Plaster has been a go-to construction material since, at least, the time of the ancient Egyptians. In more modern times, it featured prominently in residential construction in the United States before World War II. Its popularity across human history has been driven by how easy it is to manipulate—and its incredible durability. Plaster produced perfectly flat, uniform walls before the dimensions of lumber were standardized in 1924.
As the saying goes, everything old is new again: Plaster wall finishes have quietly become the preferred choice for high-end home renovations, replacing other options like paint, wallpaper, or exposed brick.
Plaster wall finishes have popped up lately in projects by influential designers and architects across the country, and we’ve seen homeowners showing off their newly renovated plaster wall finishes on Instagram. The plaster finishes in the renovated Pennsylvania farmhouse recently featured in Curbed’s House Calls column give the walls a coarse texture that matches its rustic feel. We sought to find out what’s driving this trend.
With technology advances and experimentation giving plaster color palette and texture options as broad as paint, plaster is helping designers and architects break the dull uniformity of walls—the thing that plaster made possible in the first place.
“What’s attracting people to plaster today is the ability to have a little bit of surface variation, to have more character in this otherwise flat surface,” said Los Angeles architect Emily Farnham. “It’s one of the things that I think people have a hard time with in new construction; the whole cold, clean regularity of all of the surfaces.”
Plaster is typically made from limestone (calcium carbonate) or gypsum (calcium sulfate). It’s mined, cooked, and ground into a powder. Different additives, like sand or marble, are added to the powder to give the resulting plaster different textures and colors. After mixing the powder with water, it’s coated onto a wall or board using a trowel.
Because it’s so durable, designers and architects can use a plaster finish on interior and exterior walls, giving a home a strong connection to the outdoors and a cohesive and holistic look throughout.
There’s also an artistic quality to a plaster wall finish: It is hand-applied by an artisan, which can leave traces of brush strokes and variation in textures. Venetian plaster, which is a polished-plaster mixed with marble dust, gives a wall the illusion of depth on a flat surface.
“With Venetian plaster, there’s a method of painting where you get a much more rich finish throughout your whole place,” says Saoli Chu, lead designer at Block Renovation. “You can add more pigments and different sheens to get an overall look. The people who go for it often times do enjoy the more artisanal experience.”
Plaster is also an eco-friendly product that doesn’t emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are bad for air quality, like some paints do. It can’t support the growth of mold, and it has no impact on a landfill. The underlying material of plaster is naturally occurring limestone and gypsum, so a plaster wall finish is, quite literally, a coating of earth for your walls.
Plaster wall finishes generally last longer than paint jobs or wallpaper do; after plaster dries, it hardens, stone-like, similar to its original form as raw limestone or gypsum. In addition to wall finishes, plaster today is often used to construct surfaces that need to be hard, such as a squash court. It’s also used in curvilinear design and for ornamental moldings. If a building needs to be quiet, like a library, architects might use acoustical plaster walls because they absorb sound.
“It’s a healthy interior environment,” said Foster Reeve, whose company, Foster Reeve and Associates, does plaster wall finishes and moldings, among other things. “There’s no mold. Installed properly, it is forever. If I put a molding up ... it won’t move. It can’t move. It’s stone.”
Before World War II, most homes had interior walls made of plaster, constructed using the now obsolete scratch-and-lath method, where coats of plaster are applied to a board made of horizontal strips of wood. Because they comprised layers of dense plaster, pre-war buildings tend to have rock-hard walls, as anyone in New York City who’s tried to hang art or a mirror in one can attest.
But building a plaster wall or applying a plaster wall finish is a labor-intensive process, and when World War II started, labor was scarce. At the same time, the invention of dimensional lumber led to the arrival of wall paneling—first button board and later drywall, a panel of gypsum covered in paper. When the post-war home construction boom hit, builders chose drywall; it was quicker, easier, and cheaper to install. Walls made of plaster became a feature exclusive to older buildings..
What was gained in the speed of construction was sacrificed in quality. Drywall is flimsy enough that you could punch through it with your hand. Trying that on a plaster wall would shatter someone’s hand. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, The Atlantic noted that the city’s historic Pitot House remained almost entirely unscathed; among other factors, its walls are made of plaster.
The plaster walls in today’s newly renovated homes aren’t many inches thick, as in the days of scratch-and-lath, but the product’s time-tested durability remains. This durability takes patience: Where painting a wall may take 30 minutes, a plaster wall finish might require multiple coats that take up to four times longer, not to mention the time it takes to wait for each coat to dry before applying the next one—as long as 10 hours. Plaster wall finishes are also messy, as they require water onsite to mix the powdered plaster.
The additional labor means additional cost, so in residential use plaster finishes tend to be limited to high-end renovations for wealthy customers.
But as plaster has become a more popular choice for wall finishes, new companies have sprouted it up to meet the demand by offering a variety of new finishes and applications. Chu, who works primarily on bathrooms and kitchens, uses a plaster called Tadelakt from Morocco because it’s thicker and more water-resistant than a standard plaster finish.
Browsing through the different finishes on the websites of companies like Texston and TerraBriosa can be confusing and intimidating, as names like “Frascatti Artisian plaster” and “Marmorino lime” are more word salad than clear and intuitive naming device.
Leigh Herzig, an interior designer based in Los Angeles, says consumers should ignore the names, choose one on the basis of its aesthetic, and then let the architect or designer tell you if your chosen option will function properly in the room.
“There are other plasters out there, but 90 percent of the market is based on the lime plaster,” she says. “The plaster that we’ve been using for centuries is lime plaster. Whatever is added to it is what distinguishes it.”