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Remodeling 101: Moroccan Tadelakt Plaster Finish

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Remodeling 101: Moroccan Tadelakt Plaster Finish

October 4, 2018

We’ve long admired the glossy, seamless walls of traditional Moroccan hammam baths, but knew little about the age-old tadelakt technique used to get them. After spotting the finish in a number of kitchens and baths featured here on Remodelista, we set out to learn more. What is tadelakt exactly, and why the growing popularity? For answers, we turned to Orit Yanai, a San Francisco artisan and expert in the technique. “First of all, it’s gorgeous,” she told us. “And second, people really don’t like dealing with grout.” We’re listening.

Architect Elizabeth Roberts opted to coat the living room fireplace surround in tadelakt for added texture. Photograph by Dustin Aksland, courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts, from A Warm, Minimalist Duplex in Brooklyn by Architect Elizabeth Roberts.
Above: Architect Elizabeth Roberts opted to coat the living room fireplace surround in tadelakt for added texture. Photograph by Dustin Aksland, courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts, from A Warm, Minimalist Duplex in Brooklyn by Architect Elizabeth Roberts.

What is tadelakt?

Tadelakt is a traditional Moroccan wall surfacing 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, making tadelakt walls suitable for wet areas like showers and baths. (If you’ve been so lucky as to have bathed in a traditional Moroccan hammam, the walls were likely tadelakt.)

Why use tadelakt?

Aside from its beauty, arguably the biggest perk to tadelakt is that there are no seams or grout lines in its application. It’s also made from entirely natural materials, does not contain volatile organic compounds, and it’s naturally mold and mildew resistant.

In a West Village townhouse duplex, Remodelista Architect/Designer Directory members Matiz Architecture & Design used a tadelakt finish on the bathroom walls, sink, and countertop. See the rest of the space in The Architect Is In: A New York Remodel by Way of Belgium. Photograph by Hidenao Abe, courtesy of Matiz Architecture & Design.
Above: In a West Village townhouse duplex, Remodelista Architect/Designer Directory members Matiz Architecture & Design used a tadelakt finish on the bathroom walls, sink, and countertop. See the rest of the space in The Architect Is In: A New York Remodel by Way of Belgium. Photograph by Hidenao Abe, courtesy of Matiz Architecture & Design.

Is tadelakt suitable for anywhere in the house?

“Tadelakt is the Rolls-Royce of lime plaster finishes,” said Yanai, so you’ll want to use it only in places where waterproofing is required—bathrooms mainly, and sometimes kitchens. It can be applied throughout the entire house, notes Yanai, but do that only if you have money to burn; it’s significantly more expensive than standard lime plaster because of the burnishing required to make it waterproof, so use tadelakt in the wet areas and a regular lime plaster finish everywhere else.

Think about it this way: Where you might typically use paint, use regular lime plaster. But where paint won’t do (shower walls, maybe your kitchen backsplash), opt for tadelakt instead.

Is tadelakt durable?

“If people don’t care for it correctly, it can fail,” said Yanai—using harsh chemicals like bleach will destroy the delicate limestone surface. “But if the walls are maintained properly—meaning avoiding harsh cleaners—it’s remarkably easy to maintain.” It can also be waxed yearly to make it additionally resistant to stains.

Tadelakt gone dark: photograph by India Hobson, courtesy of Bentley Hagen Hall, from Bathroom of the Week: A Moody Tadelakt Bath in London.
Above: Tadelakt gone dark: photograph by India Hobson, courtesy of Bentley Hagen Hall, from Bathroom of the Week: A Moody Tadelakt Bath in London.

How should tadelakt be maintained?

Yanai recommends cleaning the tadelakt surface weekly with a sponge, black soap, and water. She always leaves her clients with a starter soap, a list of other suitable cleaning agents, and a written page of clear care instructions to share with family members or house cleaners. “Every time you clean the tadelakt with the black soap,” she said, “you’re softly reconditioning it.”

When his client requested a simple, affordable kitchen in her petite North London flat, architect Simon Astridge chose a tadelakt backsplash, which “has a depth and feel to it that matches the tones of the plywood and the worktop,” he said. See the rest in Kitchen of the Week: An Artful, Honest Kitchen in North London. Photograph by Nicholas Worley, courtesy of Simon Astridge Architecture Workshop.
Above: When his client requested a simple, affordable kitchen in her petite North London flat, architect Simon Astridge chose a tadelakt backsplash, which “has a depth and feel to it that matches the tones of the plywood and the worktop,” he said. See the rest in Kitchen of the Week: An Artful, Honest Kitchen in North London. Photograph by Nicholas Worley, courtesy of Simon Astridge Architecture Workshop.

