Ah, the days when you couldn't punch a hole in the wall.
December 20, 2011 9:37 AM   Subscribe

When did builders of residential houses stop routinely using plaster and lathe for the walls and start routinely using drywall? Was it the 1970s?
posted by BostonTerrier to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

It didn't happen all at once. My 1930's house has plaster but no wood lath. Thick plaster was spread over a product that is very similar to modern drywall except that it was made in smaller pieces -- 2' x 4', I think. These sheets were nailed to studs and used as a quicker substitute for lath. My parent's 1950's house was built similarly.

But yeah, WWII was a pivotal moment for the construction industry's use of prefab sheet goods like plywood and drywall. The technology was largely developed before the war, and some of the industrial infrastructure built FOR the war was adapted to make building products immediately afterwards.
posted by jon1270 at 9:57 AM on December 20, 2011

You still saw plaster and expanded metal walls in the 70s (and even today) so it wasn't an all at once thing. There is some metal lathe in my house (≈1917) so there were obviously some situation where the expense of the metal was preferable to cutting and taking up the lathe even then.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:57 AM on December 20, 2011

Related aside: I remember ads in the New York City subways in the 1960s that said "Keep New York Plastered". I think they were sponsored by the plasterers' union.
posted by mareli at 10:09 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Many California tract houses built just after WWII had drywall. I own 2 of them in Bloomington, CA and both were built in 1948 with drywall covered in a thin skimcoat of plaster. There weren't enough skilled lathers and plasterers to keep up with the postwar housing boom and that necessitated the switch to drywall.
posted by buggzzee23 at 10:14 AM on December 20, 2011

It didn't happen all at once. My 1930's house has plaster but no wood lath. Thick plaster was spread over a product that is very similar to modern drywall except that it was made in smaller pieces -- 2' x 4', I think. These sheets were nailed to studs and used as a quicker substitute for lath. My parent's 1950's house was built similarly.

This is true in my experience - I worked on a hotel that was built in 1940 that used a type of gypsum lath, generally known as "button board", made of smaller pieces than the typical 4'x8' gyp board sheets, that was nailed to the wood studs and then had a veneer coat of plaster applied over it. It's called button board because there's a grid of holes in the board that allow the plaster to penetrate and gain adhesion to the surface, and I think there may also have been an expanded metal layer in there somewhere as well. Anyway, if you took off the sheathing on one side of the wall to look at the back side of the button board, it would just look like smaller drywall with a bunch of spots where plaster was oozing through to the interior of the wall cavity. I'm not sure when the transition was made from wood strip lath to this system, but based on jon1270's anecdote, I'd guess some time in the 1930s.
posted by LionIndex at 10:17 AM on December 20, 2011

There's a wikipedia page on it that describes the transition as indicated, but doesn't really give any dates. The transition probably happened at different rates across the country. California has a decent gypsum industry (note the location of Plaster City, basically a gypsum production town, in the desert in Southern California between El Centro and San Diego).
posted by LionIndex at 10:21 AM on December 20, 2011

Other wikipedia pages for US Gypsum, owners of Plaster City (there's a section down a ways on the page), and for gypsum board, which apparently was initially developed between 1910 and 1930.
posted by LionIndex at 10:25 AM on December 20, 2011

Wow. I did not know this was a gradual development that started so long ago.

Advantages of plaster & lathe:
more fire-resistant than drywall

You drive a nail for the picture here, and you can hear the cracking start way over there.

Only advantage of drywall (that I can think of):
Easier picture hanging.

Thanks, all!
posted by BostonTerrier at 10:50 AM on December 20, 2011

Drywall is lot faster to install. That is a big advantage.
posted by mmascolino at 10:57 AM on December 20, 2011

Advantages of plaster & lathe:
more fire-resistant than drywall

Hrrmmm...that's debatable. Certain types of drywall (labeled as "type X") are specifically intended for fireproofing purposes and have water entrained in the gypsum matrix that resists fire and heat transfer between spaces. I think drywall and plaster are roughly equivalent, but of course it depends on the thickness of the plaster application or how many layers of drywall you've got. But, one layer of button board/plaster on each side of a framed wall or one layer of 5/8" type X on each side will each get you a one hour fire rating.

