Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The New Guild for the Traditional Plastering Craft

Courtesy of Philip Gaches
The recognition of a need for a "New" Guild for the traditional plastering craft first arose some years ago among some recognised Masters of the craft. Granted, there are existing organisations in the United Kingdom that work with training in primarily proprietary industrial plaster materials through the NVQ system at Colleges of Further Education. Furthermore, there are forums dedicated to the  chemical and material science of plaster materials, particularly various limes. Nevertheless, as materials, means and methods of the traditional plastering craft have been widely recovered in the past few decades it seems evident to many that what is how urgently needed is a plasterers' guild composed of plasterers for the benefit of plasterers led by an authoritative body of Masters whose experience, competence and character can be attested to by their fellows.

I would like to stress from the outset that what follows is my personal perspective on the New Guild and I'm in no way acting as a spokesman on their behalf.

Masters and Guilds

I think it's a fair question to ask, what does it mean to be a "Master" of traditional plastering and  what is it specifically that sets a Master Plasterer apart from other, related qualifications? The following are my personal reflections in response to that question from the latest Gathering in Dublin, Ireland:

A Master might know quite a bit about the history of his craft but he's not expected to be an academic.
A Master often has acute business acumen but his qualification is not that of an administrator.
A Master should have a good understanding of plaster composition but he's not expected to be a scientist.
A Master is recognised by his fellows as a person of upstanding character as well as an expert in his craft...no ifs, ands, or buts about that. We'll expand on what that expertise might consist of a bit later.

An equally fair question to ask, in our contemporary age what is the purpose of a Guild? Once again, some personal reflections that represent my take on what are at least some of the things that a Guild can accomplish well:

A Guild provides true fellowship among craftsmen who experience much the same life but it is not a social club.
A Guild facilitates collaboration of large or complex projects facing its members but it is not a union or a cartel.
A Guild cultivates its membership, providing education and mentorship for not only the technical aspects of the craft but also the ethical and financial responsibilities of operating a business.
A Guild provides an authoritative body of expertise that the public as well as the professional architectural and conservation communities can rely upon to locate qualified plasterers for heritage and new traditional plasterwork.

While there are many things a guild could embark upon to fulfill the aforementioned purposes, the New Guild has two organisational structures already well developed and implemented: The Register and The Gathering

The Membership Register

Only Masters Plasterers are full members of the Guild. And only individuals can be members of the guild at any level. The process to qualify as a Master Plasterer is extremely rigorous. First of all, it requires at least 25 years of experience to even be able to qualify to apply at that level. Furthermore, the assessment is conducted by existing Master Plasterers and involves interviews as well as on site evaluation of past and ongoing work. A few of the skills that should be already mastered by a candidate include:

Mastery of methods of solid, flatwork plastering is of course fundamental.
Material knowledge is likewise vitally important; a candidate should be able to understand and use a wide range of plaster materials (lime, clay, gypsum, natural cement) and understand the difference between these materials and their applicable techniques as they apply to different periods of history for conservation work.
Candidates should be well qualified in running mouldwork, both run-in-situ as well as fibrous.
Experience should extend to specialty work such as ornamentation, scagliola and composition mouldings.
And very importantly, a candidate for being a Master should already be able to teach courses in plastering and would be expected to be actively involved in apprenticeships.

Again, this is extremely rigorous; nevertheless, that rigor ensures that the title is well earned and means something. If the aforementioned sounds overwhelming, I can assure you there's no reason to get discouraged or feel the Guild is exclusive or not for you. There are a number of levels for associate members of the Guild which I'll expand upon below.

Traditional Plasterer - Having a good deal of experience and mastery of many of the fundamental skills above that is working towards the qualification of Master Plasterer.

Fibrous Plasterer - Specialised in and operating at a very high level of skill in fibrous plasterwork and ornamentation.

Conservation Plasterer - Capable of carrying out small repairs in a conservative and careful manner. Also able to conserve plaster using methods of stabilisation. Should have a very high level of knowledge regarding material science.

Vernacular Plasterer - Capable of plain plastering of cottages and small houses with a good knowledge of traditional materials but not necessarily to a high degree of accuracy.

There has been some discussion about a category for students and apprentices and that looks likely to be included soon. Also, there is a honorary designation for Friends of the Guild, pertaining to academics and professionals outside the plastering craft that do important research and advocacy on behalf of the craft.

The Master Plasterers Gathering

The first couple of gatherings were held in Lincolnshire where the idea of formulating the New Guild was being incubated. I'm not sure how it happened but I was invited to the inaugural Master Plasterers Gathering in Wales after the New Guild had recently launched. Dozens of traditional plasterers were in attendance and I was overwhelmed with exposure to traditional techniques such as hot lime/earth mortar mixes, ornamental pargeting and haired lime as used in Jacobean mouldwork. Of course chat around the campfire, wild game and Welsh whisky at the local pub were nice touches as well!

I unfortunately missed the next Gathering which took place in York. However, I was able to attend this year's gathering in Dublin. We still had our social lubrication with fine dining and pints of Guinness (boy is it better in Ireland!); however, it was clear the Guild was maturing. Since the previous gathering a committee had been formed to how this Guild will organise itself to fulfill all of the purposes I had mentioned at the outset. I was honoured to be included in their deliberations and won't disclose how they intend to move forward, save to say that it is with confidence and ambition; I witnessed a real display of leadership.

The highlight of this latest Gathering in Ireland was the complete reconstruction of St Mel's Cathedral in Longford. On Christmas Day 2009 a fire completed gutted the roof and interior of the Cathedral, a catastrophe for the entire region. We received a breakdown of how the monumental plaster reconstruction was carried out, absolutely invaluable trade knowledge. The plasterwork carried out there within a ridiculously abbreviated time constraint was nothing short of miraculous. It was only possible because of the collaboration of several now recognised within the Guild as Master Plasterers. All of the plasterwork reconstructed at St Mel's but particularly the ceiling stand as a testament against the claims that "we can't do that type of work anymore" or that "there is nobody qualified to do it". That one project embodies almost every aspect of the traditional plastering craft conducted at the highest and most monumental level.

Courtesy of Philip Gaches

Many more good things are on the near horizon. Next year's Gathering is being organised to take place in Scotland. Perhaps the following year in France where Master Plasterers from the New Guild will get to roll up their sleeves with their counterparts from Les Compagnons! At some point we would love to host a Gathering here in the United States as there are many plasterers who have heard of the New Guild and are beginning to express interest in getting involved. Speaking of which, if you're interested in finding out more about the Guild or to request an application you can contact them at the link below:


Contributed by Patrick Webb

No comments:

Post a Comment