Q: I have an early 1900s house and recently discovered water has been slowly leaking onto a second-floor ceiling. The ceiling had very old acoustical tile, which had absorbed much of the water. When I pulled the tiles down, I found that the ceiling had originally been covered with some type of paper that looked almost like oilcloth with a black paper backing.
Underneath the paper the ceiling is covered in very nice tongue-and-groove redwood slats (most of the framing is redwood as well).
What would be the best way to remove the undamaged paper covering, which is quite firmly attached, so I could just leave the bare wood ceiling? Or would the effort not be worth it? The space is only about 100 square feet. Also, if I were successful in getting rid of the paper, what would be the best way to clean up the wood? I’m not interested in sanding and varnishing. A raw look is fine.
A: Job No. 1 is to find the source of the slow leak and stop it. We’re going to assume that you have done that.
That said, we suspect the covering is more likely linen, not oilcloth or paper. The black color is either mold or more likely tannin bleeding from the wet redwood. The fix could be easy or take a fair amount of time. Either way, the result will definitely be worth the effort.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was standard practice to cover walls and ceilings with linen to prevent the inevitable plaster cracking or, in the case of wood paneling, to provide a smooth wall for painting or wallpapering.
Kevin uncovered tongue-and-groove wood walls in the first house he owned, a small 1900s place in downtown Alameda, Calif. They were covered with linen and what must have been 15 coats of paint. It seemed weird at the time, and 40 years later it still strikes us as odd. But 100 years ago redwood was plentiful and cheap, and carpenters were less expensive to hire than plasterers.
As you found out, the glue holding the paper/linen to the ceiling is water-soluble. To loosen the linen you’ve got to get it wet. The trick is to move water through whatever sealer is on the linen into the linen and ultimately to the glue.
Your first step is to remove all the old acoustical tiles. A flat bar and a few taps with a hammer should make short work of the tiles.
Next, score the linen with a utility knife. Use gentle pressure and make sure not to penetrate the linen and scratch the wood. Try for a crosshatch pattern with 1 1/2- to 2-inch squares. Work in 2-foot-square sections so while you scrape one section, the water loosens the glue in previous sections.
Wet the linen with a 50/50 solution of water and fabric softener. Surprisingly, this combination is superior for dissolving old wallpaper glue. Put drop cloths on the floor because the process is a wet and messy one. Use a spray bottle or a large sponge to saturate the first scored section. Wait a few minutes and scrape the linen off with a stiff 2-inch putty knife. With luck the linen will come off in large pieces, but be prepared to soak each area several times.
Once the linen is off, you’ll see the quality of the wood you have to work with. Our guess is it’s going to be rough. But if we’re right, it will be a diamond in the rough: vertical-grain clear heart redwood. Or, as we like to say, red gold.
Sorry, but we don’t think you’ll be happy with a raw look. A hundred years on a semi-wet ceiling will produce varying stains and imperfections. If rustic is what you’re after, this may be OK. But here’s what we’d do:
Spend $75 or so and buy an orbital sander. Lightly sand the ceiling with 150-grit sandpaper. Wipe or vacuum the dust. Then apply two or three coats of Danish finishing oil. The oil produces a beautiful patina that we think infinitely enhances the natural character of redwood.