Moulding a future
Hidden away in Primrose Hill, a smart residential area of north London, is a workshop producing one of the most traditional, skillfully made and yet simple building components.
Butcher Plasterworks, now under new ownership, is a fibrous plaster works producing some of the intricate finishes that are still so important in the restoration of 18thand 19th-century houses.
New owner Robin Ellis, while keen to continue this craft tradition, also sees potential for its use in some of the sophisticated contemporary architectural work for which his eponymous construction company is becoming renowned.
For example, on a residential project at Courtfield Gardens in London, designed by rising star Niall McLaughlin, there are timber beams encased in fibrous plasterwork. A million miles away from the intricacy of Victorian ceiling roses, these simple, slightly curved shapes are pure and straight and bright and white - 'a quality of finish you could not get in any other way, ' says Ellis.
Step into Chalcot Yard, where Butcher is based, and you feel that you have moved back in time. There is a three-tier store with a vast collection of mouldings, and a workshop where the fibrous plasterwork is produced.
But although the skills are traditional, the approach is very much in keeping with today's ethos of off-site fabrication. The quality that can be achieved off site is far better than anything that can be done on site.
Describing a prefabricated circular rooflight, Ellis said: 'As a building contractor I know how often we have been asked to provide a pure form from somebody's drawings in plaster.
You can't get anywhere near the perfection of form that we can get with fibrous plaster. It is cheaper than doing it on site and infinitely better.'
Ellis is a relatively new owner of Butcher, and this could seem like the enthusiasm of the neophyte. But manager Brian Cowell concurs: 'In a workshop, ' he says, 'we can run an elliptical arch out so that it is true. I have seen them freehanded on a site - it is never right.'
But whether following the demands of a contemporary obsession with pure form, or recreating the decorative complexity of the past, the process of fibrous plasterwork is the same. Plaster and hessian are cast in moulds and cured before being taken to site for fixing. The process, fundamentally simple, is one that takes years of training to get just right. One reassuring aspect of Butcher Plasterworks is that there is a range of ages among those in the workshop - this is certainly not a dying skill.
Making the moulds is a crucial part of the work. There are standard moulds for simple cornices but special rubber moulds are made for many of the jobs. For a lot of conservation work, the moulds will be made from the existing features. These may have been covered in layers of paint so that the definition is almost lost, but it is usually fairly easy to boil off the paint and get back to the original.
Sometimes, however, the ignorance of builders can make the task more complex. The skilled people at Butcher can rebuild a whole moulding from parts that have been retained, but there must be something there. Sometimes a builder will knock everything down before the Butcher people can stop them. In another case, the builder kept the wrong part of the moulding - a copy that had been made to match the heavily painted original. Since it did not have the underlying structure, there was no way to get back to it and Butcher had to start from scratch.
This involves employing a highly skilled and expensive clay modeller to create the moulding.
There are extraordinary and complex moulds in the workshop and stacked up in the storage area. In the past, the only way that a potential customer could choose a moulding was to come to the works and clamber up to the store to see what was available - a charming pastime, but not the best way for a modern business to run. Ellis has now started the process of casting from each of the existing moulds, photographing the result and placing it on the firm's website at www. butcherplasterworks. com to form a library. This will, he believes, 'allow Butcher Plasterworks to become a point of reference'.
Ellis is a hardheaded businessman and will be determined to ensure that his new enterprise makes a profit. But in a sense this is a labour of love; he has moved his own offices into the space beside the plasterworks. With soaring London property prices, he could doubtless make more by selling the entire lot for redevelopment. But he understands the importance of having a quality team based in central London, close to the architects and clients with which they work.
And he is confident that the combination of traditional skills and the new applications for fibrous plasterwork will allow this new undertaking to be a successful, if separate, complement to his existing business.