Contest Winners L-R: Abraham Rodriquez, Christopher Cabanban Jr., Phillip Warbiany.

It begins with a single question, usually offered by an apprenticeship instructor, a union representative or an employer, "Do you want to compete?" How 23 young men and women answered this question may have changed their lives.

The event was the Operative Plasterers' and Cement Masons' International Association's 2006 International Plasterers Apprenticeship Contest. The venue was held last April at the Associated Walls and Ceiling Industry- International Trade Show (now called Intex Expo) in Long Beach, Calif.

For those who took up the challenge to represent their local area, it meant their skill and knowledge of the plastering trade would soon be on display-big time-to an audience comprised of the top executives from tool and material manufacturers, contractors, unions and all sorts of trade associations.

Tools of the trade.
Having grown up in Southern California and living for a few years just miles from where the Long Beach Convention Center now stands, it felt like I had come home. But for many of the contestants who came from all over the United States and Canada, this would be their first opportunity to see sunny California and touch the Pacific Ocean-certainly not what it once was back in the '60s when I learned how to catch perch off Belmont Pier or body surf in its waves. Back then, the amusement park, known as the "Pike," sported a real wooden roller coaster instead of the tubular steel artwork that now adorns the main drag of downtown Long Beach. But it was still the Pacific and the contestants would create their own memories of this famous coastline.

They brought with them their hawks and trowels, brushes and buckets, utility knives and foam rasps; the tools of their trade packaged in an assortment of crates, boxes and suitcases. They came from big cities and from small rural towns in the middle of America's heartland. All with one goal in mind: To see how they stacked up against the best plasterer apprentices in the world.

Template ready to run crown mold.
The contestants were apprentices, none with more than four years in their trade and all indentured to a joint labor-management training committee that requires them to perform both on the job training and supplemental classroom instruction in order to become journey-level plasterers. Their education in the trade includes traditional three-coat gypsum and Portland cement plaster systems, one- and two-coat veneer systems, EIFS, fireproofing, decorative colored veneers and Venetian finishes, ornamental cornice work, theme work, blueprint reading and various OSHA safety courses. The majority of apprentices who can compete at this level of training may very well end up as foremen shortly after completing their formal apprenticeship.

The contest itself was comprised of different aspects of the plastering trade selected to challenge the apprentice, as well as their instructors. The purpose is to foster excellence through good-natured competition and to ensure each local training program is adhering to national standards, established by the union and management, to promote productivity and craftsmanship; in turn, bringing value to the trade and a continuous supply of qualified young plasterers to meet the industry's growing demand.

Lime ring, water and molding plaster.

Get started

Day one of the competition saw the apprentices taking a last look at their blueprints and installing the veneer basecoat, EPS foam for the EIFS project and creating a running template from raw materials that would be used later to create a beautiful crown mold from casting plaster and lime. The template is comprised of wood and sheet metal, and can be created to form any shape that can be drawn on paper.

As the convention center began to fill with attendees, the buzz about the contest filtered around the room.

"Did you hear there is a plasterers contest over in the back?"

"Not just a couple of people doing demonstrations but 20 or 30 of them back there doing all sorts of stuff."

Crown mold blocked in.
After completing the basecoat operations for four different plastering systems and finished constructing their template, the contestants had a chance to walk the trade show floor and mingle with distributor representatives from the companies whose materials they were showcasing. They also got some well-deserved R&R and a last opportunity to talk with their instructors and reflect on the detailed finish processes they would be performing on day two.

The second morning, the apprentices were preparing a century's old recipe of lime putty and a rapid-setting gypsum plaster used to create a plaster crown mold that would be ran in place using the template they built the previous afternoon. The process begins with the plasterer creating a ring of lime putty on their mud board, to which they add water and then sift in dry molding plaster. The gypsum material must be allowed to soak into the water before being combined with the lime; this will avoid lumps and helps to ensure a consistent setting time for the mixture. The mixture must be applied and worked to a finished product before it sets, so the plasterers cannot mix more than they can work in the given time limits of the material; nor can they mix too little, as this would waste valuable time. In addition to the quality of the overall product, the amount of wasted material and the productive use of time are both used in judging the contestants' overall performance.

Crown mold run completed.

