How to Remove Plaster From Brick Walls

If I have one bit of advice it's this: buy yourself an SDS drill and a wide chisel bit, it'll cut the time it takes for removing plaster in half

Don't think you're in the right place? This is Step 1 in a 6 part course covering re-plastering.

Watch the video for the main points, read below to get more...

Just a quick mention that sometimes removing all the plaster is not necessary. If you're lucky, you may only need to remove the odd patch here and there. The good news is I've covered this in a separate How-to - How To Repair Plaster, where I also tell you how to diagnose individual areas of bad plaster. If you're sure you need to remove the lot, read on.

In a hurry? Jump straight to...

INTRODUCTION

What Are The Reasons to Remove Plaster?

In my case, I found that the plaster in most of my house was in pretty bad condition, in my dining room especially. The original plaster had been taken down to the ground floor slab, which caused damp problems, and it had cracks all over it. Once we'd taken off the 100 layers of old wallpaper, the plaster resembled one of those really old paintings you find in museums that have those hairline cracks. Anyway, Read a bit further down and I'll discuss more reasons, pros and cons and all that.

Is removing plaster difficult?

Removing plaster isn't a difficult task, nor does it really require any skill. However, there are a number of tools and helpful tips you should be aware of that will make the job:

  • easier
  • quicker
  • safer
  • avoid causing problems

Why would I want to do it myself?

Removing plaster is one of those jobs that anyone can do, as long as they don't mind putting in some time and getting a bit dirty. As it's time intensive but low skilled, it's something that anyone can do to save money. In other words, it's an ideal DIY task to do yourself instead of paying someone else to do it. I often hear of homeowners opting to remove old plaster themselves, before a plasterer is due to plaster the walls, to save money on the plasterers fees. This makes sense, good plasterers are expensive these days!

TOOLS FOR THE JOB

What tools will I need?

As a minimum, you would need  (all links open in a new tab in Amazon by the way):

  • Hammer/mallet and bolster - A bolster is a chunky chisel type of tool
  • A vacuum cleaner, dustpan and brush - also, a specialist carpet cleaner if the room has carpets
  • Sheets - to lay on the floor (old bed sheets, thin plastic sheets or membrane)
  • Masking Tape - to tape the sheets in position
  • Stool or Ladders
  • Protective Equipment - such as a good dust mask, protective gloves, ear defenders and goggles
  • Wide metal spatula - (for scraping the walls down afterwards, so an old one that you're not too bothered about would be best)
  • A skip - its size depends on the amount of plaster to take off and the thickness of it (I came across plaster that was one inch thick in some places!). As a guide, my 3.6m x 3.6m dining room produced about a ton and a half of waste (roughly 1 cubic metre). My stairs and landing are about the same.

To make the job much easier, quicker and safer (I'll explain why further down), you'll need:

  • SDS drill - I used my Bosch Professional and it worked a treat, very reliable bit of kit.
    • Wide Angled SDS Chisel Bit - Don't go cheap on the chisel bit, otherwise it'll only snap mid way through a very dusty operation. A good one will set you back only £15-£20.
  • An extension lead
  • A metal detector or cable detection tool - If you're unsure about cables

Helpful Tip

It's going to take you longer than you might think - the preperation beforehand to control the dust (taping up doors, numerous sheets on the floor etc). Afterwards, you'll have to spend quite a long time cleaning up. So, plan ahead, make sure you allow one full day per room - a short day if it's a hard floor, and a long day if it has carpets.

REASONS FOR REPLACING PLASTER - THE PROS & CONS

Replacing plaster is a big undertaking - I've produce a whole course on the topic covering 6 extensive blogs posts. With this in mind, I want to challenge you to think if it's worth it, and whether the benefit outweighs the time, effort & cost.

