The early tradesmen who built New Zealand’s cities and towns were relatively well paid. In Auckland in 1841 carpenters made 16–20 shillings per day – two to three times the rate of a general labourer. While some early houses arrived prefabricated from England, most dwellings – largely wooden – were designed and built by carpenters and builders.
Carpenters worked with traditional tools such as chisels, saws, augers and planes, crafting the material for the building themselves. This changed in the 1860s when framing, weatherboards and trims for wooden villas began to be mass-produced by steam-powered saws. Carpenters put up ready-made frames and weatherboards. They also fitted pre-fabricated doors, window sashes and mouldings constructed by joiners in sawmills. The carpenter was becoming more of a builder than a craftsman. Kit-set house components became more widespread and simpler when the bungalow supplanted the villa as the most common house design from the 1920s.
A 2003 estimate put the number of carpenters at 18,000. Around 30% were self-employed, and many alternated between working for a contractor and working alone on small jobs.
Poor people could not afford wallpaper so they improvised: ‘The inside of the house was papered in the usual Weekly News pictures, pasted to the back of the wall slabs and around the studs with flour paste. There was no such thing as internal lining. The ceilings were somehow done the same way, the paper being pasted to the underside of the shingles and framing and although it was a bit draughty, this was the accepted way of doing things.’1
Paint and wallpaper
In the late 1800s and early 1900s both interior and exterior paints used lead as a drying agent. Early house painters mixed their own paints, adding pigments and white lead to linseed oil. Internal linings were mainly scrim (coarse lining fabric) and wallpaper over rough boarding. Wallpaper was often textured and highly patterned. Internal walls could be painted, varnished or stained.
In the 1860s and 1870s house exteriors were usually painted in soft hues taken from the landscape – soft fawns, greens, red-browns and yellows, with white for ornamentation. From the 1880s to the First World War colours became darker and richer for weatherboards, with trims painted chocolate, maroon or green.
Concerns were raised about the health effects of lead in paint at a 1917 conference of painters and decorators. From 1945, white lead was progressively replaced by titanium dioxide. Yet lead pigments remained common in some types of paint until the mid-1960s. White lead was not banned until 1979.
Rooms were also painted different colours – in Victorian times red was popular for dining rooms and green for libraries. Internal wall linings in more expensive houses were lath (thin strips of wood) and plaster, or internal wood panelling such as tongue-and-groove. Product suppliers, who called themselves oil and colour dealers, often also offered services such as painting, paperhanging and glazing.
Ceilings were typically board and batten (wooden slats). Grander houses had plastered ceilings in the best rooms. In rare cases workmen were brought from Italy to do ornamental plasterwork for the affluent. From the 1900s the most popular decorative ceilings were pressed-metal panels, which gave a highly decorative finish for a lower cost and could be installed by local tradesmen. Ornate moulded fibrous plaster ceilings were also installed by plasterers from the late 1890s in Dunedin and the early 1900s in Wellington, where they were known as Carrara ceilings after the company that made them there.
Plasterboard was invented in the 1890s, and imported from North America in the early 1900s. It was commonly installed by tradesmen from the 1920s, and manufactured in New Zealand from 1927. From 1931 it was called Gibraltar board. The 1951 census recorded 1,553 male and 10 female plasterers.