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3 Jun 2008

Book Review: Using Natural Finishes by Adam Weismann & Katy Bryce. Plus win a copy in our competition!

Using Natural Finishes: lime and earth-based plasters, renders and paints. A step-by-step guide. Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce. Green Books. 2008.

The first book on natural building I ever read was Becky Bee’s book ‘The Cob Builder’s Handbook‘. What was so refreshing about it was that it was a building book written by a woman, and it was as intuitive and accessible as it was technical, and much of it read like a cookbook in its descriptions of the materials. This same spirit has gone on to pervade the growing natural building movement, a playful, intuitive and inspired rethinking of the creation of shelter that does much more than just keep the rain off.

The years have passed, and more and more dedicated, hard-working and creative souls have experimented and pioneered the rejection of industrial building materials and the rediscovery of techniques and practices nearly snuffed out for good during the Age of Cheap Oil and its erosion of craft and its reconceiving of house-as-asset. Not only are Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce two such hard-working pioneers, who have learnt, tried, tested and absorbed a wide range of techniques, they are also gifted at communicating what they have learnt.

Their previous book, ‘Building with Cob‘, was, alongside Evans, Smith and Smiley’s ‘The Handsculpted House’, the best practical book for those rediscovering this most sculptural and accessible of natural building techniques, and one deeply rooted in British culture, landscape and geology. However, while the latter retained a defiantly ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy and a deep dedication to rustic artisanship combined with mortgage-free make-do, ‘Building with Cob’ had one foot more in the mainstream world. It moved away from TSH’s obsession with tarp-mixing and its eschewing of diggers and so on, and offered a detailed workbook for those wanting to build with cob on a range of scales, from the backgarden to the commercial.

‘Using Natural Finishes’ is a worthy successor to ‘Building with Cob’; whereas its predecessor, to return to our cooking analogy, was about baking cakes, this new publication is about icing your cake as beautifully as possible. It looks at the range of ways one can finish the walls of natural buildings, mostly cob, but it also looks at strawbale. The book looks at how moisture works in buildings, and where natural plasters are and aren’t appropriate (you wouldn’t use clay plasters in the shower for example).

This is a practical workbook, full of well-illustrated ‘how-to’. It covers lime-based and clay-based plasters in considerable detail, and the accompanying photos do a wonderful job of communicating why you would want to choose clay plasters over gypsum or cement. They have a wonderful texture, a softness on the eye, they give a room different acoustic properties and, as many of the gorgeous photos that bring this full colour book to like, they look good enough to eat.

There is something about working with clay plasters that feels so instinctively ‘right’. Given their slow setting, and clay’s ability to be reworked, given that it doesn’t chemically and irreversably set like lime and cement do, it feels like giving your house a massage with aromatherapy oils. I remember once reading about a couple in the US who built a strawbale house, and then got married in it, and the wedding party was a clay plastering party, so all their friends and family came and plastered the house (not the ‘getting plastered’ normally associated with most weddings). What they said they loved was the fact that their house had been patted all over by the people they loved. These plasters breathe a unique quality into a house.

The next section of the book looks at lime washes, and the wide variety of handmade paints one can make to adorn one’s clay or lime walls. Again, it is full of practical recipes and hard-won knowledge, as is the final section which draws together a selection of refined techniques from around the world which was create stunning finishes, and which serve as a reminder that throughout history, necessity has bred ingenuity, and the age of industrial building materials led to the casting aside and abandonment of a stunning diversity of techniques which we can still just claw back in time.

As the rising price of the fossil fuels that underpin modern construction begin to make it increasingly expensive to use concrete, steel and the range of other high embodied energy materials, and as the cost of transportation leads us to look realistically at the potential of the earth beneath our feet and the other materials our local area can yield, we will urgently seek out the wisdom and the practical knowledge this book contains. One of the things I liked about it was how it interviews master plasterers, and asks for their tips. The book never forgets that these are techniques one can learn in a day but which take much longer to master. When they ask Jeff Orton, a plasterer of many years experience, his most important piece of advice is “work alongside a craftsman who really knows the subject and is very experienced in what is being done. Just follow him and copy him, and the rest will come”.

While this book is not the same as standing, trowel in hand, alongside a craftsman, it comes pretty close. Having luxuriated in its stunning collection of colour photos, and having been inspired by the authors’ writing style, you will find yourself looking at the dull, flat walls that encase our daily lives as being opportunities missed, and armed with this book you will have the tools but, perhaps more importantly, the motivation, to remedy that.

Competition! Win a Copy of ‘Using Natural Finishes”!

Green Books have kindly offered 5 copies of this wonderful book which I will give away to the first 5 correct answers out of the hat on Friday June 13th at 10am. (Unfortunately given the weight of the book and the cost of postage, this competition is only open to readers in the UK and Ireland). Please email robjhopkins (at) with the answer to the following question.

What is ‘pargeting’?

1. Pretending to be a very well-spoken character out of the Archers when attending social functions

2. A term used to describe the embarrasing phenomena of aubibly breaking wind in public

3. The formation of three-dimensional raised designs on external walls, traditionally created by forming relief work in the lime render finish

4. An alternative term for ‘welly-wanging’, the English rural pursuit of attempting to hurl a wellington boot over the longest possible distance

5. The art of trimming sheeps hooves

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1 Comment

Steve Atkins
3 Jun 7:56am

if the whole population enter this competition – you’re gonna need a very big hat – maybe a slug skin hat to soak up the rain?

x steve