The hawk and trowel are tools of a trade that separate Santa Fe craftspeople from almost every market in America. It wasn’t always so, but interior plastering, which 100 years ago was everywhere, is a dying art, except in Santa Fe. It’s high art here and on full display in the high-end homes in the annual Haciendas — A Parade of Homes that ends Sunday .
Last week’s column noted the influx of then-20-something boomers who came here 40 years ago or more and started the sustainable building movement in Santa Fe. Very few had ever held a hawk and trowel in their hands before they got here. But they learned, and they learned from those who had been practicing the art for generations.
Plastering and stuccoing is a young man’s game, although historically mud plasterers, known as enjarradoras, were women.
These days, it is almost exclusively young men. It’s hard work. Elbows, shoulders and wrists are the first to go. A 50-year-old plasterer is a rarity on a job site. In Santa Fe, the task is often performed by those whose first language is Spanish.
The hawk is what holds the mud. It’s a platter typically measuring about 12 inches by 12 inches, with a handle in the middle. The trowel is about 5 inches wide and 12 inches long, with a handle on the top. Getting the mud off the hawk and onto the trowel is an art in itself. Interior plaster is much lighter than cement stucco, so the hawk hand gets a rest, but the trowel hand works and works and works the plaster until the “milks” come up, which is how the slick, mirror-like surfaces are achieved.
Watching a crew stuccoing the outside of a home is like watching a choreographed dance. Typically, a crew of six can accomplish the task. One person is on the ground working up to around six feet. Next is the person on the scaffolding who takes it from where the ground person leaves off and works up to the parapet. A third person is on the roof working both sides of the parapet.
The crew works from left to right on the wall and moves as quickly as possible, only stopping at corners, never leaving a “cold joint” in the middle of a wall. Another person is on the mixer, ensuring a continuous supply of mud for the three on the wall. The “feeder” brings the wheelbarrow full of stucco and heaps piles onto the mud boards serving the trowelers. Getting a shovelful heaved overhead up to the mud board on the scaffolding is a unique skill.
The sixth person follows the trowelers with a float that looks like a trowel surfaced with foam. The “floater” rubs the fresh stucco in a circular motion to bring up the aggregate and create surface uniformity. A skilled crew working a wall is a flurry of bending and stretching and arms in constant motion.
It’s a beautiful thing to watch, though it is messy. You can always tell the bottom troweler — usually the rookie — because that person gets splattered with droppings from above. The oldest person is often on the roof working the parapets. Less bending and much cleaner, plus a bird’s-eye view of the entire operation.
As you admire the craftsmanship of the beautiful homes in the Haciendas — A Parade of Homes, take a moment to appreciate the unique skills Santa Fe workers bring to the show. They are strong, young, highly skilled and typically, these days, chattering among themselves in Spanish with Chihuahuan accents. The respect and diversity on our job sites is a lesson for America.
Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association.