As mention in the intro, My dining room plaster definitely required replacing for two main reasons:

  1. The original plaster had been taken down to the ground floor slab, only noticeable one I'd removed the skirting. This meant that moisture within that slab was able to travel up the plaster and effectively keep it constantly moist, for about 60-70 years, since my house was built. This caused the lower parts of the plaster to become brittle, and it was crumbling easily. The problem also manifested itself in the form of black mould - not very healthy for my wee nippers (kids).
  2. The render was made of a bad mix (this is the thick coat of sand & cement that's skimmed directly onto the brick/blocks, to which the final skim coat of plaster is applied).  This caused the render to separate from the wall so that when knocked, made a hollow kind of sound. This is what caused the cracking. Now, the plaster wasn't going to fall off the walls anytime soon but it would look unsightly as I intended to paint directly onto it. If I were to wallpaper it, I probably would have left it as is, because those cracks would't have shown through the paper.

sam half pulling away the skirting board to reveal the plaster that touches the ground floor slab
To my relief, I'd found the source of my damp problems once I'd taken off the old skirting - the plaster had been taken right down to the ground floor slab!

My brother, Thom, is also doing up his house and found similar problems.

CHECKING FOR CABLES

First things first, we need to know where the cables are under the walls. Cables are usually buried beneath metal trunking (this is a metal strip covering the cable) and are almost always embedded within the plaster, not within the brick walls. I would highly recommend finding out where these are by using a cable detection tool. The common places to find buried cables are above anything electrical, such as sockets and light switches. Most of the time they'll go vertical. However, when I stripped the plaster from my dining room I discovered that 3 out of 6 cables took a more diagonal route!

I found a buried cable that lead to no socket or switch - there was no sign of it on the surface of the old plaster

Trace the cable detection tool above the sockets and light switches. Using a heavy marker, draw their path on the wall. Make it obvious and use a really thick marker, so that the dust doesn't cover the lines when you're working way.

When you've traced all the known cables, scan your detection tool horizontally along all the walls, just to make sure you've not missed any.

picture of a brick wall with the plaster removed, showing two cables traversing diagonally across the wall
After stripping the plaster off the walls, I discovered two of the buried cables travelled diagonally. And, that was only one of of the walls!

CONTROLLING THE DUST

I've already hinted at the need for good preperation. I can't begin to express the need for dust control, especially so if you have other people living in the household.

picture of sam in his stairwell with the doors taped up and dust sheets everywhere, all to control the dust
I took no risks with the dust control measures....

Dust has this ability to get through the smallest of cracks

Open the windows in the room that you're working in and close all other windows and doors throughout the rest of the house to avoid a through-draft. If air is passing from the room you're working in, through a tiny little hole and into another room, it'll be pumping dust into that "clean" room for hours.

I get the point about dust, what else do I need to do to control it?

In the photo above I taped all my internal doors with duct tape, pretty serious stuff. However, there were still traces of dust within those rooms. Simply closing the doors isn't enough, you need to go all out.

Get the dust sheets out, the plastic kind that are cheap and cover a large area. You can get this stuff in large rolls from any hardware store. Put that down on the floor first, make sure it's held in place around the edges, masking tape works well.

Helpful Tip

Don't tape the dust sheets to the skirting boards. Remember, you'll be removing these too because the plaster goes behind the skirting. Tape them to the edges of the floor, right up against the skirting.

PROTECTING THE FLOOR

You'll realise that it won't take much for this thin plastic material sheeting to tear, and after a few bits of falling plaster it will end up practically useless. You'll need to lay something extra on top.

Lay down more robust sheets on the plastic sheets. Old bed sheets work a treat. I'm a landscaper in my day job so I always have some membrane lying around. If you don't have any old sheets, go to your local builders merchants and ask for a roll of 1m x 15m membrane for £5 - £10 (perfect width if you're removing plaster from a corridor or stairs), or a 2 x 25 roll of membrane for £15-20 (if you're doing a room). This is fairly tough stuff and will do the job.

If you're floor is quite nice, say a wooden type or tiles that chip easily, put some extra sheets down to protect it. You may have sheets of the plaster falling off at any time and it reaches quite a speed by the time it hits the floor and will chip it. Again, as a landscaper I've had some 1200 gauge damp proof membrane sheets lying around. This stuff is used to go under concrete slabs to prevent rising damp, it's really really tough. You can get this from your local builders merchants but it typically comes in 4 x 25m roll and would set you back around £40. You will be able to reuse it so if you have a few rooms to do, I'd recommend this.

