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Lath and plaster is a building process used mainly for interior walls in Canada and the United States until the late 1950s. After the 1950s, drywall began to replace the lath and plaster process in the United States.
In the United Kingdom, lath and plaster was often used for interior partition walls and the construction of ceilings, before the introduction of plasterboard in the 1930s. In the U.K., riven or split hardwood laths were often used of random lengths and sizes. Splitting the timber, as opposed to sawing in straight lines, followed the grain of the timber which greatly improved strength and durability.
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The process begins with wood laths. These are narrow strips of wood nailed horizontally across the wall studs. Each wall frame is covered in lath, tacked at the studs. The lath is typically about two inches wide by four feet long by 1/4 inch thick. Each horizontal course of lath is spaced about 3/8 inch away from its neighboring courses.
Temporary lath guides are then placed vertically to the wall, usually at the studs. Plaster is then applied, typically using a wooden board as the application tool. The applier drags the board upward over the wall, forcing the plaster into the gaps between the lath and leaving a layer on the front the depth of the temporary guides, typically about 1/4 inch. A helper feeds new plaster onto the board, as the plaster is applied in quantity. When the wall is fully covered, the vertical lath "guides" are removed, and their "slots" are filled in, leaving a fairly uniform undercoat.
It is standard to apply a second layer in the same fashion, leaving about a half inch of rough, sandy plaster (called a brown coat). A smooth, white finish coat goes on last. After the plaster is completely dry, the walls are ready to be painted. In this article's photo ("lath seen from the back...") the curls of plaster are called keys and are necessary to keep the plaster on the lath. Traditional lime based mortar/plaster often incorporates horsehair which reinforces the plasterwork, thereby helping to prevent the keys from breaking away.
Eventually the wood laths are replaced with rock lath (also known as "button board"), which is a type of gypsum wall board with holes spaced regularly across it, were are usually in sheets sized 2 by 4 feet. The purpose of the four-foot length is so that the sheet of lath reaches exactly across four wall studs, which are spaced 16 inches apart on center (United States building code standard measurements). The holes serve the same purpose as the spaces between the wood lath strips, allowing plaster to ooze through the board when the plaster is applied, making the keys to hold the plaster to the wall board.
In addition to rock lath, there were various types of diamond mesh metal lath which is categorized according to weight, type of ribbing, and whether the lath is galvanized or not. Metal lathing was spaced across a 13.5 inch center, attached by tie wires using lathers' nippers. Sometimes, the mesh was dimpled to be self-furring.
An advantage of using lath is for ornamental or unusual shapes. For instance, building a rounded wall would be difficult if drywall were used exclusively, as drywall is not flexible enough to allow tight radii.
Traditional lathe and plaster has superior sound-proofing qualities when used with lime plaster (which is denser than modern gypsum board).
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