Natural Plasters & Floors

Join me for another exciting learning opportunity at Wanosh Forest Gardens in Willits, CA. The workshop will be July 13-21st, 2024 and will include 7 full days of hands-on training in clay and lime plasters and earthen floors. This is the 4th year we have been offering this class at this location, and we have figured out how to pack a huge amount of training into a week! Plus you get to see all the beautiful results of previous years’ courses. Check out their other course offerings including 2 weeks of Round Pole Timber Framing in September.

For more information or to register:

Space still available in September Natural Plasters workshop

Hi again-

I just want to let you know that there are still openings in the 2-week Natural Plasters workshop at Wanosh Forest Gardens in Willits, CA. In order to make the workshop more accessible to people who are not able to commit for the 2 full weeks, we have divided it into two one-week segments. You can sign up for either week, or for both.

Week 1 – September 18-23, 2023

Taught primarily by Athena Steen and myself

Topics: wall preparation; straw-clay base plaster; clay and lime finish plasters; Sgraffito (layered plaster carving); proper selection and use of trowels; choosing appropriate finishes for any situation; clay soil harvesting and analysis; plaster recipe development and testing; building design for plaster durability.

Week 2 – September 24-29, 2023

Taught by Viva Hansen and Blair Phillips

Topics: straw-clay base plaster; clay and lime finish plasters; clay and natural paints; lime fresco (pigmented lime mural); relief sculpture; retrofits, maintenance and remodels; earthen floor installation.

If anyone doesn’t know Athena Steen, you should! She is one of the most accomplished and celebrated pioneers of the natural building revival. (See her website at I have had the privelege of teaching with her several times in recent years. Not only is she an amazing artist and a remarkable person to spend time with, she is also the most skilled plastering instructor I have ever seen. She has a remarkable ability to give personalized technical instruction to every student in a class, coaching each one on how to improve their trowel handling and application technique. It’s impressive to watch her turn a group of novices into a skilled plastering team in just a few days.

Register at You can get a 5% price break by using the code Michael5 during checkout. Hope to see you there!

Michael G. Smith

Natural Building and Regenerative Forest Management

Hi Friends-

I’m excited to be part of an upcoming workshop that combines two of my passions: natural buidling and regenerative forest management. Forests throughout western North America are suffering from a century of fire suppression, which in combination with climate change makes our communities vulnerable to catastrophic fire. What if there were a way to enhance the health and resiliency of the surrounding ecosystem while harvesting useful resources for building healthy, firesafe structures and supportive communities? There is! Come join us to learn natural building techniques while redeveloping a reciprocal place-based culture. Hands-on work will feature cement free gabion and gravel bag foundations, round pole framing and furniture making, cob, redwood bark-and-clay insulation, and earthen floors.

Find out more at:

Hope to see you there!


Natural Building at Wanosh Forest Gardens

Hello again!

Over the last few years I have helped teach a number of workshops at Abuela Gardens in Willits, CA. This site is rapidly growing into one of the most active natural building and permaculture learning centers in California. I’m happy to be part of their lineup again this year, at the newly renamed Wanosh Forest Gardens. The workshops I’ll be teaching this year are the 2-week Natural Building Intensive, July 16-29, in which we will be building a cob sauna from foundation to roof (including an introduction to insulative infill wall systems like the regionally appropriate redwood bark and clay) and the Arts of Natural Plasters with Athena Steen, from September 18-29. I’m so looking forward to teaching with Athena again twice this season!

These are only two of a much longer list of practical workshops scheduled at Wanosh this summer, which also include round-pole timber framing, rocket mass heaters, and more. See the complete listing, with descriptions and prices, at

For a limited time, I can offer you a 10% early bird discount for any workshop at Wanosh. If you register by May 20 and enter the coupon code “Michael10” during checkout, you will receive 10% off the worshop price. Please spread the word to your friends and family. Children are welcome at these workshops. Get in touch if you have any questions.

