The First Coat of Plaster

It is amazing how many things you can do with a bit of mud and straw. Sturdy, sculptured cob, well insulated light clay straw walls, tough earthen plasters, and beautiful finishes. Different ratios of materials, different applications, but the same basic ingredients.  It’s hardly alchemy, either, being only slightly more highly evolved than the mud pies every one makes at some point in their childhood. This week we got to try both light clay straw and earthen plaster and, at times, it definitely felt like we were pretty much just playing in the mud!

The beginning of the week found us at Doni and Kaki’s, two local natural builders with many years experience building earthen structures. Under the guidance of SmithWorks, a natural building crew from Colorado, we helped with the construction of a light clay straw extension to Doni and Kaki’s house, mixing the straw with the thin clay slip and packing it tightly into the frame. It was a great to learn another style of building, not to mention the delicious lunches that we received in return for our labor!

At the end of the two days Doni, Kaki and the guys from SmithWorks paid a visit to our worksite. It was a good opportunity to see how our plaster samples from last week turned out, and to get some outside input. The previous Friday, between the eight of us, we had made about twenty different samples, experimenting with different ratios of clay, sand and water, different sizes of sand particles, and different fibers including egg cartons, saw dust, and even some of Jeff’s hair (surrendered willingly, I can assure you).

There were definitely some plasters that had been easier to apply, or that had a smoother finish when they dried, but we were all amazed that Doni and Kaki thought that pretty much all of them would work reasonably well. From Eric and Kate too, a recurring theme has been that set recipes for plaster are unnecessary. Saying “I have a recipe for earthen plaster” is a bit like saying “I have a recipe for food”. Just as there are countless nutritious, delicious meals to be made from the same ingredients, there are countless ways to make clay, sand, aggregate, fiber and water into a workable, protective coat for a building.

This makes working with earthen plaster both accessible and intimidating. It is accessible because, compared to concrete or even lime, earthen mixtures require very little skill or specialist equipment to produce and use. It is intimidating because while the basic materials required are readily available almost everywhere in the world, when you harvest clay from the ground, or sand from a river bed the instructions aren’t included.

The knowledge required to make earthen plaster isn’t complicated. It has been done all over the world for thousands of years. Until you get your hands dirty, however, and start to feel the difference between ‘too wet’ and ‘too dry’, or ‘too much sand’ or ‘too much straw’, it can seem just as formidable as fixing a hard drive or a leaky carburetor. All of us interns have a long way to go before we become master plasterers, but we have definitely gotten our hands dirty this week. It is a step in the right direction, not to mention a lot of fun!


One Response to “The First Coat of Plaster”
  1. Rebecca says:

    Reblogged this on Positively Permaculture and commented:

    The first week (of many more to come) spent plastering the house I’m working on as an intern for Community Rebuilds.

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