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Hawk & Trowel - Spring 2009

The Plater Zone

Ornamental considerations

by Robin Raymer, The Plaster Man

Ornamental plaster is a topic near and dear to my heart. I've always been fascinated by it. If the plastering trade were a diamond, the brightest facet would have to be ornamental work. It's the crown jewel, one of the highest art forms that can be achieved. I could have filled this column space with an impressive array of stunning photos of ornamental work.

However, I thought I'd go another direction - helping you determine whether this is something you‘re going to get into as a contractor in a serious way. Since I train individuals and crews how to do different types of plastering, this topic has come up again and again over the past year, with quite a few people contacting me and asking if I do training in ornamental work. The short answer is no. But I think it's important to know why I don't as well. So here we go.

History and conversations
There's a saying that goes, "It's not what you know, but who you know." This is certainly the case with plastering. I came into the plastering trade in the early 1980s in New York City. Fortunately I made some great connections with those who really know this trade. I've continued to expand on those friendships, meeting more of the movers and shakers. Not the people in the offices, but the ones out in the field who work with it everyday. To me, it seems like they give it to you straight, and that's how I want to share with you in this column.

From what I can gather, it seems that from the 1800s through the 1950s, when someone learned plastering, it was just part of the apprenticeship to learn how to do ornamental work. If you received a well-rounded education in the trade, you learned how to do new work and also how to repair damaged ornamental plaster. Of course, those who are in the plastering union still have this type of information available to them, and it's a great place to get such training.

I'm directing the rest of this space to those who are independent contractors who have always thought of learning how to do ornamental work. Keep in mind that what I say next is strictly my opinion, so take that as you will.

My rule of thumb is this: I call about a dozen plastering friends and run an idea or question by them. After many lengthy conversations, I take it all and boil it down to one final conclusion. It gives me a good feel as to what the scoop, score and skinny is. Usually the final question I ask myself after all is said and done is this: Is getting involved with this new product or this new thing going to profit me? In the economic times in which we find ourselves, this question looms ever larger. I don't like to learn things for my health. I lift weights for that. So what's the answer?

Good, bad and ugly
I'm going to be very honest with you on this one. Personally I've specialized in doing plaster repair - cracks, holes and resurfacing on ceilings and walls. It's a great way to make a living. My own experience is that I rarely if ever get called in on a job to repair ornamental work. When I do, I usually sub it out to people in the know. This has happened on a handful of occasions over the past 25 years.

Which gets me to my first major point: If you know how to do ornamental work already, you have a talent that is truly rare. The good news is, you probably can name your price on the work you do. I've seen 4-foot-long pieces of molding replaced for $1,600 to $2,000. The bad news is, these types of projects are few and far between. Unless you have some good connections and don't mind traveling, you're not going to have much work.

Granted, there are some cities and areas that are hot spots for ornamental work. But most of the projects I've heard of lately are large commercial jobs that cost into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of them have had plasterers involved and things have gotten ugly, mostly because someone didn't have the talent needed to do a proper job on the work, and so there is tension and high stakes on many of these projects. If you have nerves of steel and a stomach for it, this may be your cup of tea. I'll pass on it.

Overall, it comes down to economics. To give you an example, I have produced quite a few training DVDs. It came to my mind a few years ago to produce one on how to repair ornamental work. I'm sure it would have been a good DVD. But I had to crunch the numbers, and what I came up with was this: It's a small niche market that gets smaller with time. The interest in this is small, and therefore producing such a product seemed a waste of money.

Just as more and more historic buildings are going over to drywall-finished areas from genuine plaster, so too plastic and foam products are replacing genuine plasterwork. And the worse the economy gets, the more decision-makers will give in to the pressure to use what's cheapest if it will do the job. Unfortunate? I agree. It's not how I'd like it to be. I'm just trying to relate what I feel is the shape of things in the field.

The bottom line
Of course there will always be purists who will fight to revive this wonderful facet of plastering. I respect them and their efforts. But I again emphasize to those I write for, and to any and all who receive training from me: Is it profitable? I think not in this case.

Something I do feel is profitable is plaster repair work. I've never been so busy in my business. Homes and buildings are always leaking, getting water damage and falling prey to settling cracks, holes cut for one reason or another, and remodeling of kitchens and other areas of the home. It's steady work and needed in about every country in the world. And it pays the bills and allows for a few nice vacations each year. I'm focusing on doing more personal and crew training in 2009. If you're serious about getting into this trade, especially plaster repair, there's never been a better time for it.

I am still looking to meet new people who are working in the field and who appreciate the art of plastering. Drop me a line and let me know what you're doing to keep this great trade alive. And let me know your opinion of this column. Your views are always appreciated, and they may even make it into print!

Archives: The Plaster Zone
Spring 2008
Drywall, plaster or both?
by Robin Raymer

Robin Raymer, The Plaster Man, has more than 25 years of experience in the art of plastering. He specializes in training individuals and crews in how to do plaster repair and advanced plastering, and he has produced a number of plaster training DVDs. Reach him at robin@plasterzone.com. He answers all comments and questions personally.


The Plaster Zone >
Ornamental considerations
by Robin Raymer

The Preservation Plasterer >
How to repair historic plaster
by Rory Brennan

That Drywall Guy >
Building the best arches and curves
by Myron Ferguson