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Holding Out for Plaster

Robert L. Maidt returned to Oklahoma
City in 1945 from service in
World War II as a bomber pilot and
attended the University of Oklahoma
while completing an accelerated
but full apprenticeship as a
plasterer during the summer
months. He then took over the
family plastering business in 1947.
His father, R.G. Maidt, and uncle,
Albert, had started the Maidt Plastering
Company around 1903—
that being the date of the earliest
written record available. As Bob
Maidt only retired in 1998, liquidating
the business five years shy of
its centenary anniversary, he would
qualify as the kind of crusty old
timer whose 50-plus years of experience
might yield insights for folks
who had been in the industry a
short time-say a decade or two.

Replacing Sweat with Technology, Quality with Speed

In those days, of course, plastering was basically lime and sand-gypsum was a long way off. In terms of
quality from a plasterer’s point of view, this was good news; but in terms of convenience, it was probably
bad news: They had to let the lime carbonate in the air for a few months before they could return to finish
it. Imagine that in today’s concertina’d production time frames!

The same hand tools were still in use, but the plaster pump, introduced in around 1955, certainly gave
plasterers a leg up on large projects. “Appreciably faster” is how Bob Maidt describes the improvement.
Being a man of few words, that says more than one might think.

It took chatting with Bob Maidt Jr.—who has himself been in the industry for more than three decades,
most of it in the family business before he quit eight years ago because “I was tired of chasing money all
over the country because GCs wouldn’t pay up, and tired of OSHA regulations” to fill in the blanks.

“Dad knew what a plaster pump could do, he saw it work and made a lot of money with it, so he could see
the potential of concrete pumps. He therefore pioneered concrete pumping in Oklahoma City, bringing in
the big boom trucks around 1977 and eventually running half a dozen of them.

“My father was very innovative, too. He knew there had to be a better way to do some things, and he’d
find it. Around 1960, for instance, he had a job that required a lot of cutting of #40 expansion joints. The
problem with using existing tools to cut where the four pieces intersected was they left an ugly intersec-tion,
with one solid piece running horizontally and two broken, diagonal pieces. They also took 15 min-utes
to cut. So he invented a one-of-a-kind machine specifically to cut these joints in less than 30 seconds

and leave four clean openings at the bills on time.
We sold the machine five years
ago with the rest of the company, so presumably someone is still using it
in Oklahoma City someplace (and nowhere else in the world).”

One significant change that Maidt Sr.
witnessed in the building industry was
the transition from reinforced concrete
to the lighter steel, which meant that
plasterers like him, as the first finishing
trade in the construction cycle, could
move into the job quicker. It also meant
less plastering being done, however. And
the other reason for that, according to
Maidt, was an increasing lack of skilled
manpower as a result of apprenticeship
programs falling away,
“The way you got into the trade when I
first began work, was through an
apprenticeship,” Maidt recalls.

Why did apprenticeships fall away?
“The unions didn’t seem to have as
much interest in apprenticeships as they
should have had,” Maidt says.

How come? “Well, if you were a plasterer,
about 60 years old, you wouldn’t
want to train a young man to take your
place prematurely, would you? That’s
what would happen. You would train a
younger man and then you’d be out of
a job.”

Not a good internal strategy overall, if
the plastering profession is already under
assault on two flanks: less demand and
cheaper/swiftly applied materials.

Then and Now

Echoing his son’s words, Maidt reports,
“In the early days, GCs and owners were
more inclined to respect me, to pay their bills on time.
These days, they are not
timely in their payments. We have wondered why over the years but never
found a satisfactory explanation that
made sense or that we could put in the

“Contractors have not changed that
much over the years except certain areas
are having trouble obtaining insurance
for their work even though we did have
to have insurance back then, getting it
was never an issue.”

For the employees, wages have sunk “In
the 1940s, a journeyman’s wages were
around $4 to $5 an hour—at the higher
end of the construction trades. I think
it’s now $20 and up.” Considering that
a good car used to cost about $1,500
back then, working the same number of
hours at today’s wages wouldn’t buy
much of a car for $6,000 or $7,000.

Added to this drop in value of money is
the malaise concerning sweat equity. “I
heard my father say many times,”
explains Maidt Jr., “that people used to Strength Through
work for their money, now they want it Association
given to them. They were willing to
break a sweat at work; now they want to
stop for a break when they start sweat-ing.
That aggravated him no end,
because he knew how the work ethic
used to be. Dad always instilled in me,
‘Don’t be afraid to work. You’ve got to
earn the respect of the people on the job,
you can’t be afraid of hard work.’ And
that’s why we succeeded as we did. I
blame the change on the unions in the
late 1960s and early 1970s, when they
tried to run the contractors’ business. It
wasn’t successful, although dad knew the
top officials in all the industry unions
and how to handle them.”

Strength Through Association

If these is one message Maidt Sr. wants
to get across today, it is to “support your
trade association. I was very active in our
contractor’s association. I learned a lot,
made a lot of friends around the country, and it was just a great experience. Promotion of the trade, building up our contractor membership and
involvement, and anything we could do to better the
industry was what we focused on.”

Once again, Maidt Jr. comes to the rescue with a few more
specifics. His father was actually president of the Contracting
Plasterers’ and Lathers’ International Association,
the predecessor of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling
Industries—International, for the 1963-1964 fiscal year.
“We did a lot of traveling all over the country. His main
concern has always been the survival of the plastering
industry itself. Back in the early 1960s, a bad school fire
occurred in Chicago and so he served as an officer for three
years in the National Lathe and Plaster Bureau to promote
plaster in schools. That was the time frame when sheetrock
was coming into play and competing against plaster, so dad
became heavily involved at the national level in trying to
sell plaster to architects and building owners. The success
of this program helped grow the industry
until probably the late seventies. He
was also responsible for starting the
CPLIA conference program.”

As for growing the association, Jr. gives
an example in “Nate Kimmel, who had
a small company out in Los Angeles,
Calif., in the early 1960s. He attended
one of the association meetings in California,
and dad persuaded him to join
the association and take his product

“Our company was a charter member of
the CPLIA, which itselfwas founded in
1918. My father started at AWCI in the
late 1950s. He would always collect both
the Walls & Ceiling and [AWCI’s] Construction Dimensions magazine he
had stacks of them dating back to 1950,
which he donated to the AWCI library.

“In later years, it was disheartening for
him to see the plaster industry slowly pining
away. He would not let us do any of
the synthetic-stucco work for many years.
It was a battle, but he finally agreed that
it was being spec’d and bought, and we
might as well do it. Cutting costs was the
bottom line, no doubt about it. He knew
how the hard plasters and cement plasters
had performed over thousands of years
and all of a sudden, there was this new,
softcoat material. It did not impress him
one bit! But the fate of plaster was being
sealed slowly with the passing away of
each old plasterer and nobody rising to
take his place. Right now, there are a few
people in the industry who almost know
how to plaster.

“But while the family business was in
business, we did very well. My father
and grandfather built half of the downtown
metro area, and I remodeled it. I
loved it and dad always liked the ornamental
plasterwork: it was challenging
and we knew how to do it.
In the elder Maidt’s words, “We helped
build Oklahoma City and environs. It
was quality work.”

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a freelance writer based
in Clearwater, Fla.

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