The Art of Plastering

Thomas G. Dolan

December 2007

Many small family contracting businesses start off with the husband in the field and the wife doing the bookkeeping and answering the phone. After a period of years, if the husband dies, retires or divorces, the woman may take over as president. Her role would be that of manager, and she’ll leave the hands-on knowledge to the men in the field.

But Carol Oren followed a different path to her presidency at Oren Plastering Company, Dayton, Ohio. Though her current role is primarily managerial, she arrived at where she is today through extensive hands-on experience, having grown up in a family with a long tradition in plastering.

Carol’s grandfather, Ira Oren, worked part-time as a plasterer during the Depression. His son (Carol’s father), James Oren, started working full time as a plasterer in 1953 and incorporated the company in 1961. He began with residential plastering, growing also into commercial, expanding into interior and exterior stucco, exterior wall systems, becoming one of the first to do exterior insulation and finish systems in that part of the country, along with GFRC, acoustical ceiling, caulking, steel framing, metal lath/furrier, scaffolding and drywall. A big addition was fireproofing.

In 1985, Carol’s mother, Betty, who had done the books in the traditional way when her husband started in the field, began her own company. The new company, Oren Fabrication and Supply, was a supply house that served both union contractors (like her husband) and nonunion ones (like her brother, Dick Fox).

In 1988, when Carol’s father began to talk of retiring, her brother, Kenneth, started his own company, Oren Associates. In 2003, Betty retired and passed the supply business on to Carol. In 2004, when James did retire, Kenneth took over that business. But Kenneth is also a pastor, and he realized he didn’t want to do both full time. So all of the businesses were consolidated and handed over to Carol, who was doing business as the Oren Plastering Company, though the supply division is still a part of it. Kenneth continues to work at the company as an estimator.

Plaster Is the Business
Now the business does about 80 percent commercial and 20 percent residential. The work done is 50 percent plaster/stucco/EIFS or related work, 40 percent fireproofing and 10 percent drywall and the rest. Annual sales were about $2.3 million last year, and the company has about 20 employees.

"Although we have diversified, we have always been primarily a plastering company,” Carol says. "We continually try out new plastering products, and have done a lot of traditional plastering, ornamental plaster and plaster restoration, including historical restoration. We have always differentiated ourselves with our plastering.”

The company is often called upon to do challenging plastering jobs that most other contractors would find difficult to handle.

"This past summer we had to put up a big EIFS cornice on top of a brick wall, which is difficult to do because of the danger of material dropping,” Oren says. "So we prefinished the cornice and put it into place, so were able to eliminate that concern, as well as others, such as getting in each others’ way. Right now we’re doing a panelized project on a short time schedule: metal framing with studs and track on which is put thin bands of EIFS, which makes for a really nice looking appearance. And we’re getting ready to restore an old hotel in Savannah. They want a stucco finish over brick; the stucco is to look like big limestone. We have to go into places where there has been water damage, then carve each of the new blocks so they look like the original.”

It Started with Art
Oren got involved in the business at a very young age. "When my dad got involved in casting, I was drawn to the sculpturing aspect of that,” she recalls. "I was always an artistic kid.” She married out of high school and was away for 16 years, living with her husband who was in the service on various military bases. She returned in 1986 and began working in her mother’s supply business.

Yet, even though there was a period in which there were three different businesses, run by her father, mother and brother, they were not in competition with one another. In fact, they were all in the same building, and were, basically, part of the same family business. So, though Oren was hired to work in her mother’s business, she, in fact, worked in the office and did tasks for all three businesses. "I started working in the supply end, learning about materials, doing follow-up calls and bookkeeping. I colored various plans so installers could see what colors went where. I started estimating, and eventually learned a lot about that. I was involved in purchasing materials and making submittals for jobs, doing a bit of everything.”

But what especially interested her was the artistic aspect. "I started doing more and more in casting, learning how to make the molds themselves,” she says. "Although most of what I do is management now, over the years I did a lot of casting, and developing different materials. I’ve done a lot of work on learning the different formulas for making different colored plaster and stucco.

"There are so many different aspects to plastering. You can’t learn it overnight, though many people think they can. A lot of people come into our supply house and ask for tips. We’ll give a little, but unless they basically know how to do it, we can’t spend time teaching people how to do it. It takes a lot of experience. Each job is different. You have to match up the right materials at the right time. There’s a real skill to color patching, matching colors in a restoration. The fun stuff is plaster casting, making molds, a kind of sculpture. We’re one of the few who can do it. We’ve also got into special finishing’s like Venetian plastering. In our area there’s not a big call for it, but it helps us—that’s part of our niche.”

You can’t completely learn it by reading magazines either, but this magazine is proud to have played a small role. "AWCI is great,” Oren says. "It has really been a big help to me. AWCI’s Construction Dimensions has given me a lot of ideas from reading what other contractors are doing. And I also get a lot of information about new products. I learned about Venetian plaster from the magazine.”

Plastering has been just one of the artistic outlets for Oren’s talents. For many years she participated in all aspects of amateur theater, including acting, directing and designing cos¬tumes, sets and lighting. Her role as business owner doesn’t allow her time for this avocation, but she has continued her other artistic activity of singing. She sings in her church choir and local groups. She recently appeared with the Springfield Community Chorus at Carnegie Hall.

Small Jobs, Lots of Competition
Oren’s company does residential plastering jobs for as little as $1,000 and up.

"There aren’t many plastering companies bigger than us, not that we’re that big,” says Oren. "There are a lot of very small plastering companies out there, so we’ve always had a lot of competition. But people know they can always get us on the phone, that we’re dependable and can help them.”

In terms of commercial plastering, Oren says, "$100,000 is a big job for us. We’re more comfortable in the $20,000 to $50,000 range.” By the same token, she likes to stay within $3,000 to $5,000 for fireproofing. "We like to stay with the little stuff,” she says. "There are bigger companies that can do the big jobs. We like to stay in the range where we have our niche. That work is steady.’’

The supply store still plays the same role. "It’s part of the same business and we don’t keep separate books,” she says. "But we try to treat them as separate businesses, and keep separate records so we know what’s going on in terms of costs. Dollar-wise the supply division does not make a big contribution, but it’s still very important to us. What it does is allow us to keep fresh material in stock all the time. It helps us to pay for the space to store the material. Drywall material, you can get anywhere. But in our area not many people keep plastering material in stock. A lot of our plaster competition gets their material from us. Our supply house has a room upstairs where we display a lot of different colors and finishes.”

As a union contractor—and Oren says there are not many in her area—her company has long been involved in training and supporting the union’s apprenticeship program. Many of these people eventually went off to form their own companies. But Oren says, "That’s all right; it’s friendly competition, and you need good competition to make a good market.”

Speaking of competition, what’s it like being a woman and running your own business these days?

‘‘Over the past few years there have been a lot of changes, she replies. "We’re certified as a woman-owned business, and that has certainly helped us. In Ohio, at least, there is a requirement for schools and other institutions and businesses to include minorities in the bidding process. This doesn’t necessarily mean we get the contract, but it does allow us to get our toe in the door, if not our entire foot.”

Oren adds that there are also more and more woman-owned businesses in the area, some of whom, such as a steel supplier and general contractor, relate directly to her company. Oren adds that about 80 percent of her work is contracted and 20 percent negotiated.

As to the future, Oren says, "I see a resurgence in plastering, especially in residential. I think more people are realizing now than they have in the past, the quality that plaster can bring.”