You can’t plaster with new tools

Old Building Tools

We’ve had some minor repairs done at home. A small amount of re-plastering was needed and a local builder undertook the task. There is something very satisfying about a newly plastered wall. All the old bumps, lumps and crack have suddenly gone. There is a new surface ready to paint.

The new work took me back to a comment I noted from a plasterer I heard talking about his trade on the radio about three years ago. Martin Walker commented that a plasterer needs old tools. “You can’t plaster with new tools. They need to be worn in. The edges are wafer thin and the corners rounded off to get smooth finish.”

There is something about working with old tools. They are familiar and need little thinking about to use. There is an intuitive capacity with them which allows the craftsman to do the job apparently effortlessly. Of course the effort went in when both tools and trades-person were new.

In the 1980s Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus (1980, 1986) posited a progression for growth as a practitioner. It can be viewed as a taxonomy but I think that is not helpful. They suggested that as we become more skilful in our capacity we move from being novices through competence, proficiency and expertise arriving finally at expertise in the field. Subsequently Hubert Dreyfus (2001) renamed expertise as mastery and added an additional stage in the journey adding practical wisdom.

If we view these stages as a hierarchical structure then we can measure and assess where we are in the process. But these stages are not things to assess, measure or evaluate. They are a journey towards practical wisdom. Wisdom that is as much intuition as it is measurable skill or knowledge. Practical wisdom is embraced with old tools that are wafer thin at the edges and deliver the results without being asked. Tools and practitioner combine to deliver the skilful outcome that is required.

Walker, M (2014) Saturday Live BBC Radio 4 [29 March 2014]
Dreyfus, H.L. (2008) On the Internet: Thinking in Action. 2nd edn. London: Routledge
Dreyfus, H.L. and Dreyfus, S.E. (1980) A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition [online] Berkeley: University of California Berkeley. available from <>
Dreyfus, H.L. and Dreyfus, S.E. (1986) Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer. Oxford: Blackwell