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Incompatible base coats and finish coats.
The use of perlite as an aggregate has presented problems. Perlite is a lightweight aggregate used in the base coat instead of sand. It performs well in cold weather and has a slightly better insulating value. But if a smooth lime finish coat was applied over perlited base coats on wood or rock lath, cracks would appear in the finish coat and the entire job would have to be redone. To prevent this, a plasterer had to add fine silica sand or finely crushed perlite to the finish coat to compensate for the dramatically differing shrinkage rates between the base coat and the finish coat.
Improper plaster application.
The finish coat is subject to "chip cracking" if it was applied over an excessively dry base coat, or was insufficiently troweled, or if too little gauging plaster was used. Chip cracking looks very much like an alligatored paint surface. Another common problem is called map cracking--fine, irregular cracks that occur when the finish coat has been applied to an over sanded base coat or a very thin base coat.
Too much retardant.
Retarding agents are added to slow down the rate at which plaster sets, and thus inhibit hardening. They have traditionally included ammonia, glue, gelatin, starch, molasses, or vegetable oil. If the plasterer has used too much retardant, however, a gypsum plaster will not set within a normal 20 to 30 minute time period. As a result, the surface becomes soft and powdery.
Inadequate plaster thickness.
Plaster is applied in three coats over wood lath and metal lath--the scratch, brown, and finish coats. In three-coat work, the scratch coat and brown coat were sometimes applied on successive days to make up the required wall thickness. Using rock lath allowed the plasterer to apply one base coat and the finish coat--a two-coat job.
If a plasterer skimped on materials, the wall may not have sufficient plaster thickness to withstand the normal stresses within a building. The minimum total thickness for plaster on gypsum board (rock lath) is 1/2 inch. On metal lath the minimum thickness is 5/8 inch; and for wood lath it is about 3/4 to 7/8 inch. This minimum plaster thickness may affect the thickness of trim projecting from the wall's plane.
Proper temperature and air circulation during curing are key factors in a durable plaster job. The ideal temperature for plaster to cure is between 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. However, historic houses were sometimes plastered before window sashes were put in. There was no way to control temperature and humidity.
Dry outs, freezing, and sweat-outs. When temperatures were too hot, the plaster would return to its original condition before it was mixed with water, that is, calcined gypsum. A plasterer would have to spray the wall with alum water to reset the plaster. If freezing occurred before the plaster had set, the job would simply have to be redone. If the windows were shut so that air could not circulate, the plaster was subject to sweat-out or rot. Since there is no cure for rotted plaster, the affected area had to be removed and replastered.