The Walls and Ceilings

Advice and information on types of walls and ceilings and how to implement construction of them.

By Bob Vila | Updated Nov 5, 2013 8:19 PM

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

Walls and Ceilings

Photo: Flickr

The completed rough frame of the structure allows you to get a physical and a visual sense of the new or renovated space, but it is only after the walls and ceil­ings are installed that you will get a clear sense of the final feel and dimension of the rooms. You will have decided long before this stage in construction what material is to be used for wall and ceiling surfaces, but the common options these days are gyp­sum board (a.k.a. drywall or Sheetrock) and wood paneling.

The gypsum board comes in sheets, 4 feet wide and of various lengths, with 8-, 10-, 12-, 14-, or 16-foot sheets being generally available. If you’re a home handyperson, you’ve probably “hung a little ‘rock” over the years, so you may know the drill. If you don’t, it’s simply a matter of fastening the heavy sheets to the wall studs or ceiling joists using specially designed nails or screws. The heads of the fas­teners are then recessed just beneath the surface of the gypsum board.

With the drywall in place, the volumes of the room have real definition. Often this is an emotional high point in a renovation: a great leap forward seems to have been made. When a professional drywall crew does the work, the change can take place in a matter of hours. On the other hand, if you have a one-person renovation crew, he or she may take a piecemeal approach and finish the rough framing, mechanical installations, and wallboard in one area at a time before going on to the next. That makes for a more gradual transformation.

Once the sheets of gypsum board have been hung, the next stage is the application of a plasterlike paste called joint compound. Joint compound comes in the big buckets that are ubiquitous at construction sites. It’s a specially formu­lated mixture of gypsum, water, and additives that remains workable for several hours but dries overnight. It’ll fill the nail or screw holes and, along with strips of tape, the joints between the sheets producing a uniform surface. Over a period of several days, three or more layers of compound will be applied, though with a crew of dry wallers, they may use a rapid-drying compound, enabling them to do the job much more quickly. Gypsum board ceilings are done in the same way as the walls.

Not all drywall is the same. Most drywall is a dull gray color, but waterproof drywall, which is often required (and always a good idea) in kitchens and baths, is usually a greenish color. It contains a layer of fiberglass that is water resistant. In shower stalls, a cement board sometimes called tilebacker may be used. It typically comes in smaller, 3-feet-by-5-feet, sheets. This cement board is specially designed to withstand the dampness that can work its way between the joints in ceramic tile over time without becoming spongy and even collapsing as traditional drywall will when subject to prolonged dampness.

You may also decide to go to the added expense of skim coating the entire surface of the wall board with a thin veneer of plaster. If you do, the dry- wall sheets will have a bluish hue and the paper surface a toothier finish to enable the plaster to adhere. Skim coating typically adds considerably to the cost, often half again as much as the simpler tape-and-compound approach. However, it can add significant soundproofing, as well as a more durable, attractive finished surface.

This was for almost two centuries the preferred method of creating a plaster wall. There are no sheets of drywall, but the bays between the studs were spanned with strips of wood lath; more recently, wide bands of wire mesh called expanded metal lath have come into general use. The next stages are the same whatever the lath, with the application of three separate of coats of plaster. First comes a rough or base coat of plaster mixed with sand that oozes through the gaps in the lath to form keys, which, upon hardening, hold the plaster surface in position. Next is a slightly finer plaster mix called a brown coat, and finally the smooth-as-glass finish coat. Obviously, this is a labor-intensive process requiring considerable skill. Therefore it is expensive, typically two to three times the cost of drywall. Is it worth the added cost? That’s your call. To some people, the added soundproofing, durability, patchability, and finish are worth the expense.

If anyone tries to tell you plastering is easy, just refer to two attache cases plasters use that must be full of tools. Every tool has a distinct purpose and each requires skill to use. Two key ones are: The basic plasterer’s trowel and the hawk, used to hold plaster at the ready for application.

In the case of paneling, prefabricated veneered sheets are available, as are precut widths of solid boards. With the veneered sheets, the finish has already been applied: it saves time and money, but generally looks like it did, too. You, along with your designer and contractor, will have to resolve what gives you the look you want at a price you can afford.

There are ceiling alternatives as well. Ceiling tiles are a good option for some, while dropped ceilings may be suitable if the job involves remodeling an older home with ceilings that are judged for energy reasons to be too high. But once again, keep in mind the historical integrity of the building. More often than not, the high ceilings are crucial to the appeal of the room, and lowering them may leave the room with a feeling that something is amiss.