Construction materials have changed a lot over the years and if you buy an old property, it won’t be built using modern methods. But does this mean that the walls in old houses are not as strong? Do you need to rip them out and replace them? Hopefully not, but it is important that you know what the walls are made from so you can determine whether any work needs to be done. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about the walls in old houses.
12 Types of Walls in Old Houses
1. Solid Masonry (Brick)
Solid masonry is one of the most common construction methods for exterior walls on old homes.
Before the cavity walls that are found in most modern homes, solid masonry walls were used. They were constructed of 2-3 layers of bricks next to one another, creating a thicker wall. The thickness meant that rain could not get through, but the walls were naturally breathable. Homes were still fairly well insulated and fires on the inside heated the brick, so this was an effective way to construct walls. That said, homes with solid masonry walls are more prone to damp problems.
As building materials improved, home builders started moving towards cavity walls because they gave more floor space inside the building and helped to prevent problems with damp.
The easiest way to tell whether you have solid masonry walls on your home is to look at the pattern of the bricks on the outside. If they are all facing the same direction, it is probably a cavity wall. But if it is a solid masonry wall, you will see the long side of some bricks and the short square end of others. This different pattern occurs because of the way that the wall was constructed to ensure that it is solid. You will usually see the shorter bricks every six rows, but this does vary.
Solid masonry walls are sturdy and long lasting, but they do increase problems with damp and are not always as well insulated. However, you can fit internal wall insulation if you are concerned about high utility bills and damp.
2. Cavity Walls (Brick)
Modern homes tend to have cavity walls that consist of two walls with a cavity between them. This cavity has insulation in it to keep the house warm, while the outer brick layer acts as a shield against the rain. However, this method was only popularized in the early 1900s, becoming more widespread in the 1920s. To begin with, the cavity between walls was very narrow. It was only in the 1970s that insulation was introduced and the cavities were made larger. By the 1990s, many countries had made it compulsory to include insulation in cavity walls.
The outer wall is usually made from bricks, while the inner wall is made from a different masonry material like concrete blocks, breeze blocks (made from ashes and cement), or clay. Weep holes are small holes that are left in the out wall to help control moisture and prevent water building up.
There are several materials that can be used for insulation in a cavity wall. Mineral wool is one of the most common because it’s easy to push into the gap in the wall and pack down. You can also pour insulating beads in or place sheets of insulating foam to fill the cavity without leaving any air gaps.
Cavity walls are the most effective type of exterior wall and they continue to be used today in new homes.
3. Local Stone
Before bricks were widely used, many homes were built from stone. There was also a lot of crossover with houses being made from a combination of the two, and stone walls remained popular for a while even once brick had been introduced.
Most of the time, local stone was used because it was easiest to source. The most common types of stone used for construction are granite, sandstone, and lime. More recently, the introduction of railways made it easier to bring stone from further afield and choices were made based on aesthetics and durability of the stone, rather than geography.
Stone walls consist of two different types of stone; ashlar stone and rubble stone. Ashlar stone has been cut and dressed, so it has a neat, even rectangular shape and a smoother finish. Rubble stone, on the other hand, is not cut and shaped. This is the kind of stone you often see on old cottages.
In many buildings, rubble stone was used to create the core wall and give the building structure, and then an ashlar facing was put on the outside. The stones were filled with a very flexible mortar (often it was just mud) so that they could shift and move. Because uncut rubble stones were used, they didn’t fit together perfectly like bricks, so the movement allowed them to settle into a solid structure.
It’s easy to tell if you have stone walls in your home because the exterior is made up of large gray stones instead of bricks. Stone walls have a lot of the same issues that solid masonry walls do with damp and poor insulation. If you have stone walls that are damaged, you need to call a masonry expert to help you repair them.
4. Lath and Plaster
Lath and plaster is the most common interior wall construction method. It was predominantly used before the 1940s before being replaced by drywall, and you will find it in most older homes.
A lath and plaster wall consists of strips of wood lath, which are nailed onto the wall studs. The wooden strips are made from cheap wood and usually spaced around a finger width apart. Layers of plaster are then put over the top to form the main structure of the wall. 3 layers of plaster are applied; the scratch coat, the brown coat, and the white coat.
The scratch coat goes on and the plaster pushes through the lath, coming out of the back. As this dries, it grips onto the lath and creates a solid foundation for the rest of the layers. The brown coat then gives you a solid base and the wall can be flattened and leveled properly. Finally, the white coat is a thin layer that goes over the top to create a nice surface for painting or wallpapering. In some cases, the white coat can have a textured finish.
