Archive for the ‘Plaster’ Category

July 6 – I started my official plaster internship with John Canning Painting & Conservation Studios on a preservation/conservation project involving a McKim Mead & White building on the campus of the University of Virginia. Below are pictures of the ornamental ceiling we are charged with conserving. More information to come…

UVa Garrett Hall Great Hall ceiling

The Great Hall ceiling located in UVa's Garrett Hall.

UVa's Garrett Hall ceiling

One of two ceilings adjacent to the Great Hall ceiling in UVa's Garrett Hall.


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UVa – Weeks 1 and 2

As previously mentioned, I was able to work for the University of Virginia while I waited for my official internship to start. During these two weeks I was busy repairing fireplace surrounds as well as wall and ceiling damage. I attempted to help the Facilities team skim coat the plaster walls with sheetrock mud, but quickly realized that my skills with plaster didn’t readily transfer to sheetrock mud. Though not surprised  by the difference in tactile quality, I was shocked at the difference in its application. I knew that if I continued to work the way I had, my team members would have to follow behind me and repair my attempts, so I found other ways I could help the team. This technique needs to be revisited, for I know I will be encountering something similar in the future.

UVa fireplace surround repair

This is an example of how one of the nine fireplace surrounds looked prior to repair. The historic fire brick was taped for protection and a bonding agent was applied to the existing brick. Structolite was used where major repair was needed, followed by a finish coat.

UVa fireplace surround repair

This is one of the completed fireplace surround repairs. All of the straightedge work was done freehand. Repairing these wasn’t a complicated project, but I enjoyed completing them. Unfortunately, due to the location of the repairs, damage will continue to haunt these surrounds from normal wear and tear. I was surprised that these student dormitories still had working fireplaces and that the students were encouraged to use them.

UVa ceiling repair

This image shows the largest repair I needed to make to the dormitory ceiling. The failing of the plaster keys was likely due to water infiltration. A three coat plaster system was used to make the repair. An image of the completed repair is not included because… well, it looks like a flat ceiling—nothing extravagant or interesting. It was successful.

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A portion of my 2010 summer break was spent working at the University of Virginia. Originally, I was scheduled to start an internship with Connecticut-based John Canning Painting & Conservation Studios at the University starting mid-June; however, true to typical construction projects (in my limited experience), this was pushed back several weeks. While I waited for this internship to start, I was given the opportunity to work with the Facilities team at UVa repairing and prepping dorm rooms for the fall semester incoming honor students.

The honor dorm rooms are located off the east and west sides of the Lawn, a large field in the middle of was is known as the Academical Village. Each suite of dorms is connected to a Pavilion, a residence for a tenured professor where he/she invites students for lectures, discussion or dinner. The honor student must apply for the dorm room, submit an essay, be actively involved with the University and community and be of high academic standing. Only one of every 20 applicants is accepted to reside in the dorms, so it is an honor to live in these tiny rooms without bathroom facilities. One must use a community bathroom located in a separate building to shower and use the bathroom.

Much of the work completed during this two week stretch of time was cosmetic. I had a hard time accepting the team’s use of sheetrock mud skimmed over the original plasterwork. This just did not make much sense to a plaster student who has been taught to be a “purest” when it comes to plaster. I found out weeks afterward that this method is widely used; however, hydraulic lime is normally added to the mud to give it a more plaster-like look, feel and durability. My role in the cosmetic work was to repair large holes and loose plaster within the rooms and repair the fireplace surrounds which were made of plaster. This work was rather straight forward.

An observation I found troubling was the apparent lack of use of the original picture railing in each of these rooms. We were skim coating these rooms and repairing blemishes caused by students hammering, drilling and prodding walls with all types of hanging devises. If the use of the picture rails was enforced, the Facilities team could prolong this work by many years, saving the University a lot of money.

Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda at UVa.

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, believed that the focal point of a university should be a library instead of a church, which was the focal point of universities at the time. The Rotunda was originally UVa's library and is situated at the apex of the Lawn and between the east and west dormitories and Pavilions.

West Lawn dorms flanking Pavilion VII.

These dormitories are attached to Pavilion VII, also called the Colonnade Club. Two weeks of my summer were spent repairing the fireplace surrounds and assisting the Facilities team in cosmetic repairs.

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The last week of my internship was all about pointing. I mentioned earlier in the internship that I wanted to do more pointing. Careful what you wish for! Actually, I thoroughly enjoyed doing it, but the perfectionist side of me reared its ugly head once again. So I had to squash it once again!

I spent half of my time pointing the Study and the rest of the time pointing the vestibule between the Butler’s Pantry and Kitchen, as well as the remaining Kitchen pieces and finally the Staff Office. The Study was the only room with the ornate, heavy cornice. The other rooms had a simpler cove cornice.

Pointing the Study presented several welcomed challenges. The first was replacing several of the acanthus leaf lobes that were broken off during installation. This required cutting a set of decent lobes from a scrap piece of cornice and plastering them into place. It was fun watching a broken piece become one again.

