Plaster Altus OK
Broken Arrow, OK
Plastering: An Old Skill's Comeback
The word "plaster" conjures up images of old, ornate homes, the kind with thick walls, Victorian furniture and perhaps a few Gothic columns out front. Drywall, of course, is the material of choice in most homes built over the past few decades. By and large, it is a fine product that is affordable and easy to install. But that doesn't mean that plaster is dead. Nowadays, a growing number of people are turning to veneer plaster - sometimes called thin-coat plaster - for construction in their new homes, room additions and renovations.
Veneer plaster is stronger, more durable and richer-looking than drywall. It is simple to patch if it needs repairing, and you won't see seams or have nails popping out like you sometimes get with drywall. Veneer plaster combines the convenience of drywall with the look and feel of old-fashioned plaster walls and ceilings. And although it will never surpass drywall in popularity, veneer plaster gives homeowners a simple way to upgrade their homes - if they're willing to spend more money. A lot of people apparently are doing just that. In 2001, U.S. and Canadian companies manufactured 536.8 million square feet of gypsum-core boards, known as "blue boards," that are designed specifically for plaster, according to The Gypsum Association.
That's a lot of walls and ceilings. Ed Jakacki, a partner with J & S Consulting in Buffalo Grove, Ill., says skilled craftsmen can also put decorative touches on veneer plaster that can't be done with drywall. Plasterers do this by pressing a brush or trowel against a wet plaster surface and using a hand motion to create wavy swirls, a Spanish texture and other finishes. "You get what you pay for, that's my motto," says Jakacki, who formerly worked for United States Gypsum Co. in Chicago for 44 years and was one of the early developers of veneer plastering systems.
"Veneer plaster is obviously an upgrade, and it's going to cost more. But you get what you pay for." Most often, veneer plaster is used in upscale custom-built homes or for room additions in existing homes, says Bill Schell, executive vice president of the Operative Plasterers' and Cement Masons' International Association, which represents about 10,000 plasterers. "Many people are remembering the home they grew up in and the difference between those and what they're buying now," he says. Plaster in many ways can be compared with concrete. Like concrete, plaster begins as a mixture of dry compounds. The mineral gypsum is the base ingredient in interior plasters, such as veneer plaster. In exterior plaster, or stucco, portland cement is the key ingredient. A variety of plasters are manufactured by a number of companies, including U.S. Gypsum, National Gypsum and Georgia-Pacific.
When a plasterer mixes the compounds with water, a chemical reaction called hydration occurs, causing the ingredients to crystallize. Within a few hours, enough crystals have formed to make the plaster solid. The crystals interlock with one another and form a dense, hard surface when applied to walls and ceilings. In the days before drywall, conventional plaster was the material of choice in homes, applied over thin wood strips called lath boards. The plaster was spread on thick, typically between one-half and 1 inch. But the use of plaster declined with the rise of drywall after World War II. Drywall was developed nearly a century ago and was even used in Army barracks during World War I. It wasn't until the 1950s, however, that it had improved to a high-enough quality for home construction. With high demand for new homes during the post-war Baby Boom period, builders increasingly turned to drywall instead of conventional plaster for interior walls. And why not? Drywall was cheaper and could be installed in five days - rather than the eight to 12 days required for plaster.
By the mid-'60s, drywall construction equaled that of plaster, Jakacki says, and soon thereafter became the dominant form of wall construction. Even though more than half a billion square feet of veneer blue boards were manufactured last year, that still amounts to less than 3 percent of that of drywall, according to The Gypsum Association. Plaster is used more often in commercial construction where hard walls and aesthetics are at a premium, such as in auditoriums, public buildings, hospitals, schools and the like. But with improved technologies and lowered costs, veneer plaster is a popular technique in many parts of the country.
Jakacki says it is most prevalent in New England, the Upper Midwest, parts of Florida and the Southwest. Experts agree that only trained plasterers should do veneer plastering, because it requires skill and is not forgiving if mistakes are made. There are plenty of craftsmen nationally, but they are more abundant where plaster is most prevalent, such as in the Northeast. Plasterers typically are trained at trade schools, through apprentice programs, or by the companies for which they work. In some regards, putting veneer plaster on your walls is similar to installing drywall. Drywall partitions are gypsum-core boards that are covered with kraft - a tough paper made from sulfate wood pulp - which is designed to absorb paint. Plasterers also use gypsum boards, but instead of being covered with kraft, they are covered with paper that is chemically treated to absorb moisture and bond with the plaster. Like drywall, the veneer plaster blue boards are measured and cut to fit and then nailed or screwed into the wood frames of a house.
But that's where the similarities end. With drywall, installers typically treat the joints with joint compound and tape, let the compound dry and then sand it to a smooth finish. This step is usually repeated up to three times, meaning it can take up to five or six days to install drywall. But with veneer plaster, workers apply the plaster directly to the wall panels and work their trowels to create the desired finish. Depending on whether a homeowner chooses a one- or two-coat application, the procedure will take just two or three days - significantly less time than what is required with drywall. This cuts down on construction time and also eliminates all the dust that comes with drywall. Using a veneer plaster also gives homeowners more choices of what sort of decorative look they want. The surface can be as smooth as ice, but it can also be textured and have decorative swirls and designs. Within plaster systems, there are one- and two-coat veneers.
