Plasterers apply coats of plaster to interior walls, ceilings, and partitions of buildings to produce fire-resistant and relatively soundproof surfaces. They also work on exterior building surfaces and do ornamental forming and casting work. Their work is similar to that of drywall workers, who use drywall rather than plaster to build interior walls and ceilings. Plasterers who specialize in exterior plastering are known as stucco masons. There are approximately 59,000 plasterers and stucco masons employed in the United States.
Plasterer Career History
Plastering is one of the most ancient crafts in the building trades. Before current plasters were invented, primitive people used damp clay, sand, grasses, or reeds. They used their hands, stones, and early tools to smooth the surfaces of the walls of their dwellings. The trade has evolved into a highly skilled type of work through the development and use of many new and improved materials and techniques.
Plasterer Job Description
Plasterers work on building interiors and exteriors. They apply plaster directly to masonry, wire, wood, metal, or lath. (Lath is a supportive reinforcement made of wood or metal that is attached to studs to form walls and ceilings.) These surfaces are designed to hold the plaster in position until it dries. After checking the specifications and plans made by the builder, architect, or foreman, plasterers put a border of plaster of the desired thickness on the top and bottom of the wall. After this border has hardened sufficiently, they fill in the remaining portion of the wall with two coats of plaster. The surface of the wall area is then leveled and smoothed with a straightedged tool and darby (a long flat tool used for smoothing). They then apply the third or finishing coat of plaster, which is the last operation before painting or paperhanging. This coat may be finished to an almost velvet smoothness or into one of a variety of decorative textures used in place of papering.
When plastering cinder block and concrete, plasterers first apply what is known as a brown coat of gypsum plaster as a base. The second coat, called the white coat, is lime-based plaster. When plastering metal lath foundations, they first apply a scratch coat with a trowel, spread it over the lath, and scratch the surface with a rake-like tool to make ridges before it dries so that the next coat—the brown coat—will bond tightly. Next, the plasterer sprays or trowels the plaster for the brown coat and smooths it. The finishing coat is either sprayed on or applied with a hawk and trowel. Plasterers also use brushes and water for the finishing coat. The final coat is a mix of lime, water, and Plaster of Paris that sets quickly and is smooth and durable.
The plasterer sometimes works with plasterboard or sheetrock, which are types of wallboard that come ready for installation. When working with such wallboard, the plasterer cuts and fits the wallboard to the studding and joists of ceilings and interior walls. When installing ceilings, workers perform as a team.
Stucco masons are plasterers who specialize in exterior plastering. They apply a weather-resistant decorative covering of Portland cement plaster to lath in the same manner as interior plastering or with the use of a spray gun. In exterior work, however, the finish coat usually consists of a mixture of white cement and sand or a patented finish material that may be applied in a variety of colors and textures.
Decorative and ornamental plastering is the specialty of highly skilled molding plasterers. This work includes molding or forming and installing ornamental plaster panels and trim. Some molding plasterers also cast intricate cornices and recesses used for indirect lighting. Such work is rarely used today because of the great degree of skill involved and the high cost.
In recent years, most plasterers began using machines to spray plaster on walls, ceilings, and structural sections of buildings. Machines that mix plaster have been in general use for many years.
Plasterer Career Requirements
Although a high school or trade school education is not mandatory, it is highly recommended. In high school or vocational school, you should take mechanical drawing, drafting, woodwork, and other shop courses. Classes in mathematics will sharpen your skills in the applied mathematics of layout work.
To qualify as a journeyman plasterer, you must complete either an apprenticeship or on-the-job training program. The apprenticeship program consists of two to three years of carefully planned activity combined with approximately 6,000 to 8,000 hours of work experience and an annual 144 hours of related classroom instruction. An apprenticeship is usually the best start, since it includes on-the-job training as well as formal instruction.
On-the-job training consists of working for two or more years under the supervision of experienced plasterers. The trainee usually begins as a helper or laborer and learns the trade informally by observing or being taught by other plasterers.
