Slovakia – The Workshop

Our workshop compound in Bucany, Slovakia as sketched by architect Radoslaw Barek of Poland.

Traveling south from Denmark, where half of our workshop had been very wet and a tad bit cold, we looked forward to warmer and drier weather in Slovakia. To the contrary, our workshop there was wetter than anyplace we visited or taught in Europe. It started raining shortly after we arrived and continued throughout the week. Don’t let any of the photos below with blue sunny skies fool you, there were moments of clear skies, but not many. There was a positive side to it all, we will never again fear having to teach clay work in the rain. To be quite honest, once my initial fear had subsided, I actually began to enjoy it. Whether steady downpour or a driving burst, the relentless Slovakian rain, once accepted, seemed to have a intoxicating quality that made this workshop very memorable.

Throughout our trip I did a search on Google to get some background information on any new destination. Bucany, Slovakia, the little town where our workshop was being held, yielded almost nothing with the exception of some mention about remnants of Celtic culture being found there. I still remember one site that invited me to be the first person to write something about Bucany. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I have any visual memories of the place. My memories go immediately to our workshop, avoiding the rain and working under tarps.

Our workshop location was a compound owned by Viliam Simek, an antique dealer in everyday life and an aspiring permaculturalist in the making. He would easily fall into the category of “one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.” The main building where we stayed, ate and held evening talks was a rather large old house that served to house the overflow of antiques from his retail outlet. To the rear of the building was a large walled in area where we held the workshop.

Viliam Simek and daughter with workshop group.

Dinner at Viliam’s permaculture-antique warehouse.

The participants of the Slovakian workshop were the same mix of nationalities that we had found in Estonia and Denmark, however, this group seemed to have more from the eastern European countries such as our old friend Paulina Wojclechowska of Poland who had worked with us years back in Mexico, Radoslaw Barek – architect and professor from Poland, the scientist Meszaros Attila from Hungary and others with equally complicated Eastern European type names. There were also five Germans in the workshop, all of them skilled with backgrounds in straw bale and earth plasters. We had just seen some very impressive straw bale buildings they had done in Germany at the eco-village Sieben Linden and it was fun to meet them in person.

The areas that we had available for hands-on training included a small old house – almost a ruin, a chicken coop built with a token of natural building techniques and a straw bale wall that was under construction when we arrived. The straw bale wall gave us an opportunity to apply the thick straw/clay plaster we typically use for our base coats on straw bale walls. Actually, we use it many other applications, but that is its most common use. We love the mix because we can fill out the walls to a depth of an inch or more all in one coat. Mixed well, it doesn’t crack, is very strong and flexible and will wear slowly when exposed to rain. Depending upon the clay, the mixture is typically somewhere around 1 part clay, 1 chopped straw and 1/2 sand. If the clay soil we are using has naturally occurring sand or aggregate, we may not add any additional sand. It can be mixed by hand, by foot if there is a large enough container and with a mixer if extra water is added.

Viliam’s natural building chicken coop.

Straw/clay plaster mix.

Applying the mix on one of those great Slovakian rainy mornings.

One coat of plaster applied.

The combination of weather conditions and limited workspaces presented us with a challenging set of circumstances. All things considered, our hostess Zuzana Kierulfova, had done a commendable job of coming up with a suitable location for a workshop where people could also be housed and fed especially considering that Slovakia doesn’t really have a tradition of straw bale or alternative building. After removing many layers of old and failing plaster from the old building, building enough of the straw bale wall to receive plaster and making preparations for wet weather, we created an environment suitable for teaching. Considering the condition of the old house when we arrived we were able to leave some very beautiful plaster work on the inside.

The basic clay we had to work with in Slovakia was beautiful, it was provided by a fellow who supplies local potters, very similar to what we found in Denmark. Michal Navratil, owner of “Picas,” a company that offers clay plasters and other raw materials, provided us with colored clays and the chopped straw we needed

Workshop group beginning a clay wall carving.

Detailing by Athena.

Finished carving.

One of the great things about our trip was discovering new tools that we don’t have back home in the States. The workshop in Slovakia added a couple to our list. When plastering existing buildings one inevitably encounters walls that need to be scraped or textured before another coat is applied. This particular tool was invaluable for preparing the walls in one of the rooms we used for the workshop to remove the cracked, dusty and failed plaster.

Wall scraper.

Another simple tool that was essentially a rough version of a stovetop sauce pan was this pan used to scoop and move plaster from buckets and tubs. The Slovakians traditionally used them to apply plaster but I have to admit that I wasn’t really impressed with the technique.

Slovakian plaster pots.

Another thing we noticed was that the price of tools in Slovakia seemed to be much less expensive. On a field trip to the old town of Trnava, instead of sightseeing, many from the group spent most of their time in the local hardware store buying tools.

Plasterer Barbara Foth loading up on tools.

