Why Drywall is Dead (and what I’m doing about it)

Old DrywallDrywall is dead. Long live drywall. I can’t say that I’ll miss him (I’m assuming drywall is a him), but he seemed nice enough. Faster than a three-coat old-fashioned plaster job and less expensive to boot. But there has always been something about him I just couldn’t put my finger on. Something about drywall that made me a little nuts. And it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I figured it out . . .

It’s Too Perfect

Drywall is too perfect! As my plaster teacher said, “It is monolithic splendor.” A rather dubious description of both its perfection and inhuman feel. That what’s been driving me nuts all these years. And while it may not sound like a problem, let me explain.

The problem with drywall’s perfectly flat and smooth surface it that it is rather cold and lifeless. And inevitably it will be marred at some point. That mark, whether it is the inevitable nail pops as the house settles, the rogue door knob, or the multitude of screw and nail holes that accumulate very quickly from our family photos will stand out like a sore thumb. You can patch it, but if your drywall is textured (and most is) you’ll never get it to match.

Not to mention drywall’s other problems:

    • Creates massive waste (off-cuts are almost always thrown out in order to have the fewest seams).
    • Makes a terrible mess of unhealthy sanding dust that is difficult to clean.
    • Takes too long to install and finish.
    • Most homes use 1/2″ drywall which is not nearly thick enough for sufficient sound proofing.
    • Surface is soft and very easy to mar.

Put all that together and you have a system that is ripe for disruption. And I plan to disrupt it indeed!

My Mission

Starting today, my company Austin Home Restorations, will no longer install standard drywall. Even if you want it, I won’t install it anymore. For too long, I have installed what I feel is a subpar product. And by installing something that is not of the quality our company demands I have dropped the ball. So, I plan to use whatever clout I have to promote a much better solution and to encourage my friends and colleagues to do the same.

The Plan

So here is what we will be doing, and I think the rest of the historic renovation industry needs to stand with us. If you disagree, I’d love to hear why in the comments below.

We will be using a hybrid modern plaster wall that, in most cases, is:

    • Faster than standard drywall
    • Cheaper than standard drywall
    • Stronger than standard drywall
    • Has less environmental impact than drywall
    • More attractive than standard drywall

How does that sound? I thought it might interest you. This is nothing I created (I wish!). It is a tried and tested technique that has been used is different forms for decades. I’ve just been studying and practicing the technique for a while now and we are just tweaking and presenting it in a new way.

If we can offer a better product at a better price with less environmental impact, why on earth are we still using the inferior option??

Below is the outline of the plan we are going to follow and I hope you’ll join us. I’ll also be releasing a step-by-step video training series in the coming months to help you implement this solution in your business or in your own home.

Modern Plaster My Way

Our modern plaster is essentially a mix of 50% joint compound and 50% veneer plaster. The combination of the two allows modern plaster to securely adhere to almost any substrate. Brick, concrete, blue or green board, Hardi board, metal and even regular drywall. The joint compound provides the excellent adhesion, and the veneer plaster provides the quick setting and hard finish. I’ll go into much more detail in future posts and the videos, but here is a brief overview of the process.

    1. Hang 5/8″ Drywall – Hang 5/8″ drywall as usual except this time we use our off-cuts instead of trashing them. The amount of seams doesn’t matter because the whole wall will get a skim coat of plaster.
    2. Tape & Plank - Mesh tape the seams and then coat the seams with the modern plaster mix much like when finishing drywall. Then come back after the plaster begins setting up and knock down to smooth out high spots.
    3. Plaster the Wall – After the seams have setup we coat the entire wall with a thin 1/16″ to 1/8″ coat of modern plaster.
    4. Knock Down and Finish – Once the plaster begins to setup we knock down the surface if the client wants it smooth if not we leave it alone.

And that’s it. No sanding, less trash and because the plaster sets up so much faster than joint compound, we don’t have to wait a day between applications. We can apply multiple coats in one day if we are fast enough.

Finish Options of Modern Plaster

Also, with this system there are a huge variety of texture options compared to drywall. You can:

    • Burnish the wall for a super-smooth, almost shiny Venetian plaster look.
    • Use brushes and other tools to create innumerable textures and patterns.
    • Add sand or other aggregates for a rougher texture.

