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


Tommy Lachin (Ornamental Plasterer)

My great-grandfather's father, Angelo, was a mason. Legend has it that the Lachins actually worked on St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. My great-grandfather, Giovanni, was injured in an accident when he was 19. He could never climb the scaffolds. After that he went to school and studied under a master sculptor in Venice.

My grandfather primarily taught me how to make molds and how to cast and finish. As you are learning, they teach you the different styles and theories. I did a lot of research on my own. As far as repairing and restoring, that is something that I got into on my own. We were primarily a fabrication shop. There were times that they would go out and do some installation. Earlier, before my father, my great-grandfather and grandfather used to go around to different cities and do sculpting and mold making on the job. They would cast and install. This was early on. My great-grandfather and several German artists and craftsmen, they all worked tighter.

My father [Albert Lachin] was a sculptor, but he was a sculptor in clay—a sculptor and ornamental plasterer. My father and his brother and my grandfather really pioneered the cast-stone business. The majority of the Catholic churches, the ones done since the teens through the 1960s, my family probably had something to do with it, as far as sculpting the statuary and doing the interior plaster and the exterior stonework. St. Rita's at Walmsley and Fern, right off of Carrolton. The majority of the Catholic churches, fifty or sixty of them. Pretty much all the stone work in Audubon Park, they did. FNBC Bank, the Saenger Theater, Longue Vue Gardens. . . . You name it; if it is cast stone or decorative plaster, we probably had something to do with it.

I like it all. I like to design. I do enjoy the moldings. I really enjoy reproducing a lot of these early 1840s Italianate style ornaments, which were made by some fabulous craftsmen. . . . These were craftsmen that probably came from Europe and were stationed in Philadelphia, New York, and were building these large ante-bellum homes in the 1940s and 1950s before the war. They would ship them around all over the south. They did remarkable work. . . . I do basic carpentry, form building. I don't do any sculpting. I do a little bit of patch; I wouldn't consider myself a sculptor. I do cast stone. I do ornamental plaster. I do a lot of design work. I study a lot of the theories and details. That's pretty much my specialty—following the styles and making sure everything is accurate and the right proportion.

Many things have changed over the years. The plaster remains the same. Other than that, [in terms of] the mold materials that we use, we used to use horse glue. My job, when I started, was to cut the glue up and boil it all day. After a year or so, I was moved up to prepping models and then pouring the glue. It was really a tedious job. There was an art to glue mold-making; it is an unbelievable thing. You could only get so many casts out of a piece. You had to prep the glue with alum and French chalk. You had to cast the piece and pull the piece before the plaster reached its strongest point. When plaster sets, it throws a lot of heat. If the plaster gets hot it will ruin the glue; you have to use ice water. During the winter it was hell! We worked in shops like this with tubs of ice water. Our hands were numb, but that was the job. Now we no longer use horsehide glue. Now the price of rubber and molding material has really come down. We exclusively use rubber in place of the glue, though we do use wood forms and fiberglass forms for more rigid patterns.

Tommy Lachin was 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.