Most employers prefer to hire applicants who are at least 18 years old, in good physical condition, and have a high degree of manual dexterity.
Exploring Plasterer Career
An excellent firsthand experience in this trade would be to obtain a part-time or summer job as a plasterer’s helper or laborer.
Most plasterers work for independent plastering contractors and are members of unions, either the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association of the United States and Canada or the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen International Union. Approximately 59,000 plasterers and stucco masons are employed in the United States. Although they are employed throughout the country, many workers in this field, especially stucco masons, work in Florida, California, and the Southwest on exterior stucco with decorative finishes.
Those who wish to become apprentices usually contact local plastering contractors, the state employment service bureau, or the appropriate union headquarters. In most field trips to con-a school counselor places, the local branch of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association of the United States and Canada is the best place to inquire about apprenticeships. The Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, U.S. Department of Labor, and the state employment office are also good places to contact for information.
If the apprenticeship program is filled, applicants may wish to enter the field as on-the-job trainees. In this case, they usually contact a plastering contractor directly and begin work as helpers or laborers. They learn about the work by mixing the plaster, helping plasterers with scaffolding, and carrying equipment.
Most plasterers learn the full range of plastering skills. They develop expertise in finish plastering as well as rough coat plastering. They also learn the spray gun technique and become proficient spray gun plasterers. With additional training, they may specialize in exterior work as stucco masons or in ornamental plastering as molding plasterers.
If they have certain personal characteristics such as the ability to deal with people and good judgment and planning skills, plasterers may progress to become supervisors or job estimators. Many plasterers become self-employed, and some eventually become contractors.
The median earnings for plasterers were $33,440 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Earnings ranged from less than $21,060 to more than $56,010. Plasterers in Farmington Hills, Michigan; Seattle; Minneapolis; San Francisco; and Fresno, California, as well as other large cities received the highest earnings. Plasterers may receive traditional fringe benefits, such as health insurance and paid vacation days.
Most plasterers have a regular 40-hour workweek with occasional overtime when necessary to meet a contract deadline. Overtime work is usually compensated at the rate of one and a half times the regular hourly wage. The workday may start earlier than most (7:00 a.m.), but it also usually ends earlier (3:00 p.m.). Some plasterers face layoffs between jobs, while others may work with drywall or ceiling tile as required by their contractors when there is no plastering work to be done.
Most of the work is performed indoors, plastering walls and ceilings and forming and casting ornamental designs. Plasterers also work outdoors, doing stucco work and Exterior Insulated Finish Systems (exterior systems that include Styrofoam insulation board and two thin coats of polymer and acrylic modified materials). They often work with other construction workers, including carpenters, plumbers, and pipefitters. Plasterers must do a considerable amount of standing, stooping, and lifting. They often get plaster on their work clothes and dust in their eyes and noses.
Plasterers take pride in seeing the results of their work—something they have helped to build that will last a long time. Their satisfaction with progress on the job, day by day, may be a great deal more than in jobs where the worker never sees the completed product or where the results are less obvious.
As highly skilled workers, plasterers have higher earnings, better chances for promotion, and more opportunity to go into business for themselves than other workers. They also can usually find jobs in almost any part of the United States.
Plasterer Career Outlook
Employment opportunities for plasterers are expected to increase more slowly than the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Plasterers’ employment prospects usually rise and fall with the economy, and especially with the health of the construction industry.
Recent improvements in both plastering materials and methods of application are expected to increase the scope of the craft and create more job opportunities. To name a few such developments: more lightweight plasters are being used because of excellent soundproofing and acoustical qualities; machine plastering and insulating finishes are becoming more widespread; and the use of plaster veneer or high-density plaster in creating a finished surface is being used increasingly in new buildings. Plaster veneer, or thin-coat plastering, is a thin coat of plaster that can be finished in one coat. It is made of lime and Plaster of Paris and can be mixed with water at the job site. It is often applied to a special gypsum base on interior surfaces. Exterior systems have also changed to include more Exterior Insulated Finish Systems.