Plaster making a comeback

Michael Lauer (left) and Patrick Webb prepare to attach the last section of cornice to a restoration project at 62 Murray Blvd.

Of all the vanishing crafts that the American College of the Building Arts was founded to keep alive, plastering might top the list.

Patrick Webb, who teaches plaster at the college, knows of only about a half dozen plasterers in the Charleston area. He estimates the market could support five times as many.

"Plasterers are as common as hen's teeth," he says.

When his father was practicing the craft, Webb says veteran plasterers hesitated to take on any apprentices or otherwise share their secrets. Some even draped a curtain around themselves as they worked.

"They didn't want to teach you anything because the pie was getting smaller and smaller," Webb says.

These days, many might think that plastering is a dying art, to which Webb replies, "It's not. It's growing."

Admittedly, very few homeowners are willing to pay a premium for smooth plaster walls and instead opt for sheetrock, which began to replace plaster in new homes during the mid-20th century. Sheetrock is gypsum wedged between two heavy paper sheets, while a plaster wall involves a mixture of lime, sand, water, even animal hair. That mix is layered over wooden strips or laths or a metal mesh.

Webb is resigned to sheetrock's dominance, even though he has an argument about why the expense of plaster is worth it. He notes he hears from some homeowners upset that their plaster wall has cracked or blistered, and he replies that it stood up fine for more than a century - and probably only failed because of a leak or some other problem.

But there seems to be a growing market for ornamental plaster work, such as cornices, ceiling medallions and the like.

Charleston plasterer Michael Lauer has kept busy since founding his own architectural plaster studio after graduating from the college in 2011.

"Considering it's all been word of mouth - I haven't done any advertising - the work has been fairly constant," he says.

Both Webb and Lauer collaborated this summer on a job at 62 Murray Blvd., which lost one whole side of an ornamental cornice because of an interior expansion.

Their process was painstaking, but the results are impressive.

They carefully scraped off many layers of paint from a four-foot section of plaster cornice, an approximately 10-inch-tall cornice with a Gothic revival design in which vines intermingled with arches.

They then painted on rubber urethane and more plaster to make a mold, which they in turn used to create about five 4-foot-long new cornice pieces. Those were carefully cut, moistened and attached to the ceiling. While the pair used a few screws, they only held the cornice piece in place while its wet plaster bonded with the wet plaster on the ceiling and wall. Once it dries, it essentially becomes part of them.

Lauer says he hopes to focus on church work, having done about six of those jobs, most recently on Citadel Square Baptist Church. He replaced a damaged part of the church's plaster cornice using virtually the same technique as at 62 Murray Blvd.

Unlike Lauer, who mostly repairs old and damaged plaster work, Webb says most of his work involves new installations.

"Architects are beginning to specify plaster again," he says. "Ornament is getting reintroduced, and plaster is a medium that lends itself to ornamentation and enrichment."

Designer Cortney Bishop recently hired Webb to do a complete interior on a new Sullivan's Island home, and she also worked with him to install a vertical, 17-foot-tall plaster wall around a fireplace in a modern home as well as in her 1630 Meeting St. office.

"It just lends itself to a warmth that I don't think you can achieve with sheetrock and paint," she says. "Yes, it costs more than paint, but not much more. You'd be surprised."

Bishop says she has worked with plasterers before but not personally. She thinks demand will grow once people learn that the craft is available.

"People don't really understand what we have with the College of Building Arts, even in our community," she says. "Education is going to make the demand."

Webb notes he recently walked along a downtown Charleston street with a plaster cast in his hand and was stopped by two homeowners who wanted to talk to him about possible work.

Lauer worked in graphic design before hearing about the college and deciding to shift career directions and work in plaster.

"It is about telling a story," he says. "When you enter a room, the plaster work is what stands out."

Plus, both Webb and Lauer joke that this building craft offers another advantage that regular office jobs don't.

"We've never had to grow up," Webb says. "All the kids whose parents said, 'You have to come inside and clean up.'

"We're still playing in the mud."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story and photo captions incorrectly identified Michael Lauer.