By Bill Primavera
My father died when I was a teenager, before I understood that he was more than a skilled tradesman but, rather, a true artist.
A cement finisher by trade, he could do any maintenance or improvement project around the house from tiling our bathroom floor and stenciling our living room walls to plastering an entire room from scratch.
I was only eight years old when I watched with fascination as he plastered that new room in our house, created from a former screened in porch. First, he attached mesh lath to the studs and lobbed on the “scratch” base coat which he scored when it was half dry for adherence, then added a second layer, known as the “brown” coat and, finally, a perfect, hard and smooth finishing coat. I remember it as a laborious project in which each coat had to dry for a day or more before the next was applied.
When he was finished, he took my hand with his own, calloused by years of hard work, and guided my touch along the finishing coat, saying proudly “Billy, feel this. Smooth as silk, isn’t it?”
Today few people have solid plaster walls which have been replaced almost universally with the use of sheetrock or drywall. While drywall was invented in 1916 by the U.S. Gypsum Company, it wasn’t until the 1940s that it came into prominent use, the result of the labor shortage during World War II, and the housing boom that followed, requiring cheap construction materials that took less time to install.
With all the new-fangled home building materials created in the past century, none has had so revolutionary an effect as drywall, basically compressed gypsum sandwiched between two sheets of heavy paper, expediting the homebuilding process more than any other material. But drywall has its deficiencies, from a lack of smoothness to the possibility of being victim to bad taping and spackling between panels that can produce weird and irregular surfaces.
I find it amazing that the art of plastering, while used for internal walls from ancient times, could all but disappear in just 50 years.
The skill of plastering has also all but vanished, except for a very few modern-day practitioners. When I did some investigation some time ago, I found that it’s still possible to build a home with plaster walls, but time consuming as it is, certainly compared with plasterboard, it is very time consuming and expensive. Most plasterers today do mainly repair work. I was glad to hear that quality plaster walls could still be an option, at least for those who can afford it.
There is an epilogue to the story of the room my dad plastered more than 50 years ago. Not so long ago, I was traveling to the South on business and took a detour to Newport News, Virginia, where that modest home is located. Intending to do a quick drive-by, I couldn’t stop myself from pulling into the driveway. The clapboard ranch that I remembered had grown by half a story with dormers and had been veneered in yellow brick. I rang the doorbell.
Almost like a time-travel experience, I recognized the woman who opened the door as a grandmother version of the young bride who had bought the house from my parents a half a century ago. And, she recognized me as well! Imagine being told that you look the same as you did when you were eight years old?
She invited me in to tour the interior of the house, which looked pretty much the same, except for more contemporary colors and furnishings. When I entered the room that my dad had plastered, I was astounded to see that the plaster job was still in perfect shape with not so much as a hairline crack in it. I asked if the walls been re-plastered during the time the new owner had lived there, but she assured me that, except for maybe two or three additional coats of paint, it was absolutely the same as it was when she and her husband bought the house.
I went to the far side of the room to the exact spot where my dad had guided my hand across the wall a half century earlier, and I repeated the motion. Yes, the surface was still smooth as silk.
In witnessing the lasting quality of my dad’s fine work, my eyes welled up with tears.
Bill Primavera, while a publicist and journalist, is also a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. (www.PrimaveraPR.com). To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call (914)522-2076.