house made of mud

rescuing a sonoran row house

the art form you never heard of: mud plastering

it’s been a relatively quiet couple of weeks or so over at our mud house–almost no rain (thank you, rain gods!) and the guys are continuing to pour bond beams and frame out the roof. that process will take another week or two–it’s a long, though (obviously) very important one. gotta get that roof structure on, and get it on right.

in the meantime, i thought i’d say a bit about our interior walls. while i plan (hope?) to leave some of them as raw adobe (i’ll seal them so they don’t shed dirt constantly) there are a bunch of spots in the house that are going to need plastering. specifically, mud plastering (or one of its derivatives, clay-lime plastering, which is more durable).

a number of our walls still have the original 1890s mud plaster. essentially, mud plaster is just what you would imagine–a mix of water, mud and clay that is then applied to the wall with a trowel. the clay acts as glue (and depending on the amount of clay it can get truly sticky). sounds kinda crazy, but it’s absolutely the correct thing to put on your brick adobe walls. anything else doesn’t allow the adobe to breathe. and trust me, you most definitely want your adobes breathing.

for whatever nutso reason, i decided that i would do all of the interior finishing myself (actually, i know the reason–i’m a control freak–nobody’s getting between me and my adobe walls). the only thing making this a slightly less nutso idea is that–lucky for me–two of the most renowned experts in earthen building techniques in the country just happen to live on an old adobe ranch about an hour south of tucson. athena and bill steen have written multiple books on the subject, and when the smithsonian decided to do an earthen art project in D.C. with artist Nora Naranjo-Morse (who also happens to be athena’s aunt), the steens were the natural choice to build it. bill and athena offer workshops as part of what they call the canelo project, and last fall i went up to their ranch to take their clay-lime plastering classes. what follows is a little photo essay from my time there.

_DSC5728one of the first buildings you see when you pull into canelo, with a gorgeous clay mandala by athena.

_DSC5715everywhere you look there’s something amazing built out of clay. this is a bench on one of the buildings.

_DSC5852the outside of the shed where athena keeps her earthen pigments. most of the colors you see at canelo come from clay. i never knew it could be so many different colors–from deep red to green to bright orange and on and on.

_DSC5719panorama of the cluster of straw-bale buildings where some of the guys in the group were staying. (as with all of the photos on this blog, you can click it for a better view.)

_DSC5723an outside shot of one of the windows of poem’s house, which is still under construction. note the straw in this rough-coat of mud plaster.

_DSC5824one of the joys of canelo: the outdoor shower.

Photo Sep 15, 9 48 13 AMand here’s the lime-plaster coating of an inside one. it was amazing: absolutely lovely and super durable. in case you’re wondering, yes, yes, i am totally doing this in our barrio house. master bath, here i come!

_DSC5868here’s something i won’t be doing at our place, though i sort of wish i could. on the left are bottles inserted into the sides of one of the ranch buildings to form windows.

_DSC5696even the outhouses–convenient when you’re out in the fields–were cool! this one contains a sawdust toilet.

_DSC5760but down to business. here we are in the work area. that’s athena on the left, explaining mixes while i (notebook in hand, of course) and the rest of the workshop listen hard.

_DSC5877bill (on the left) and dave (one of the participants who had come from calearth to pick up a few pointers from the masters), screen straw so it can be used in the mix. the straw helps up the stickiness of the mud mixes, and they screen it finer for more finish plasters.

_DSC5881

_DSC5885we started with a fairly soupy mix.

_DSC5887and then we mixed and mixed. putting my hands in those bins with the mud felt really, really good. i could have spent weeks doing this (which is good, i suppose, because there’s likely more of it in my future).

_DSC5762mixing in some straw.

_DSC5765on this day we ended with a fairly chunky mix–cob, essentially.  athena will often let this sit overnight to “ferment,” letting the fibers in the straw break down and make the mix even stronger. you’d be amazed at how hard this stuff is when dried. like knocking on wood.

Photo Sep 19, 10 59 53 AMokay: plastering 101. this is a wood hawk. you put your plaster on it. though on the front-this is the back, with the handle.

_DSC5958and these are plastering trowels–specifically, japanese metal plastering trowels. mud plastering, it turns out, is an ancient art form in japan (seriously, they still have master plasterers, and you have to apprentice with them to learn, and they make the apprentices do things like show how quickly and smoothly they can plaster a practice board and i’m here to tell you after watching a video of this that they take the whole thing VERY seriously.)

Photo Sep 17, 11 40 49 AMso those were the big trowels, here are a few little ones. i just ordered my set of japanese trowels this morning. can’t wait for them to arrive!

_DSC5991and then, you plaster–or try to, in my case. here’s athena demonstrating (that’s me lurking in the background). i’m not even going to try to explain how it works in words other than to say it involves flipping the mud correctly onto the surface of your trowel (while also trying to make sure that the pile of mud on your hawk doesn’t slip off–which it does, all the time) and then attempting to apply it to the wall and not only have it stick there, but have it be smooth and even. (also: note the coarser layer of rough, straw-strewn plaster below the smoother, more finish mix we were applying). anyway. it’s fun, it’s challenging, and it’s super hard work.

_DSC6037and one last–lovely–image from canelo. while i didn’t leave a plastering expert–no one could in just one short week–i certainly left feeling a lot more confident about tackling our–many, very large– walls. bon courage, as the french would say. bon courage.

 

(photo credits: some of these photos are mine, though most are courtesy of a guy named bowman, about whom all i can tell you is that he nows lives in new zealand, where he does earthen building, and that’s he was generous enough to share some of the bunches of pics he took with all of us who were at the workshop–thanks, bowman!)

 

2 Comments

  1. We are your neighbors over on Meyer and want to say we salute you! What an incredible and beautiful journey! I cannot wait to see how it all turns out. Thank you for taking the time to restore this beautiful house!

    • Thank you for the kind words. We’re very pleased to be able to do it. It is exciting, isn’t it, especially now that the parapet is completely rebuilt on the front!

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