No More Painting

And one of my favorite things is that we can add pigments or even ordinary paint to the plaster! Save the expense and trouble of painting! Your wall gets plastered and painted in one step with only the cost of the paint itself. Adding paint to the plaster creates no more labor for the installer and therefore, only a minimal up charge in materials.

This also creates a wall with the paint color throughout the body of the wall. No more nicks and marks that scrape the paint off. On the bad side you likely wont be able to ever match the color again, but the wall can always be painted like usual when a color change is desired.

The Most Important Thing

And if all the benefits listed above were not enough there is one more reason we’re changing to modern plaster. A plaster wall is handmade and it shows. It carries the mark of its maker. It’s hard to describe exactly what that looks and feels like. The closest description I can come up with is that while drywall is cold and rather lifeless, a plaster wall shares the warmth of the human touch that created it. And that is something I would be proud to build in anyone’s house.

 

Especially for those of you who think I’m crazy, let me hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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by Scott Sidler

I'm a historic preservationist and author. I help old house lovers understand & restore their homes so they can enjoy the history and character that surrounds them more everyday! When not working, writing or teaching about old houses I spend most of my time fixing up my own 1929 bungalow with my wife Delores and son Charley.

http://www.austinhomerestorations.com

26 comments

  1. What if I told you there was a 40 color line based on one 3.5 gal box of joint compound? There are a ton of videos on YouTube. We’re very much on the same page friend.

  2. Charles on said:

    A timely article for us. I will use this technique in the next week or so. Seems like a no brainer (and I have 3 coat plaster experience).

  3. jamie on said:

    scott, i totally love the idea, because it tackles the aesthetic issue. but what about the thermal and acoustic issues?

    i know from personal experience that a drafty lime-plaster-walled old house stays far cooler much later into the day than a tight-building-envelope drywall-and-batting-walled modern house. drywall seems to invite heat in and trap it there, and insulation fails just seems to help to trap it, too. but lime plaster has this magic to it, where it behaves like a large cold mass, radiating coolness into the room despite the blaring hot sun outside. a non-air-conditioned interior of a modern building is intolerable, but an old building without A/C is usually very tolerable up to a certain point, so insulation is not the answer to making a space comfortable. why does everyone focus on how insulative things are without considering the thermal mass part of the equation, or the breathability of the air inside the walls? clearly old homes are outperforming newer homes, so someone, somewhere is really confused and messing up the whole entire world of modern domestic architecture, and it’s a shame. (not nearly the only thing that’s a shame about modern building practices. sigh…)

    i’ve been thinking for a while that maybe the way to go for modern construction (or additions) is to use 1/2″ hardiebacker instead of drywall, and then do the “skim” coat (thicker than a typical skim coat) with a lime-based plaster, about 1/4″ to 3/8″ thick. aside from a lengthier curing time, what’s the down side? it won’t gouge as easily, and sound will bounce off it better. hardiebacker isn’t crumbly, and it’s easy enough to put screws into for adding shelving and hanging pictures, but you’ll never accidentally puncture it or rip big holes, and it’s much stronger for holding heavy shelving. and you can still do all those ideas with aggregates or pigmentation with the lime plaster surface coat.

    are there any things i’m not thinking of that would actually make this NOT work? i’m thinking when we build the little guest house in our backyard one of these days, this is the technique i’ll employ. unless i’m really good at my plastering technique by then, and then maybe i’ll go full-on old-world and do wood lath & three coats of plaster. we’ll see how i feel when the time rolls around ;), but drywall is OUT!

  4. R. Packer on said:

    A lot of unproven claims on this page.

    It’s easy to talk the talk. Drywall is a good system when done properly. If you are having a problem with it it might be because your work is substandard. I don’t know if that’s the case because I haven’t seen your work but I’ve seen what you have written her and it has some serious errors.

    • R. Packer, what exactly are the “unproven claims” you are accusing me of. I’d be happy to address those, but I don’t respond to vague criticisms.