If tadelakt gets damaged, can it be repaired?

No; tampering with one damaged section will destroy the waterproofing of the entire surface. So if a shower wall is deeply dinged or the surface has been destroyed with bleach, the entire shower panel must be replaced.

However, that’s uncommon, notes Yanai. “In most showers, the main [maintenance] challenge is mildew on the grout lines”—an issue that tadelakt bypasses entirely.

Does tadelakt look like regular lime plaster?

Tadelakt has the organic, handmade look of lime plaster, but with a shinier finish due to the heavy burnishing. “It’s not reflective like Venetian plaster,” said Yanai, “but it’s very smooth to the touch.”

In designer Leigh Herzig’s Hollywood spec house, all the bathrooms feature tadelakt somewhere—here, it’s on a custom-designed vanity. See the rest of the house in Hollywood Tale: A Spec House with Uncommon Style. Photograph by Laure Joliet, courtesy of Leigh Herzig.
Above: In designer Leigh Herzig’s Hollywood spec house, all the bathrooms feature tadelakt somewhere—here, it’s on a custom-designed vanity. See the rest of the house in Hollywood Tale: A Spec House with Uncommon Style. Photograph by Laure Joliet, courtesy of Leigh Herzig.

How does tadelakt compare to other finishes, price-wise?

After more than a decade of surveying contractors and tile setters, Yanai has concluded “it’s fair to say tadelakt compares to medium-end tile work.” (Tile, of course, ranges widely in price, as does the cost and quality of installation and the level of skill required to install it.) “Tadelakt cannot beat the price of the lowest-end tile from Home Depot,” said Yanai. “But it can easily beat tile imported from Italy.”

One way to keep costs in check is to use regular lime plaster or American clay plaster elsewhere in the bathroom or kitchen where strict waterproofness is not required; those finishes are naturally mold and mildew resistant but their application is much easier (and therefore cheaper). Use tadelakt only in a shower stall, bath surround, or kitchen backsplash where it will be continually hit with water.

Is tadelakt easy to install?

“Tadelakt is the most difficult, trickiest wall finish to apply if done right,” said Yanai. “Jokers can claim that they do it, but to deliver a long-lasting job, it’s extremely laborious” and requires precise attention to detail. Because humidity and temperature affect the curing time—and the slower the walls cure, the better—Yanai has been known to stay with a wall past midnight, burnishing and babysitting it to keep the finish drying at the right pace. She laughs thinking of the labor required, but, like any artist, she’s committed to her craft: “The result is so gorgeous in the end—that’s why I do it,” she said.

Leigh Herzig used Tadelakt Decolakt by Terre du Monde in LA on the kitchen walls and ceiling of her Hollywood spec house. “You really can’t tell the difference between it and the Italian plaster,” she said, “but it’s completely waterproof—you just clean it with Marseille soap. Because it’s so durable, I didn’t have to add a backsplash, which gives the room a clean look.” Photograph by Laure Joliet, courtesy of Leigh Herzig.
Above: Leigh Herzig used Tadelakt Decolakt by Terre du Monde in LA on the kitchen walls and ceiling of her Hollywood spec house. “You really can’t tell the difference between it and the Italian plaster,” she said, “but it’s completely waterproof—you just clean it with Marseille soap. Because it’s so durable, I didn’t have to add a backsplash, which gives the room a clean look.” Photograph by Laure Joliet, courtesy of Leigh Herzig.

Pros

  • There are no seams or grout lines in tadelakt walls.
  • Tadelakt is free of hazardous volatile organic compounds (which, due to perfectly legal but highly sneaky labeling, not all products labeled “Zero VOC” actually are; see Remodeling 101: All You Need to Know About VOCs in Paint for a primer).
  • Tadelakt is made of entirely natural materials—lime plaster, olive oil soap, and natural pigments.
  • Tadelakt is easy to maintain (using approved, gentle cleaners).
  • It’s naturally mold and mildew resistant.
  • Pigments will not fade over time.

Cons

  • Tadelakt is more expensive than entry-level tile 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 going the plaster route? Read up on tadelakt and the many options available:

N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on April 21, 2017.

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