Faux finish has been popular for a while. Faux finishes are most often meant to imitate specialty plasters and are generally targeted to the do-it-yourself or paint market. Another popular item is Venetian plaster. In broad-brush terms, Venetian plaster is a lime putty finish plaster. Lime plaster and mortar are centuries old. Reliable historical notes on lime plaster are from Europe and there, too, is the birthplace of Venetian plaster. Americans seem to be enamored by European plaster—and in particular—Italian plaster. It is little wonder these plasters have finish names like Marmorino, Stucato, Florencia, Ducato, Carrara, etc.

Marketing is a key function of the faux finish campaign to seize market share. Spending a significant amount of time in Europe allows me to see all kinds of plaster, especially historical plaster. I have discovered that the names for plaster vary greatly. For example, in Germany, the word for plaster is verputz. If the interior plaster has a rough texture, it can even be called stukko, while others call it gibs. Taking a tour of a U.S. gypsum wallboard plant, the wet gypsum mixture used between the layers of paper was labeled as stucco. I have found names and terms can be very misleading.

Veneer Plaster vs. Venetian Plaster

Skim coat (or veneer plaster) is somewhat unique to America. This plaster product was developed in the 1960s as an attempt to recover lost market share, as drywall became popular. Veneer plaster was designed to go over the same size gypsum panels as drywall but would have a full skim coat of hard plaster over the panels and not just joint treatment. Veneer plaster was created to cut costs and speed installation. The problem was plasterers. Veneer plaster still required plasterers with decent troweling skills. As the supply of skilled plasterers dwindled, manufacturers developed products requiring less troweling skills.

Venetian plaster typically requires a minimal troweling skill. Plasterers put significant amounts of material on the trowel when applying plaster. This increases production and allows the plasterer to make long, flowing strokes. A skilled craftsperson can be proficient and productive in applying and troweling plaster. Most Venetian plaster products do not lend themselves to production. Venetian plaster and faux finish applications are generally done in several layers of short, random strokes in various directions. I refer to it as “onion skin” layering. While there are many types of Venetian plaster, almost all recommend avoiding the traditional long stroke(s) the plasterer is accustomed to doing.

This multi-layer process with special brushes, tools, sponges, etc., tends to make these finishes pretty labor-intensive to install. Adding the higher cost of materials can make Venetian plaster and faux finishes expensive. This is one reason they are limited to accent walls on projects and not likely to become a coating on a majority of walls, because all projects have a budget.

Faux Finishes

Faux finishes can be a plaster-like material or a paint product. While they lack the depth and texture of plaster, they can have visual impact and may be more budget-friendly. Some faux finishes look pretty good and some look awful. It is clear the market is wide open. It appears owners can get whatever they want on their accent wall. The question is, are they willing to pay for what they want?

If you are thinking of getting into the faux or Venetian finish market, get samples and make sure the plasterer/applicator makes samples themselves. Do not rely on factory-produced samples. Reproducing a specialty finish can be hard to impossible to replicate. For plasterers/applicators, make sure you practice with the material before putting it on a project. Verify all material and substrate compatibility. I have seen beautiful plaster finishes fail. Replacement cost of some specialty plasters can be staggering. 

One applicator made this mistake and it put her out of business. She made the mistake of thinking plasterers were just another worker with limited knowledge. She was questioned by crew members. She was certain these workers had no idea about plaster and substrates and opted to follow the local salesperson. This person was more concerned about losing a sale than how long it would last. Of course, they put nothing in writing. Months later, the plaster came off the wall. Experts soon discovered that the contractor was told by her crew and chose to ignore them. This is what cost her.

While we are fascinated by Italian plaster, Europeans are equally fascinated about American techniques. I find that information between our continents can get misconstrued. I wonder: Is it lost in translation or a marketing issue?