Michael G. Smith

[email protected]

The Art of Natural Plasters

July 2-7, 2023 – Tonasket, Washington

with Michael G. Smith, Athena Steen, Robert Kolden and Avani Leitz

Hello, friends-

I’m excited to announce another workshop this summer in Northern Washington. Last summer’s natural wall-building workshop at the same site was a memorable experience: amazing people, beautiful scenery, and that feeling of cohesion, accomplishment and synchronicity that happens in the best workshops. I expect more of the same this summer, especially since natural plaster superstar Athena Steen will be bringing her decades of technical and artistic experience, and Robert Kolden will be teaching the fine art of tadelakt! This will be an extremely comprehensive overview of clay and lime plasters, with lots to learn both for beginning and experienced plasterers. Check out this website for more details and to register:

I hope to see you there!


Earthen Plasters and Floors

September 12-16, 2022

Hello friends-
I greatly enjoyed last year’s workshop series at Abuela Gardens in Willits CA. In case you missed them, we will be offering two more Natural Building workshops there in 2022. There are other great workshops on offer including a Permaculture Design Course and an Herbal Medicine Apprenticeship. See more details here:

I hope to see you at one of these excellent events!


Michael G. Smith, Sasha Rabin

A great opportunity to develop your skills and understanding of earthen finishes, including:

• straw-clay base coat plasters for sculpting and protection

• endless variations of clay finish plasters for durability and beauty

• durable, water-resistant earthen floors

These techniques are suitable for natural buildings including straw bale and cob, as well for “eco-renovation” of conventional homes, where they can add natural beauty, thermal mass for increased energy efficiency, and health-enhancing moisture modulation. Plus, they are fun, artistic, and inexpensive!

Each day includes many hours of hands-on skill building, with an emphasis on proper tool use, recipe development and testing, and site organization for efficiency and flow. Learn to find, test, and ecologically harvest your own clay; how to choose the most appropriate finish option for your building project; how to prepare various wall surfaces to improve adhesion; and how to design your home to make the plasters last.

Rocket Mass Heaters and Natural Building

July 9-13, 2022

Hello friends-
I greatly enjoyed last year’s workshop series at Abuela Gardens in Willits CA. In case you missed them, we will be offering two more Natural Building workshops there in 2022. There are other great workshops on offer including a Permaculture Design Course and an Herbal Medicine Apprenticeship. See more details here:

I hope to see you at one of these excellent events!


Sasha Rabin, Michael G. Smith, Colin Gillespie

Like two jam-packed workshops in one! Come build a rocket mass heater, a super-efficient wood-burning stove that stores heat in the thermal mass of an earthen bench. Learn about the many exciting RMH variations and possibilities: batch vs. downfeed! cooking! water heating! hypocaust floors! 

At the same time, we will be exploring a range of high-insulation and thermal mass natural building systems including cob, straw bale, light straw-clay, and slipsquatch (redwood bark and clay.) We will also install the drainage layer and the first pour of an earthen floor.

Students will rotate daily between several hands-on projects so that they get to know each of these techniques. Daily lectures cover the theoretical knowledge you will need to design your own project: how a RMH works; dangers, do’s, and don’ts; thermal properties of natural building systems; and how to combine them all into an energy-efficient passive solar home.

Straw Bale, Cob, Light Straw-Clay, Slip-and-Chip, Clay Plasters

Natural Building with Michael G. Smith

Tonasket, Washington

July 24-30, 2022

Learn the techniques you need to build a low-carbon, energy-efficient home in any climate. This workshop teaches the hands-on skills needed to construct both high-insulation (straw bale, light straw-clay, slip-and-chip) and thermal mass walls (cob), using low-cost, locally available materials including clay soil, straw, and wood. These wall systems are easy to learn, inexpensive, beautiful, durable, and fire-resistant. Which one you choose depends on your climate, design, and local resources – or build a hybrid home utilizing multiple wall systems to maximize efficiency and design flexibility!

