Working with tadelakt

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine March 2016

The most creative you can get? Build your own house; it’s DIY to the max. It also takes a long time. Maybe start a bit smaller. A tadelakt coat, for example, can basically turn your bathroom into a Moroccan-style wellness palace. Longing for a silky smooth finish, this month we try working with tadelakt in São Brás.

Tadelakt. It’s lime-based plaster, eco-friendly and water-resistant. The real attraction, however, lies in the touch. With its smooth surface, the material is just screaming ‘stroke me!’ It’s basically inviting you to rub your cheek to it. (OK, well, at least, that’s what I think. Maybe I’m weird). Tadelakt is originally from Morocco and mostly used as a coater in bathrooms because of its luxurious feel and water-resistance. After seeing some pictures, I want to make a tadelakt bathroom. A really big one. With one of these giant round baths and a huge sink and also a shower cabin and open shelves for towels and soap and maybe a toilet and a drawer too.

Since I’ve never built a bathroom or even worked with tadelakt before, a workshop is a good idea. It’s two days, which must be more than enough time to finish at least the shower area and the sink. On the way, I’ll probably discover my hidden DIY gen which I must have inherited from my father (he builds entire houses), but which has managed to stayed hidden up to now (I struggle when changing a lightbulb). The Embarro factory in São Brás is like an Aladdin’s cave for DIY-ers. There are massive sacks of stuc plaster and buckets of clay and all kind of strange machines. All sorts of pigment are displayed in huge glass bottles and have exotic names like ‘ocre alaranjado provenciano’ and ‘turquesa de espinela’. Not a clue what that means, but I want some. Maybe the shower walls in sparkling golden or deep green. One look at the prices (gold, one of the most expensive pigments, costs € 163 for 500 grams) and it might have to be just a golden soap holder.

Course leader Joachim Reineke (53), who has been working with tadelakt for over 30 years, sees my expression and smiles. “We get a lot of requests, but when they hear the price, they often stop. Tadelakt is simply expensive.” The reason for that isn’t because the German Joachim wants to make a lot of profit; it’s because the process of working with tadelakt is very time intensive. It’s not only a question of mixing the pigments with the lime-based plaster, but also of applying it. This happens in different stages: first one rough layer, then another coat, then flattening the surface and closing the pores and in the end, polishing it with a stone. Hence its name: the word ‘tadelakt’ comes from the Arabic verb ‘dlek’ which means ‘to rub’, ‘to knead’ or ‘to caress’ and which describes the work with the stone. Pure Marrakech tadelakt costs about € 40 for 10 kilos (Kreidezeit tadelakt, a similar product which is made in Germany, is a bit more economic). With Marrakech tadelakt, even an experienced craftsman can’t plaster more than 4 to 5m2 per day. Final thickness when applied is about 4 to 5mm: you do the math. (I’m not good at math).

But I know that I can save a lot of money if I learn how to do this good and fast. Time to start the course, in which we’ll be working with both tadelakt sorts: Marrakech and Kreidezeit. Most other participants, a mixture of Germans, Portuguese, English and Dutch who all have houses in the Algarve and want to renovate them, also want to create a bathroom. I notice they have slightly more DIY experience. Some have even worked with ‘materials’ before. Oh well, it’s putting some stuff on some stone and polishing it with another stone. How hard can it be?

I soon find out. We try a single tile and have to put something which looks like soup (pea soup in my case, as it’s green) but is actually premixed Marrakech tadelakt, on the rough side. I doubt it’ll actually stick on and thus use loads, but, as Joachim predicted, it sticks pretty fast. I mean: idiotically fast. I’m struggling to divide it evenly as it freezes to the spot almost immediately. Apparently, we need to work from the outside inwards in order to create a smooth layer. Comparing Joachim’s construction, as flat as a pancake, with my tile, which looks like a green volcano landscape, I realise I’m a long way off. Holding the trowel like one would hold a pen doesn’t help either. My tile now resembles a wonky green volcano landscape. Oh well, I’ll smooth it out with the next layer.

