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The Flat Cap on ... Plaster

A month or so ago The Flat Cap decided his living room could do with a facelift. So over the past week he has used any spare time to strip off the old wallpaper. He has found getting back to the bare walls quite cathartic and noticed a few pencil drawings, presumably made by previous owners of the house. Whilst they aren’t of any great artistic merit the doodles chronicle the decoration and redecoration of the house over the last fifty years. Maybe in centuries to come they will be viewed with fascination by archaeologists as they try to gauge their significance, although that is doubtful.

The bare walls in The Flat Cap’s house need some re-plastering in places. Try to pop wallpaper on a coarse or uneven surface and you’re asking for trouble. This is why you won’t see any wallpaper in caves, mud huts, castles and most garden sheds. Ancient peoples were smart and knew this, so instead they covered their walls with animal skins and tapestries. The Flat Cap doesn’t like the idea of animal rights activists turning up to complain about bear skins on his wall, and tapestries these days are jolly expensive so he settled on wallpaper from B&Q.

But first he needed to get the plastering done so he phoned a chap called Len who subsequently called round to give him a price for the work. Len said he’d do the plastering for cash and no to worry about the VAT. And he’d come recommended by a friend of Michael’s whose father used to go to the same school as The Flat Cap, so Bert knew it would be a decent job.

Word of mouth is often the best way of finding proper tradesmen, otherwise you have to wade through the classified adverts in your local newspaper or use one of the many websites that have sprung up to list builders, roofers, plumbers and so forth. The Flat Cap isn’t much good with the internet and computers so Len was the ideal choice. It was whilst Len was pricing up the work that The Flat Cap began thinking about plaster and he decided to find out a bit more regarding its origins and uses.

Plaster can be made of a few things; most commonly cement, lime, or gypsum. In earlier times clay would also be used but it wasn’t that strong and needed the addition of grass or straw to strengthen it. Some builders would also add manure which probably meant your home didn’t smell too good.

It’s really easy to make plaster; all you need is the powder, water, and a big bucket to mix it in. When Len mixes plaster he uses his drill with a big long metal paddle. You could probably make really big cake mixes in the same way, and they would feed all your friends and neighbours. But then you’d need an industrial size oven to bake them in, and most people haven’t got one of those.

As well as using plasterboard and plaster in houses the latter has also been used in art for centuries. Look at any decent mural from a few hundred years back and you’ll see that it was painted onto plaster. In this context we’re talking Michael Angelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Painted onto a thin wet layer of plaster called “intonaco” the pigments would sink into the plaster which in turn would then hold them. That’s why the Sistine Chapel ceiling has lasted so long. Plaster is also a good material for adorning buildings as it’s easier to mould than wood or stone. The only problem is it isn’t as durable and deteriorates in the wrong conditions. When The Flat Cap visited the Alhambra on one of his holidays to Spain there were security staff to make sure he, and other tourists, didn’t accidentally bump in to delicate bits of the palace and damage them. This type of plaster work is called “stucco”.

Whilst Len was working out how much plaster he would need to “tickle up” The Flat Cap’s living room wall Bert made them both a pot of tea and over their drinks and a packet of custard creams Len shared the following plaster related facts:

  • Some types of 3D printers use plaster to make their models

  • Chimney breasts are lined with special heat resistant plaster

  • Morticians and funeral parlour workers often use plaster to recreate decayed tissue or reattach limbs. In some cases plaster is used to fill wounds if the deceased has met his or her in end ‘in a nasty way’

  • When Len’s auntie Mabel needed some new dentures the dentist used a plaster mould to make sure she got false teeth that fitted properly

  • When plaster is mixed with water there is a chemical reaction that gives off a lot of heat. The term for such a reaction is “exothermic”. This can be dangerous. In 2007 a Lincolnshire schoolgirl lost all but two of her fingers, and both thumbs when she put her hands into a bucket of plaster of Paris. The incident happened during an art lesson and the school was later fined £16,500

  • You have to be careful around plaster; whether it is lifting heavy bags, breathing in dust, or dodging falling plasterboards (which can be quite large and heavy)

  • “Getting plastered” means to get drunk, but nobody really knows how the phrase came into existence

  • Plaster of Paris is so named because of a large gypsum deposit that was found at Montmartre. Today Montmartre is best known for the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur that sits on its summit

  • If you break your arm or your leg doctors might apply a plaster cast to help the bone set. Made up of a bandage and plaster of Paris the cast usually stays on for between four and twelve weeks. People with plaster casts usually get their friends and relatives to write messages on them. Felt tip pens are best for doing this

  • Worldwide more than twenty seven billion square metres of plasterboard are manufactured every year, and itplasterboard generally comes in 1200mm wide sheets

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