The other challenge was found in the mitre joints where the two walls merged together. A bit a creative license was used in order to create a believable joint. For example, portions of two eggs in the egg-and-dart ornamentation were removed and replaced by a much thinner egg that I built up between the neighboring darts. Leaf details were shortened and/or extended to create a seamless transition.

The challenge with the cove cornice found in the other rooms was found by the size of my hands and less by the shape of the cove. Interior mitre joints were initially difficult because I had to find comfortable ways of applying and removing material. But once I discovered the right technique and hand movement, the job became easier and more manageable.

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This week was all about installing a piece of trim beneath the cornice we previously installed in the Dining Room.

Weeks before when we were creating the mould for the cornice, we had to eliminate a portion of it. The portion was this small, lamb’s tongue trim. Turns out that while the heavy cornice was essentially the same in the Hallway, Dining Room, Study and Salon, only the Dining Room had the lamb’s tongue trim in plaster. All the other rooms had the trim in wood. I guess this is because the Dining Room is the only room not completely engulfed in oak. Really, I’ve never seen a house with so much wood.

The good thing about installing this trim was that it covered the imperfections and more obvious joints seen in the large portion of the cornice. Due to the weight of the trim, only one person was needed to install it. Ramon was instructed to install the door casements while I installed this trim. It wasn’t a difficult task, but one that I wanted to do differently.

After installing each piece, I noticed that it did not lie completely flush with the larger piece above it. This was because of the fluctuations and imperfections in the walls and ceiling, as well as those found in the cornice itself. Small voids could be seen in between the trim and the cornice and this did not settle well with me. This is where I encountered trouble because I wanted to fill these voids. This task was just too time consuming and we needed to move on, so I left the voids showing.

“No one will see that, but you.” Truly, from the ground, one cannot see these voids, but the perfectionist side of me was screaming. This was a good lesson in facing that side of myself and letting it go. This was extremely difficult.

A small delay on the creation of additional pieces forced me into the Study where I began pointing. Once the pieces did arive and after a fair amount of pointing and finishing, the trim in the Dining Room was installed and it looks great.

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The last days of June and the beginning ones of July were spent installing the cornice in the Kitchen. Although it was a much lighter, simpler piece, it still presented its own challenges.

First, each of these pieces was completely dry, unlike the heavier cornices we installed in the Dining Room and Hallway. This made the pieces lighter, but much more rigid and less willing to bend with the imperfections found in the ceiling and walls. The strike-offs, or the areas of the piece that touch the walls and ceiling, had quite a few imperfections themselves which made shaving and form-fitting the pieces a time consuming task. If a lump of plaster was left by the caster, it rubs against the wall and/or ceiling and create a large void unless shaved. By shaving them, we eliminated the void. We kept telling ourselves, “if only the pieces were straight and the walls straight, we’d be done by now.”

Second, although the room was essentially rectangular, it had many returns which involved more measurements and cuts. These returns were created by cabinets that pushed out from the wall. Each return had at least one interior and one exterior angle. One particular area of the wall had a series of consecutive small returns less than an inch long. Not only does this involve time in measuring and cutting, but it makes the task of pointing that much more difficult. I pointed at least two or three of each interior and exterior angles, but the majority of the pointing was done by fellow plasterers Jose and Borjo. This was because we needed to spend the rest of the week installing the cornice in the Study.

The Study was a lot like the Hallway project, but again, we were presented with a unique challenge—a set of bookshelves that pushed away from the wall. This forced us to reach over the bookshelves when installing. It wasn’t difficult, but just awkward. Nonetheless, we installed twelve of the pieces and completed the room by Friday. I thank Ramon for working on Friday, July 3 while I spent much needed time with my pregnant wife whom I haven’t seen in over seven weeks.

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Off to the Dining Room!

We are now installing the same heavy cornice we installed last week in the much larger Dining Room. It’s approximately 25′ x 23′ large with 14′ ceilings. Needless to say, it’s a large room!

The main difference between the two rooms that we’ve worked on is presence of plaster walls. Unlike the silicone adhesive material, PL 400, we used to attach the Hallway’s cornice to the wooden walls, we used good old fashioned plaster. However, included with the plaster is the secret ingredient known to many plaster professionals—wallpaper glue. Instead of using straight water as the plaster’s carrier, a cellulose-based, powdered glue was added to the water. This adds strength, workability and adhesion to the plaster. We also used this mix for pointing. (I was recently corrected about the glue’s chemical nature and its benefits by our shop managed, Nathan. Although I still think the glue adds initial flexibility compared to the straight plaster/water method we learned in school, he is correct in that it seems more rigid and stiff when dry. In my opinion, its application and workability is more flexible and a pleasure to work with.)

We had a rocky start to this room when we realized that there was some confusion as to the vertical dimensions of the cornice placement, but once we resolved this the project really took off. We managed to install 18 pieces of cornice within four days. This may not sound like much, but again, each of these pieces was over 60 lbs. and we were working on scaffolding. We were told even Foster was impressed by our speed.

Now it’s off to the kitchen.

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