The biiiiiig advantage with drywall is construction time (and therefore labor cost) as mmascolino notes.
posted by LionIndex at 11:14 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Keep New York Plastered!

Youngest house I've seen it in was a cottage built in the 1940s. Anything built after that in the south west seemed to be drywall.
posted by tilde at 11:14 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

The widespread use of drywall really took-off in the 50's and the rise of the large, national home builders, like National Homes.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:15 AM on December 20, 2011

Your advantages of plaster aren't quite a s cut and dried as all that. I'm not any kind of expert, but older plaster homes can be more dangerous in fires if there were no fire stops installed (crosswise pieces of 2x4 between the studs) or the vertical framing runs through more than one level of the house. Once a fire gets started, the easy flow of air can help it travel through the structure faster. The development of modern drywall construction has been accompanied by improvements in the construction code.

Also, plaster cracks pretty easy when a building settles and it's a pain to repair.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:33 AM on December 20, 2011

Only advantage of drywall (that I can think of):
Easier picture hanging.

It's faster, cheaper and easier to maintain over time (painting, washing, insulating, repairing). It's better on virtually every objective yardstick. I guess you could make a subjective case about texture and shape, but that's rather easily duplicated. ;-)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:13 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm very skeptical that there is a fire-resistance advantage to plaster-and-lath. Just considering the fuel load, a traditional wood-lath wall has a lot more combustible fuel in it than a drywall wall. The only easily combustible part of drywall is the paper backing, and there's a lot less of that than there is lath in a traditional wall.

Maybe if you are talking about metal-lath plaster walls ... in that case I can see the plaster one being preferable, as long as there isn't horsehair or other combustible stuff embedded in the plaster.

One of the only advantages of traditional plaster walls is that you can curve them a lot more easily than drywall. The downside of the residential-construction industry transitioning to drywall is that it basically forced most houses (even upscale ones) into box shapes.

If you look at nicer homes in the pre-drywall era, you see a lot more interesting, rounded interior shapes. While partly this was just due to the trends in architecture, I also think it has a lot to do with construction methods. Plastering a tightly-radiused, rounded wall doesn't cost any more than a square one (in fact maybe less, since it uses less materials), but doing it with drywall is a real trick. Even thin drywall only bends so much, and it's not as much as thin lath does.

In fact I think one of the only places you still see plaster and lath used today is to repair walls in older houses where there are bend radii in the walls that aren't conducive to repairing with drywall.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:43 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I own a history house in a very very windy city. I can have my plaster walls pristine and a gusty day of 50mph wind will happen and nearly all my walls have hairline cracks in them. The house shifts just a tiny bit and the plaster cracks. It is a beating.

Same goes for the dry summer and wet winter, the house moves up and down and causes enough work for me to miss my modern dry walled house.

I am constantly filling plaster cracks and painting the walls.
posted by LeanGreen at 12:45 PM on December 20, 2011

In the late 1950s in Southern California, the plasterers' union ran radio ads, "Knock on the wall! Make sure it's genuine lath and plaster!" which suggests that they were still plastering, but fighting the encroaching drywall.
posted by exphysicist345 at 1:02 PM on December 20, 2011

Only advantage of drywall (that I can think of):
Easier picture hanging.

Victorian houses often have a picture rail installed along the top of each wall. You then hand the pictures from wires hanging down off of hooks hung on the rail. No holes in the wall that way.

But the real advantage of drywall is that you can pay semi-skilled guys $12/hour to hang it and finish it while plasterers are highly skilled professionals who have to do years of apprenticeship to get good at it and command very nice wages.
posted by octothorpe at 1:34 PM on December 20, 2011

Advantages of plaster & lathe:
Much better sound insulation!
posted by Rash at 1:48 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

The owner of a house built in the Omaha in the early 1950s specified lath and plaster. There were very few artisans willing to take the job. They definitely refused to try to reproduce the canvas-over-lath-and-plaster that the homes of the owner's parents had.
posted by Cranberry at 2:32 PM on December 20, 2011

Victorian houses often have a picture rail installed along the top of each wall. You then hand the pictures from wires hanging down off of hooks hung on the rail. No holes in the wall that way.

