There are three things we can be sure of in this world: death, taxes and broken keys. It is not if the key will break, it is when; it’s just the nature of the way it was made. Skilled plaster work – and the preservation of ceilings – will not only prevent the keys from breaking again, it will stabilize the materials for many generations to come. Proactive plaster restoration prevents fabric loss and ceiling collapse.
Ornamental plaster work is one of the oldest building professions still in existence today. Archaeologists have found decorative plaster moulding on Egyptian pyramids more than 4,000 years old. In this sense, the craft is the dinosaur of building restoration trades, and lime plaster is part of the original vocabulary of buildings and their genesis. It is also the most durable. Where it still exists today, it thrives as a living testament to its timelessness.
This can be credited to its unrivaled sustainability. Plaster was green before green was green; this ancient art began with mud as mortar. Lime plaster is anti-bacterial. Unlike glass or wood, plaster does not shrink or expand with the seasons; as long as you keep it dry it remains stable, fire proof and long lasting. It also possesses thermal and sound absorption qualities that no other material has.
Additionally, unlike plastics or foam – commonly used now in the industry – no toxic byproducts are produced from plaster creations. Where proper technique is applied, it is standard to make more plaster than you actually need as leftovers can be beneficial. Plaster by-products can be used as fertilizers for gardens or recycled into sound proofing, among other things. Where accidents happen, the environment remains safe with this fabulously green product.
Unfortunately, plaster’s worst nemesis is that it is simple to work with; all you need is gypsum powder and a bucket of water and any substandard laborer can generate plaster. This has given a bad name to the plaster industry as the results are an embarrassment to this noble craft. Without the expertise of a master craftsman, you can easily end up with the worst copy of the poorest quality material that will deteriorate quickly and become an eyesore. Technique is everything. The components themselves are elementary, but what you do with those parts can be ruinous to the reputation of a groundbreaking art.
The casualty here is that the trade is losing respect. This fact, combined with the rise in use of CNC machines and other mechanical methods, means plasterers are in dwindling demand. A short-sighted market will overshadow an ephemeral and inefficient product for the misinformed, who are left to pick up the tab when expensive repairs or a complete overhaul is needed.
This should concern all of us. Losing the precious craft of ornamental plaster creation would be catastrophic. When an ancient trade disappears, a part of our cultural heritage goes with it; once it’s gone it never comes back. We have seen this with the disappearance of other trades such as typesetters, tinsmiths and varnishers. Just as protecting animals at risk of extinction is vital to a balanced ecosystem, we must protect the cultural arts. Ornamental plaster is part of our collective memory. And it is at real risk of dying out, as skilled plasterers are few and far between.
This can be blamed on the fact that few are left to teach it. Tradesmen in earlier times were protective about their methods and genius. The attitude of the time was that teaching your trade would mean losing your job to someone younger, stronger and cheaper. This tradition began in the Middle Ages with a trade association called the Plaster Guild, and continued to prevail through the ages and much of the 20th century. In plaster conservation, only a small segment of people were permitted to witness the work in process as every effort was made to hide the knowledge. Tradesmen went to the grave with their secrets, and ancient techniques died with them.
At Iconoplast, we believe that in sharing knowledge you improve the caliber of your trade, so apprentices are taught everything we know in mould making and plaster conservation. In doing so, we uphold our commitment as artisans to preserving this ancient craft and the architectural beauty it inspires, for all the generations to come.