In some cases, the lath is made from metal instead of wood. This is a metal mesh-type layer that is fixed to the studs and then the plaster is applied in the same way.
From the outside, it is difficult to tell the difference between lath and plaster walls and drywall as they both look very similar. However, there are ways to tell if you have lath and plaster walls. Try pushing a pin into the wall. If it is lath and plaster, it will be very hard and it won’t go through easily. But if it is drywall, which is much softer, a pin will push through without too much force.
Cracks are a good indication of the type of wall too. Drywall will crack along the seams between panels, so you will only see long, straight cracks. Plaster, on the other hand, cracks in many directions. If you see any spiderweb cracks or lots of small hairline cracks that are not straight, you probably have lath and plaster walls.
Lath and plaster fell out of fashion after the 1940s because drywall is much easier to install and requires less skill. It’s also cheaper and easier to repair. That said, lath and plaster walls are better insulated and better at blocking sound.
5. Concrete Walls
Concrete is one of the oldest building materials used to create walls, but it is less common in housing. Concrete houses became popular after the Second World War because it’s a cheap lightweight building material. In many countries, concrete houses were put up to replace those that had been damaged during the war.
A concrete wall is built using poured concrete, supported by a framework or formwork. A formwork is a series of molds, which the concrete is poured into. Once dry, it is then removed. Alternatively, a steel frame can be used to support the concrete. More modern concrete homes are often precast, meaning that the walls and supporting structure of the home are built off-site and then delivered and constructed. Some older homes may use concrete blocks too.
Concrete walls have some advantages aside from being cheap and lightweight. They are excellent at blocking noise, and they are also fireproof. However, old concrete homes are also prone to a lot of issues. The steel framework inside the concrete can corrode, causing concrete blocks to crack and degrade.
Determining whether you have concrete walls in your home can be difficult, especially if they have a coating over the top which makes them indistinguishable from other types of wall. You can use a metal detector to see whether there is a metal framework in the wall. If there is, it’s probably concrete. But bear in mind some other types of wall use metal studs. A stud finder will help you determine if the wall has framing or not, but if you find that it doesn’t, you still don’t know whether it’s a concrete wall or a brick wall. Alternatively, you can drill into the wall or take off the coating so you can see whether there are mortar joints (suggesting it’s a brick wall) or not. Unfortunately, this is a destructive option.
If you do find that you have concrete walls in your home, you should consider adding insulation and having them checked for structural integrity. You can also add a brick layer on the outside to change the appearance of your home.
6. Beaver Boards
Beaver boards are thin boards made from compressed wood fibers. The wood fibers and pulp are compressed into thin sheets and then layered and glued together to form boards. This wall type was first popularized as a replacement for lath and plaster but were soon surpassed by drywall, so it is less common to find it in homes. You are more likely to find Beaver boards in the attic or in outbuildings that were cheaply constructed.
It was first used because it was affordable, lightweight, and had some insulating properties. Beaver boards became the common term for these kinds of compressed wood fiber sheets, but it was actually just a brand name. Other companies did make these materials, but Beaver boards was the best known and became the general term.
Beaver boards were used in a number of ways. They were often nailed straight into the studs to create a wall. However, they were sometimes fixed onto the top of an existing wall structure to add more insulation or cover over imperfections and create a good surface for painting. The joints between the boards were then covered with thin pieces of wood.
You can usually identify Beaver boards by knocking on the wall. They are incredibly thin compared with other wall materials, like drywall, so you will hear a very hollow sound. You can also find unfinished areas of the house, like the attic, to see if you can see the back of the wall. Beaver boards are an orange-brown color and have a rough texture. If you do have Beaver board walls in your home, it’s best to remove them and replace them with drywall instead.
7. Wood Paneling/Veneer Paneling
Wood paneling on walls is most common in houses from the Victorian era, but you can find it in many other homes too. It is used to create a natural look in wood cabins, for example. When used in modern buildings, it will be for aesthetic purposes only and the wall underneath will be properly constructed and insulated using modern materials.
This wall type is made by fixing wooden panels to the walls, often at varying heights. It was fashionable to have wainscotting or wooden paneling that covered the bottom third of the wall, with the rest uncovered.
The vertical wooden panels usually interlock using a tongue and groove joint with base molding along the bottom to give a nice finish. Alternatively, you can have shiplap paneling, which is made from boards that are fixed horizontally along the wall. Often, there is a plaster or drywall wall underneath, and the wooden paneling is simply fixed over the top. On solid masonry walls, horizontal strips of wood called furring strips would be attached first, and then the wood panels would be nailed into the strips.
