Your Letters (Part 1)
As I have stated before, one of my main goals in this column is to promote the plastering trade. Over the past few years, I have been acquiring books on plastering and one in particular has proved to be a goldmine of information and help in unlocking much of what has been forgotten from the past. I have a very limited knowledge myself, mostly working with plaster repair. However, I have had the privilege of meeting many of you personally at various shows and convention sites, and many of you have been very generous in sharing your knowledge. I have also received many excellent e-mails and letters. I wanted to share some of these letters with you, as I am confident that the questions, comments and answers to this correspondence will not only prove interesting, but also helpful and beneficial. The following are just a sampling of them, with more to come in upcoming issues.
What separates men from boysHi Robin,
I have been working with a plasterer these past two weeks, and no one seems to know why it's called a "hawk." I say it's because the pieces that fall can be caught in the air like a hawk. And now I call the falling pieces "birds." The guys I am working with think I am crazy. Can you help? Thanks!
The tool you are referring to is used along with a trowel and is used to hold the plaster. I have scoured the land for answers to this one, and have found some pretty interesting information. Plastering of course is rich in history and the history goes way back. For your question, I am referencing a book "Plastering: Plain and Decorative" by William Millar, dated 1897, London. Though modern hawks are made of some type of metal, the original ones were made of wood. Though the first part of this reply is a little "technical," I am going to include it.
Page 541 states: "Hawk: This is usually made of pine. The board (on which the stuff is held) is from 11 inches to 12 inches square and about 5/8 inch thick. The four sides of the back are splayed about 4 inches wide, so as to leave the edges about 3/8 inch thick. A dovetailed groove about 3/8 inch deep, 3 1/2 inches wide, and diminishing in width about 1/4 inch, is made in the center of the board and across the grain of the wood. A bar is made to fit the groove. Though usually made of pine, in some districts beech or other hard woods are used for the bars to give greater strength. The handle is made of pine and about 5 inches long and 1 1/2 inch in diameter. Sometimes it is turned, having a slight swell in the center, and a rounded knob at the end.
"This shape is not so apt to slip from the hand as a straight handle would be. It is fixed on the bar with one thick screw in the center, which allows the handle to be taken off at pleasure.
"Another way is to fix it permanently with three fine screws, the heads flush with the bar, so that the bar and handle can be withdrawn in one piece. A hardwood bar, with the handle fixed in this way, will last for three or four boards. A common but clumsy way is to fix the board, bar, and handle in one piece, driving two or three nails through the face of the boards into the bar and handle. There is a modern hawk, which is called 'the hinged hawk.' The board is made with the groove as first described. A line is then made longitudinally through the center of the groove, and cut with a fine saw, thus dividing the boards into halves. A small brass hinge is fixed about 1 inch from the end and flush with the surface of the groove, and another hinge is also fixed at the other end of the groove, thus keeping the halves together, and allowing the board to be doubled up when required for packing. The bar and the handle fixed together are pushed into the groove, which prevents the board from collapsing, and keeps the hawk rigid. A leather or rubber collar fixed on the bar will prevent the hard wood or damp affecting the joints of the forefinger and thumb. American hawks are from 12 to 14 inches square, and in some instances the board part is made of sheet iron, with a wood handle. Hawks should be light, strong and damp-proof. They are used for holding stuff, and for gauging small portions of stuff."
As for the origin of the term "hawk," I could only find the following, which is a quote from this same book, page 550: "In London and the South of England, plasterers formerly had attendants called 'hawk-boys,' each pair of plasterers having one to wait upon them. The hawk-boy's duty was to knock up and gauge all the materials, keep the men's tools clean, look after the warming of their meals, and serve the materials when gauged. The materials were gauged in a banker, which was placed on the floor or scaffold, as the case might be. The boy gauged the materials with a 'server,' (Note: A "server" looks to me like a miniature square headed shovel with a long handle) and when he had finished the gauge, shouted 'serve,' and lifted as much as would fill the plasterer's 'hawk.' If the plasterer was on a mid-scaffold, a smart hawk-boy could throw a serverful of stuff quite 10 feet high."
A little later in the paragraph is this interesting note: "Hawk-boys are now a thing of the past and it may be said that it is better for the trade that it is so, because as the boys grew up, knowing the names and uses of the tools. A smart boy soon developed into a so-called plasterer, and the market became swamped, to the detriment of the workman who had fully and faithfully served his apprenticeship."
Hopefully this answers the question on where the term "hawk" came from. If you have anything to add or comment about this term, let me know and I'll pass on the information.
Plaster, now!Dear Plaster Man,
My wife and I wanted to contact you about our home. Our house, built about 1917, needs new walls and ceilings. The original plaster on wood lath had severe moisture and termite trouble, and was crumbling/falling down and so we had all of the original plaster and lath removed and are now about to embark on our restoration project. We want to put back up plaster walls. However, as we had heard from your talk at the Restoration & Renovation Conference last year, USG was discontinuing making Rocklath. One of the two local plaster people, who's 80 and pretty much retired, said he would help us with the house if we put up Rocklath. We found a small source of Rocklath, 167 bundles, which is in storage. We thought that the rest of the walls would be blueboard with two-coat veneer plaster. We would like to know if you travel and take on plaster jobs or do you only do them locally? Thanks for your time.
I understand that some plaster is just too far gone to save in some instances. It sounds like you have the perfect situation: the materials and someone to complete the full coat plastering work for you. Your 80-year-old friend will probably have you hang the Rocklath sheets which are 3/8-inch thick and over that he will apply plaster that will be 3/8-inch thick when finished. It is fortunate that you have found this person and I hope all goes well. To answer your question, yes, I do travel on occasion to take on a special project. I mainly focus on restoring plaster in historic homes. Again, I wish you success on this project.
Hello Plaster Man!
I am starting my second veneer plaster room of blueboard and Diamond plaster. I am following your column with great interest because I think plastering should be kept in practice. My 12-year-old son will remember when I plastered the wall with that creamy white plaster and how it hardened with that smooth look and feel. I am glad I can do it. The first room I did I sanded the plaster and it looks great. The current room will get a smooth non-sanded coat. It's worth the effort and I owe it to Salmon Bay Gravel Company for supplies of blueboard and USG plaster.
My parent's house from the '50s has 16-inch-by-48-inch rock lath that I can still get here. It's interesting how many homes in the Northwest have stucco and plaster, yet no one you run into knows what it is and how it is applied!
P.S. I am self-taught with practice and help from the "Plastering Skills," a great book. Not to mention help from the Web and TV shows such as "This Old House" and "Hometime."
Your enthusiastic letter is very much appreciated! I am glad that you are doing what you can to keep plastering alive. Salmon Bay truly is a great supply company that has done much to keep plastering alive and thriving, as well. Keep up the good work and I wish you well in all your plastering ventures!
If you have a question, comment or suggestion that has to do with plastering, feel free to drop me a line in care of this magazine. Some of you have sent in comments from past articles, and we'll get to those next month. Until next time, work safe and keep in touch! W&C