Remodeling 101: Moroccan Tadelakt Plaster Finish
We have long admired the shiny, seamless walls of traditional Moroccan hammam baths, but we knew little about the old tadelakt technique used to obtain them. After spotting the finish in a number of the kitchens and baths featured here on Remodelista, we decided to find out more. What exactly is tadelakt and why is it increasing in popularity? For answers, we turned to Orit Yanai, a San Francisco craftsman and technical expert. “First of all, it’s beautiful,” she told us. “And second, people really don’t like to treat grout.” We’re listening.
What is tadelakt?
Tadelakt is a traditional Moroccan wall covering technique composed of lime plaster and black soap made from olives. When the ingredients are combined, a chemical reaction between the two creates a waterproof membrane, which makes the tadelakt walls suitable for wet areas like showers and baths. (If you had the chance to bathe in a traditional Moroccan hammam, the walls were probably in tadelakt.)
Why use tadelakt?
Aside from its beauty, the biggest advantage of tadelakt is undoubtedly the absence of seams or grout lines in its application. It is also made from all natural materials, does not contain volatile organic compounds and is naturally resistant to mold and mildew.
Is the tadelakt suitable for anywhere in the house?
“Tadelakt is the Rolls-Royce of whitewash plaster,” said Yanai, so you will only want to use it in places where waterproofing is required – mainly bathrooms and sometimes kitchens. It can be applied all over the house, notes Yanai, but only do so if you have money to burn; it is much more expensive than standard lime plaster due to the browning required to make it waterproof, so use tadelakt in wet areas and a regular lime plaster finish everywhere else.
Think of it this way: where you can usually use paint, use regular lime plaster. But where the paint will not do the trick (shower walls, maybe the backsplash of your kitchen), opt instead for the tadelakt.
Is tadelakt sustainable?
“If people don’t care about it properly, it may fail,” said Yanai. The use of harsh chemicals like bleach will destroy the delicate lime surface. “But if the walls are well maintained – which means avoiding harsh cleaners – it’s remarkably easy to maintain.” It can also be waxed every year to make it more resistant to stains.
How to maintain the tadelakt?
Yanai recommends cleaning the tadelakt surface every week with a sponge, black soap and water. She always leaves her clients a starter soap, a list of other suitable cleaning agents, and a written page of clear care instructions to share with family members or housekeepers. “Whenever you clean the tadelakt with black soap,” she said, “you gently repackage it.”
If the tadelakt is damaged, can it be repaired?
No; altering a damaged section will destroy the sealing of the entire surface. So, if a shower wall is deeply stained or if the surface has been destroyed with bleach, the entire shower panel must be replaced.
However, it’s rare, notes Yanai. “In most showers, the main [maintenance] the challenge is mold on the grout lines ”- a problem that the tadelakt completely bypasses.
Does tadelakt look like ordinary lime plaster?
Tadelakt has an organic appearance and is handmade from lime plaster, but with a brighter finish due to the intense browning. “It is not reflective like Venetian plaster,” said Yanai, “but it is very smooth to the touch.”
How does the tadelakt compare to other finishes, in terms of price?
After more than a decade of surveys of contractors and tile installers, Yanai concluded “it is fair to say that tadelakt compares to tile work in the medium term”. (Tiles, of course, vary greatly in price, as do the cost and quality of the installation and the skill level required to install it.) “Tadelakt can’t beat the price of Home’s lowest tiles Depot, “said Yanai. “But he can easily beat the tiles imported from Italy.”
One way to control costs is to use plain lime plaster or American clay plaster elsewhere in the bathroom or kitchen where strict sealing is not required; these finishes are naturally resistant to mold and mildew but their application is much easier (and therefore cheaper). Use the tadelakt only in a shower enclosure, bathtub surround or kitchen backsplash where it will be continuously struck with water.
Is the tadelakt easy to install?
“Tadelakt is the most difficult and tricky wall finish to apply if done right,” said Yanai. “Jokers can pretend they do, but to deliver long-term work is extremely laborious” and requires attention to detail. Because humidity and temperature affect curing time – and the slower the walls harden, the better – Yanai is known to stay with a wall after midnight, brown it and keep it to keep the finish drying at the right pace . She laughs at the thought of the work required, but, like any artist, she is attached to her profession: “The result is so beautiful at the end, that’s why I do it,” she said.
- There are no joints or grout lines in the tadelakt walls.
- Tadelakt is free from hazardous volatile organic compounds (which, due to perfectly legal but very sneaky labeling, are not all products labeled “zero VOCs”; see Remodeling 101: Everything you need to know about VOCs in the paint for a primer).
- Tadelakt is made of entirely natural materials: lime plaster, soap with olive oil and natural pigments.
- Tadelakt is easy to maintain (using approved mild cleaners).
- It is naturally resistant to mold and mildew.
- The pigments will not discolour over time.
- Tadelakt is more expensive than entry-level tiles or solid surfaces.
- Accidental use of harsh cleaners like bleach will destroy the waterproof surface.
- Once damaged, the tadelakt surface cannot be repaired and must be replaced.
Interested in following the plaster route? Learn about the tadelakt and the many options available:
N.B .: This message is an update; the original story took place on April 21, 2017.