Sunday, December 23, 2012

A New Beginning

We approach the close of the year, a time of repose, reflection. My thoughts have drifted towards the many friends I have made across the country and the globe due to my curious profession. Plaster is an ancient, noble craft, virtually unchanged, whose practitioners form part of a continuity of human culture as old as civilization itself. Personally, I must attest to the fact that I have been the beneficiary of a wealth of knowledge from many generous colleagues. What is there to do then? For myself there is a resolution for 2013: Share, Teach, Diffuse traditional plaster trade knowledge.

State of the Art

I have to ask myself, why do I feel impelled to make such a commitment? The simple answer: there is a need. We have to be honest. The plaster trade is far from its zenith. The guilds, academies and unions that traditionally shouldered the responsibility of passing on trade knowledge have collapsed or are severely diminished. The atelier system of master, journeyman and apprentice in place for centuries has been replaced by a typically divided corporate structure of management and labor.

Yet, as my grandmother used to say, “if it’s not dead don’t bury it”. Actually, plaster is far from dead. There is a renewed appetite to learn the trade by artisans, to specify plaster by architects, to live in plastered homes by everyday people. The restoration, preservation movement in the US and EU began to gain momentum in the mid-20th century. Loads of painters and artists have taken up decorative veneer plasters, particularly Venetian plaster and marmorino in the past 20 years. Natural builders are going back to basics plastering rammed earth, cob plasters and straw bale homes inside and out.

What Is There to Learn?

Materials. There are a number of modern materials and systems that have supplanted traditional plastering: EIFS, drywall, Portland cement stucco to name a few. No need for my support there. I’m more interested in what we’ve been using for plaster for the previous 12,000+ years: clay, gypsum and limes. Studying their individual chemistry, physical properties, interaction with each other, compatibility with various building assemblies and highest and best use in diverse climates goes a long way in understanding the traditions surrounding them.

Traditions. In plaster these are as diverse as humankind. I could not pretend to achieve expertise in them all. Nevertheless, there are two basic categories that all plastering can be classified under. Primarily plaster is used as a coating or render. Traditional plaster is used as a coating over a solid substrate or a lath typically to protect and finish the structural supports of a building. However, plaster also can be modeled. Running cornices, coves and other profiles in place or on a bench as well as casting ornament, modeling or carving in situ explores an entirely different art in which plaster excels like no other medium.

How to Share?

Those who know me also know that I believe in sharing plaster knowledge openly. My figurative door is always open to discuss any technical or artistic inquiry. If I know a best practice or can direct someone to reliable information I will share it, freely. There are three ways to learn plaster best practices. 1) Read technical information. 2) Study well done examples of plasterwork. 3) Plaster yourself. By far the best of these is the latter, the physical act of plastering. I am focusing my efforts this year on how I can share, physically. 

I have been working with talented, experienced colleagues to organize hands-on plaster workshops. French, Italian and Moroccan coating traditions are scheduled for January in association with Prima Terra Plasters ( A workshop teaching running and casting of plaster is being organized at the same facility for later in the year. Two onsite consultations are similarly being organized to help individual artisans set up their own studio for running and casting plaster.

Plaster is a trade with a rich history and has given me a lot. I’m always enjoying learning more, meeting more people. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to roll up our sleeves together in 2013. Until then, Happy Holidays everyone!!

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb


  1. Do you have suggestions for help as we begin an Academy of Building Conservation in Darby Borough (just outside Philadelphia)regarding people who can teach flatwork?
    John Haigis

    1. Hello John,

      A couple of craftsmen come to mind. Rob Wozniak is rather local, being situated in Easton.

      Ben Scott is from the UK, brought up in a traditional program there, now living in Toronto.

  2. Thank you for a wonderful post! The artisan traditions that created beautiful building should br cherished and preserved! The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in NYC promotes these traditions through the Mechanics Institute and the Artisan Lecture Series. On March 12 Foster Reeve, an architectural and ornamental plaster artisan, will give a lecture that is open to the public: Hope you can be there!