Q: I recently moved from a beautiful modern condo in Seattle to a very "challenging" 1930s-era apartment in Manhattan. I don't know how to get started on the ceiling that has two or three coats of paint peeling off the plaster. The plaster underneath appears to be in pretty good shape, but where and how do I start to fix it? Should I attempt to scrape off the old paint? Instead of trying to remove this stuff, I've thought about maybe papering over it or better yet, find some product that can be mechanically attached — like those metal ceilings you find in old buildings.

— Tony, New York, NY

A: Tom Silva replies: Whatever you decide to do, you'll have to get rid of that old peeling paint or your fix won't stick. Paint and paper need a clean surface to adhere to or you'll be back up on a ladder doing repairs sooner than you'd like. Even a metal or drop ceiling needs something good and solid to screw into, so there's really no way around scraping it. You should be able to get most of it off with a putty knife. (If you suspect the paint has lead in it call the EPA hotline at 1-800-424-LEAD for more information on lead paint.) Then fill in any irregularities with joint compound and you are ready for paint, paper, or whatever finish you decide on. The bottom line: Getting things looking good takes some elbow grease.
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