Plaster is making a comeback! Alongside its natural, earthy tone and unique texture, plaster comes with a bounty of built-in benefits and is definitely worth considering for your next home renovation project.
What Is Plaster?
Plaster begins as a powder and reacts with water to become a malleable, putty-like substance that can be layered over walls and ceilings or sculpted into intricate decorations.
While plaster historically consisted of mud, clay, lime, or cement, with a fibrous material such as hair or grass added to help with binding, most plaster used in modern interior decoration is plaster of Paris, a composite whose base ingredient is the mineral gypsum. When drying, gypsum undergoes a crystallizing reaction that reinforces its structure and negates the need for additional fibrous support.
Plaster is a versatile material that can also be used for setting orthopedic casts, creating dental impressions, and sculpting frescoes. Stucco is similar to plaster but has a rougher texture and is exclusively used on the exterior of buildings rather than for interior decoration.
There are several types of plaster ornamentation commonly found in old homes. Plaster cornices, a type of decorative molding that hugs the top of an interior wall, were once extremely popular. Medallions, which may take the shape of flowers, stars, or spokes, rest in the center of a ceiling and may be the suspension point for chandeliers or light fixtures. Coffered ceilings are made entirely of plaster and often contain extremely elaborate scrollwork.
What Is Plaster’s History?
Plaster is one of the oldest building materials in the human history. There has been plaster found inside the Egyptian pyramids that has maintained its integrity for over 4,000 years.
Plaster first saw ornamental use within the temples of the Ancient Greeks, who played an instrumental role in refining its architectural uses. As a result, the intricate plasterwork that became a widespread fad in Europe beginning in the 14th century was often classically-inspired and resembled Greek columns and scrollwork.
Plasterwork became an increasingly elaborate status symbol in the homes of the upper class leading up to the Victorian era, with the most impressive designs placed in the living room and dining room where guests could appreciate them.
After the turn of the 20th century, however, ornate handcrafted plasterwork began to fall out of style as industrialization made wallpaper and other cheap decorative options available to the average homeowner.
What Makes Plaster Superior?
Plaster offers a number of advantages over traditional drywall. Because the ingredients used in plaster have remained virtually unchanged over the centuries, plaster is generally crafted entirely from non-toxic materials and tends to be a more sustainable option than many modern alternatives.
Additionally, plaster has inherent fireproofing properties. In fact, after the London Bridge burned in 1212, King John ordered all shopkeepers along the Thames to plaster their interior walls to prevent future blazes.
Another benefit of plaster is its natural breathability. Plaster is excellent at absorbing and releasing moisture, which serves to improve the overall air quality of a home. This trait also makes plaster extremely resistant to harboring mold.
Finally, plaster is more effective than drywall at muffling sound, which is particularly useful when living in close quarters with noisy roommates or neighbors.
While traditional gypsum or Venetian plaster can be somewhat expensive when compared to drywall, Roman plaster offers a more affordable alternative without sacrificing any of plaster’s natural benefits.
How Can Plaster Be Preserved?
Plaster can be susceptible to water damage from leaky pipes or flooding, which can cause the plaster to soften or pull loose from the lathe it is attached to. Plaster may also crack over time, particularly in very old buildings that have settled and sagged over the years.
Remaining vigilant about the intrusion of water into your home is the best way to prevent damage to your plaster before it occurs.
How Can Plaster Be Repaired?
If you find yourself confronted with cracked or damaged plaster, consider calling a plaster specialist for an evaluation before you immediately gear up for a gut renovation.
Historic plasterwork is almost always worth preserving and can often be beautifully restored to its former glory. In fact, due to its durability, it is generally cheaper in the long term to restore old plaster rather than to replace it with drywall.
Surface damage and superficial cracks can be easily repaired by a process known as “skim coating”, which involves applying several thin coats of plaster over the damaged area. If there are gaps in the plaster, these may also be filled with lathe or substrate and skim coated in order to create a uniform look with the surrounding surface.
More extensive attention must be paid to major cracks and to plaster that has begun to detach from its lathe. The plaster must be reattached to the underlying architecture either with plaster pins or by injecting adhesive through holes drilled through the plaster.
Damage to ornamental plaster can be trickier to repair. In some cases, craftsmen can sharpen eroded details by hand or through the use of plaster molds. If the damage is too severe, it may be necessary to create new ornamentation from scratch. However, plaster experts are well-trained in matching new additions to the surrounding decorative work to allow them to blend in seamlessly.
If you are considering any type of plaster restoration, it is always recommended that you seek out a plaster expert rather than consulting a general contractor. Many contractors are experienced with drywall but not plaster, which can lead to costly errors later in the repair process.
Plaster in the Modern Home
Well-maintained plasterwork lends a room an air of old-world elegance and adds charm to any modern home. Just look at the elegant Venetian plaster walls in this Lenox Hill apartment and the tasteful cornices in this Chelsea co-op! Consider using plaster as a unique, breathable, eco-friendly alternative to drywall when building or renovating your dream home.
Sophie McIntosh is a Brooklyn-based writer and dramaturg hailing from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her plays have been produced by Imaginarium Theatre Company, Platform Production Company, and in the Boston Theater Marathon. Check out more of her work at sophiemcintoshwrites.com!