What's under my wall?
May 14, 2007 12:30 PM   Subscribe

We recently purchased an old rowhome in Philly & are slowly but surely doing some renovations to it. We're pondering ripping out some drywall to expose a bit of brick, but are trying to figure out the best way to see what's under there before destroying everything.

The thought we've had is pulling the drywall off of (what used to be) a fireplace, which right now is just a mantle sticking out of a blank wall (can be seen to the right in this picture). I'd like to expose the brick there for a bit of color in the room, blah blah, but I'm not really sure of the best way to find out if it's worth doing without ripping off a giant section of wall (lest we find out that the whole thing's an ugly crumbling mess).

One thing that complicates stuff a bit is that I believe the drywall is directly over the brick (or potentially directly over old plaster, which is over the brick -- the previous owners of our home made some weird "improvements" which included drywalling right over the plaster on some walls). So that may prevent me from easily sawing a square in the drywall & then just replacing it if I don't like what I see. Any thoughts from others with similar experience?
posted by zempf to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
I don't understand why being directly over the brick would prevent you from cutting a square out of the drywall. You might want to cut with a carpet knife, rather than using a power tool - you won't shatter the blade if you hit up against brick.

But even if the brick is in good condition it probably won't be very pretty. Chimneys in Victorian homes weren't meant to be seen - the brick was walled over and the ornate mantle would have sat over a nicely tiled fireplace surround. Only the inside of the chimney would show any brick. If the tiles are missing you'll have to replace them, because the brick edges would be ugly (they were never intended to be seen).

If you have access to the basement or attic you could see if any of the brickwork is visible there. That would give you an idea what to expect behind your drywall.

Also, be careful if you decide to open up the fireplace itself - there's probably a boatload of soot and other crap behind that drywall. Take everything possible out of the room and cover the rest with tarps in case there's a big whoosh of oily filth.
posted by Quietgal at 1:09 PM on May 14, 2007

If it's straight onto the brick and not even any shims, how is it adhered?

Can you get a good enough look with a 1.5" hole? If so, buy a bit for your drill and do "core samples." If you're careful to extract the plug that gets removed you can replace it in the hole and spackle it back up.
posted by phearlez at 1:15 PM on May 14, 2007

hmm, that doesn't look so much like a partially-covered up mantle as it does a marble shelf with brackets that could have been attached post-drywall.

do you know for sure that there's a chimney there?

One way to do it would be to carefully pry up a bit of the baseboard without splitting it, and then if there's drywall under the baseboard, cutting a hole there to see what's underneath.

And really, drywall repair isn't that hard (for that matter, neither is plaster repair), it's just messy. So even if you screw up and want to make a repair, it shouldn't take very long.
posted by kumquatmay at 1:15 PM on May 14, 2007

There's definitely a chimney there -- there's a cleanout full of ashes in the basement directly beneath it, and you can see a very little bit of the chimney brick in the basement, as well. You could well be right about the shelf, though if anything it's attached post-plaster & then drywalled around it. Who knows, though -- I'm definitely willing to give it a look & then patch it if it's horrifying.
posted by zempf at 1:25 PM on May 14, 2007

Yeah, just make a hole in the wall. Use a 2" circular drill bit or a dremel or just hack in with a chisel. As long as the hole isn't too large you can cover it up fine.
posted by GuyZero at 1:26 PM on May 14, 2007

We're renovating our rowhouse. In South Philly, actually. (But doing the "dramatic and scary" method of renovation instead of the "slowly but surely" method.)

You're going to have to repoint and grind the surface of the brick regardless before sealing it. If you want to expose the brick, I'd say just go for it.

I hear ya on the "drywall right on the plaster" and can probably one-up your "weird 'improvements.'"
posted by desuetude at 1:29 PM on May 14, 2007

South Philly people are notorious for the "weird improvements", but in this case you may have plaster with water damage, and rather than pull everything out they just slapped wall board right over it, which is silly because plaster is not nearly as hard to patch as most people think. Forgive the digression, this SouthPhillyRowhouseFilter question is right up my alley and I get excited. Don't even get me started on the old "cheap carpet, padding, tacks and all, over old-growth hardwood floors" business.

Anyway, yeah, bust out the drill and go slowly to see what's down there, or break out the dremel or rotozip if you have one of those. You're dealing with drywall, there's no risk of doing any serious damage—do try and figure out if there are any wires in the area though, and let us know how it turns out.
posted by Mister_A at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2007

I'm actually up in Fishtown, which design-wise is kinda like "South Philly lite" -- lots of chrome touches on the exteriors & ugly siding & whatnot (which we managed to avoid, luckily).
posted by zempf at 1:51 PM on May 14, 2007

Hey you should swing by Ida Mae's for brunch some time, zempf. Norris and Tulip Sts. Good luck with the house!
posted by Mister_A at 1:56 PM on May 14, 2007

If anyone's curious, I put up a couple of photos of my small-scale demolition work. Note that it is indeed drywall on top of plaster, but the bricks underneath don't look too bad. We'll see where we go from here, though.
posted by zempf at 5:01 PM on May 14, 2007

..and yes, I've been to Ida Mae's for brunch a couple of weeks ago. Good stuff!
posted by zempf at 5:01 PM on May 14, 2007

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