The good thing about working with tadelakt is that you get another go as it’s supposed to be in two coats. (You can even apply a third one if you’ve f*cked it up). However, this can also be a bit inconvenient. “It’s a complicated process,” says Joachim. “We’re prisoners of the process. I’ve spent whole nights on building sites, just because the shit did not dry. It’s not like you can just leave when you’re hungry.” Bugger, he must have seen me looking at the cookies on the table. Even with his experience, Joachim can’t predict the exact time needed for drying and absorption as it depends on all kinds of stuff; from the humidity in the room to the type of pigment you use.

Time waiting for drying is spent looking around the factory where Joachim explains about different eco-friendly building materials and I realise most other people are better prepared than me. They ask all kind of questions about the pros and cons of marmorino versus stuccolustro. I stroke the different surfaces with my eyes closed and dream about my bathroom. Joachim answers questions and explains why cement and plastic aren’t ideal building materials: “About 80% of the inside climate is influenced by the first 20mm of wall surface. Cement is a non-absorbent surface which has no breathability at all. Plastic too. There’s no way it can regulate the inside environment. After a shower, there’s always condensation on the tiles! A breathable absorbent surface like clay plaster works as a filter and absorbs all the unhygienic air.”

Then he moves on to all the cool colours that Embarro has. They come in four groups; earth pigments, oxides, spinel pigments and artificial ones. All the other people seem to know what oxidised means and discuss percentages to get the desired shades. I mostly wonder if I’ll go for baby blue or royal blue. Joachim tells us how to spot the difference between natural colours and plastic shite and burns yellow ochre which then turns red. Great party trick. But for the German eco builder, working with tadelakt is mainly about creating a healthy living space. “To me, my house is important; it’s the place where I live. Many diseases can be linked to living space problems such as a poor indoor air quality, mould and mildew,” he explains. “I’ve always been interested in traditional building techniques and 500 years ago they didn’t have any cement or plastic. The technique of applying tadelakt is centuries old. Also, if you maintain it –a yearly treatment with Carnauba emulsion will do the trick-, it’ll last longer than you will.”

“It’s time for the second coat,” Joachim says as we return to our table. “Even if we haven’t all quite realised the quality we’re looking for.” What, why is he looking at me when he’s saying that?! My tile is brilliant. A bit bumpy maybe, but after I failed to make it smooth I just told everyone that I was aiming for a rustic effect ‘to better compliment the roughness of the Portuguese landscape’, so that can’t be the reason. Joachim continues. “Right, now, we’re aiming to being able to touch the tile without the tadelakt coming off. To demonstrate, he plants his hands onto my neighbour’s tile: not a spot of yellow to be seen. I touch my tile. Very gently, just to be on the safe side. Bugger. My fingers are bright green.

It turns out that working with tadelakt is a bit of an expert job. I must maybe lower my expectations a bit. Then again: how cool is it if you can have a customised bathroom which is completely different from all the uniform IKEA stuff everyone else has. Joachim moves around the group and comments on the work. “Sometimes it’s also the pigments that dry less quick,” I hear him say to someone. AHA, that’s it. “Yeah, that must be the case, I bet green is the slowest drying pigment of all of them!” “It can have different reasons,” he answers diplomatically.

I in the meantime wonder why they couldn’t just have changed the stuff to be quick-dry – there’s nail polish that dries in 60 seconds. On return from lunch, the tadelakt is still wet. We cheat by sucking the moisture out with a newspaper and instead try the Kreidezeit one. This time, we have to make our own mixture by weighing the right amount of water and pigment for 200grams of tadelakt, depending on the percentage, which again depends on the shade of colour. Or something like that. Joachim explains it at least four times, then leaves us to it. You also should weigh the pigment in water instead of dry. Or was it the other way around? And how, as water comes in litres, not in kilos?! I quickly become confused, decide that measuring is overrated anyway and just throw some stuff together, aiming for a yoghurt-like consistence which turns out to be smurf blue. It works! Joachim complements me with my mixture, saying “It could not be better.”