However, some old homes have wooden panels that are nailed straight into the studs underneath, so the wood creates the main structure of the wall. These walls can be made from tongue and groove boards, shiplap boards, or larger flat sheets of wood.
In homes built between the 1950s and 1980s, you may find veneer paneling instead of solid wood. It is used in the same way but it is made from a combination of Beaver boards and real wood panels. These panels are much thinner than traditional wood paneling.
If they are fitted over the top of another wall, wooden or veneer panels can be removed fairly easily, or kept if you like the effect. However, if they are nailed directly into the studs, you should consider replacing them with some drywall for better insulation and durability. You can still fix the wooden boards over the top again if you want to.
8. Wooden Walls/Log Walls
It’s rare to find wooden log walls on an average house, no matter how old. However, there are log cabins that are still standing. Many of these old homes were built using a combination of wooden walls and stone walls to give them added stability.
Log walls are usually built from hardwoods like oak, pine, poplar, and walnut. Hardwoods are more durable and they are also more resistant to rotting and moisture damage, which is obviously important as they make up the overall structure of the building.
Once the logs were lifted into place and tied together to make the wall, coatings can be applied on top. Whitewash can fill the gaps and protect the logs from insects and mold. Modern log cabins sometimes have a steel exterior for added protection. The interior walls of log cabins were often plastered to create a smooth finish inside. Usually, lath and plaster was used for this.
Drywall was first invented in 1894 but it didn’t overtake lath and plaster as the primary wall material until the 1940s. But since then, it has become very common and you will usually find at least some drywall in any homes built from the 1940s onwards.
Drywall is known by many names including gypsum board, plasterboard, wallboard, sheet rock, buster board, and custard board. If you hear any of these referred to, it’s all the same thing. Drywall comes in the form of panels made from gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate) between two sheets of paper on the front and back. Additives like paper or glass wool, and substances to reduce mildew, are mixed into the gypsum before it is formed into boards to make it more durable.
It became so popular because it is much faster to put up (an entire home can be drywalled in a matter of days, whereas lath and plaster would take weeks), and it’s cheaper to produce. The drywall boards are drilled straight into the studs to make a solid wall. In older properties, you may also find drywall sheets fixed over the top of lath and plaster walls. The joints between the drywall boards are covered with tape and joint compound, which is then sanded smooth before painting.
Drywall in an old home isn’t a problem and if it is in good condition, you can just leave it. If there is any damage to the walls, you can remove the drywall boards and replace them fairly easily.
10. Celotex Cemesto Board
Celotex Cemesto Board is another wall material that is used in a similar way to drywall. It came as solid panels that could be fitted straight onto the studs to create a wall. It is made from asbestos concrete panels that are attached to a core made from sugar cane fibers. It was first launched in 1937 and advertised as a way to build houses incredibly quickly. The boards were not sold in standard sizes, they were custom-cut at the factory so they could be quickly erected on-site to put homes up in record time. They were, in essence, an early form of the prefabricated homes that are becoming popular at the moment.
The government actually used Celotex Cemesto boards to construct a makeshift town for all of the workers on the Manhattan Project, a secret project to design the first nuclear bomb. The CEO of Celotex predicted that major cities would be destroyed in the war and he saw his new product as a solution when there was a need for rapid house-building.
At the time, the dangers of asbestos building materials were unknown, but once this was discovered, the company was hit with numerous lawsuits. They continued manufacturing their products until the 1980s, but were forced to close in 1990 due to legal issues. So, there are still homes out there that have been constructed with Celotex Cemesto board, and this does potentially create health issues.
When encased in concrete, the asbestos is not harmful. So, if the boards are not damaged, they are safe. However, any damage can create dust and the asbestos can be breathed in, causing harm to health. It is possible to cover the Celotex boards with backer board, but avoid drilling into them.
Masonite is a wall board similar to Beaver boards. Instead of wood fibers and pulp, it is made from wood chips. These chips are compressed and bonded together with resin to create a hard, flat board. Just like Beaver board or drywall, this can be attached to the top of a lath and plaster wall or attached directly to the studs.
The resin in masonite is water-resistant, and laminated boards were produced to give it even more protection. In a lot of old houses, masonite boards were used in the bathrooms while other wall materials were used everywhere else.
