Ronnie Clifford, 42, is managing director of Ornate Interiors Ltd, a Leeds-based plasterers that specialises in conservation and restoration. The company won the Plaisterers' Trophy for its plasterwork in 2006.
What do you actually do?
I restore plasterwork in listed buildings, theatres, hotels and stately homes. If there's been fire or water damage, we'll replace the damaged plaster so it's identical to what was there before. We use a traditional mixture of sand lime and horsehair – the method goes back to Roman times. It takes longer to dry than modern cements or gypsum, but it can "breathe": moisture can pass through it forwards and backwards. We've worked on buildings where the original plasterwork has been there for 300 years, so they must have been doing something right.
What's your work schedule like?
I split my time between the workshop and the office. I might be pricing a job in the morning, then setting down moulds in the afternoon. It can be a long day. I start at 7am and finish when I'm done. It's a hand craft, so it takes time. Plastering a room takes about three weeks using a sand-lime mixture, because you've got to allow each coat to dry. We also copy and manufacture cornices and ornamental mouldings. Coming into our workshop is like stepping back in time. Our contract manager is 70 years old and has been doing plastering for years. You can't buy the knowledge someone like that's got – especially in restoration work.
What do you love about it?
It's fantastic to be trusted with these beautiful buildings. You get a lot of pleasure out of seeing how happy it makes people, and from knowing that your work will stand for another hundred years. Not a lot of people can say that.
What's not great about it?
The travelling. If you're doing a job in Manchester, the distance from Leeds isn't far, but it takes ages to get there on the motorway. Sitting in a traffic jam on the M6 is very frustrating.
What skills do you need to do the job well?
It's patience more than anything else. When we first get apprentices, they usually think they can learn everything straight away. But learning how to mix things and keep everything clean is a slow process. You need to be good with your hands, and you need a good understanding of maths. If we're designing a gothic arch, all the measurements need to be very, very accurate. Sometimes we have to convert from the metric system back into feet and inches. Finally, you need to be interested in restoration. You've got to be inspired by the buildings.
What advice would you give someone with their eye on your job?
There aren't many school-leavers who know about cornices, so I'd get them to learn some background information about the trade before approaching a firm. Be prepared to get your hands mucky and wet as they'll be in plaster all the time. We put apprentices through a three-year course at college while they're working with us. The main thing we look for is a bit of foresight – whether the lad is engaged with the work and asking questions.
What's the salary and career path like?
An apprentice earns £180 per week in the first year, which goes up in the second and third year, and then becomes a normal salary. Plastering firms generally work on contracts rather than giving fixed yearly salaries. We look at a job and work out a timescale and a price based on that. You could set up your own firm eventually, or teach in a college, or continue your studies in a related field like quantity surveying.
For more information on careers in plastering and restoration, visit the National Heritage Training Group at www.nhtg.org.uk; the Federation of Plastering and Drywall Contractors at www.fpdc.org.uk; or Construction Skills at www.cskills.orgReuse content