There’s no easy way to say this; we fought plastering and plastering won. Of all the tasks that we’ve either attempted or become reacquainted with, plastering is probably the most soul destroying, back breaking, time sapping and catastrophically messy one on the list and thank god it is over. There are some plus points and lessons learned though; mainly around knowing your limits.
As I recently noted, much of the existing plaster in this project house is/was monumentally fucked*. As much magic as could realistically be achieved with PVA, we had to face the fact that many of the walls in the house were pock-marked with blown plaster, cracked render and in places, bare lathe. ‘Blown’ as related to plaster means that the bond between the top layer – the plaster – has lost a bond against the render underneath; tap it and you get that hollow sound which is the resonance of the small void between the layers.
In places – the bathroom and the dressing room – entire walls had to be totally stripped
back and built back with plasterboard. The bathroom was re-rendered and plastered by an alarmingly angry plasterer called Dave, a tightly coiled bundle of rage (who loved his van more than anything else in the world) who did a marvelous job. He also explained to me that you should never get into a fight with a plasterer, because they have great upper-body strength “a dry slap off a plasterer and you stay slapped…”; despite all of which, he was a friendly and knowledgeable tradesman, who seemed to survive on a diet entirely consisting of Calippos.
Life After Dave
Of course, we couldn’t afford to do this in every room. For one thing, Dave was pretty picky in what he wanted to do; he didn’t do plasterboarding, didn’t want to do little patching jobs and, like all good plasterers, wasn’t short of work. Getting the bathroom up and running as early as possible was pretty vital, but the others rooms could be taken on piecemeal by your dynamic duo; combined plastering experience = 1 barely successful 1/2 days work a decade ago.
The truth about Plastering
Plastering is, as you will have gathered from this post so far, really tough. Complicated to
understand, it is not. Indeed, go and search YouTube for instructional videos and you’ll get the basic concepts down pretty fast. None of them, for all their explanatory smarts will let you in on what you’ll discover as soon as you attempt it, that getting right is like threading a needle while wearing boxing gloves, in that is so clumsy and awkward, you wonder how wise it was to take on in the first place.
However, it is possible to do some of this yourself. Indeed, there are patches where it doesn’t look like the plaster was sprayed onto the walls through a hose by a drunken chimp, little hints that some of the techniques had started to sink in.
The most important bits that can be expressed in the form of words;
1. Preparation: We’re back to our old friend PVA again; before you start to mix the plaster, take your 3:1 PVA/Water mix and spread it on to the areas you will be attempting to fix. If the render is loose, then do this a few days before to stabilise, then again immediately before, so that it is still tacky. Plaster uses suction to stay on the wall, but a bit of help doesn’t go a miss. Any dirt/dust MUST be swept away before hand, you need a clean, dry surface for this to work.
2. Mixing: This sounds easy, but most certainly is not. It’s also pretty difficult to describe in
a way which is universally understandable, but here goes. Mixing plaster is at its simplest level, adding raw plaster into water and mixing until you have something stable enough to be spread onto the wall. In practice, this means buying a drill attachment (a couple of quid from somewhere like Toolstation) and spending 20-30 minutes gradually adding plaster with one hand, while mixing with the other. The consistency you’re after is akin to a chocolate mousse; it’ll peak and collapse, will hold an edge on a flat surface without collapsing, but loose enough to still easily spread.
3. Learn to handle your Hawk; The Hawk is the platform that holds your plaster, whilst you apply it with a Plasterers Trowel. It is the surface that you can use to remix the odds and sods back into a single blob to apply to the wall and you’ll need to master how it and the plaster mix works with gravity so the plaster doesn’t end up on the floor rather than the wall. Pro tip; when you start, much of it will end up on the floor.
4. Buy a spray bottle; in order to stand a chance of getting even an almost flat finish, you’ll
going to need to work the plaster once it is on the wall. To do that, it needs to be wet, or you’ll drag it all back off the wall again. Simple solution, a spray bottle with tap water allows you to refresh the plaster with a blast, before you gently drag the trowel or Darby across your work to attempt a flat finish.
5. Don’t despair, get sandpaper; however bad your finish ends up, you can rescue it to a decent degree with sandpaper. Wait until the plaster has completely gone off, which might take a number of days and you’ll find that the surface can be smoothed off with a very light grade of sandpaper with virtually no effort. It’s not defeat btw, talk to a professional decorator and they frequently do this before starting to paint on fresh surfaces.
Should I bother?
It’s a good question. If you’re looking at a whole room, especially if it includes a ceiling, which requires skimming; get a professional. It’s ultimately cheaper and you’ll not end up with a sore back, ruined skin and a serious Calippo habit.
If however you’ve got patchy walls, with small defects, holes or general bits of blown plaster, consider it. A plasterer is either going to reject small jobs as too much hassle, or charge you as much as doing the whole room to sort them. I don’t blame them btw, that’s the economies of scale at work. The tools and materials are cheap (a hawk, trowel, mixing attachment, bucket and a bag of multi-finish comes in under twenty quid) and if you can stand forever looking at your own work and seeing all the flaws (whilst admiring how the hell you ever managed to make it that good in the first place), then go for it. You’ll have earned a few beers just for attempting it.
* This is an industry standard term