Hello my lovelies
In this post we're going to take some time to break down a trend that isn't really a trend at all but the return of a classic. Let's explore the world of an ancient material...plaster!
Plaster has been used as a building material for thousands of years, from the earthen plastered mud huts of early civilizations, to the inner walls of Egyptian pyramids, to the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In the US, plaster and lath was the interior wall construction of choice from the 1700s all the way up to the 1950s when drywall panels were developed.
But plaster has seen a comeback in recent years, not so much as a whole house construction method, but as a finish for single rooms or accent walls (as in the gorgeous room design above by Stefani Stein). If you've browsed Pinterest, Instagram or even home decor retail websites recently, you've doubtless drooled over a wall or two with a plaster finish.
So what is plaster exactly? It's actually a technique rather than any single substance. At its most basic, plastering is the use of earth and minerals to coat a building surface making structures more durable or attractive. Plasters used today are made of several different materials including lime, gypsum, or clay and can be mixed with additives that improve things like spreadability, curing time and waterproofing. It can be left raw or sealed with waxes, soaps and other topcoats to improve durability, water resistance and ease of cleaning.
True plaster walls are more expensive than hanging drywall because they have to be applied in multiple thin layers, usually with a trowel. The process takes considerably longer than drywall and can require special substrates (surfaces it needs to bond to) and skills. However new products on the market significantly reduce these barriers to using plaster and in some cases make it DIY friendly. Evidence: DIY room below by Hommeboys that I'm mildly obsessed with. Okay, a LOT obsessed with. I mean, check out that texture!
Why Use Plaster?
Let's get the obvious answer out of the way....it looks freakin' awesome! Because of the layering process, plaster can add a textural depth and softness to walls that you just can't get with drywall and paint. It also lends itself to a number of decorating styles including French Country, Modern, Rustic, Contemporary, Traditional and Global.
But aside from that, plaster has several benefits that you don't get with drywall. It can help regulate humidity in your home by absorbing and desorbing moisture which inhibits mold and mildew growth. Many types are made with only natural materials eliminating off-gassing and improving air quality. Due to its thickness it can help to insulate and regulate temperature, as well as provide better sound blocking than drywall. It is stronger and longer lasting which cuts down on those little dings and scratches drywall eventually gets in high-traffic areas. Additionally, because the pigments used to color it run throughout, it resists fading and eliminates the need to repaint every few years.
There are a couple of downsides to plaster walls however so take these into consideration. Because of its hardness, plaster is more difficult to hang things on and it can develop cracks as a house settles or if it is applied improperly. Also, if you have your whole house or a whole room done in plaster, the thickness of the walls can lead to a poor wi-fi signal so you'll likely need to boost it.
Types of Plaster
There are lots of different types of plaster but I'm just going to focus on the ones that you will likely come across in the US for interior applications.
Slaked Lime Plaster
Slaked lime plaster is what the walls in our grandparent's houses were made of. It's composed of fired limestone, sand and water. While traditionally white, it now comes in a vast range of colors due to pigments that can be added, and some companies do custom coloring. Slaked lime plaster can be used in kitchens and bathrooms but shouldn't come in direct contact with water, as in a shower. It comes in a putty form so you don't have to hand mix it and you can take your time applying it. This plaster is applied in 3 coats of varying thickness and increasing smoothness and can be sealed with beeswax or Marseilles soap. Curing time for lime plaster is a few weeks depending on the temperature and humidity in your location. Master of Plaster out of South Carolina has a whole range of plaster products including slaked lime.
Traditional slaked lime plaster is one that's best left to the professionals because it's more complicated that it looks. However, limewash paint, as seen in the living room below by Axel Vandervoordt, is more DIY friendly and can still give you some of the benefits of full lime plaster walls. It does require multiple coats, usually up to three, but is easily applied with a masonry brush. Do make sure to check what substrate your particular product requires as limewash cannot bond to all surfaces. JH Wall Paints out of California makes limewash paints with a stunning range of colors.
Venetian plaster is a type of aged lime plaster, but it also contains marble dust that adds a sheen to the walls, and can be burnished to a high shine. Modern products contain acrylic polymers that increase durability and some are DIY friendly. Just make sure that the product you use contains actual marble dust to get the visual depth and shine that Venetian plaster is renowned for. Some "Venetian plaster" products on the market contain no marble dust and are little more than thick, textural paint. Remember, you get what you pay for and the real deal will definitely be worth it! Check out this hallway below done by master plasterer Gian Carlo Sagasti of Miami, FL. The way light reflects off its surface is comparable to stone. Truly stunning.
Another type of lime plaster hailing from Morocco, this is lime mixed with a black soap made from olives. The chemical reaction between the two creates a waterproof membrane which makes it perfect for use in showers and baths. Synonymous with hammams, this burnished plaster is smooth to the touch with a slight sheen, but not reflective like Venetian plaster. It does require regular maintenance to maintain it's waterproof surface but weekly cleaning with black soap is sufficient. Harsh cleaners such as bleach will destroy the waterproof membrane and once it is damaged it cannot be repaired and must be replaced. It is also the most difficult plaster to apply and should only be done by very experienced professionals. Because of the laborious process to get it right, it is also the most expensive. Despite all of this its grout-free, mold-and-mildew-resistant, all-natural surface means it can be more than worth it to people with chemical sensitivities and allergies. It's also just so beautiful to look at it can turn your bathroom into a drool worthy spa, like the bathroom below belonging to Sophie Watson. SO, SO GOOD!!!
Gypsum plaster comes in a powder form and is mixed with water when ready to apply. It has a setting time of 30-40 minutes so you must work fast with it. If you stop in the middle you get weaknesses called cold joints and you have to scrap everything and start over. For this reason it's best that only the experienced apply it. However, its benefits include how lightweight it is, its high tensile and flexural strength which prevents cracking, and its low cost. It also has a quick cure time of about 3 days so can shave weeks off of the wait for your walls to cure. It has a matte finish if left natural but can also be sealed or painted with a more glossy finish. Gypsum plaster should not be used in areas that are continuously damp such as bathrooms. This kitchen design by Jersey Ice Cream Co. uses gypsum plaster.
Composed of clay, sand and pigments, this plaster comes in powder form and has a rough matte finish. Particularly good for people with chemical sensitivities, clay plaster is non-toxic and environmentally friendly because it doesn't contain acrylic or resins. It has a range of natural colors, but can also be tinted with pigments for nearly unlimited options. Clay plaster is superior at regulating humidity, but it cannot be used in wet zones. You can get clay plaster from American Clay, a company in Albuquerque, NM. Also check out the work of another company called Clayworks out of the UK. The kitchen below was done by them, but it's their custom plaster options (shown further down) that I find truly amazing.
If you have been considering plaster walls I hope this guide helps you understand your options so you can make an informed choice. Plaster walls have so many benefits but as with all materials, going into it with eyes wide open will always make it easier to live with it long term. If you have never considered plaster before, maybe this will convince you to give it a try in your own home.
And if walls are too much of a commitment for you, you're in luck. The current plaster trend isn't just for walls! There are so many great products right now...lighting, furnishings and decor items that have a plaster finish. The natural, matte surface lends a sculptural quality to these items that would add an artistic flare to any space. I've done a round up of some of them for you below. Enjoy!
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