unusual ceiling - can it be repaired?
November 11, 2017 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Can this ceiling be repaired instead of just replaced?

I have an old house that I am trying to fix up to rent out. I grew up in it so I do know a lot about the history of it from about 1980. The ceiling is very unusual, with curved panels between long rails or supports. The curvature is definitely deliberate rather than age related sag - the panels used to be more even than they are now. The house was renovated in 1989 through a city program and at the time a guy (a city employee) looking it over to do the work commented on how unusual the effect and construction were. I've got a guy lined up to do a lot of work on it now and he's never seen anything like it, either.

However, several of the panels are now damaged due to various causes. I'd like to replace the panels and repair the ceiling rather than replace the whole thing with a drywall ceiling if it's financially reasonable, but I don't know if that's possible or even what I should look for. The house is in Kentucky, and was built in the early 1930s. Does anyone know anything about this kind of ceiling? Here a few pictures, but I don't know how much help they really are (there are some stop-gap attempts to cover broken bits visible in places in at least one picture).

I've asked the same question elsewhere and that may show up on Google. Based on the responses I've seen so far: yes, that effect is something that was deliberate and it is not just the result of age-related sagging.
posted by dilettante to Home & Garden (14 answers total)
What material are the panels made of.

Sorry, it just looks like sagging drywall to me.
posted by H21 at 10:18 AM on November 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I can't tell what they're made of. As I recall, they're kind of brown and fuzzy on the back. And they are separate panels, you can move one around at a time.
posted by dilettante at 10:25 AM on November 11, 2017

Brown and fuzzy sounds like tempered hardboard, aka "Masonite," and I suspect you're wrong about the sag being intentional. This is an inexpensive material and would not be at all surprising in a semi-DIY renovation done with municipal funding help. Note that the crown molding around the perimeter is straight.
posted by jon1270 at 10:35 AM on November 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

Just a clarification: the ceiling is probably original (it was there long before 1980, I know) and was left in place untouched through the renovation.
posted by dilettante at 10:41 AM on November 11, 2017

Yeah, sorry, that does not seem intentional beyond the covering of the ceiling. What is under the material? I recommend hiring a drywall specialist to take down the material and skimcoat the ceiling, making any repairs as necessary. I just had a situation where we were trying to do this for a client. They had very textured ceiling and so we skim-coated it and it looked great and then started falling off! So they scraped it off, sanded it a bit and then did a KILLZ layer and then skimcoated again. Crossing fingers. Neither my contractor nor the specialist seems sure about what the paint or material was that resisted the skimcoating but so far so good. Do it right so you can rest assured that this old material doesn’t start falling on your renters and put you in an emergency fix situation. Depending on ceiling height you could also just drywall over whatever is behind this material.
posted by amanda at 10:45 AM on November 11, 2017

So, in sum - unusual ceiling? Yes. Can it be repaired? No. It should be re-done to a modern standard. Good luck!
posted by amanda at 10:51 AM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree with jon1270, probably masonite, although they could be some kind of fibrous acoustical panel. If you want to do the minimum, you could replace any damaged panels. Then add 1" x 3" boards between and parallel to the existing boards. Screw these into the ceiling so the bow is flattened out. Paint.
But, as everyone else seems to agree, if you are going to do that much, put in a real ceiling.
posted by H21 at 10:54 AM on November 11, 2017

Over time, the masonite has absorbed moisture and sagged. The curve is not intended. If you like the style of the ceiling, you can take it down, possible re-use the long pieces and put in drywall and the long pieces over it.
posted by theora55 at 11:41 AM on November 11, 2017

If the house was built in the 1930's, I highly doubt this ceiling is original. It definitely feels more like a drop ceiling; what's above the panels?
posted by cooker girl at 12:27 PM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

We're going to need photos, I think.

There is a 1930's effect called pillowing, but it's a plaster technique and I've only ever seen it on walls. (It isn't sagging; it's a curvature of the plaster below the chair rails.)
posted by DarlingBri at 12:36 PM on November 11, 2017

I was gonna say Masonite didn't exist in the 1930's, but apparently that is right around the time it entered mass production so I guess it's technically possible that it was original, though I agree with everyone saying it's not likely. Even if it is original, the sag is certainly not intentional and the ceiling should be redone. If you want to redo it with something period-appropriate that isn't just plaster or flat paneling, you could consider tin tiles and/or a coffered surface made with a combination of wood panels and moldings.
posted by contraption at 2:25 PM on November 11, 2017

Yeah. That is not an intentional curve, it’s failure over time and not a good look at all. Looks like sections of a flexible board (think Masonite) held up by 3” furring strips that have sagged over time. This ceiling should be ripped out and replaced. If you like the look you could always drywall the ceiling with a smooth finish and add the 3” moulding in long lines to keep the “feel” of the current style. Correctly keeping the “curves” is possible but rather expensive.
posted by saradarlin at 4:39 PM on November 12, 2017

Also, I’ve seen similar “drop ceilings” designed around that era long before commercial acoustical tiles existed. They were made of hardboard and done to bring down ceiling height in older homes to reduce heating costs (all that lovely warm air trapped up too high to be useful). Not original to the house.
posted by saradarlin at 4:41 PM on November 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

If anyone ever looks back here, work has finally begun. There was an old drywall ceiling directly above the one in the pictures, so the curved ceiling was not original, but was still apparently a deliberate and intended effect. Not one I could easily replicate, though, so there will be a plain drywall ceiling now.
posted by dilettante at 8:31 AM on April 6, 2018

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