Mud Fences and Rocket Surgery
We regularly get calls from folks who are interested in building their own adobe house, or in mud plastering a room. The first question invariably concerns the "recipe" for adobe mud and earth plaster. Our response, also invariable, is that none exists. On hearing that answer, most people think (and some say) "trade secret, huh?"
No. We don't have any trade secrets. Our philosophy has always been that we will share what we know. When it comes to mixes for mud, there are a few principles that we can offer as guidelines, but given the huge range that even local soils can run in terms of clay content, aggregate, contaminates and color, there is no possible way that can offer up a proportional mix over the telephone. Were we to break this rule we would expose ourselves to the wrath of irate neophytes whose best efforts at mudding a wall resulted in a render that curled up like potato chips and fell to the floor. It's happened.
Besides that (setting myself up as a master of the obvious) earthen technologies have been around for thousands of years, have been applied in settings as varied as Morocco and Panama, and have been manipulated across an unfathomably large array of applications of both practical and artistic significance. Earth building as a trade is just too venerable and too ubiquitous to harbor any secrets.
That is, unless someone comes up with what they believe to be the answer to making earthen walls invulnerable to the elements by applying magic potions. Readers of this column know my response: Go ahead, keep the ingredients of your snake oil secret; I will guarantee its failure inside of five years in any event.
The "secrets" to successful and beautiful earthen building are exactly the same principles used in the successful execution of any trade; follow best practices, be disciplined and consistent in the exercise of your craft, and do it as simply as possible within the confines of your goals.
My father, who was born in West Virginia and raised in southeastern Kansas, told of hearing about adobe as child: "That woman," his mother commented about a neighbor, "is as homely as a mud fence." (This is an example of one of the less scathing of my grandmother Hazel's accusations, but one that exhibits her colorful mental process.) She had perhaps seen, or at least heard of, a mud wall and had been left with a negative impression. When my family moved to New Mexico, my father disregarded the implied advice of his mother and built us a fine adobe home. He did it inexpensively by hiring neighbors (who made adobes for a penny apiece in 1954) and because it was a method of building that, in his words, was understandable by anyone who couldn't cut a board straight.
As one of my colleagues in the trade has said in the style of Mr. Berra, "it ain't rocket surgery, you know."