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


William "Smitty" Smith (Plasterer)

Louis Jeffrion took me in as an apprentice. We learned to scratch plaster. You put on your first coat called the scratch coat. The next coat would be your brown coat. The next coat would be your white coat or finish coat inside. Outside would be cement. You could put a scratch coat, a brown coat, and sand finish. There are different types of finish. You had what you called a dash. You would throw it onto the brush, a sea grass brush. You can still buy them, but they aren't made out of sea grass anymore; they are made out of other materials. You would "dash the flash on," but now most people are spraying it on.

First, you would make a template. You would cut the tin out with a pair of snips, metal snips. You have your right angle and your left angle and straight. If you want to make a curve, you would have to make a curve that was convex or concave. You had to have different snips for that. You'd nail it to wood and you had to cut your wood back. Your metal would be barely sitting over. [The wood is set on] a track. You run it just like a train track. You would pop a line on the wall and get your measurements from the ceiling down and nail a track on the wall. You run your mold on this track. As you run your mold, this design is cut as you go along. Whatever design you had, you "ride the mold" and it would cut. You put a little plaster at a time and you build up. Put a little more and run it. . . . Depending on what type of cornice you wanted, someone could draw it, and you would cut it out of tin and mount it to wood. You have to make your mold. You have what you call a "shoe" on the mold. The shoe is the bottom part on a mold. As you push the mold, your plaster is going to be on here. As you push the mold, your shoe rides on the track. As you push, you put the plaster on the wall and your excess would fall on the shoe. As you go along, you are trying to build up. It falls down on the shoe.

On being an apprentice:

First of all, you had to listen when they spoke. Whatever they wanted you to do, you had to do. If they found you were really interested in working, they would teach you. They would show you shortcuts. They would show you how easy something was; you might be making it hard. . . . They let you know the minute you do a bad job. They used to take the apprentices and put them in the closets. A lot of times, the plasterers, you can mess up a closet. They would come around and check it. Almost any plasterer, one could check it and say it looks all right and the next one would come along [and critique], and that's how you wind up learning.

When you make a mistake, you have to go on your own time and do something. You stay late. If you are running a mold, you have to finish it to a certain point and stop. If you are doing cement, you could do something and go back the next day and it shrinks. Molding plaster swells. If you stop and you aren't finished, the next day that you come to finish it, it would be too big for the mold. You have to finish it that day.

Patching is harder than regular work because you are trying to match something. A lot of times if you are working on something that is crooked, you have to make yours crooked. You follow what you have. If you put something straight next to something crooked, it would show up like a sore thumb.

William "Smitty" Smith 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.