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A History of Plaster, from Ancient Rome to Modern Times

Plaster has been around a long long time. Before the Pilgrims landed in America, before Rome fell, before the Egyptians built their towering pyramids… home builders were using variations of plaster to sheath their abodes.

To date, the earliest evidence of plaster was found in portions of southern Turkey and northern Syria. Plaster was applied to hearths there around 12,000 B.C. That’s before farming was developed.

In its most pure form, plastering has not changed much in 14,000 years. Wet “mud” is still spread over some type porous surface until it is smooth. It is functional, durable and looks great – that hasn’t changed. The tools and ingredients have undergone some evolution, though.

In the beginning, simple wooden tools and clay/dirt mud were used. During ancient Egypt’s height of power, gypsum was incorporated. The Greeks had lime and the Egyptians had gypsum… they both used the local materials that were available.  The Romans, in turn, took cues from the Greeks, spreading the power of plaster through the Roman Empire.

Nowadays we have access to modern, heat-treated stainless steel and plastic trowels. The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s brought big changes in binders used in plaster – oil provided controllable energy and the heat necessary to process these binders, and more importantly to provide transportation for plaster to be distributed over a wide geographic area, negating reliance on local materials.

Due to English influence on our culture, the first plaster used in the U.S was a clay-lime-hair-sand mixture called daub, which was applied to wattle, an interlacing of small sticks, thus the name “wattle and daub”. Gypsum and Portland mortars and plaster were phased in during the late 19th century and early 20th century, as they allowed building production schedules to move forward faster.

Today we enjoy a wide selection of plaster types, each tailored for a specific purpose or climate, be it plaster repair in Milwaukee or new veneer in Miami. Whether it is gypsum formal work, veneer plaster, Venetian plaster, traditional lime-sand-fiber plaster, or ultra-modern synthetic plaster, builders have a myriad of options. Every one of these materials has its inherent design parameters, strengths and weaknesses. Knowing the properties of each material allows a builder to determine the correct plaster to use in any given circumstance.