Patching Up: how we fixed our settling cracks

As I alluded to in my last post, we have a lot of settling cracks in our house. They can be attributed to the age of the house/foundation (built in 1949), life with pier-and-beam foundations in general, a record drought the summer after the new drywall was installed, some skimping on the part of the sellers, and not fixing them the best way when we first tried.

After getting the foundation re-shimmed, I took it upon myself to over-research (OCD engineer style) the absolute best way to get rid of the ridiculous cracks in our walls. The two best resources I found via the internet was this website, which describes how drywall should be taped and mudded when you are installing it new, and this series from DIY network describing different types of cracks. And in case you wanted to know (and even if you don’t), here’s what we did to fix the cracks in the closet.

Know your problems
From lots of photo comparisons, I broke our house down to three types of cracks: corner cracks, wall cracks, and way too much plaster cracks. The corner cracks were most likely caused from the drywall being improperly installed and mudded, since the paper tape they used de-laminated from half of the corner, and I chose to just scrape everything down in the vicinity of the corner to start from scratch as if the drywall was just installed (a la tutorial 1). The wall cracks were likely from settling cracks in the drywall, and should be solved a la tutorial 2. The way too much plaster cracks look terrifying, but I think are just improperly installed cracks with way too much mud covering the rest of the wall and will just require a larger area of demo as the corner cracks, but with the same fixing technique. Luckily there aren’t any of these in the closet, so we can ignore them for now. Apologies to our future guests, who have to stare at the giant one in the back bedroom.

Gather your supplies
For Demo: little putty knife, utility knife, broom and dustpan, drywall sanding blocks

Honestly, it is amazing that I have yet to break any of those tools

For Taping: At least a 6″ and 12″ putty knife (a 10″ knife would be helpful too), setting joint compound (hot mud), pre-mixed all purpose joint compound, drywall tray, mesh tape.

Joint compound not shown because that bag is heavy and I didn’t want to drag it into the bedroom

The info we read up on says that the mesh tape is better than the paper tape because it has a little more strength too it, a little more give, and acts more like a matrix holding the joint compound to the wall instead of the joint compound sitting on either side of the layer.  Think of it like rebar, and the joint compound is like the cement mix being poured around it, or for the dorky engineers out there, like a fiberglass composite.  The other thing which pushed us to use mesh tape is that the guys before us had used paper tape, and it was practically peeling off the walls.

The biggest difference between the hot mud and the joint compound is the hot mud sets, or cures and hardens through a chemical process, and the all-purpose joint compound dries, or cures and hardens through evaporation.  The hot mud can be sanded and have a second layer applied much sooner (ours is a 15 minute cure time vs 24 hours with the premixed stuff), but most places said the joint compound has a better finish and is easier to sand.  We have not had good luck working with the joint compound, since it seems to dry into un-workability much faster than Brien could smooth it out, and we were in a bit of a time crunch to get the closet painted before the start of the work week.  SO we just went with the setting type for everything in the closet.  And if it looks bad once painted: we won’t do it again on the walls that anyone else will see.

Prep the Area
This is the really hard work that got me down last weekend.  If you wish you had traded your task with your husband, who is out in the Texas summer mowing the yard, it’s not a good sign.  The first step is to cut into the wall around the crack with a utility knife, to see what type of damage is there. Then, scrape back all the previous layers of joint compound and paper tape down to the drywall (more or less) in an area large enough to lay a new layer of tape down.  I used the utility knife to mark out the boundaries of the destruction zone, and then chipped, scraped, and peeled away at everything, slowly and frustratingly.  There were areas where I accidentally dinged the drywall paper in this, but since we would be taping over it I didn’t stress about that.  Also because the process was painfully slow: imagine all of the horror stories you have ever heard about taking of wallpaper, and then make the wallpaper hard and dusty.  That was what I spent my afternoon doing.  Finally, sand down the wall so it is nice and smooth, then vacuum things up. And after all that hard work, here’s what the cracks should look like (pardon the poor white balance).


      Fix The Walls
It is really hard to take pictures in a closet that gets zero natural light while trying not to bump into the person with the tray of hot mud, so we don’t have a lot of process shots here.  Also, I don’t know if we did things the best way – we just worked and did what seemed best at the time. Like using our fingers to smooth things in at one point in time, and constantly switching between different knives.  Essentially, the process to fixing the walls was as follows:

  1. Mix up the hot mud.  The box said the consistency should be like cake batter, but we made ours a little runnier to give us a little more working time and allow it to spread more thinly.  Somewhere in between cake batter and pancake batter.
  2. Put a layer of hot mud on the wall over the cracked area, smooth it out.
  3. Place the mesh tape over the crack and seat it in the hot mud.  This is difficult, and where we used a combination of tools to get things to work.  Mostly, it came down to using our fingers to get the tape stuck to the wall, the 6″ putty knife to make sure it was seated in there and pushed into the corner, and the corner knife to smooth things out, followed by another smoothing coat of the 6″ putty knife.
    For us, working in 8 ft. sections of wall was the best balance between mixing up larger batches without running out of time before it began to set.
  4. Wait for the compound to set.  The best way to tell if it’s ready is it will turn from grey to white.  We waited extra long (4 hours) since we were running other errands, but it looked mostly white after 1 hour.
  5. Place another layer of joint compound (or hot mud like us) on top of the first.  Start using the larger putty knives to feather it out as you are smoothing.  Wait to set again.
  6. Sand the wall down so there isn’t any visible pitting or ridges in the plaster, but don’t sand so far that you can clearly see the texture of the mesh tape.  Protip: using a wet sanding block with knock down the amount of dust in the air.  This is helpful if you want to be able to breathe.
  7. Repeat step 5, and then step 6 again.  Maybe an extra time if you think it could be smoother and look better with the rest of the wall.  You want everything to be as even with the surrounding drywall as possible, so it won’t show the seam.
  8. Prime those spots, and you are ready to paint the whole wall!

Although originally I wanted to do all of the wall mending here, Brien took over since he has the experience and it worked out well for us. I would hand him whatever tape or tool he needed next, and he was much better at smoothing the joint compound out.  While I warned him that this meant I would not be working on the other parts of the house since he was taking my practice cracks, the current system of me demoing and him fixing is going well enough that I think we can make it through the whole house this way.

Working in the cramped closet is not without its frustrations, but after doing a section of wall we talk through what we think would work better the next time, what worked best in that section, and what area we want to hit next.  Then I do a final prep (no loose dust, taping off the molding, gathering supplies again) while Brien mixes the next batch of compound.

But in the end, we haven’t killed each other, we have learned a lot about the process, and (most importantly) there is one room in our house that is crack-free! And that is a huge relief.


One thought on “Patching Up: how we fixed our settling cracks

  1. Pingback: More Cures? | Mum Likes Me Best

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