Painting over plaster

By Peter Hotton
Globe Correspondent / September 9, 2010

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Q. My old 1920s house has horsehair plaster. I would like to paint it, but my wife says she does not want to paint over the paper, which is about 10 years old. How to start and finish?

STEVE CARROLL, Stoneham A. The paper is vinyl-coated, and you can probably paint it without it wrinkling, and even if it does wrinkle while you are painting it is likely to unwrinkle when the paint dries. If you do paint, start with a latex primer-sealer or enamel undercoat, and finish with two thin coats of an eggshell finish latex wall paint.

To paint the plaster, remove the paper. Since it is vinyl-coated, you must score it to allow the steamer or stripper solution to penetrate to the paste underneath. With the paper off, wash thoroughly to remove the remaining paste and glue sizing. Several washings may be necessary. To paint horsehair plaster, fill any small holes or blemishes with joint compound. But if you like the rather rough surface, there may be no need for the joint compound.

Apply a latex primer-sealer, then two thin coats of a flat latex wall paint. I suggest flat because the usual eggshell finish (neither flat nor glossy) may produce shiny highlights on the rough plaster.

Q. Is there a way to ensure a smooth polyurethane finish, without visible brush strokes? Use a particular brush, roller?

WERNER LOHE, Brookline A. The brush is important, so make sure it is expensive and well bristled. A $10 brush is certainly better than a $2 one. Technique is equally important. Apply thin coats, and flow the varnish on, and while you can brush back and forth a little, stop when the varnish starts to set up. Varnish is self-leveling, so even if there are a few brush marks, they will disappear as the varnish settles.

A roller is not the way to go; it will give an orange-peel effect, which is good on a refrigerator but not on a wood floor.

Q. The screens and shades on my roof windows are gone or broken. How can I get replacements on the windows that are 12 years old?

PAUL MURPHY, Tewskbury A. If you know the brand, and the company is still around, it can help. But if for any reason it can’t or won’t, you could have new screens fabricated with an aluminum frame that can be fit into custom-made grooves. There are a number of fabricators in South Boston. As for shades, use ordinary thermal or room-darkening roller shades. My daughter installed such a shade in one of her roof windows, which indicates she is a true handyman’s daughter, able to figure out things herself.

Q. I have one window where the storm works well enough in dry weather, but when it rains, water pours into the space between storm and window. Is there a way to fix it?

JIM, from Foxborough A. I have run into this situation twice, and fixed it both times. I suspect those storm sashes are in the wrong position. Normally, any double-hung window (storm or main window, with sash that goes up and down) has the top sash on the outside, the bottom sash on the inside, creating a little shelf where the two meet. If they are in the wrong way — and it’s easy to do it wrong, because it’s easy to grasp and raise or lower the wrong sash — they will allow water to gush in, and leak air like crazy. Check them out and see.

Q. I have wood windows in the foundation of my crawl space. They are hinged at the bottom, and open inward. When I pull them closed, they seem to stay put, but in a day or so I see they have opened again. How can I lock them?

BARBARA BOWMAN, Westwood A. There should be a latch at the top, but if there is not, buy solid brass hooks and eyes. Screw the eye into the top wood of the sash, and screw the hook to the top of the frame that the window fits into. They will hook together and are easily released when you want to vent the crawl space.

Globe Handyman on Call also appears in the Sunday Real Estate section. He is available 1-6 p.m. Tuesdays to answer questions on house repair. Call 617-929-2930. Hotton ( also chats online about house matters 2-3 p.m. Thursdays. Go to