More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts



On Lathing:

A wood lath is a strip of wood that is basically made out of cypress, about a quarter of an inch thick and two inches wide. [The lather] nailed this onto the wall on top of the wooden studs. He left a space of maybe 3/8 of an inch between. He used a special hatchet. The hatchet was a hammer on one side and a hatchet on the other side. He drove a nail through the wood lathe into the stud. If it was too long, he just turned the hatchet around and cut it off. The hatchet was [used as both] a hammer and a saw. . . . These lathers that nailed the wood lath up, you would watch these guys with total amazement to see how fast they could nail a nail. They formed a rhythm. It's like music being played. The nails would come in a 55-gallon drum. They would put their hands in that drum and get a handful of nails and throw them in their mouth. He knew, and he learned, how to turn that nail so the point is coming out. When he spit that nail out and put it in his finger, the head of the nail is facing downward where he had to hit like he is nailing a ceiling. He put one nail in each stud. If the wood lath was long enough to catch three studs, he nailed that. If he had a piece where he only needed two, he put two nails. When he nailed it, he nailed the nail with a rhythm. The rhythm would go [start with] one nail. The next nail would create a song. In other words, it went bink-bank, bink-bank, bink-bank. You hear this sound and he is actually driving nails with this sound. They are making music. So amazing. No man can drive a nail that fast.

--Alan Sumas, Plasterer, describing master Lather Allison "Tootie" Montana

Well, the thing about [master lath work] is you have to work your skills together, which is something that's kinda hard. Because a lot of times when you put accuracy and speed together, if you have speed, you lose accuracy. . . . When you can use your accuracy, when your speed and accuracy work together, you're good. You're a good mechanic. You do plenty good work. Whenever you mention you're a lather-L-A-T-H-E-R-people always say, "Well, what that is?" You have to explain 'em. See, we the ones prepare the job for the plasterers. The plasterers put their plaster on the work that we put up. . . . Now a long time ago, when I started-the old houses that you see around the city, there's wood laths underneath there-and we used to nail the little laths. You had to have a little mortar that you keeping between them. You kept the key and you nail the latch. When they would deliver the laths on the job, most of the contractors would wet 'em, soak 'em with water, so they wouldn't be too dry, so when they put it on the water it would absorb the plaster, see.

--Allison "Tootie" Montana, Lather

The lathers has to form everything in preparation for the plastering work. The plasterer, our work was always covered up. By our work being covered up, the plasterers always somewhat got the glory. But we formed everything so it took a little smarts, a little ingenuity to get those things formed up.

--Vernon Abadie, Lather

Lathers were interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.