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Plaster in a historic building is like a family album. The handwriting of the artisans, the taste of the original occupants, and the evolving styles of decoration are embodied in the fabric of the building. From modest farmhouses to great buildings, regardless of the ethnic origins of the occupants, plaster has traditionally been used to finish interior walls.

A versatile material, plaster could be applied over brick, stone, half-timber, or frame construction. It provided a durable surface that was easy to clean and that could be applied to flat or curved walls and ceilings.

Plaster could be treated in any number of ways: it could receive stenciling, decorative painting, wallpaper, or whitewash. This variety and the adaptability of the material to nearly any building size, shape, or configuration meant that plaster was the wall surface chosen for nearly all buildings until the 1930s or 40s.

Historic plaster may first appear so fraught with problems that its total removal seems the only alternative. But there are practical and historical reasons for saving it. First, three-coat plaster is unmatched in strength and durability. It resists fire and reduces sound transmission. Next, replacing plaster is expensive. A building owner needs to think carefully about the condition of the plaster that remains; plaster is often not as badly damaged as it first appears.

Of more concern to preservationists, however, original lime and gypsum plaster is part of the building's historic fabric--its smooth troweled or textured surfaces and subtle contours evoke the presence of America's earlier craftsmen. Plaster can also serve as a plain surface for irreplaceable decorative finishes. For both reasons, plaster walls and ceilings contribute to the historic character of the interior and should be left in place and repaired if at all possible.

The approaches described in this stress stress repairs using wet plaster, and traditional materials and techniques that will best assist the preservation of historic plaster walls and ceilings--and their appearance. Dry wall repairs are not included here, but have been written about extensively in other contexts. Finally, this Brief describes a replacement option when historic plaster cannot be repaired. Thus, a veneer plaster system is discussed rather than dry wall. Veneer systems include a coat or coats of wet plaster--although thinly applied--which can, to a greater extent, simulate traditional hand-troweled or textured finish coats. This system is generally better suited to historic preservation projects than dry wall.

To repair plaster, a building owner must often enlist the help of a plasterer. Plastering is a skilled craft, requiring years of training and special tools. While minor repairs can be undertaken by building owners, most repairs will require the assistance of a plasterer.

Rock Lath. A system commonly used was rock lath (also called plaster board or gypsum-board lath). In use as early as 1900, rock lath was made up of compressed gypsum covered by a paper facing. Some rock lath was textured or perforated to provide a key for wet plaster. A special paper with gypsum crystals in it provides the key for rock lath used today; when wet plaster is applied to the surface, a crystalline bond is achieved.

Rock lath was the most economical of the three lathing systems of wood metal or rock laths. Lathers or carpenters could prepare a room more quickly. By the late 1930s, rock lath was used almost exclusively in residential plastering.