The 57 acres that comprise Cedar Ridge Farm are located in the beautiful rolling hills of South Central Kentucky. My wife, our four children, and I are on a homesteading adventure as we work toward increased self-sufficiency. We grow much of our own food and enjoy being in touch with the agrarian roots of our lives.

One of the major projects we have undertaken is the building of our own home. The house we're building has three major distinguishing features: 1. we're building it without incurring any debt; 2. it is a timber frame structure; and 3. the exterior walls will be plastered straw bales. We live debt and mortgage free, and building our house with that approach makes perfect sense. Large timbers in a home possess a beauty and project a sense of strength, stability, and warmth that we want in our home. Straw bale walls provide insulation and make ecological sense. This blog is a record of our home-building project.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Getting muddy again: plaster and slip straw

There are many different projects to work on in the house. I have the luxury of focusing on just one thing or working on several at any particular time. Sometimes, diversity is nice. It’s also nice to get a particular project or focus completed.

When I got the bags of clay for the finish plaster moved into the house, I mixed up a small batch to put on a wall in order to see how it will look. Because it is powdered clay, it feels very different from the material we’ve been working with that we dug out of the ground. It’s fluffy. I mixed the small batch in a bucket and applied it with a trowel on the living room wall which I had previously plastered (the slip straw wall).

I screened the sand through a window screen to remove the larger grains/small rocks. 014I mixed it at roughly two parts sand to one part clay. When wet, the plaster is gray in color. As it started to dry, I buffed it with a plastic lid cut out of a yogurt container. This helps to push the grains of sand into the plaster and make it smoother.

It turned out well. Once it dried, it was no longer gray but, rather, white, like it was supposed to be. It was a thin layer of plaster, and I didn’t get it all applied as evenly as I would like. There are areas with a different texture because I wet the trowel to try to help spread it a little more in places. These areas have a different feel and look than the other areas. That’s okay. This was a test patch to learn from. I’m thinking I’ll make an alis (a clay paint) to go over all of the walls when done. The alis will have wheat/flour paste as one of the ingredients to help 006give it a non-dusting texture. It doesn’t dust badly without it, but you can rub of clay if you try.

Last week, I felt like playing in the mud some more. So, I mixed and applied three batches of plaster to the bales on the front wall of the house, from where I left off on the wall that will be behind the wood stove to the corner of the living room. This coat uses a high clay content plaster and has to be worked into the bales. It’s applied by hand and actually feels good. It was neat to work the plaster around the curves near and above the windows and begin to see the look of plastered straw bale walls in the house.

002004You can see the plastering job in these photos. When they were taken, the plaster wasn’t completely dry yet. That’s why there are dark areas. I’m looking forward to applying the second coat which will begin to smooth out the walls and fill in the depressions and irregularities that are evident with the first coat. One of the things I did before I started to plaster was to nail a 1x2.5 inch board at the base of the wall. The plaster will come out flush with the board near the floor. 008Then, once the finished floor is installed, I will have a surface to nail base board to.

Earlier this week, the boys and I packed some slip straw in the girls room which is upstairs on the east end of the house. Earlier this summer, we had packed most of the walls in this room, but there were a few places that we didn’t get done and hadn’t finished yet. One of the things I’ve learned about slip straw is that the thicker the clay slip mixture, the stronger the wall. Previously, we’ve used some slip that would’ve made better walls if it had been thicker (more clay in it). They are all okay, I think, but the areas we packed using more 028clay in the slip are more dense and tight. I think I ought to do a video on slip straw…

We packed the closet walls which are on either side of the window on the north side of the room. I’ve imagined this window having a dormer-like feel because of how the walls will be, and it does. The closets also seem quite nice. They’re about 3.5 feet wide, and each upstairs bedroom will have two.

046While I was working on another project later in the week, Ramiah decided to pack some on the storage room wall on the east side upstairs above the living room. He mixed the slip and straw, put the forms on, packed, and moved the forms all on his own. I think he did a great job and am very proud of him.

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