How to strip and repaint original plaster mouldings

Often smothered with layers of paint build-up, decorative plaster mouldings should be a room’s crowning glory. Discover how to strip them back and refresh them with a new coat of paint or distemper

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From the Georgian era right up until the first world war, no hall or reception room would have been complete without some form of decorative plasterwork, with mouldings that were often classically inspired in their design.

A cornice masking the join between wall and ceiling was particularly common, and in more affluent homes there would be a frieze below and strip mouldings delineating wall and ceiling panels, dado rails and corbels, plus a ceiling centrepiece.

Distemper or ceiling white was used to decorate ceilings until the advent of modern emulsion paint. Very often a coat of distemper would be applied to freshen up the room on top of the existing coat. 

Throughout the years, following layer upon layer, the fine detail tends to eventually be obliterated and requires stripping back to bare plaster.

When stripping, take care not to damage the plaster: never use a wire brush or abrasive methods. A small scraper can be used on flat areas but for detail use a toothbrush. You could try a wallpaper steamer but for a lot of plasterwork you may prefer to hire a specialist.

You will need:

1. Find out what the surface coating is

To test whether the build-up of coating is distemper or paint, spray the plasterwork with plant spray or wet it with a sponge. Leave for a few minutes. If the surface turns grey and softens and can easily be scraped away, then the coating is water-soluble distemper, otherwise you’re working with paint.

Find out what the surface coating is and apply paint stripper with care

(Image: © Colin Leftley)

2. Test paint stripper on small area

If the plasterwork has a paint finish, apply stripper to a small test area. Be careful, as many different materials have been used over the years to make mouldings, and some might not be compatible with stripping compounds. In a very old building you could discover an original paint of historical significance.

3. Apply paint stripper

Protect the floor surface below and put on heavy-duty gloves. When tackling cornicing or a ceiling rose, be sure to protect your eyes with goggles. Apply stripper. How thickly it should be applied depends on how thick the coating is that needs to be removed. If very thick, you may need to apply two coats.

Use paint stripper as liberally as required and cover and wait for the paint layers to soften

(Image: © Colin Leftley)

4. Cover and wait for the layers to soften

To prevent poultice stripper drying out, cover the plasterwork with cling film or discarded plastic bags. Leave for any time between a few minutes and several hours, even overnight if the paint is very thick (read instructions). Check from time to time until the stripper has softened all the paint layers. 

5. Peel away the softened paint

When you are satisfied the paint layers have all softened, peel away the covering. The majority of the stripper and softened paint should pull away from the plaster. Use an old toothbrush to get into recesses. If some sections prove stubborn, you can apply more stripper, cover and again leave to soften.

Peel away the softened paint and work small tools into finer recesses

(Image: © Colin Leftley)

6. Work small tools into finer details

A cocktail stick is useful for getting into the nooks and crannies and revealing fine detail. Be inventive and raid the kitchen to find other appropriate tools. Always bag up and dispose of the sludgy paint thoughtfully. Old oil paint used to contain a small amount of lead, so should be handled with care.

7. Clean the plaster and allow to dry

Once all of the paint has been removed, neutralise the effect of the stripper by washing the surface with clean water and a sponge. Leave several days before painting to make sure it’s thoroughly dry. If cracks are revealed, make good with plaster filler. Toupret makes a range of flexible fillers.

Clean the moulding and allow to dry, and then add a fresh coat of paint

(Image: © Colin Leftley)

8. Add a fresh coat of paint

If the original finish was distemper, apply a coat of stabilising solution to bind any traces remaining before painting the surface. Modern paint will not adhere to powdery soft distemper and will soon begin to flake off. Finish with paint of choice. Farrow & Ball offers a Soft Distemper with a flat powdery finish.

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