Plastering is one of the most ancient of the building handicrafts. Historical evidence shows that primitive man plastered mud over a framework of sticks and reeds to enclose a protective structure to keep out the elements.
The Pharaohs of Egypt used plaster surfaces in their palaces and pyramids. It is known that this plasterwork, and the decoration upon it, was applied more than 4,000 years ago. These plaster surfaces still exist in a hard and durable state today.
Research has also indicated that the principal tools of the plasterer of ancient Egypt were practically identical to those we use today. The finest plasterwork accomplished by the Egyptians was made of a plaster produced from calcined gypsum (gypsum made powdery by heat action) just like the plaster of Paris of the present time. The methods of applying plaster were also very similar to the methods used today. The Egyptians plastered on reeds -- a method which resembles in every way our method of plastering on lath. Hair was introduced to strengthen the plaster even at this early date.
A study of ancient Greek architecture reveals that plaster and stuccowork (plaster was primarily interior, while stuccowork meant exterior) were used by the Greeks at least 500 years before the birth of Christ. It is from the Greek, incidentally, that we get the word "plaster." In the ancient Greek language, the word meant "to daub on."
The sanitary value of using plaster was apparent to those early users. The density of the material, plus its smooth surface, provided both protection and a surface ideal for decorative treatment. Later, lime and sand were combined as a mortar to cover both the reed lath and masonry walls and ceilings. The antiseptic value of lime was used by ancient people in preventing the spread of vermin and disease.
Plaster was recognized long ago as a protection against fire. Its value as a fire retardant was demonstrated in the many fires that ravaged London during the Thirteenth Century. The king at that time, ordered that all buildings were to have plastered walls. Houses that did not meet this specification within a stated period were to be torn down. During this period and through the Sixteenth Century, the plasterer's skill was developed to a height unequaled in history.
From almost the first use of plastering to the middle of the 19th century, plasterers used lime and sand for the basic plain work of covering walls and ceilings. This mortar took about two weeks to set (harden) under favorable conditions.
Gypsum plaster set faster, but it was too costly for ordinary plain work. It was used only in the ornamental work and for various imitation marble finishes called scagliola, a skill developed in Italy in the 15th century.
With the development of modern processing methods in the early 20th century, gypsum plaster has gradually replaced lime as the binding agent for sand in plastering mortar. Its rate of set can be controlled, allowing the plasterer to build up layers or coats of plaster in a matter of hours rather than the days and weeks required with lime mortar. Speed became an important factor in the continued growth and development of the craft.
A number of other factors helped to change the centuries-old style of plastering. These factors included the following inventions: Portland Cement by Joseph Aspdin, a bricklayer in Leeds, England, in 1824; Keanes Cement, a slow-setting but extremely hard plaster by R. W. Keane of England, in 1841; metal lath in mesh form developed in England in 1841; and plaster board or gypsum lath first produced in England in 1890 which, in the early years of the 20th century, developed into the modern "rock lath" and eventually spawned drywall.