FINAL PREPARATIONS BEFORE GETTING STARTED

Once all is taped out, make sure you have your tools ready (see the list at the top of the page). However, It's not all about the tools. You'll want to tape all the doors, effectively sealing yourself in the room, so you'll need to do/have the following:

  • A seal able travel mug of drink (to get rid of the dust from your mouth occasionally)
  • Tissues (you're going to sneeze and want to blow you're nose, even with the really good dust masks)
  • Check the extension lead & SDS drill (if you're using one) reaches everywhere
  • Finally, and this is very important, go to the toilet!

before and after pictures. to the left shows sams stairs before he started to remove the plaster, to the right is the same stairwell during the plaster removal. this is to highlight how much dust is created whilst removing plaster
You can really see how much dust is kicked up when removing plaster!

REMOVING THE PLASTER

Helpful Tip

Don't place your tools on the floor. They'll get covered in debris and will likely get thrown out during the clean up process.

All good to go? Lets get started

So you're all prepared and ready to take action. It's now a case of how to chisel off the plaster, it's time to get dusty!

You can use a mallet/hammer and a bolster. However, this will take twice as long compared to using an SDS drill with a wide chisel bit.

Very important point - An SDS drill does not accept standard drill bits. The bits that go into an SDS drill have grooves notched out at the ends, which slot into the chuck of the SDS, much like a bayonet light bulb.

If you have a look at my Youtube video on this topic (you can watch it at the top of the page), I made a comparison between the two methods. Have a quick look and you'll see why it's a no-brainer to get yourself (purchase or hire) an SDS drill with the wide angle chisel bit.

Take care of your brickwork - the act of hitting a chisel by hammer or SDS onto a wall will produce a large impact load onto a small area. If this is done repeatedly in the same position, the brick may become loose or dislodged. Avoid this by aiming the chisel at 45 degrees to the wall. At this angle, it'll still be able to cut through the plaster without difficulty.

Start with the skirting and several inches above it, all the way along the wall's length. Then go to the top of the walls and work downwards. The reason for this is simple - if you started from the top of the walls, then the skirting will get covered with fallen plaster that will only serve to get in the way when you reach the bottom.

As you go, try your best to remove all the small bits of plaster stuck to the walls, as these will only get in the way when it comes to re-plastering the wall later on. If you're due to have a professional plasterer in, he'll only thank you for it.

CLEANING UP

Helpful Tip

Allow time for cleaning, it takes longer than you might think!

That's all the plaster removed, can I take a break yet?

Nope! You're only half way there. Now is the time for the big clean up operation! I won't go into too much detail on cleaning, but I do think it worth mentioning a few facts so that you can be better prepared, or at least allow the time to do it properly.

My dining room measures 3.6m x 3.6m and has a hard floor. Hard floors obviously make it easier to clean up and I was also able to chuck the old plaster straight out the window. Therefore, the clean up operation only took me a few hours.

As for the stair, this was a little more time consuming. The two reasons for this were:

  • It had carpet and despite the ridiculous amount of dust sheets I used, I had to hoover the stairs three times and Vax it twice, as well as wiping the doors and architrave. the whole clean up operation for this was about 10 hours.
  • I had to walk with the waste (in buckets) through the kitchen to get it outside, resulting in a dusty kitchen.

NOTING DOWN THE CABLE LOCATIONS

Before you put the new plasterboard on the walls make a note of all the cable/trunking positions that traverse the walls in odd directions. With this, you'll have something to refer to if you need to put up a picture frame up in the future.

That's it, you're ready to get your hands dirty and remove that old plaster.

This is part 1 of my 6 part course on re plastering a wall, the next step covers putting up the plasterboard on the brick or block wall.

Thanks for taking the time to read through this page, I really appreciate it as it took a long time to put together. If you have a comment or would like to get in touch, fill out the email form below and hit subscribe, I look forward to hearing from you.

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