March 30, 2008


3 years and counting. We have been working on our house since April 2005, sometimes really hard, but mostly at a slow and steady tortoisional pace. Some days we certainly feel like we have earned our callouses and compliments, others it seems more like we bounce from school vacation to school vacation, always trying to take advantage of our European adventure by traveling when we should be working. We should be traveling. Perhaps this confused raison d'etre explains why this project has taken 3 years deja'. But there is progress. We live in a home 90% complete and I think that might be a record for us. The last 10% are large things that an untrained eye would never notice, like the stoned in arch on the street that we will soon de-stone and create a new front door. This is the next project and has many components, I'm really looking forward to it and I'll try to drag it out through the spring and into the summer, if not the Autumn.

The milestone achieved on this third anniversary of the work is the plaster and it's close to our hearts. This week saw the conclusion of the plastering, the last coat of finish on the last wall! For years we have admired and talked about "Venetian plastering". We have tried various effects simulating the mottled finish but always avoided the gilded chalice itself as too difficult for non-Venetians to attempt. Then we happened upon Jerome. Jerome is a Frenchman, living in London, with family here in Martel and a reputation for high end plaster finishes. We became friends and he gave me the missing information to make the jump into the superflat plaster technique akin to venetian plaster, and a star was born! We got pretty good at the technique over the past year and couldn't stop. We gave away our paint and decided every available wall deserved this multi layered technique. Each successive wall turned out better than the previous and now I wonder what I can plaster next? Oscar's room sports a grass green wall and another cabernet colored, the bathroom has a stone colored plaster wall and the guest room a deep red. The master bedroom has one denim blue and another sea green wall and everything else is various warm shades of yellow. There is definitely too much yellow, but we are good at yellow, and it's a vast improvement over the past 20 years of painting everything Atrium White!

The technique:
Dry pigments
No sand paper
8" plastering spatula
Soap and oil finish

This method works on any material, we have used it on brick, Sheetrock, wood and even the 300 year old torchi (dirt) walls.
You mix dry plaster with a small amount of powdered tints
from Ocres de France and then mix, with an electric plaster mixing tool, enough water to achieve a peanut butter consistency. Apply 2 or 3 thick coats (1/8") of plaster, then 2 or 3 thin coats (1/64"). Between each coat of plaster you scrape the dried plaster smooth with an 8" plaster knife. In the beginning you are simply knocking down the high points, then by the end you are really grinding the smooth finish even smoother with each coat, scraping off any defects and then filling in any defects with the successive coats. The plaster knife needs to be maintained immaculately. Sharpen it between successive coats with a stone and an emery cloth and store it in your underwear drawer between coats! The sharp knife is the only thing that matters. Use a carbon steel knife, not a stainless steel knife, as they are too soft.

Once you have achieved an acceptably flat finish (think babies bottom) then you are ready for the soap and oil finish. This part is the magic. Each coat of plaster fades as it dries and looses any vibrancy present in the wet plaster, but the oil in the finish brings the color back and the soap creates a glossy finish that hardens over time.

45% Savon de Marseille hard soap (available online and at Williams Sonoma)
45% Linseed Oil
10% Water

Heat the above in a microwave then mix thoroughly (I use a handheld food processor but even vigorous shaking in a glass jar works)

It's magic because once in a while it doesn't work, and sometimes it makes a mess out of your microwave and sometimes Pat's soup tastes like soap, but persevere and it will find you.

This soap mixture is as well the consistency of stiff peanut butter, and applies even better if it is still warm. Use the same 8" plaster knife and apply in consistent semi-arch swirls.

Let it dry for a few days and buff with a clean lint free towel.

The finished product is sublime. Maybe it's peculiar, but I get goosebumps just typing about it! When I'm applying the multiple coats, truthfully, life sucks, it's hard and repetitive, I wear gloves and a wrist brace and drink heavily, but at the end of the week the "touch" of the finished product raises the tiny hairs on the back of my neck every time!

If you double-click on the photo above it will open larger and maybe you can see the finish. The picture is a detail of the very last wall, another Cabernet color, in the hallway outside of the bedrooms on the upper floor. The door to the bathroom is on the right and the door in the picture leads into Oscar's room with a transom window above it. The shiny wall on the right is the sheen of the plaster wall.

This is not Venetian plaster, more of Martelaise plaster, and if you come visit I'll teach you how to do it!

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Anonymous said...

Well, that's at least as much as I need to know about wall finishing, whew, i am exhausted reading it. luckily i have been able to experience many of the rooms, including my nights in the red walled guest room with bats and moon light and church bells and the early morning aroma from the bakery floating in the open window....Mom

Karren said...

you guys blow me away

Karren said...

Let's swap houses for the summer. And then next year I'll swap you our office 'cause that needs wall work too.

Anonymous said...

Awesome mes amis - but I heard faux wood paneling was going to be in this season...



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New York Venetian Plaster said...

I can say that you really enjoy venetian plaster... Good for you and to your home :) Venetian Plaster is really exciting to do... especially after you see the result :)