Our plas­ter tech­nol­ogy: unique and beloved

Home - Santa Fe Real Estate Guide - - OUTANDABOUT - By Paul Wei­de­man

WALK­ING INTO THE MED­I­TA­TION ROOM AT THE ACADEMY FOR THE LOVE OF LEARN­ING a few years ago was a memorable ex­pe­ri­ence. There was no one around, and there was a freshly ap­plied coat of plas­ter in­side the cir­cu­lar adobe room. The feel and smell of the damp earthen plas­ter was sub­tle but re­mark­able. It seemed to stand out on the typ­i­cally dry, North­ern New Mex­ico day, and it seemed to some­how in­crease the quiet of the place.

This tech­nol­ogy is a sur­vivor from past times, from long be­fore dry­wall and paint and wall­pa­per were avail­able. It is still prac­ticed, and loved, in this part of the world. In Santa Fe, the age-old skills needed to cre­ate these beau­ti­ful­walls are still in de­mand.

The orig­i­nal or­ganic con­struc­tion tech­nique, adobe walls fin­ished with mud plas­ter, has been used for cen­turies in this part of the Amer­i­can South­west. It sur­vives not only in the ru­ral vil­lages and pueb­los but in the adobe houses of the wealthy— although more of­ten than not, the plas­ter part of the for­mula is a pack­aged gyp­sum for­mu­la­tion like Red Top or Struc­to­lite. It is not un­com­mon for builders to show off the virtue of­mud plas­ter in one room, such as a li­brary, with the rest of the house fin­ished in lighter, shinier Struc­to­lite.

Mark Gior­getti, Palo Santo De­signs, is one who en­joys earthen plas­ters. “When I first came to Santa Fe about 20 years ago, I was work­ing with [builder-ar­chi­tect team] Robert La­Porte and Paula Baker and they were re­ally strong ad­vo­cates of the use of earthen plas­ters and floors as well as nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als in gen­eral. With them I got to meet Char­lie Car­ruthers. He’s one of those lo­cal trea­sures of knowl­edge in terms of earthen ma­te­ri­als and es­pe­cially plas­ters. I got to work with hi­mon and off for sev­eral years.

“Char­lie for­mu­lated his own spe­cial blends of plas­ters us­ing com­bi­na­tions of ma­te­ri­als as sim­ple as joint com­pound, but then blending it with clays and pig­ments and mica and dif­fer­ent types of sand to cre­ate some won­der­ful sur­faces. The thing about that ex­pe­ri­ence forme­was learn­ing to use the lo­cal clays and the right mix­tures of sand, clay, and straw to cre­ate these nat­u­ral plas­ters that are highly durable and quite beau­ti­ful.” A sim­i­lar method­ol­ogy can be used to cre­ate earthen floors, some­thing seen in sev­eral Palo Santo De­signs projects.

In the olden days, the dirt floors in New Mex­ico were sealed with ox blood. “I’ve had houses with earthen floors on the Pa­rade of Homes and the main ques­tion I’ve been asked is if it was an ox-blood floor,” Gior­getti re­called. “I’d al­ways say, No an­i­mals were harmed in the mak­ing of this floor.” Nowa­days lin­seed oil suf­fices as a binder for that hard fin­ish so im­por­tant in a floor.

Mud­ding a wall has al­ways been a hands-on propo­si­tion. “It de­pends on the sub­strate. If it’s a nat­u­ral ma­te­rial like straw bale, there’s a cer­tain amount of pack­ing to get to a uni­form plane. That’s done by hand. You’re ba­si­cally grab­bling globs of the plas­ter mix and work­ing it into a sur­face un­til you get the wall smooth, and then mov­ing into steel-trowel work to achieve the fin­ish.”

In­side walls are plas­tered not too dif­fer­ently than the out­side, on which mod­ern plas­ter pros (this used to be done by women pros called en­jar­rado­ras) ap­ply suc­ces­sive scratch, brown, and fin­ish coats. “You need to build it out in mul­ti­ple lay­ers, get­ting to a more and more re­fined fin­ish as you go,” Gior­getti said. “The ac­tual mix gets more re­fined as well. If you’re us­ing a tra­di­tional earthen plas­ter, maybe that first coat is with straw straight out of the bale, long strands of straw; then for the sub­se­quent lay­ers you’re run­ning it through a screen to break it down into fine fibers. Sim­i­larly with the clay and sand, you’re run­ning it through screens so the ma­te­ri­als is finer and finer and you achieve a tex­ture sim­i­lar to what peo­ple ex­pect.”

Whether mud plas­ter or man­u­fac­tured gyp­sum plas­ter, the end re­sult de­pends on the crafts­man­ship of the in­di­vid­u­als who are ap­ply­ing it. “This is an amaz­ing thing about the Santa Fe mar­ket, the Santa Fe con­struc­tion in­dus­try, is that we have some in­cred­i­ble ar­ti­sans, many of whom are of Mex­i­can de­scent, a sort of cadre of highly ac­com­plished plas­ter ar­ti­sans in this town. They work with a level of skill that I believe you re­ally can’t find any­where else in the


Freshly plas­tered adobe: med­i­ta­tion chapel un­der con­struc­tion at the Academy for the Love of Learn­ing, Se­ton Vil­lage, 2010


Zuni woman plas­ter­ing house, circa 1903

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