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


Vernon Abadie (Lather)

I remember the Calliope Project. That's basically where I grew up...matter of fact, I grew up with Art Neville, Ernie K-Doe; we kind of know one another. I went to St. Monica School. That's where I knew Ernie K-Doe. It's basically the Uptown area, even though I moved all different places. We lived in Carrollton, but Calliope Project was my bringing up.

I listened to the lathers when I was a boy. They would spit the nails out they mouth and they hit it twice. They would tap it, and it would be like a dah-dah. If you had several guys working in there you would have music through the structure. Most cases they were building hotels, residences, because they didn't have sheet rock in those days and you would go through and you would hear the guys nailing down and you would hear music. You could imagine how it would sound in different rooms. It would be dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. It was music. It was music to me as a little boy. I used to try to do it. It was a little skill.

If you ever break through plaster you can see the space between the two lathes, the thickness of a person's finger. That's how they would space them. They would take it and chop it off with the sharp edge of the hammer, right down the middle of the stud. In those days they made 2x4 studs. That was the actual size; today they are cut quite a bit. Then they would split the wood and the hatchet would cut it in half so that they would stagger the joints. They didn't want to have a straight line upside the stud because it would be vulnerable to cracking. The plaster would crack. Just like you lay brick today to stagger the joints, that's the way they did lathing. . . . The joints are staggered, but you know why? There is an opening so that when they put the plaster on, the plasterer presses onto the point where it would peel between those little spaces and it would dry there, and that is what they call "keying the plaster." That's what holds the plaster on the wall. Today, when we go back and go to patch areas, some people want to put sheet rock over the plaster wall. It is kind of dangerous because you can knock the key off, and sometimes the plaster and the keys coming off, and that's why you get falling plaster in those old houses.

People from the professional world look at the construction world as ignorant, but I've always taught my students, "Look at it this way, you see the guys that are dressed up going to work, maybe going to some office, yet you go to work and you may have on shabby clothes. Now, I want you to look at that building over there. That's a tall building. That building was built by guys like you. You built that building. The guys who are going to work in that building are not making nowhere near the amount of money that you are making. Another thing, they look well, they are respected, but it's all how you carry yourself to be respected. Do not feel inferior because it took those hands to build that building. Those hands could not do anything without your brains. You are either equal to them or better."

Sadly, there is no more union. The carpenters union, they are still there, but not a lathers local union here. It was good to be in a union. . . . I helped integrate the union. It had just become integrated even though the sitting arrangement was segregated. Isn't that something? . . . I am so concerned [about the future of the trade]. Plastering is like a three or four year trade, to really learn the trade. They got guys out here today calling themselves plasterers; they are not plasterers. There is nobody out here calling themselves lathers.

Vernon Abadie 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.