Clay plaster walls: A beautiful, natural way to add personality to your interiors

Amy Biller, Snaidero USA's Kitchen Trends ExpertBy , Kitchen Trends Expert, Snaidero USA

There is a wide variety of interior wall treatments out there but if you are looking to combine character and durability into a functional and environmentally safe solution, then look no further than clay plaster walls. You’ll be amazed by the design variety and practical qualities that come with this type of finish.

Chicago-based designer Anna Wolfson is a clay plaster walls and natural (or “earthen”) finishes expert. She recently spoke about her work during a seminar at the Chicago Center for Green Technology.

Here are some of the insights she shared, along with pictures from some of her clay plaster walls projects.

Red clay plaster wall

Clay plaster wall finish by Anna Wolfson, using monochromatic skip troweling technique

Composition

Natural clay plaster walls finishes are composed of three core ingredients mixed together to the desired consistency:

  • A binder. As the name suggests, this is the “glue” that keeps the plaster together and makes it sticky. This is where clay comes in. Casein and tree resin can also be used as binders for other types of natural plasters.
  • An aggregate. This ingredient provides the mix with structure, strength, stability and reduces the risk of cracking. Typical materials used to this end are sand, marble dust, mica flakes, and glass chips. Because of their qualities, aggregates also add textural variety and can be used as design elements.
  • A fiber. Like aggregates, fiber makes the plaster stronger and allows for more textured walls. It also contributes to producing a thicker mix, which is especially useful for curved walls and design accents like bas-reliefs (where the finish needs to be particularly resistant for better molding). Straw and cattail fluff are commonly used fibers in clay plasters.

Some clay plasters also use wheat paste (made of wheat flour and water) to increase durability. Clay comes in different colors and natural pigments can be added to the plaster mix to achieve the desired hue.

Aesthetic qualities

Clay plaster walls are colorful, textured walls that can add amazing warmth and personality to your interiors. There are a lot of possibilities to play with, depending on your taste and the “mood” you are going for.

You can choose from smooth or rugged finishes and different colors from natural pigments, from neutral to bold.

Clay plaster wall with bamboo decorations

Clay plaster wall with bamboo decorations, by Anna Wolfson

The aggregates and fiber you use for the plaster mix can help create interesting visual effects. For example:

  • Straw can produce beautiful textural patterns;
  • Marble dust adds sparkle and whiteness to the finish;
  • Mica flakes and glass chips have reflective qualities that play with natural light to provide visual variety, just as it happens when you use mica-based lacquers for your kitchen cabinets.

Clay plaster walls can be made even more personal by molding the material to create bas-reliefs/high-reliefs and add a sculptural quality to your interiors.

Clay plaster wall with high-relief

Clay plaster wall with high-relief decor by Anna Wolfson

The skip troweling technique also helps create textured clay plaster walls. It consists of skimming a flat trowel over the wall surface to develop unique patterns. You can use skip troweling to create 2-tone walls or even monochromatic walls where is the texture itself that interacts with the light to introduce variety.

Finally, you can create elegantly textured walls by applying burlap patterns covered with wet clay and natural paint.

Burlap pattern on wall

Example of natural wall finish with a burlap pattern, by Anna Wolfson

Benefits

Besides bringing beautiful finishes into your home, clay plaster walls have several practical benefits as well.

  • Clay is a great material for walls because it is “negatively charged”, which means it doesn’t attract dust (as opposed to acrylic paint, which is positively charged and does attract dust).
  • Clay plaster is durable, does not crack or flake off and can be applied to all wall types, after proper preparation of the surface (through the use of a non-toxic primer, sanding, or simply cleaning – depending on the wall material).
  • Clay plaster walls do a very good job absorbing moisture and vapor. This reduces the risk of mold, makes it easy for your home to “breathe” and helps regulate the temperature of your interiors. In other words, it’s a finish that contributes to the overall health of your house.

For all these reasons, clay plaster is a great wall finish even for heavy-use and “wet” areas of the home, like kitchen and bathrooms.

Another burlap pattern for wall decor

Burlap pattern for guest room walls, by Anna Wolfson

Eco-friendly properties

If all of the above wasn’t enough, clay plaster walls have obvious environmental benefits.

  • Being a natural finish, clay plaster is non-toxic: it doesn’t contain the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and chemicals that can be found in most industrial paints.
  • The material is biodegradable and recyclable; plus, it requires less processing than synthetic finishes (making it an energy-saving solution).
  • Because it is “negatively charged”, clay plaster counters the harmful electromagnetic effect produced by computers and other technological devices in our home – thus contributing to a healthier living environment.
Clay plaster wall done by skip troweling

Clay plaster wall with variation effects created with skip troweling technique, by Anna Wolfson

Need we say more?!

You can see more of Anna Wolfson’s work at www.annawolfson.com

Do you have clay plaster walls in your home? What other natural wall finishes techniques do you use?

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Looking for more ways to build a sustainable home? Check out our green home case study on Chicago’s first passive house.

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