Most of each day will be spent constructing an actual hybrid home. Hands-on building will be supplemented with daily lectures and slide shows that provide the theoretical understanding you will need to design your home: finding and testing clay soils and other local resources; foundations, drainage and moisture protection; passive solar design; structural and thermal properties of different natural wall systems; how to develop your own successful recipes for cob and natural plasters, and more!

Camp under the trees on this remote and peaceful community property in the Okanagan Valley. Three delicious meals per day will be prepared on site, emphasizing organic and local ingredients. Meet new friends who want to help build a healthier future. Register soon, as space is limited.


Michael G. Smith has nearly three decades experience with natural building; he has taught over 120 hands-on workshops for everyone from school children to professional builders and designers. In 1993, he helped found The Cob Cottage Company in Oregon; the next year, he organized the first Natural Building Colloquium. He is a founding director of The Cob Research Institute, which developed the first building code for cob. He is co-author of The Hand-Sculpted House and The Art of Natural Building. He now lives and farms with his family in Northern California.


The base fee is $840 per person. Our aim is to provide the most enriching learning experience possible that is accessible to everyone.  We have many discounts available in addition to work-trade opportunities.  If you want to join us, we want you to be here so let’s make it happen!  Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions. Natural building sites are family friendly and we welcome all ages (inquire about rates & special circumstances for minors).

  • Family and Friends discount 10% off: Register together and each person gets a discount.
  • EARLY BIRD Discount 10% off: Pay in full by June 10th to receive discount.
  • BIPOC price 20% off:  We acknowledge that many techniques of earthen building have been learned and adapted from cultures around the world that have been marginalized and even destroyed. May this be a way to include people who have been systemically isolated from ancestral knowledge and hereditary wealth.
  • Discounts are cumulative up to a maximum of 25% off.
  • 1 Economic Hardship/Full Work trade available – includes arriving before the workshop to set up and staying after to clean up.
  • Partial work trade for partial enrollment discount is available (please inquire).


Enrollment is limited so please register early. 50% deposit required to reserve your spot. The remaining balance is due upon arrival. Please register here:

Natural Building Intensive

July 10-24, 2021

Abuela Gardens, Willits, CA

  • Cob Straw Bale
  • Light Straw Clay
  • Slip and Chip
  • Ricecrete
  • Mushroom blocks
  • and more!

Instructors: Michael G. Smith, Colin Gillespie, Blair Phillips

Cost: $1750 includes camping and meals. $100 discount for full payment by June 1 and for families and friends registering together ($200 maximum discount per person). Half price for children aged 5-15. Some scholarships and work exchange opportunities for those in need.

Learn skills, techniques, and design theory to create your own beautiful, durable, energy-efficient home from local and site-harvested materials. Most of each day will be spent practicing a wide range of hands-on natural building systems, some ancient and time-tested, others experimental. This workshop teaches a wide variety of techniques that you can choose depending on your climate and local material availability. We will also give you the theoretical knowledge to design a regionally appropriate passive solar home. Lectures, slide shows, demonstrations and tours will cover many topics including: sustainable forest management; ecological harvesting of timber and clay; overview of round pole timber framing; practical tests for soils and earthen mixes, manual and mechanical mixing techniques for earthen building; passive solar design; thermal and structural properties of natural building systems; hybrid natural building design; design for weather and durability; working with codes and permits; integrating art and sculpture; and natural plasters and finishes.

Located 20 minutes from Willits in the heart of Mendocino County, Abuela Gardens is a working demonstration site dedicated to helping the growth and healing of all beings through a continued dialogue with nature, water, food, and medicine. This approach is accomplished by incorporating community, music, healing arts, and silence within a multidimensional design strategy. Our action plan is to communally care for the Earth by growing as much of our own food and medicine as possible, regenerating the forest and aquifer we depend on, building with earth and regeneratively harvested materials as well as developing habitat for a diverse interface of wild and domestic creatures including bees and hummingbirds. This workshop will enhance the infrastructure of the center by constructing a focal point for meeting and eating as well as cold storage for seeds, fermentations, roots and other food.

