Our plaster technology: unique and beloved
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