Steffen Knofler with his new plaster screed keeping to the tradition of straight German walls.

Slovakia gave us the opportunity to work a little more with basic hawk and trowel skills than we had in Estonia and Denmark. There was enough time prior to the workshop to make Japanese style hawks for the entire group. This style of hawk is nothing short of extraordinarily functional, comfortable and easy to use. The western style hawk with its single pole pales in comparison. We have used nothing else since we were introduced to them some years back. These are available from our son Arjuna (Oso) through The Canelo Project for $25 plus shipping:

Angela Granzotto and Sasha Ralcevich of Italy learning to use the trowel and hawk.

The mixes we used with these tools was very much the same as everywhere else we had been. For the most part it was by volume 1 part clay, 1 1/2 to 2 parts sand, 1/2 straw. This was what we typically use as the middle coat, however, with some extra detailing, it can serve as a finish coat. The sand and clay were screened to 1/8 inch or 3 mm.

When it comes to putting plaster on the wall, the same can be said for Japanese trowels. Admittedly, there are many different ways to apply plaster to a wall. In Mexico, as is the case in much of Europe, you can simply throw it on the wall with a mason’s trowel, screed it to level, float it and be done. Much of the world uses their hands. However, if you are going to use a trowel, then Japanese trowels are far superior to anything we’ve ever used whether it be ergonomics or the type of finish they give. In addition, there are a broad range of sizes and types depending upon the need. The only place they can be easily acquired in the States is from Tom and Satomi Lander at: // Plus they will go way out of their way to talk and consult with you over trowel selection. It is possible to buy the thin flexible Japanese trowels elsewhere, but for all practical purposes they are only useful for very delicate and thin finish coats. I should also add that when it comes to buying tools and materials, I have to go to great lengths before ordering from afar.

Burkard Reuger of Germany inspecting the medium coat plaster mix. You have to love Burkard, or “the professor” as I called him. He watched everything we did like a hawk and had a measurement for everything. If we needed the calculate the amount of mix we needed for a wall I would simply call upon him. In response he would tell me: for every square meter of wall surface, plaster a centimeter thick, 10 liters of mix is needed. He’s kind of like a natural building version of Google and a calculator rolled in to one, onsite and ready to provide info at the drop of a hat.

Another great tool found in Europe is the German lightweight poly float. They’re perfect for leveling out walls and removing imperfections prior to final smoothing. German plasterer Barbara Foth of Germany is using it here on a lime plaster prior to finishing. We didn’t get so far as developing a contact for these floats while we were there, but here is a link to one that we found on line: //

Burnished lime/clay finish. The mix for this wall varies from the basic clay and sand mix described above. As I remember we used almost an equal part of very finely chopped straw to the clay and about 1/2 as much sand as the clay.

In addition to plaster work we did both earthen and tataki floors in the chicken coop.

Athena closing herself into the middle of the earth floor.

Finished floor

Constructing the “tataki” floor sample with improvised tamping tools.

Finished “tataki” floor. This type of floor is one we learned from the Japanese. It uses a sandy clay soil that has a percentage of gravel combined with a little lime and “nigari” which is used to make tofu. The common version is magnesium chloride which can be gotten almost anywhere and does not need to be sealed with linseed oil like the earth floor.

Another side project we did apart from plastering walls was refinishing an old masonry oven. This created an opportunity for participants to do some sculpting with the mixes. Seemed that the Germans in particular liked this project in that they are already masters of the “straight wall.”

Oven in its original state.

Refinishing in progress.

Finished oven with fresco color being applied to the lime/clay plaster.

And I think that is all I need to say about Slovakia. All in all it was a marvelous experience, we would not have traded for anything. Next on this blog will come our visit to Germany and now that our work schedule has slowed down a little, I should be able to manage more frequent posts. And if you didn’t notice, there is now an option on this blog to subscribe to it so that whenever there is a new post you should be notified by email rather than having to check.

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  1. another excellent and informative post from the canelo chronicles,again with great photography!

    The 2 tools you show pictured in your post both have names and are old tools mostely forgotten by the modern plasterer the "stovetop sauce pan" is by real name called a "baltic scoop" and the "scraping tool" is actually called a "plaster plane" the plaster plane can have either flat blades or in your case serrated blades.

    that carved clay wall is simply outstanding!would love to see more shots of that as it progressed through out the day.

    Interior Exterior Lime Plastering

  2. Steve,
    Thanks for the information on the tools. For fun I'm going to run them by the Slovakian folks and see if they know the names. Once again, much appreciated. When I get caught up posting something on Germany perhaps I can add some additional carving photos there.


  3. I m 36 years called Yaacoub am a professional in the construction of the earth I am originally from Morocco where there is a lot of building in earth I want to be able to have your polish
    one of your expereince in the building architecteur earth thank you
    for your understanding.

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