Three meals a day will be prepared on site, largely from local organic ingredients. Camping is also available on site. Access to the land is somewhat challenging due to our steep unpaved road. Participants will park nearby and be shuttled to the site. Guided morning yoga asana practice will be offered 2-3 times a week, with space available for your own practice the remaining mornings. At the end of the first week, we will take a field trip to the coast where we will visit other local natural buildings and receive a final gift of wood from the mama ocean. 
Register at https://www.abuelagardens.comQuestions? Call Blair at (707) 272-2929 or email i[email protected]

Instructors:Michael G. Smith co-founded the Cob Cottage Company, along with Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley, in Oregon in 1993. He helped organize the first Natural Building Colloquium in 1994. He wrote “The Cobber’s Companion” in 1996 and co-authored “The Hand-Sculpted House” (published by Chelsea Green, 2002) and “The Art of Natural Building (2nd edition, New Society, 2015).” He has experience with a wide range of effective low-cost, low-tech building techniques including cob, straw bale, and many lightweight natural infill systems. He has taught hundreds of hands-on natural building workshops, ranging from one-day earthen oven builds for children to 12-week professional trainings. He enjoys consulting with owner builders to help them design and build successful energy-efficient natural homes. He is also on the Board of Directors of the nonprofit Cob Research Institute, which wrote the first building cob for code in the world and successfully advocated for its adoption into the 2021 International Residential Code. With his partner and children, he stewards a 20-acre organic farm in Yolo County. Learn more at

Colin Gillespie has worked in the construction trades for over 20 years, with previous experience in integrative landscaping and sociology. He has dedicated himself to the study, mindful practice, and teaching of Natural Building, Permaculture Design, and Regenerative Forestry through numerous trainings and homestead development projects. Son of an architect and a physicist, his attention to detail coupled with a passion for creating beautiful and wholistic infrastructure and landscapes has inspired him to produce exemplary structures combining ancient and modern building techniques. Many of his projects feature elegant round pole timber frames coupled with thermally efficient straw bale, coated with robust contoured cob and plasters. Familiar with many systems of construction from stud frame, wood joinery, masonry, and several clay based mediums, Colin thrives on utilizing local natural resources, often straight from the building site. He champions keen observation, considerate visioning, thorough planning, all tempered with good humor and adaptability to allow long term efficiency, functionality and beauty to emerge naturally.

Blair Phillips, founder of Abuela Gardens, has a BA in Environmental Studies with an emphasis in Agroecology and education. He is a certified permaculture designer and teacher who has studied with the best teachers including Dr. Elaine InghamGeoff Lawton,Darren DohertyPenny Livingston, Brock Dolman, Ian Davidson, Steve Gliesman, Michael G. Smith, and Michael Flynn. Blair is also the founder of Common Vision, ( a nonprofit organization responsible for planting thousands of fruit trees in California, many of which were planted on school campuses by a waste vegetable oil powered caravan of earth educators. Blair has worked internationally to propagate an additional 7000 trees in Guinea, West Africa, and to build a superadobe dome structure for a school in Dogon country, Mali. Settling into the hills of Willits in 2012 inspired Blair to develop an intimate relationship with the watershed, designing his farm and homestead based on a regenerative relationship with the surrounding environment. 

The building you see here is the building we will be working on. The timber frame was built from lumber harvested on site to stack functions with watershed regeneration and fire prevention. All of the dimensional wood was milled and pond-cured on site. Walls will be built during the workshop from straw bales, straw-clay, slip-and-chip, ricecrete, and other lightweight insulating systems, with a sculptural cob wall for the Water Altar, as well as arches and other decorative design elements.

Four-Part Natural Building Series, May 2020

Hello Friends-
I’m going to be part of the teaching team for a very exciting workshop series coming up in Willits, Northern California. Over four 3-day weekends, you can learn about round pole timber framing, cob, straw bale, wattle and daub, adobe, passive solar and ecological design. For more details about curriculum, schedule, pricing and registration, click here:
Happy Spring!