How To Stucco Earthbag Projects FAST With A Tirolessa Sprayer: Product Review

A combo How To and Product Review? Why not?

By the time I’d finished putting two coats of stucco on our earthbag-walled home via handheld trowel (which took a couple of weeks), the idea of trying a Tirolessa USA stucco sprayer for the next project was looking mighty fine. A single wheelbarrow load of mixed stucco usually required twenty minutes or more to apply by hand; an air-powered sprayer would logically beat that easily.

That next project turned out to be a 40-inch high “sound baffle wall” built to block some of the noise generated by our portable generator (we live off grid) from reaching my wife’s bedroom window. The exhaust points straight at said opening from a range of roughly 20 feet, yet it made more sense to build the low wall–22 feet in length with 3 short buttress walls at right angles–than it did to reposition the generator.

By the time the Tirolessa USA box arrived, however, so had the summer monsoon rains. Nothing to be done until September.

Which was fine with me. Applying stucco is hard, nasty work. Yay, procrastination!

...By the time the box arrived, so had the monsoon rains.

…By the time the box arrived, so had the monsoon rains.

Not that we could resist taking a peek inside said box!

Not that we could resist taking a peek inside said box!

Today, September 9 (2010) turned out to be D-Day. Yeah, that’s Do It Day for those of us who’ve been stalling all summer. Labor Day is over; time to do some labor. The Tirolessa USA stucco sprayer, first of all, promised to be a joy in action…and it definitely delivered on that promise. A few key points discovered throughout the stucco mixing-and-spraying process were:

1. This stucco sprayer is extremely well made. The construction is solid, all metal (except for one neoprene O-ring) and shouts Made In America all the way. It’s a unit that can be passed down from one generation to the next unless you do something dramatic like, say, dropping a bulldozer on the hopper.

2. The balance between hopper and handle is ideal. Four wheelbarrow loads (eight 80-pound bags of stucco premix plus water) were applied during the session, and I never once felt one hand/arm was working harder than the other.

3. My air compressor was too small. The instruction sheet makes it clear that a minimum of 90 psi is needed for proper sprayer function, and what we had on hand does more than that. Unfortunately, it’s also an aged beastie procured from a pawnshop in Butte, Montana, many moons ago–heck, the thing is probably old enough to vote. Its little pancake style tank doesn’t provide much reserve capacity, which meant that the electric motor had to hum constantly to keep up. After about five hopper loads, unfortunately, it would overheat to the point of blowing the breaker on our generator. Make sure you have, or purchase, or borrow, or rent, a large enough compressor! You’ll be glad you did.

4. This thing is perfect for spraying stucco directly on earthbag projects without the use of wire stucco netting! I just had to try that, in part because Pam and I are considering a dome project–not to live in, but to serve as a storage unit–and needed to know if such a technique was practical…or not. Turned out it was. (Note: It’s possible to do this with a trowel, but it takes a long time and a whole lot more stucco to get the job done.) Yay for Tirolessa!

5. SPEE-EE-EE-EED!! Until you use one of these, you can’t possibly understand just how quickly this thing can go through stucco. Instead of requiring twenty minutes to empty a wheelbarrow, the sprayer did the job in more like two minutes (if dipping the hopper for fast reload) and never more than five minutes (if taking the time to shovel stucco into the sprayer each time instead of dipping). The hopper holds at least ten pounds of stucco and can be emptied in a matter of seconds.

6. There is a learning curve, but it’s steep and quick. I discovered with the first load that it was pretty easy to miss a few deep cracks–any earthbag project has plenty of those–if I held the sprayer at the wrong angle and/or moved the hopper at the wrong speed (usually too slowly, oddly enough). Fortunately, a quick touchup is no problem.

 Hopper...attached to handle...attached to air hose...ready to rock and roll.

Hopper…attached to handle…attached to air hose…ready to rock and roll.

One wheelbarrow load applied.

One wheelbarrow load applied.

Getting there.

Getting there.

Now, I have a deeply ingrained habit of working alone, but I’ve got to say that (a) most projects documented online seem to involve larger crews, and (b) this Tirolessa USA stucco sprayer is so fast that a “lone wolf” is actually at a disadvantage. Oh, a guy like me can (and will) still use the sprayer to good effect–but the most effective system may well involve at least five men (or women!):

1. Two people mixing stucco constantly. (At least two!)

2. One man handling the sprayer. (Note: You might want to switch off a bit. Besides providing cross-training, it’ll keep your fingers from cramping weirdly an hour after end-of-shift as mine did…until I popped a potassium pill, that is.)

3. One doing nothing but shoveling stucco into the hopper from the wheelbarrow. Believe me, his “resting time” between hopper-loads will be brief!