Masonite is quite easy to identify because it’s very thin (3mm) and it has a glossy finish from the resin. The back of the boards are brown with a woven mesh texture to them. If you have masonite boards in your home, you don’t need to worry because they are relatively durable. However, they can be removed and replaced with drywall if you prefer.
12. Earth Walls
Earth walls are not particularly common but they can still be found in homes in rural areas. This method of construction is probably the oldest of all the methods on this list but, interestingly, it has seen a bit of a revival in recent years because it’s a very sustainable way to construct walls.
Earth walls, often referred to as rammed earth, are built by packing aggregates like gravel, sand, silt, and some clay into a formwork. Once the wall is stable, this structure can then be removed and the wall will stand on its own. More complex structures need a supporting skeleton, but basic homes can be built in this way without the need for any additional support. Once finished, the walls are covered with a protective coating (usually lime render) to keep them dry and create a good surface for painting.
The color of earth walls varies depending on the aggregates that are used. However, you can spot an earth wall because it will usually have horizontal lines running across it. This shows where the different layers of aggregate have been packed in.
Rammed earth walls are incredibly durable and if your home is built using this method, it will be sturdy. But they are also quite porous, so you need to make sure that you maintain protective coatings that waterproof the walls.
History Timeline of Wall Types Inside Houses:
|Time Period||Common Wall Types|
|1800 to 1850||Stone, Solid Masonry, Lath and Plaster, Log Walls, Wood Paneling|
|1850 to 1900||Stone, Solid Masonry, Lath and Plaster, Wood Paneling|
|1900 to 1950||Cavity Walls, Lath and Plaster, Drywall, Beaver Boards, Masonite, Celotex Cemesto Board|
|1950 to 2000||Cavity Walls, Drywall, Concrete.|
|2000 to present||Cavity Walls, Drywall, Concrete, Earth Walls|
What are Some Ancient Types of Walls?
Wattle and Daub
Wattle and Daub is an old method that is like an ancient version of lath and plaster. Vertical wooden stakes are interwoven with twigs to create a mesh-like structure (like metal lath). This is then packed with clay or mud, which hardens and creates a solid wall. This method is seen in houses as far back as the iron age, and continued up to the medieval period. The lath and plaster method was a modernization of this technique.
Sun-Dried Mud Bricks
Though they look different from the modern clay version we use today, bricks are one of the oldest building materials. It is thought that the first example was sun-dried mud bricks, which have been used since around 9000 BCE. Bricks were sometimes fired to increase their strength, but often, this was achieved by leaving them out in the sun.
The bricks were usually made from a mixture of sand, clay, mud, and water. Chopped straw was also added to give the brick more strength. Once they have been dried in the sun, they can then be used to build structures.
Stones have been used to build houses for a long time. Ancient walls were constructed using a dry stone method, rather than the more contemporary stone and mortar technique. Dry stone walls are made without any mortar to fix the stones together. Instead, the stones are placed in such a way that they fit together and the natural shifting of the stones after construction creates a strong structure. The stones may be cut into shape or rough stones can be used.
Roman and Greek walls were built with a core in the middle. The outer walls were built using large stones, and the inner section was made from smaller fist-sized stones. As their building skills progressed, they began using a lime mixture that was an early form of mortar so they could build more complex structures.
Cob walls use similar materials to sun-dried mud bricks, but they are constructed in a different way. The same mixture of sand, water, mud, clay, and straw is used but it is formed with the hands and built up in layers to make a wall. This method was often used to create curved walls and arches, as well as the basic flat walls of a house. Once the cob walls have dried in the sun, they are incredibly durable.
Straw and Clay
A mixture of straw and clay was used on the inside of buildings to insulate them and protect them from the elements. A soil that is rich in clay is mixed with straw and water. This is then packed onto the interior walls and left to dry. It has great thermal properties, so it was good for keeping homes warm. This technique was used on a wide range of wall types including sun dried bricks and cob walls.
What are Some Insulation Types You May Find in Old Houses?
Before modern insulation became commonplace, people often used to stuff old newspapers between walls to keep the wind out. While this was effective, to some extent, it’s nowhere near as good as proper insulation. The other big problem with newspaper insulation is that it soaks up a lot of water and degrades quickly when wet. So, if there are any leaks in the house, it will destroy the insulation and can cause problems with damp. If you move into an old home that has newspaper insulation, you should replace it.
Fiberglass insulation was first introduced and popularized in the 1930s and 1940s. Fiberglass is made from extremely fine glass fibers that are formed to make large rolls of insulation. This is still used widely today and you’ll find it in a lot of houses built from the 1930s onwards. It’s a very effective insulator, it’s cheap, and it’s fireproof.
