(written July 2011)

Recently a small project arose in the home we share with the elder and his family. My tasking was to build a simple wall of Ytong blocks , do some electrical work and to plaster it. Nothing demanding – simple tasks.  (If you are wondering what Ytong is, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ytong )

Ytong is an easy material to work with – the blocks are all of uniform dimensions and exact measurements; the building of a wall is like assembling Lego blocks. Making a straight, level wall is quite simple. You can cut the blocks with a hand saw, shave it with a rendering tool and even use a wood rasp on it. If you wish to embed electrical cables, you can scour out a channel with a normal router. It insulates; it sound-proofs; it is mould resistant; it is wonderful.  If it isn’t clear, I like Ytong.

Plastering, well, that is a bit more complicated.

Now, I’ve never studied the art or science of plastering, however, a few years ago we had a master plasterer do some work.

When he was a child he was sent out to learn a trade – and the trade he was sent to and learned was plastering. Not his chosen field, nor a job he enjoys – especially as he has an allergic reaction against plaster on his hands. But it is his trade and he has learned it well. Many use the title of “master plasterer” but few are… In his case, he is a “master”.

When he arrived I was there show him what needed to be done and to answer any questions he might have. Then, I remained and watched his technique.

Initially he would load a large amount of plaster – often simply referred to as ‘mud’ on to a hawk. Now a hawk is like a large serving tray with a handle below. With the hawk fully laden he would quickly apply the plaster with a gauging trowel (the pointy one) casting great lumps on to the wall. With a finishing trowel (rectangular shape), he would, in quick graceful strokes, trowel the plaster smooth and if there were deficiencies, he would apply more plaster to those precise spots – sometimes with plaster on the finishing trowel and sometimes by flinging a lump of plaster to a more distant but deficient place with the gauging trowel.

Then he would smooth it with the finishing trowel and to ensure it was level he would take a long, straight piece of wood and drawing the wood across the surface of the wall, he would scrape the tops off the hills and reveal the valleys between. The valleys now identified could be filled in. When he had completed this stage he would employ the float with which he would ‘fine-tune’ the plaster, adding, smoothing, removing and otherwise rendering the plaster to a uniform level and smoothness.

At this stage, with the plaster applied and levelled he would wait. From time to time he would come and touch the wall to gauge the state of the plaster to see if it was ready for the next step.

Not only did he know what to do – but when to do it.

After much touching and testing, he would take a sponge, load it with the ‘right amount of water’ and apply the sponge to the wall in circular, almost scrubbing-like motions. Working the whole surface, rinsing clean the sponge and attacking the wall he worked the plaster until it was fully flattened and smooth. Waiting some more until the final sponging, he would render the surface polished and blemish free ready for painting.

I observed it all.

I saw every step and every function.

And when he left and a new bit of plastering was required I grabbed the same tools and set to work.

This is when the reality of “seeing” and “doing” and the differences therein became blatantly and painfully apparent.

That which he did (with his twenty plus years of experience) with seemingly effortless grace eluded me. He would take the pointy trowel with a lump of plaster on the end and with invariable accuracy, fling it off the end of the trowel to the spot requiring a bit more “mud”.

I could barely keep the lump of plaster on the end of the trowel, and when I did achieve the flinging action it was anyone’s guess where the plaster would end up. Most often, on the floor behind me, sliding off as I positioned the trowel. When I did hit the wall, it rarely came anywhere near my intended target. Occasionally, not sure how I achieve it, it would end up on my face – the latest example just two days ago where it landed square on my nose and mouth (plaster doesn’t taste very nice).

When I had the wall somewhat covered in plaster – I knew it was time to touch and wait; but, I had no idea what I waiting for or what I was ‘touching’ for. How would I know when it is ready?

So I touched and waited and after the passage of some time, I attacked the wall with the sponge.

It was plastered – nothing like what the Master Plasterer had done – but it was plastered.

Then we had another big piece to do and we brought the master plasterer back. Again another opportunity to watch the master – to observe his technique, to see what I had missed, to comprehend what I had seen but not understood, to realise what I had forgotten.

And when he left – the next little bit that needed some plaster was again my victim.

Over the many months, I’ve learned more, I’m still a novice at plastering and I still leave lumpy and uneven walls behind.

Rarely is the fault the wall – well, actually, it is never the fault of the wall, but my, er, I hesitate to identify it as a technique, but my modus operandi that produces my, ah, irregular, ‘artistic’ shall I say, finish. But with exposure to the master plasterer and actual experience, I am getting better.

I need both. I need to see the master at work. To take the hours and watch, not casually, but actively, at what he is doing and how he is doing it. Then, getting my hands dirty (literally) and working with the plaster and wall and the tools and taking that which I have seen and try and replicate it – sometimes eating plaster in the process. To truly learn requires doing.

The apostle Paul writing: “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:9 – a conditional promise – the “God of peace will be with you” is tied to the “do” of the things which you learned and received and heard and saw in the life and teaching of Paul.

This is how we learn. It is also how we teach, not just with fine words, but by example.


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