4. One handling a trowel, going right behind the hopper handler to smooth the surface (if a smooth surface is desired). A nice, thin surface layer over earthbags can start drying awfully fast in a hot wind (as we had here today).

Doing it that way, slapping a coat of stucco over an entire home-sized dome could be easily done in a day. A short day. Shucks, I was using the small jets (the Tirolessa USA stucco sprayer comes with a full set of both “large” and “small” jets as standard equipment).

In truth, this unit is so good that it made me look bad on every other part of the process. But it was worth that bit of ego-bashing. Several times–mostly when my undersized air compressor had to cool down and there was still stucco left in the wheelbarrow–I slapped up a bit of stucco using the old trowel method.

Let me tell ya, folks, that’ll convince you to try one of these machines if nothing else will.

The earthbag-walled house I stuccoed completely (2 coats) using nothing but a handheld trowel. For a man (like me) who works alone, that's the way to go...but if you've got a 3 man crew, the Tirolessa sprayer is a lot faster.

The earthbag-walled house I stuccoed completely (2 coats) using nothing but a handheld trowel. For a man (like me) who works alone, that’s the way to go…but if you’ve got a 5 man crew, the Tirolessa sprayer is a lot faster.

How to rate the product? Hm. Well, it’s light years faster if you’re facing a big project with a five man crew. On the other hand, it does require a sizeable compressor to supply enough air (a pancake compressor is not enough), and it’s not even worth considering for a loner (like me) who does everything single handed by choice.

Overall, though, those negatives relate more to my style than to the unit itself, so….

Product rating for the Tirolessa mortar sprayer: FOUR STARS.

8 thoughts on “How To Stucco Earthbag Projects FAST With A Tirolessa Sprayer: Product Review

  1. That’s great to hear, Aggie. Awesome to have a reader comment on the post, too. Do feel free to give us an update after you’ve given the sprayer a workout…pretty please!

  2. So many searches: ” cheap offgrid land” “yellow hawk southeast arizona” “mohave green rattlesnake” “cement stucco earthbag” etc. and is near the top of the first page. I promise to update…

  3. Thanks, Aggie (for the promise to update). As for the “near the top” Google rankings for a fair number of my posts, I have an online course I took in 2007 to thank for that. I don’t follow everything they taught by a long shot, but do stick to a couple of simple rules that Google seems to like: Repeat the key words in the title somewhere in the first 90 or so characters of the text, and write “real content” instead of copying other people’s styles or just “writing to put words on a page.”

  4. First off: You can hand trowel an 80 lb bag of mortar in 20 min? Whoa! I haven’t timed myself, but I think I’m two or three times slower. And I think I’m doing well.

    We have a Husky 125 psi sprayer from Home Depot and thankfully it did fine. So did the solar system powering it.

    You’re right. The sprayer works great and saves beaucoup time. Aesthetically, I’d choose the hand work, but I choose carefully when to assert my perfectionism – not this time.

    We ended up filling the cracks between bags by hand on the first pass, then spraying the second pass. With two people, we had one filling, one spraying. We tried stopping between hoppers to smooth, but didn’t get that working to our liking. You’re right, it dries fast. Maybe if we’d had a third warm body…

    I really enjoy putting it up by hand. This stuff that’s the consistency of cake batter somehow sticks to a vertical wall. And then it’s like spreading frosting. Almost playtime. Especially when working inside out of the sun. 🙂

  5. Thanks for posting this update, Aggie. Really appreciate it. As for speed/time when hand troweling, my first-ever such task was to cover the entire Border Fort (exterior walls) as quickly as possible, so I was seriously motivated to Get ‘R’ Done. “Cheated” a little, maybe; used a pretty sizeable trowel (6″ x 12″ surface, I think it was) and shovel-piled the stucco onto that as high as it would possibly go without spilling all over. Then “up-smooshed” the stuff, pressing the “bottom long edge” against the stucco wire and “creaming” it into place in one long vertical up-push. From there, of course, spread and smoothed it out as needed.

    I never thought about trying your system–hand fill the first pass, then spray the second. Sounds like a pretty good idea, at least in some applications (when the perfectionism beast isn’t being too growly).

    like you, I do enjoy putting it up by hand–sometimes literally by hand in that up under the exposed rafters, in difficult above-my-head corners, I actually grabbed fistfuls of stucco and threw them–SPLAT!—into place. But I’ve never done stucco inside, out of the sun. Only exterior stuff.

  6. We skipped the stucco wire. I wonder if that made it more difficult. Wish we had a 6″x12″ trowel to try, but our bags were pretty uneven. In general, it’s fun to have the do-it-yourself option. I get to learn new skills and it makes the place my own.
    Thanks for the conversation!

  7. You’re welcome, Aggie–and yes, I’m pretty sure skipping the wire did make it tougher. It also keeps the stucco from cracking as much, over time.

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