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about my technique of applying the stuff to the tile. Although Kreidezeit should be applied a bit thinner, I somehow again end up with two thirds smooth tile and one rough bit. Even when ‘applying even pressure and holding the trowel with just two fingers, gently guiding with the third’, as we’re taught. The green tile still refuses to dry. The blue one is ready, so it’s time for polishing it with a stone, aiming for a smooth shiny surface. No success there.

It seems that for tadelakt you need feeling and patience. Both of which aren’t really my speciality. To be honest, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing as every time I try to fix the rough bit on my blue tile, it gets worse. I try to polish it more, get frustrated, and in the end Joachim has to intervene to save the tile. He also gives the advice that ‘less is more’ and promises me that soap will soften the rough patch tomorrow. By the time we break up for that day, I’ve got one tile that’s still wet and one that still has a rough bit in it. I’ve also convinced myself that IKEA does really nice bathrooms too…

The second day, luckily it all goes better. My blue tile turned out quite cute, even though I’ve pressed too hard with the soap and now it’s as smooth as sandpaper. We also plaster a giant bit on the wall and do a candle holder. I cheat by dunking the candle holder into the tadelakt, instead of applying it with a bit of plastic. Instant amazing result. Still, it doesn’t feel right. So I try again with the plaster and transform the round ball into a wonky thing with a lot of angles. Somehow I don’t think Joachim meant this when he said the best thing about working with tadelakt was that “it allows you to change surfaces in a very drastic way.” Still, it’s fun. I’ve left the idea behind that I should make a masterpiece and am instead concentrating on learning to work with the material, feeling almost like a pro when managing to keep my ball intact.

“Patience is key: if you’re patient enough to wait for the right moment, you’ll easily be able to finish it,” says Joachim. He’s right. The only reason my candle holder is still going strong is because I forgot all about it for half an hour when I was chatting to the other workshop participants. “The point where I want to get you is that you get a feeling for when it’s the right moment to work on it. That’s the whole secret,” Joachim states and I see many of the participants nodding their heads in understanding. I’m not quite there yet, and have put the idea of creating an entire tadelakt bathroom back into the closet. Maybe when I’ve got more money and, very important, more time. Joachim tells me the candle holder actually turned out quite good: “It’s a learning process, you need practice. It’s very specialised work.” It is indeed a craft. And a nice one I reflect as I stroke with my hand over my candle holder. Sandpaper not. Silky-smooth also not. Oh well, Rome wasn’t built in one day either.


When to go?

Regular tadelakt workshops are held throughout the year, but there are no fixed dates for the next one yet. Once dates are confirmed, they’ll be displayed on the website. If you’re interested, just let Joachim know.

The workshop is two days and lunch is included on both days. It’s held inside, so the weather doesn’t matter. Take working clothes as they’ll get dirty.

Want to go? Make sure to reserve beforehand by contacting Joachim. All contact details can be found on the website


For whom?

Anyone who wants to learn about ecological building techniques. To be more specific:

  • Fancy renovating your house in an eco-friendly way?
  • Want to include a tadelakt bathroom?
  • Don’t want to waste hundreds of euros of materials by messing it up after you misunderstood that DIY tutorial you saw on You Tube?
  • Think it’s a clever idea to practise with the stuff first while getting some tips from an expert builder?

If you’ve said ‘yes’ to these four questions above, better give Joachim a call.

Previous experience isn’t necessary. Already know how to work with tadelakt? Follow the one day workshop in which you’ll create your own tadelakt sink. More fan of clay? There are also clay plaster workshops.

The minimum number of participants to the workshop is five.


See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine March 2016


Posted in This month we try.