Plasterers & Stucco Masons

Significant Points
  • Plasterers and stucco masons are projected to be one of the fastest growing occupations in construction trades, increasing about as fast as the average for all occupations.
  • The use of plaster in new building construction is regaining popularity because of its durability, finish, and fire-retardant qualities.
  • Plastering usually is learned on the job, either through a formal apprenticeship program or by working as a helper.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Plastering—one of the oldest crafts in the building trades—is enjoying resurgence in popularity because of the introduction of newer, less costly materials and techniques. Plasterers apply plaster to interior walls and ceilings to form fire-resistant and relatively soundproof surfaces. They also apply plaster veneer over drywall to create smooth or textured abrasion-resistant finishes. In addition, plasterers install prefabricated exterior insulation systems over existing walls—for good insulation and interesting architectural effects—and cast ornamental designs in plaster. Stucco masons apply durable plasters, such as polymer-based acrylic finishes and stucco to exterior surfaces. Drywall workers and lathers, a related occupation, use drywall instead of plaster, when erecting interior walls and ceilings. (See the section on drywall workers and lathers elsewhere in the Handbook.)

When plasterers work with interior surfaces such as cinder block and concrete, they first apply a brown coat of gypsum plaster that provides a base, followed by a second or finish coat—also called "white coat"—which is a lime-based plaster. When plastering metal lath (supportive wire mesh) foundations, they apply a preparatory, or "scratch coat," with a trowel. They spread this rich plaster mixture into and over the metal lath. Before the plaster sets, plasterers scratch its surface with a rake-like tool to produce ridges, so the subsequent brown coat will bond tightly.

Laborers prepare a thick, smooth plaster for the brown coat. Plasterers spray or trowel this mixture onto the surface, then finish by smoothing it to an even, level surface.

For the finish coat, plasterers prepare a mixture of lime, plaster of Paris, and water. They quickly apply this onto the brown coat using a "hawk"—a light, metal plate with a handle—trowel, brush, and water. This mixture, which sets very quickly, produces a very smooth, durable finish.

Plasterers also work with a plaster material that can be finished in a single coat. This "thin-coat" or gypsum veneer plaster is made of lime and plaster of Paris and is mixed with water at the job site. This plaster provides a smooth, durable, abrasion resistant finish on interior masonry surfaces, special gypsum baseboard, or drywall prepared with a bonding agent.

Plasterers create decorative interior surfaces as well. They do this by pressing a brush or trowel firmly against a wet plaster surface and using a circular hand motion to create decorative swirls.

For exterior work, stucco masons usually apply stucco—a mixture of Portland cement, lime, and sand—over cement, concrete, masonry, or lath. Stucco may also be applied directly to a wire lath with a scratch coat followed by a brown coat and then a finish coat. Stucco masons may also embed marble or gravel chips into the finish coat to achieve a pebblelike, decorative finish.

Increasingly, plasterers apply insulation to the exteriors of new and old buildings. They cover the outer wall with rigid foam insulation board and reinforcing mesh and then trowel on a polymer-based or polymer-modified base coat. They may apply an additional coat of this material with a decorative finish.

Plasterers sometimes do complex decorative and ornamental work that requires special skill and creativity. For example, they may mold intricate wall and ceiling designs. Following an architect’s blueprint, plasterers pour or spray a special plaster into a mold and allow it to set. Workers then remove the molded plaster and put it in place, according to the plan.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Most plastering jobs are indoors; however, plasterers and stucco masons work outside when applying stucco or exterior wall insulation and decorative finish systems. Sometimes plasterers work on scaffolds high above the ground.

Plastering is physically demanding, requiring considerable standing, bending, lifting, and reaching overhead. The work can be dusty and dirty, soiling shoes and clothing, and can irritate the skin and eyes.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Plasterers and stucco masons held about 40,000 jobs in 1998. Most plasterers and stucco masons work on new construction sites, particularly where special architectural and lighting effects are part of the work. Some repair and renovate older buildings. Many plasterers and stucco masons are employed in Florida, California, and the Southwest, where exterior plasters with decorative finishes are very popular.

