Guest Room

Renovation By The Numbers

A few House page viewers asked me to walk them through a typical room renovation. This room already had a lightweight renovation when I moved in and needed to set up my office quickly. Now it will undergo a complete refab for a guest room.

Generally speaking, I have a few fixed strategies for renovation, at least in this house:

  • Preserve the plaster whenever possible. Some people do drywall rehabs, then spend a bundle paying someone to skim coat blue board so it looks like plaster. Plaster is superior to drywall for sound and durability so it makes sense to save it.
  • Replace old electrical with new BX and boxes. Plastic sheathed cable (NMS)is legal here but I don't like pulling it through nail-strewn walls. NMS also means another wire hookup inside the box.
  • New floors.
  • New woodwork. See for great deals on architectural hardwood doors.


Click on any picture to expand it

Inspection day. Evidentally, the chapel.   After a week of rudimentary renovation, it became my office.

Step One: Demolition

Before I decide what I want to do with the room, I take a prybar, hammer and Sawzall and lay waste to everything that's not going to be rehabilitated. Then you have an empty canvas with which to visualize the new space.

This should of course be done on an empty room with the doors closed and sealed around the threshhold. Otherwise you'll find plaster dust in your corn flakes the next morning. It helps to use a powerful window fan set to exhaust mode to create negative pressure inside the room. While Doc Karen complains that I'm too casual about this, wear a dust mask! The ancient grime, mold spores and possible asbestos dust waiting for you behind mouldings, especially over door and window headers, is really nasty stuff. Vacuum often and vent its exhaust out an open window.

Step Two: Wall Preparation

Scrape all the walls and ceiling, and I mean every square inch of it. I use a thin-bladed 2-inch scraper for this because a wider blade will skip over slight depressions in the wall. It's tedious work but the results will pay off next year when your paint isn't falling off.

Use a side light to look for raised or uneven areas in the plaster which could indicate finish coat separation from the base coat.

Use the pointy edge of a five-in-one painter's tool (or an old-style beer can opener) to dig a small trench in plaster cracks. This will increase the bonding area for your repair. It will also uncover possibly larger cracks in the base plaster, which will need to be repaired first. Remove all loose debris.

If you encounter large sections of loose plaster you have two options: tear it out and replaster or use plaster washers to pull it back in contact with the wood lathing. I only do the latter if demolition might endanger plaster details like corner mouldings or medallions. Plaster washer repairs often lead to more cracks later, especially on ceilings.

Like those walls? This is what happens to five year-old white primer. It's also the answer to the question, "why can't I use primer for finish paint?"   The old radiator was removed and relocated to a cast iron baseboard unit under the windows. I completed demolition and spent the next week patching cracks and loose plaster. The ceiling was a mess due to a roof leak, thanks to a botched satellite dish installation.
The next job was routing the electrical. The wall outlets are being fed by a new circuit, which I pulled upstairs a couple of years ago. The old aluminum BX in the ceiling fixture was disabled, which required knocking a fair-sized hole in the plaster. A new medallion covered up that mess.   The walls were too damaged to repair conventionally so I taped and skimcoated them.
Installation of the "window seat". This was built in my shop as three cabinets and screwed together. The tops, which slide off to give access to the radiator, were a bitch to get right.   Constructing the crown moulding for the window pediments. You know, I've done so much of this style of trim over the past five years that I've got it down to a formula now. That has its good and bad points.
I ran into an issue with the wiring, or rather how to hide it. I had BX for electrical, phone and CAT5 wiring for the office, the main feed for my satellite dish, the second floor security alarm wiring and two coax cables for the room itself which I had to somehow disguise along this wall. But the wall is plaster over brick. What to do? I decided to build a bump-out with 2x3s and drywall and cap it with an oak shelf.   Trim work completed. The room is starting to get a bit crowded. Here's a construction tip: keep your work space clean. My productivity seems to drop at the inverse square to the number of trip hazards in the room.
The ceiling fan was installed. The floor was roughed up for the cement leveler in preparation for the new floor.   Fifteen pound builders felt is stapled to the floor to reduce squeaks.
A Mannington engineered oak floor is laid down using a Spotnails stapler and 1-3/8" staples.   The floor and shoe moulding is done and the wallpaper is up. The wallpaper was problematic, or rather the original stuff was. I picked up the latter at a seedy wallpaper store in Boro Park, hung it that night and three hours later it was peeling off the walls. The pool of rain water inside the store should have been a free clue to the quality of what I was buying. The stuff in the photo is Home Depot standard issue and it went up, and stayed up, without a hitch.


Posted by Dr_Dyker (not verified) on

I love your blog! I am in the middle of renovating my own Dyker Heights row house. We've done almost everything on our own. Demo'd decades of cover-up work (layers of wood paneling, mirror tiles, plywood and crubling original plaster) - re-framed most of the wobbly and uneven walls, put down new subfloor, pulled out the old scary wiring, put up all new drywall, sanded and restored the original parquet floors... I have to say, we're pretty proud of the job so far.

However, after attempting to tape and spackle one of the rooms, we have recognized our limitations. They are pretty bumpy. The ceiling is especially tricky.

Can you recommend someone to tape up our seams and make our walls/ceilings smooth and beautiful?


Dr. Dyker on 72nd Street.

Posted by Steve on

I've been taping drywall since I was a kid so I don't know anyone personally who does it professionally. However, most professional painters can do a good job of it.

Posted by Mary Mills (not verified) on

Hi. I think plaster washers are great and do not cause more cracks if used properly. Many
people forget they are not working with dry
wall when they repair a wet plaster wall, and forget to wet and re-wet the surrounding
plaster after they break the crack and take out the debris . The old plaster and any old lathe will suck suck suck the water out of new plaster . Like homemade noodles, this kind of plaster must dry slowly in a draft free room. The washers, made of zinc, spread the stress across the wall and keep it from falling down. Fiberglass tape and
more plaster spread it further. Plaster is strong but has very little tencil strength.

Your metal duct work is probably from a forced heat system, typical of pre radiator
heating. The basement usually had a huge Baltimore stove in it burning coal, and the hot air was delivered to bedrooms and other rooms through the iron grates little vents.
THis same stove also was used for hot water, some cooking, and laundry. These fireplaces are not functional because the
baskets, or chamber will not draw like a wood fireplace, is too small, and shallow.