However, it does sag over time and it becomes less effective, so if you are in an old house, you should consider replacing your fiberglass insulation. Just make sure that you are careful and you wear protective equipment because inhaling fiberglass fibers can cause serious lung damage.
Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used for home insulation in the past. It is very lightweight and fire resistant, and it expands a lot when heated. You can tell if you have vermiculite insulation by looking at it. It has a fine texture and often looks like lots of small brown and gold pebbles.
It’s a brilliant insulator, but there are concerns about asbestos as some vermiculite has high levels. However, most vermiculite asbestos is safe, so you don’t need to worry about removing it. But if you do need to demolish walls with vermiculite in, get a professional to help you do it safely because there is still a risk of asbestos.
Rock wool , sometimes called mineral wool, was first developed in the 1850s and was used as a construction material up until the 1950s. It is still used today as an insulation material and you will often find it in older homes. Rock wool is more effective than fiberglass at insulating and it is incredibly fireproof too. However, it’s more expensive, which is why people sometimes opt for other types of insulation instead.
How Can You Determine What Your Walls Are Made of?
There are several ways to determine what your walls are made of. Firstly, try to find out when the house was built. This will give you some indication of what materials are likely to have been used, so you can narrow it down. Just remember that the walls could have been upgraded since, so there are no guarantees.
Knocking on the wall will give you some idea too. If it has a hollow sound, the wall is probably built using a stud structure with something (drywall, wood paneling, beaver boards, etc) fitted over the top. It could also be a lath and plaster wall. But if it isn’t hollow, you have a solid wall made from bricks or concrete. You can use a stud finder to identify the structure behind the walls too.
The best way to find out what a wall is made from is to get a look at the interior make up of it. You can do this by drilling a small hole through the wall and looking at a cross section of it. Hopefully, you will be able to determine the material.
What is Asbestos and How Do You Know If You Have it?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring crystal that was used in a variety of construction materials. The thin fibers can cause a lot of damage if inhaled and asbestos exposure has been linked to a number of different types of cancer. Eventually, use of asbestos was banned in the 1990s, but it is still present in a lot of buildings that were constructed before then.
Unfortunately, you cannot easily detect asbestos in materials just by looking at them. If you are concerned about it, there are some key things to look for. Firstly, the age of the house. If your house was built before the 1980s, there is likely some asbestos in there. It was used for all kinds of building materials including walls, flooring, and insulation.
You should also look for certain features that were usually made with asbestos. These include:
- Cement sewage or gas pipes
- Vinyl flooring
- Corrugated roofing
- Floor and ceiling tiles
- Insulating boards
If you suspect that you have asbestos in your home, don’t panic. It only becomes dangerous when it is distubred and the tiny fibers are released into the air. So, materials that contain asbestos are not an immediate danger if they are intact. However, when damage occurs, that’s when you should be concerned. You can have your home professionally tested by an asbestos specialist. They will determine if there is asbestos and whether it needs to be removed or not. Always call a professional to remove asbestos, never do it yourself.
When Should You Upgrade Your Old Walls?
This depends on the current state of your home and the type of walls that you have. Some old walls are perfectly fine and can be left, as long as they are not damaged. Lath and plaster, for example, is very durable and often preferable to drywall boards. So, there is no need to change it.
However, if old walls are causing you issues, you should consider upgrading. Insulation is the main concern that people have as old houses without modern cavity walls tend to be harder to heat. This means higher energy bills, so you should consider adding interior insulation.
Ideally, if you are going to upgrade your old walls, you should try to maintain the original style and aesthetic.
What Are Walls Made Out of Today?
Modern homes are typically constructed using stud walls with drywall boards over the top. The exterior walls are cavity walls made from bricks, with insulation between them.
In recent years, there has been a shift in construction trends, largely driven by sustainability. Concrete homes are becoming more popular and earth walls are seeing a slight resurgence. There is also a new trend in prefabricated homes which are built off-site and then rapidly constructed on-site. These are made using similar wall construction techniques to other modern homes.
Old houses always have their issues because they are built with materials that don’t match up to modern standards. That said, a home built from the 1900s onwards is likely to have solid walls, even if they need a little maintenance, so you have nothing to worry about. If you have walls with beaver board or masonite on them, these can be replaced with modern drywall. But always remember to be cautious when working with old walls because there could be harmful materials like asbestos lurking inside.
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