A large gypsum deposit at Montmartre in Paris is the source of the name. When the dry plaster powder is mixed with water, it re-forms into gypsum. Plaster is used as a building material similar to mortar or cement. Like those materials plaster starts as a dry powder that is mixed with water to form a paste which liberates heat and then hardens. Unlike mortar and cement, plaster remains quite soft after drying, and can be easily manipulated with metal tools or even sandpaper. These characteristics make plaster suitable for a finishing, rather than a load-bearing material.
Plaster was a common building material for wall surfaces in a process known as lath and plaster, whereby a series of wooden strips are covered with a semi-dry plaster and then hardened into surface. The plaster used in most lath-and-plaster construction was mainly lime plaster. Lime plaster cure time is about a month. To stabilize the lime plaster during curing, small amounts of Plaster of Paris were mixed into the putty. Because Plaster of Paris sets quickly, "retardants" were used to slow setting time enough to allow workers to mix large working quantities of lime putty plaster. A modern form of this method uses expanded metal mesh over wood or metal structures, which allows a great freedom of design as it is adaptable to both simple and compound curves. Today this building method has been partly replaced with drywall, also composed mostly of gypsum plaster. In both these methods a primary advantage of the material is that it is resistant to a fire within a room and so can assist in reducing or eliminating structural damage or destruction provided the fire is promptly extinguished.
One of the skills used in movie and theatrical sets is that of "plasterer", and the material is often used to simulate the appearance of surfaces of wood, stone, or metal. Nowadays, plasterers are just as likely to use expanded polystyrene, although the job title remains unchanged.
Plaster may be cast directly into a damp clay mold. In creating this moldmolds (molds designed for making multiple copies) or waste molds (for single use) would be made of plaster. This "negative" image, if properly designed, may be used to produce clay productions, which when fired in a kiln become terra cotta building decorations, or these may be used to create cast concrete sculptures. If a plaster positive was desired this would be constructed or cast to form a durable image artwork. As a model for stonecutters this would be sufficient. If intended for producing a bronze casting the plaster positive could be further worked to produce smooth surfaces. An advantage of this plaster image is that it is relatively cheap; should a patron approve of the durable image and be willing to bear further expense, subsequent molds could be made for the creation of a wax image to be used in lost wax casting, a far more expensive process. In lieu of producing a bronze image suitable for outdoor use the plaster image may be painted to resemble a metal image; such sculptures are suitable only for presentation in a weather-protected environment.
Plaster expands while hardening, then contracts slightly just before hardening completely. This makes plaster excellent for use in molds, and it is often used as an artistic material for casting. Plaster is also commonly spread over an armature (form), usually made of wire, mesh or other materials. Plaster is often used in Faux Finishing to create textures for wall and furniture surfaces, as in Venetian Plaster and also in stenciling for raised details. For these processes, artists use limestone based plasters or new user friendly acrylic based plaster.
Plaster is also used within radiotherapy when making immobilisation casts for patients. Plaster bandages are used when constructing an impression of the patients head and neck, and liquid plaster is used to fill the impression and produce a plaster bust. Perspex is then vacuum formed over this bust creating an immobilisation shell.
In dentistry, plaster is used for mounting casts or models of oral tissues. These diagnostic and working models are usually made from dental stone, a stronger, harder and denser derivative of plaster which is manufactured from gypsum under pressure. Plaster is also used to invest or flask wax dentures, the wax being subsequently removed and replaced with the final denture base material which is cured in the plaster mold.
To make lime plaster, Limestone (calcium carbonate) is heated to produce quicklime (calcium oxide). Water is then added to produce slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), which is sold as a white powder. Additional water is added to form a paste prior to use. The paste may be stored in air-tight containers. Once exposed to the atmosphere, the calcium hydroxide turns back into limestone, causing the plaster to set.
The finished plaster releases water vapor when exposed to flame, acting to slow the spread of the fire, for as much as an hour or two depending on thickness. It also provides some insulation to retard heat flow into structural steel elements, that would otherwise lose their strength and collapse in a fire. Early versions of these plasters have used asbestos fibres, which have by now been outlawed in industrialised nations and have caused significant removal and re-coating work. More modern plasters fall into the following categories:
One differentiates between interior and exterior fireproofing. Interior products are typically less substantial, with lower densities and lower cost. Exterior products have to withstand more extreme fire and other environmental conditions. Exterior products are also more likely to be attractively tooled, whereas their interior cousins are usually merely sprayed in place. A rough surface is typically forgiven inside of buildings as dropped ceilings often hide them. Exterior fireproofing plasters are losing ground to more costly intumescent and endothermic products, simply on technical merit. Trade jurisdiction on unionised construction sites in North America remains with the plasterers, regardless of whether the plaster is decorative in nature or is used in passive fire protection. Cementitious and gypsum based plasters tend to be endothermic. Fireproofing plasters are closely related to firestop mortars. In fact, most firestop mortars can be sprayed and tooled very well, due to the fine detail work that is required of firestopping, which leads their mix designers to utilise concrete addmixtures, that enable easier tooling than common mortars.
Some variations of plaster that contain powdered silica or asbestos may present health hazards if inhaled. Asbestos is a known carcinogen when inhaled in powder form, especially in people who smoke, and inhalation can also cause asbestosis. Inhaled silica can cause silicosis and (in very rare cases) can encourage the development of cancer. Persons working regularly with plaster containing these additives should take precautions to avoid inhaling powdered plaster, cured or uncured. (Note that asbestos is rarely used in modern plaster formulations because of its carcinogenic effects.)
Special cleanup methods should be used with of plaster products, as they can interefere with the flow of plumbing systems downstream of the disposal area. The residue of these products will often solidify underwater and plug up drains, stain gutters and sidewalks and spoil planting areas.