the mechanical bond with the lath is broken, plaster becomes loose or bowed. If repairs are not made, especially to ceilings, gravity will simply cause chunks of plaster to fall to the floor.
Cracks in walls can also result when houses settle. Houses built on clay soils are especially vulnerable. Many types of clay (such as montmorillonite) are highly expansive.
In the dry season, water evaporates from the clay particles, causing them to contract. During the rainy season, the clay swells. Thus, a building can be riding on an unstable footing. Diagonal cracks running in opposite directions suggest that house settling and soil conditions may be at fault. Similar symptoms occur when there is a nearby source of vibration-blasting, a train line, busy highway, or repeated sonic booms.
Horizontal cracks are often caused by lath movement. Because it absorbs moisture from the air, wood lath expands and contracts as humidity rises and falls. This can cause cracks to appear year after year. Cracks can also appear between rock lath panels. A nail holding the edge of a piece of lath may rust or loosen, or structural movement in the wood framing behind the lath may cause a seam to open. Heavy loads in a storage area above a rock-lath ceiling can also cause ceiling cracks.
Errors in initial building construction such as improper bracing, poor corner construction, faulty framing of doors and windows, and undersized beams and floor joists eventually "telegraph" through to the plaster surface.
In addition to problems caused by movement or weakness in the structural framework, plaster durability can be affected by poor materials or workmanship.
Poorly proportioned mix.
The proper proportioning and mixing of materials are vital to the quality of the plaster job. A bad mix can cause problems that appear years later in a plaster wall. Until recently, proportions of aggregate and lime were mixed on the job. A plasterer may have skimped on the amount of cementing material (lime or gypsum) because sand was the cheaper material. Over sanding can cause the plaster to weaken or crumble. Plaster made from a poorly proportioned mix may be more difficult to repair.