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



On Plastering:

There's an old saying that "plasterers never die." Our plasterers today, working at the skilled trades, the masters is 65 and 70, and still working. I don't know; there's something about it. I spoke to a plasterer's son who was a physician, and I asked him, "Why do plasterers live so long?" He said it was the exercise. You realize a plasterer exercise his legs, his arms, his body. He have motion, he's motioning with his hands. And though we have our good times, they [old-timers] had their banquets. You'd have your wine and fish. The plasterers would go hunting and fishing and then they'd have a big banquet at the union hall. And they'd eat and drink and that's what make them live so long.

--Earl Barthé, Platerer

"Pointing" is probably 60 percent of the job. We make pieces in sections, or there is pointing brick, which is coming back and filling the joints. Pointing plaster is when you come and scratch out cracks in the ceiling or in the molding and you come back and rebuild with leaf tools or pointing tools so you can build fine little detailed leaves or little moldings. We manufacture our pieces in ten or 12-foot lengths. We mechanically fasten it and we fasten it with plaster or some other type of adhesive depending on what we are going to. Then we point all the joints in the whole room. That is the real detail, tedious work. If you have some of these larger leaves which are jumping off three or four inches off of the moldings and you have to miter them, you have to carve the leaves right there on the job. That's pretty much it.

--Tommy Lachin, Ornamental Plasterer

Plaster is considered a three-coat system. The first coat is called "scratch." Today we use metal lathe. You nail that on the wall and it's wire [mesh], and you put your first application on top to seal the wire. Once that's hard and sealed, the next day, before it gets real hard, you pass a tool on it that's called a scratcher. What it does is score it, put lines in it. The reason for that is because it lets the next application adhere. That application is to straighten the walls and ceilings out perfect. That is called the "brown coat." The next coat is called the "finish."

--Alan Sumas, Plasterer

[To be a good plasterer] you got to be sort of ambidextrous 'cause you got to use the right hand and left hand. You got to have good eyesight and good feel for the trade.

--Amdee Castenell, Plasterer

Tevis Vandergriff, his father, and the people that worked for him were just unbelievable artisans. They were fantastic. I worked with them our whole life growing up on different jobs. Every job we worked on, they worked on. They all worked almost until their eighties, and then they retired and now they don't do plaster work anymore. And the art of those guys, the way they do it, and how good they were—I've never seen plasterers, any plasterer, that was as good as they were.

--Jason Hartegen, Millwright

There is an Italian family named Lachin [Albert and son Tommy] who were among my dad's best friends. This guy was in the business of modeling columns. Generally, you look at [their] column and think they are made out of marble—well, this guy would make pre-cast columns, and my dad would frequently be the one to set the columns. This man had these skills that he would make clay models, of statues of the Virgin Mary, for example. He was truly an artist. I used to love to go in and see him. When I would go in, even as an adult, I'd be wandering around the shop just to see what new stuff he was doing. I'd ask him all kinds of questions and stuff. He was a wonderful man.

--Teddy Pierre, Brick Mason

Plasterers 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.