I can't even tell you how much I miss this. In San Francisco, Cliff's Hardware in the Castro sells beautiful brass picture rail rods, the hooked end goes over the picture rail and another hook, which is up/down adjustable, is on the rod and holds the picture's wire. They're about three feet long. I can't find a picture of one online. As an art lover and a person with a lot of art, this was just the best.

Lathe and plaster is very common in San Francisco because of the old Victorians/Edwardians and there are still a lot of people who know how to do it but it's a dying craft. In my building we always used old guys when we needed electrical and plumbing work done.
posted by shoesietart at 3:13 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Years ago, I lived in a house that had lathe and plaster and seemingly no insulation. I asked the landlord if we might insulate the house so it wasn't freezing cold in the winter and crazy hot in the summer, but the owner said she couldn't afford to open up the lathe and plaster. I guess because she figured she'd have to tear it all out and have it replaced/installed with new lathe and plaster.
(or perhaps she just didn't want to put in insulation)

posted by blueberry at 4:27 PM on December 20, 2011

Gypsum board is also softer than plaster, so while conduction (of low frequencies) through the wall might be worse, reflections (of high frequencies) in the room will be damped better.
posted by morganw at 5:22 PM on December 20, 2011

I work in plastercraft and restoration, and there's several big differences between the two, but in practical terms the labor involved in plaster vs sheetrock wallboards is around 3:1 in pricing square-footage and probably closer to 10:1 in installation speed. Most everything after the mid-1940's is drywall, but early drywall was far inferior to plaster in durability and strength. It's the opposite now with modern products, but plaster is still used extensively for architectural reasons. Most unions were completely phased out by the mid-80's, 'plasterer' almost exclusively refers to drywall, cement, stucco and masonry in the trade at this point. 'Plastercraft' now falls into restoration or decorative finish work now and is a specialty trade. They are also different mineral compositions, traditional plaster is made from slaked limestone vs gypsum for drywall. There are numerous differences, but mainly plaster is harder and heavier, dries slower, shrinks and cracks more, is less predictable over time, easier to cast, harder on tools, holds more detail, is a huge asset in some instances but a drawback in others. Fire-rating is based more on composition, thickness, finish level (level 3 vs level 5, etc), insulation type, and substrate (wood vs metal, etc) rather than plaster vs gypsum. It's widely considered that gypsum is more abundant and cheaper to mine and process, not sure if that's accurate though.
posted by ericlee6000 at 6:11 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

The houses I grew up in, in Chicago, were built in the postwar era, and they all had the plaster and button board setup. I don't remember too many problems with driving nails, except on exterior walls. I think there is a moisture thing that happens that brittles up the skim coat.

I would guess that most of the benefits of plaster would disappear if a similar thickness of drywall was used. Those walls could easily get to 3/4 to 1 inch thick, where drywall tends to be 1/2 or 5/8.
posted by gjc at 6:17 PM on December 20, 2011

Hanging pictures on plaster walls is no problem if you drill a hole a little bit smaller than the diameter of the screw or nail.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:21 PM on December 20, 2011

Here in Northern California, I've got a cottage built in 1947 that's got button board (total of ¾" thick of really dense rock: this little house has some serious thermal mass) The old experienced guy at the hardware store claims that in this area the button board phase in the middle lasted about two years. So, roughly, up to WWII was lath and plaster, short button board period in the early post-war, then on to wallboard.
posted by straw at 9:17 PM on December 20, 2011

Rash isn't kidding about the sound insulation. My plaster-walled house (built 1911) is amazingly soundproof.

Weirdly, despite living in an earthquake zone, the plaster hasn't cracked much. There are a few places, but most of the walls are in amazing shape. Lucky, I guess. Anyway, I wouldn't go back to drywall. I love the plaster walls.
posted by litlnemo at 3:54 AM on December 21, 2011

Another issue with plaster is that it takes much longer to cure. I have read that 90 day was sometimes required!
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 8:27 AM on December 21, 2011

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