People are often fascinated by the structure of my earth bag home, but in truth that was the easy part. It’s the plaster that is an art. And a science. At times I thought it might have even been witchcraft. Because it took me just 6 weeks to build my earth bag house, but almost 2 years to get my plaster sitting beautifully on my walls without cracks or bits of it falling off.
It doesn’t have to take that long to learn earth plaster though. I was sitting atop a remote hill in Turkey, and not receiving the correct information about how to deal with my soil and my climate. But once you learn the art of mud render, it opens up a whole world of possibilities. I think it’s one of the most useful skills I’ve ever learned.
Earth plaster (also known as clay plaster) is made from a mixture of earth, clay, straw and sand. The clay is the binding element, hence why it’s also called clay plaster. Sometimes other ingredients are added into the mixture for various reasons, perhaps to water proof the plaster or to help it adhere better, or to mitigate the damp. Each stage of plaster creation and application is crucial to success. You need to know how to mix it, test it, and apply it.
Here’s an incomplete list of just what you can do with earth plaster. The beauty of course is that it’s insanely inexpensive to make things out of mud. Most of the time it’s free. And if you’d like to know how to make it, I have a free PDF here.
The most obvious use of earth plaster is as a natural render. Render is crucial for any house as it protects the main structure from weathering. What a lot of people don’t realise is just how many different surfaces you can successfully render with earth plaster; stone houses, straw bale homes, cob, earthbag, and even wood (wood requires some preparation, but can definitely work). Earth plaster doesn’t work well with mainstream building materials such as Portland cement and plastic though, as they are not breathable.
Pargeting is both decorative and known to form a stronger protection against weathering. One of the things I most enjoyed creating out of earth plaster were my wall sculptures. By slowly working the plaster with your hands and tools, you can form any shape you like.
Earth plaster works amazingly well with mosaic. You can inlay broken tiles or glass into the plaster, then buff it smooth with newspaper or a leather cloth to create beautiful and hard-wearing results. Mosaics on walls form an almost impenetrable surface which protects against rain.
By using earth plaster as a natural cement, you can create gorgeous bottle walls. The bottles actually add structural strength to the wall, while the earth plaster grips them and holds them in place.
Alcoves are perfect for holding candles and lighting. Book nooks are beautiful when crafted into an earthern wall. Alcoves can be created either by scooping out earth plaster from a rendered wall, or by slowly building up the plaster around a space. Or, as I did, you can use a combination of both techniques.
Never again do you need to suffer (or cause others to suffer) a drill induced headache when putting up a shelf. Earth plaster shelves are so easy to make, and they never come loose. By building up the plaster layer by layer you can form incredibly sturdy spice racks, book shelves and more.
Interior design is a whole new ball game when you use earth plaster. Mirrors and pictures don’t need to be hung, they can be incorporated into the wall for a clean, graceful look.
Cob ovens are all the rage at the moment. The word cob comes from South West England, and was used to describe the shape of the balls of earth plaster people used to build their homes with. If you know how to render a wall with earth plaster, you can just as easily make a cob oven from the same mixture.
People have been using earth plaster as a mortar for millennia. Most ancient stone houses are mortared with mud. Later in Europe, the Romans introduced lime and limecrete instead. But many old stone homes all over the world still have their original mud mortar. By changing the consistency of the plaster slightly (generally you use a softer, wetter version for render, and a dryer, firmer more clayey mix for mortar), you can use your earth plaster to cement rocks in stone walls and other structures.
Wattle and daub is another traditional building technique enjoying a bit of a revival. You can create houses by building a post and beam structure, and then fixing woven willow (or similar) laths where you want the walls. These laths are subsequently covered, layer by layer, with...you guessed it, earth plaster.
If you’d like the Perfect Earth Plaster PDF, or to take my FREE mini email course on how to make earth plaster, click here.
Atulya K Bingham is an author and natural builder. She lived semi off-grid in Turkey in her beloved earthbag house for five years, before recently having to leave. She is now on the road searching for a new space to build. Atulya is author of The Mud Home website (www.themudhome.com) which offers plenty of earthbag and natural building information, a window into Atulya’s off-grid life, sustainable living tips, and much more. Read about Mud Ball, Atulya’s popular memoir of building her earthbag home.
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