Mold running

The process of running a mold in place can be described using the example of a child pushing play-dough through a plastic lid with a cut-out of some shape, such as a star or crescent moon. The mixture going in the front end is soft and pliable and as it passes through the template, it comes out the backside as the nearly perfect reflection of the cut out shape, or in this case the template knife. If the plasterer has practiced this skill repeatedly, mixed the material correctly, prepared a strong and accurate template, then the result is nothing short of a piece of art. It is a highly polished and durable piece of mold work that adorns architecture from the White House to your house to the Palace of Versailles.

The crown mold is placed on both sides of the wall and connects in the corner. The template cannot fit right up into the corner, so the tool used here to work the plaster into the necessary shape is called a miter rod. A flat piece of high-strength steel that comes in a variety of lengths and has a 45-degree slant on one end to allow its point to work right into the intersection of the mold, the miter rod has not changed in design in hundreds of years. The set I own was manufactured by a company called Tyzak and manufactured from Sheffield Steel, the same steel used in the finest cutlery and ceremonial swords all over the world. My Tyzak miter rods were given to me from my friend, Al Lethbridge, a plasterer instructor from the '60s who had inherited them from his father, an English plasterer who began his apprenticeship in 1887.

Miter rods and leaf and blade tools.
Once the mold work was out of the way, work began on two different colored finishes. The first was USG's Decorative Interior Finish System. Simply a combination of paint colors combined with interior veneer finish. This is a really fun material to work with, you can create a relatively smooth and even color, or with proper techniques, the plasterer can achieve deep mottling and textures if desired. The other material was a Venetian plaster made of aged lime and natural occurring pigments. The process of using aged limes is an ancient plastering technique that is enjoying a true renaissance here in America. Either material can be applied over new construction or properly prepared existing surfaces. They are equally suited as a decorative accent in a home bathroom or as the main decorative treatment throughout a hotel or theatre.

After the work was completed and the tools washed and packed for their return trip home, the rewarding but difficult job of judging had to be finalized. Up until now the judges had watched from afar, taking note of how well each apprentice handled their tools, and how efficiently and safely they managed their work processes. But now came the white glove test. Every detail was scrutinized, from blemishes the size of a pin prick to the hardness of the final mixes; after all, these minute details were all they had to separate the work of one competitor from the other, for to the untrained eye, they were all perfect.

Apprentices applying colored veneer finish.
The awards ceremony was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Queen Mary, which is permanently harbored in Long Beach as a maritime museum and tourist attraction. The white work clothes and construction boots were replaced with evening duds and shined shoes. The competitors now had an opportunity to share a laugh, swapping stories about what bothered them the most; the guy poking the video camera in their faces or the old lady who kept asking them to come give her a price on redoing her dining room with crown molding and colored plaster, etc.

Who were the winners? We all were. As long as manufacturers continue to create products that must be applied with a trowel, as long as people want to buy beautiful works of craftsmanship and as long as there are training programs that foster the kind of skill and professionalism demonstrated by these advanced apprentices, our entire industry is the winner.

A future contestant and his father getting prepared.
First Place: Phillip C. Warbiany, Aslip, Ill.

Second Place: Christopher J. Cabanban Jr., Honolulu

Third Place: Abraham Rodriguez, Selma, Calif.

If you read this article, please circle number 343.

Sidebar: Competitors

As for our talented competitors, I am proud to have this opportunity to publish the roster in alphabetical order:

  • Christopher J. Cabanban Jr., of Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Brandon Cline, of Barberton, Ohio
  • Cynthia Griffin of Las Vegas
  • Roger Holmen, of Lincoln Park, Mich.
  • Steven Holzhausen, of Indianapolis
  • Chris Howard, of Pawnee, Ill.
  • Branden Lee, of Pomona, Calif.
  • Ronald May, of New Virginia, Iowa
  • Daniel P. McCarrie, of Willow Grove, Penn.
  • Anthony Mendoza, of Canal Fulton, Ohio
  • Eric Muckenstrum, of Waterloo, Ill.
  • Chris Nelson, of Seattle
  • Jason B. Platte, of Lebanon, Ind.
  • Mason Prochniak, of Ramsey, Minn.
  • Abraham Rodriguez, of Selma, Calif.
  • Erin Ross, of Toledo, Ohio
  • James T. Stockton, of Dayton, Ky.
  • Donald Thompson, of Machesney Park, Ill.
  • Jose Villarreal, of Oakland, Calif.
  • Phillip C. Warbiany, of Alsip, Ill.
  • Paul D. Williams, of Canterfield, Ohio
  • Michael Winschel, of Prairie du Rocher, Ill.
  • Daniel J. Young, of Philadelphia