Mud Man

Brett Hull has spent his life—as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did—perfecting the ancient art of plastering.

By Joohee Muromcew ∙ Photography by Ryan Dorgan

Technological advances in homebuilding can leave laypeople marveling that home design once began with pencil on paper at a drafting table. From just decades-old CAD/CAM technologies to the latest app-enabled appliances and home security systems, technology has brought efficiency and precision to homes. Homebuilding, however, remains a craft, and perhaps no aspect of the craft is more enduring than plasterwork.

Plaster dates back to ancient civilizations all over the world—in places as disparate as ancient Rome, China, and the Middle East. Wherever it was applied, it was a mixture of lime or gypsum (gypsum plaster is also known as plaster of Paris), sand or cement, and water. Crushed stone, horsehair, or other finely ground materials act as binders or textural elements, but the basic method of plastering has been the same for more than millennia. This is for good reason. If built properly, a plaster wall can last for decades, even a century. Plaster walls are mold-resistant, create highly effective sound barriers, and can even improve acoustics. The finish can vary from flat, lacquer-like gloss to rich textures and bas-relief.

High-quality, time-tested construction and artful finishing comes at a price, of course, but the greatest barrier to installing plaster (or stucco for exterior walls) is finding a true master of plasterwork. Once a wall has been primed, the mud must be mixed with a pastry chef’s instinct for humidity, temperature, and density. Then, the plasterer must cover the entire wall expertly in one sitting. Walls that are completed piecemeal eventually reveal telltale seams or cracks. Brett Hull of Imperial Plaster in St. Anthony, Idaho, is a fourth-generation plasterer and deeply proud of his family’s history in the trade.

While growing up in Utah, Hull’s great-grandfather learned the art from Roman immigrants. Hull’s grandfather learned the trade from an early age, as did Hull’s father, Doug, and then Brett. The Hulls became known for their work on Latter Day Saint temples and were asked to work on temples in Hawaii. Their reputation quickly spread, and the family moved to Hawaii in response to the demand. Among their many large-scale projects was the plasterwork for finance titan Charles Schwab’s private golf resort. It required a backbreaking, one-day sprint to plaster a continuous 2,000-square-foot ceiling in the main clubhouse. The artisans worked on stilts, and the finished veneer was a custom color that Schwab personally designed. “It was flawless, no blemishes. All in one set, all of us on stilts,” recalls Brett Hull with humble pride.

Hull is now the primary plasterer for his company, though his crew once included his father, brother, and cousin. While he has a team that can prep walls, set up, clean up, and even mix the mud, it is Hull—with hawk and trowel in hand—who applies each coat of plaster to every wall. He can coat a wall as large as 800 square feet in one day. Hull admits the physical demands and exacting eye for detail deter most in the construction field from pursuing plastering as a career. “There’s a certain caliber of person who can do it,” he says. “Once the mud is mixed, you can’t answer your phone, there’s no going to the bathroom. If you have an imperfection, you have to strip it, start over or else it looks patched. It’s very stressful.”

Hull began working alongside his father cleaning tools and mixing mud around age ten. “You can’t just teach some guy to do this,” he says. “It takes years to learn and a lot of patience. The only way to do that is with family.”

Pictured here, from left to right: Brett Hull’s father, Doug; his brother, Don; and Brett working on a project in Kona, Hawaii.

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