Most plasterers and stucco masons work for independent contractors. About 1 out of every 6 plasterers and stucco masons is self-employed.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Although most employers recommend apprenticeship as the best way to learn plastering, many people learn the trade by working as helpers to experienced plasterers and stucco masons. Those who learn the trade informally as helpers usually start by carrying materials, setting up scaffolds, and mixing plaster. Later they learn to apply the scratch, brown, and finish coats.

Apprenticeship programs, sponsored by local joint committees of contractors and unions, generally consist of 2 or 3 years of on-the-job training, in addition to at least 144 hours annually of classroom instruction in drafting, blueprint reading, and mathematics for layout work.

In the classroom, apprentices start with a history of the trade and the industry. They also learn about the uses of plaster, estimating materials and costs, and casting ornamental plaster designs. On the job, they learn about lath bases, plaster mixes, methods of plastering, blueprint reading, and safety. They also learn how to use various tools, such as hand and powered trowels, floats, brushes, straightedges, power tools, plaster-mixing machines, and piston-type pumps. Some apprenticeship programs allow individuals to obtain training in related occupations, such as cement masonry and bricklaying.

Applicants for apprentice or helper jobs normally must be at least 17 years old, in good physical condition, and have good manual dexterity. Applicants who have a high school education are preferred. Courses in general mathematics, mechanical drawing, and shop provide a useful background.

Plasterers and stucco masons may advance to supervisors, superintendents, or estimators for plastering contractors or may become self-employed contractors.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Employment of plasterers and stucco masons is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2008. In addition to job openings due to rising demand for plastering and stuccowork, jobs will open as plasterers and stucco masons transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

In past years, employment of plasterers declined as more builders switched to drywall construction. This decline has halted, however, and employment of plasterers is expected to continue growing as a result of the appreciation for the durability and attractiveness troweled finishes provide. Thin-coat plastering—or veneering—in particular, is gaining wide acceptance as more and more builders recognize its ease of application, durability, quality of finish, and fire-retarding qualities. An increasing use of prefabricated wall systems as well as new polymer-based or polymer-modified acrylic exterior insulating finishes is also gaining popularity. This is not only because of their durability, attractiveness, and insulating properties but also because of their relatively low cost. These wall systems and finishes are growing in popularity particularly in the South and Southwest regions of the country. In addition, plasterers will be needed to renovate plasterwork in old structures and to create special architectural effects, such as curved surfaces, which are not practical with drywall materials.

Most plasterers and stucco masons work in construction, where prospects fluctuate from year to year due to changing economic conditions. Bad weather affects plastering less than other construction trades because most work is indoors. On exterior surfacing jobs, however, plasterers and stucco masons may lose time because materials cannot be applied under wet or freezing conditions. Best employment opportunities should continue to be in Florida, California, and the Southwest, where exterior plaster and decorative finishes are expected to remain popular.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

In 1998, median hourly earnings of plasterers and stucco masons were $14.13. The middle 50 percent earned between $11.20 and $18.22. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.05 and the top 10 percent earned more than $23.69.

According to the limited information available, average hourly earnings—including benefits—for plasterers and stucco masons who belonged to a union and worked full time ranged between $14.70 and $39.90 in 1998. Plasterers in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other large cities received the highest hourly earnings. Apprentice wage rates start at about half the rate paid to experienced plasterers and stucco masons. Annual earnings for plasterers and stucco masons and apprentices can be less than the hourly rate would indicate, because poor weather and periodic declines in construction activity can limit work time.

Many plasterers and stucco masons are members of unions. They are represented by the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association of the United States and Canada, or the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Other construction workers who use a trowel as their primary tool include drywall installers and finishers, bricklayers, cement masons, concrete finishers, marble setters, stonemasons, terrazzo workers, and tilesetters.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For information about apprenticeships or other work opportunities, contact local plastering contractors, locals of the unions previously mentioned, a local joint union-management apprenticeship committee, or the nearest office of your State apprenticeship agency or your State employment service.

For general information about the work of plasterers and stucco masons, contact:

  • International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen, 815 15th Street, NW., Washington, DC 20005.
  • Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association of the United States and Canada, 14405 Laurel Place, Suite 300, Laurel, MD 20707.

An industry employing plasterers and stucco masons that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Construction

O*NET Codes: 87317 About the O*NET codes

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