Parlez-vous "Platre?"

A nine-day trip to southern France reveals traditional plaster craft and strengthens time-honored traditions.
Jeremy Mistretta
January 6, 2023
10 min read

The term “plaster” conjures various images.  Here in the United States, most believe it’s an imported high gloss finish made in Italy, while some consider it to be smeared drywall mud that’s painted.  There are a select and latent few that cling to its original calcium roots.  Throughout our many trowel travels, we have gained the perspective that there are “different strokes for different folks.”  We respect the trade as a whole and ponder the motives of every plasterer we meet.  One applicator however, that we firmly align with is Gabriel Franklin.  The Pennsylvania native first got his hands dirty in 1995 while working on his family’s farmhouse.  The son of a passionate architect, Gabe has innate design in his blood and demonstrates his passion through the medium of plaster.  He has travelled the globe while honing his understanding of the craft, and employs a wide variety of niche techniques in all of his installs.

Gabe the plaster master
Gabe the plaster master

We first met him in 2017 through Instagram.  His posts revealed carefully crafted and sculpted walls that celebrated the beauty and soul of the homes that he works in.  It didn’t take long for us to start working together around the country and to begin sharing our coveted trade secrets from different sides of the country.

Our friendship developed out of a passion for plaster and is steeped upon solid communication, creativity, and the transparent sharing of individual knowledge.  Together, we strive to boost efficiency amongst our installations while maintaining similar hand-crafted looks that according to Gabe “reveal the artist’s hands.” Throughout our many conversations, Gabe alerted us of a restoration plaster course in southern France.  It was imperative that we attend and embark on this adventure together to increase our collective knowledge base.

We met in Paris, France on the morning of October 16, 2022.  With sleepy eyes and eager minds, we combated the time change and rapidly toured the beautiful city. We visited Champs-Elysees and The Louvre, commenting on several occasions that “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a city as beautiful as Paris shouldn’t be toured in a day.”  

Jeremy and Gabe at a convention

After an evening of much needed sleep, we pushed south by train along the French countryside to Toulouse where we rented a car and drove to the small village of Le Mas d’Azil.  The petite and picturesque town is sculpted naturally into the countryside with beautiful limestone cliffs surrounding the city limits, casting continually changing shadows throughout the day.   We arrived early to get settled in our rental.  Restless as always, we jumped in the car for an adventure and entered the 420-meter-long grotto just outside of town.  This super site is one of the most prehistoric caves in all of Europe and the only cave that can be crossed by car.  Construction work on the 30,000-year-old cave yielded prehistoric remains in the 1900’s.

The cave contains remnants of a culture still unknown and was classified a monument in 1942.  We were elated to discover that this was our daily travel route for our stay.
A large cave

We pushed ahead into our unknown itinerary.  It wasn’t long before we stumbled upon the beautiful village of Le Foix and the “chateau de Foix.”  The roots of the castle date back to 987 A.D.  The castle’s history spans hundreds of years and has been a home to counts and stationed troops and even served as a prison in the late 1800’s.   It stands as a towering prominent edifice atop the town and has served as a museum since 1930.  We toured every room in the structure and marveled at the painstaking work of stacking the lime blocks and the precision of the plaster execution.

Fully satiated with the day’s events, we retreated to our Airbnb excited for the following day’s events at Ateliers Pradals.

A preliminary document sent before the class revealed that the home was built in the 16th century and ownership had moved through several Pyrenean families.  Upon meeting the current owner’s Sarah and Tobias, we further learned of a horrible leak that occurred during a roofing project that decimated all of the plaster in their home, compelling them to resurface all the walls and moldings.  This workshop would equip not only the students, but them with the skills needed to accurately repair the plaster in their beautiful home and bring the establishment a fresh contemporary façade.  The ten-person class was comprised of attendees from The Netherlands, Scotland, England, The United States, France and Ireland.  The eclectic group was eager to work in unison in a collective plaster summit to create original lime plaster walls.

A sign that says, "Pradals, lime plastering course"

Our 3-day basic lime plaster course was taught by generational master plasterer Philip Gaches.  Since 1948, The Gaches family has specialized in both internal and external conservation lime plaster.  The company was created by the late Gordon Gaches and passed along to his son Philip Gaches.  The adage of the company is quite simple “we must strive to do everything to the highest standard possible.”  Philip’s solemn demeanor and humble introduction of himself and his son’s Jude and William instilled calmness and confidence in the entire class.

Philip Gaches and his two sons
He was an open book of plaster knowledge.  His attire was impeccable, while a firm handshake and a gentle smile revealed a life well lived.

We comfortably settled into our bucolic surroundings, while Philip lectured the class on the traditional lime cycle and the tenets of this fascinating chemical compound.  He stressed its authenticity as a viable building material and its dynamic ability to augment several other materials on earth to produce excellent products like paper, glass, and toothpaste. The class mixed mud with beautifully slaked lime putty, locally graded sands, and integrated sheep’s wool.  Phillip stressed that the addition of wool created high tensile strength in  the plaster and aided in the overall structure of the material after carbonization.

The mix was applied to the structure in a “harling” manner, a mighty European technique where the plaster is strategically thrown onto the wall and the excess is scraped off to plane the surface.  Any areas that were too concave were prepacked with masonry chunks to fill the voids prior to plaster.  Many of us watched in awe as Brian Tobin and his esteemed colleague “Patty” demonstrated their Irish harling technique.

After a beautiful farm to table lunch provided by Tobias and Sarah, we retreated to our stunning accommodations for the evening.

A group of people eating at an outdoor table