Each coat is typically 1/16 to 3/32 of an inch, and experts say the two-coat system gives higher-quality results, but at a higher cost. Two-coat systems result in harder walls and a more luxuriant appearance. "The one-coat system will provide an upgrade over the appearance of drywall in terms of a monolithic appearance, whereas in a drywall you can often see the joints between panels," says Marty Duffy, spokesman for U.S. Gypsum. "A one-coat system will hide that. A two-coat system looks and performs dramatically better than a one-coat system. A one-coat system, because it's such a thin layer, won't completely compensate for wall defects, such as undulations, joint deformations and those type of things." Veneer plaster offers other advantages as well. The most obvious benefit is that plaster is harder - and therefore more durable and resistant to abrasions - than drywall. Drywall is a comparatively soft product, and it doesn't take too much force to create a dent in its surface. Nowadays, gypsum plaster can be made strong enough to withstand pressures of up to 3,000 pounds per square inch, according to Walt Pruter, president of the California-based International Institute for Lath and Plaster and one of the authors of Plaster and Drywall Systems Manual.
"They can make gypsum as hard as portland cement," Pruter says. Plaster also gives homeowners a monolithic surface - that is, a solid, even surface that can be as smooth as ice - that they can't get with drywall. Run your hand across drywall, and then run it over a plastered wall; you can't miss the difference. Pruter, who has been in the construction trade for more than 45 years, says tape can peel, nails can pop and ridges can appear with drywall. In addition, you can get reflections off of drywall under oblique lighting because the paint goes over different surfaces - tape and the paper of the gypsum board - that can result in different appearances. But because plaster is a single surface, you don't get the same unevenness as you get with drywall. The biggest drawback to plaster is cost. The cost differential varies in different parts of the country; the difference, for example, is likely to be less in regions with higher demand for plaster, such as New England, experts say. But a good rule of thumb is that a one-coat veneer plaster job will cost 25 percent more than drywall, and a two-coat application will cost 50 percent more, Jakacki says. If, for instance, a drywall job is estimated to cost $6,000, it might cost $7,500 for the same job with a one-coat veneer and $9,000 for two coats. That may sound like a lot of money - and it can be - but it will cost more if you first install drywall and later decide to add veneer plaster to it.
In addition, veneer plaster is usually easier to repair than drywall when damaged. Pruter says veneer can be patched simply with plaster of Paris or Spackle, and that a repair job will be less noticeable than on drywall. "A patch on drywall always looks like a patch," he says. "But not with veneer plaster." If a homeowner has drywall - or any other old wall for that matter - they can still apply veneer plaster to it if the surface is inside, clean, sound and bondable. Jakacki says that it is unsuitable to apply plaster to a wall with peeling paint, wallpaper or even glossy paint if it isn't sandpapered first to give it some texture. But if the wall meets the necessary criteria, plasterers can apply a film-forming bonding agent that acts like a glue and then put two coats of veneer plaster over it. "It's not a typical application and that's not what it's intended for, but it can be done," Jakacki says. Nowadays, veneer plaster also comes in different colors. U.S. Gypsum, for instance, introduced a plaster with coloring agents in it less than two years ago.
The colors typically come in pastel and earth-tone shades, and undulate and vary in shade and tone when the plaster is applied. This can result in contemporary or Old World looks, or specialty appearances, such as a Mediterranean or Southwest look. This type of veneer plaster is designed to be applied over existing or new drywall and can be troweled to a finish that is semi-smooth or textured, but not completely smooth. U.S. Gypsum offers the product in 12 standard colors, and buyers can also have custom colors made for them. "What it gives you is a more cost-effective means of creating an upscale, integrally colored wall finish," Duffy says. Jakacki says this product has been selling particularly well in Colorado ski resorts, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas. Despite all the benefits of veneer plaster, the costs can turn away many homeowners. Matt Stevens, president of Island Diversified Inc. in Calverton, N.Y., says the homes he applies veneer plaster to are typically in the range of $500,000 to $2 million. Additionally, most high-end residences in Manhattan choose plaster over drywall, he says. Greg Earhart, vice president of Northeastern Specialty Systems Inc. of Schenectady, N.Y., says he gets a lot of calls from people inquiring about using plaster instead of drywall. Many of those calls come from people who have experienced fire damage and have to replace certain walls. But once they find out the price, they often choose drywall instead, Earhart says. Others, though, are willing to pay the price. Earhart says his company recently contracted a job to put veneer plaster walls in a new room that was added to a farmhouse that is more than 150 years old. The owner was adamant that the addition have plaster walls comparable to those in the rest of the house. The job for the 7,300 square feet of walls will cost him more than $21,000. "He wants to keep the flavor of his structure throughout his new addition," Earhart says. "It all depends on the individual, on what he's looking to achieve."