    • jamie on said:

      i think that the exact opposite is true: the more perfect and professional the install, the more cold and flat and perfect the walls, and therefore, the less character, and the less they appear like the old, imperfect walls made of plaster. it’s a style preference, not an installation error. it’s like saying you don’t like modern window glass (i don’t) because it’s perfectly flat. it’s not a manufacturing error, it’s an “improvement” in the manufacturing technology that allows them to make flatter, clearer glass. but i still prefer the old glass that’s ripply and imperfect. he’s saying the same thing about plaster. it’s like you didn’t actually read the post at all. :P

    • Gary on said:

      “Drywall is a good system when done properly”…
      That’s the problem. It is only a GOOD system.
      If you grew up in a house with real plaster walls, you know drywall is crap. How many modern houses have you seen with shrunken joint compound showing every seam. Don’t tell me it wasn’t done right. The problem was you were smearing something full of liquid (alcohol) that had to eventually dry out. Drywall is also too soft. Period. Unless you have no children no pets, and no visitors you will eventually have nicks and dents all over. And of course hanging something on the walls means you need anchors, unless the project lines up with the studs. As for unproven… exactly what is unproven. If you have been in business long enough, empiricism is all you need.
      I did something similar 25 years ago, restoring a brownstone owned by my mentor in Harlem, NY. He was old enough to be my father, and had known the process for decades. The only difference is he mixed Plaster of Paris with the joint compound instead of with veneering plaster which (USG brand) has a crap load of sand added to it.

  5. Bryant on said:

    Just wondering if you use 5/8″ blueboard or does using 1/2 joint compound allow you to use standard sheetrock?

    Also, is there a possible video instructional video coming anytime soon?

    • Bryant, I prefer 5/8″ but 1/2″ works just as we’ll. you can actually use standard drywall with the modern plaster without any issue. The video is like many things on my to do list. I’m hoping to have one out by the end of the year.

  6. Bruce on said:

    Would this technique be useful in a newer home that is built to look very old world European? We have a townhouse that is stone, with vaulted ceilings in the master. We are putting in timber accents but haven’t put the walls back up yet. Thanks

    • Absolutely! For even more of an old world feel you might want to look at clay plasters as well as standard veneer plaster. Any of these hand troweled wall coverings will really contribute to the ‘old world” feel.

  7. Daniel on said:

    Where can I learn more about this method? Sounds like exactly what I’m looking for. Any pictures, or video resources? Thanks!

  8. I think it’s so great that you can add pigments to plaster and not have to worry about paint!

  9. Kyleigh on said:

    Thankyou so much for this post it has totally changed my mind about replacing the plaster in the farm house we are buying lord willing

    • Yay! So glad to hear it! Hope the farmhouse purchase comes through. Let me know if you get in there and have anymore questions. If it’s your first “old house” it can be daunting.

  10. Guest on said:

    I’m a new subscriber & think this is a great idea. My husband & I are in the process of restoring a 160 yr-old house, where most of the plaster is in much better condition than in our first home (a early 1900’s Victorian). This house’s plaster does not seem to have any animal hair in the base coat & the top coat is as smooth as glass. Rather than tear out one room’s sagging ceiling (old water damage caused keys to break from the back of the lathe) we were able to repair it ourselves with Big Wally’s Plaster Magic. I’d checked out a similar product to the one you’re now using in case we had to recoat any areas. I plan to read your previous posts soon & will probably have some questions from time to time. I appreicate what you do–both historic restoration & taking time to blog so others can take advantage of your skills as we work on our own projects!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post. I think there is a big need for quality wall coverings in houses today. It’s been too long that we’ve settled for something as inferior as drywall.

  11. Kathleen K. on said:

    I think you are brilliant.

  12. I wish this post had existed a few years ago, when my husband and I bought our house.

    Drywall versus plaster is the argument that we had when we bought this house, and the debate continued for about a year. The too-perfect finish, which is also usually matte compared to the sheen of old plaster, was my biggest reason for wanting to avoid drywall as much as I could. Another was the idea that tearing out something that had already lasted more than 100 years (just to install something new) seemed kind of ridiculous. Kind of like replacing 100-year-old windows with new ones which will, themselves, require replacement within 20-30 years. I was raised in a home with beautiful plaster, but my husband wasn’t. He just didn’t get it. Luckily cost became a factor, so we kept most of the plaster.

    When we invariably ran into spots where the plaster couldn’t be saved, I decided to try to finish drywall to mimic plaster as much as I could. It isn’t a perfect match by any means, but it looks pretty good. After the normal taping and mudding, I skim coated the whole wall with about 1/4 inch of mud. One it reached a firm state, but still felt cold, I misted the wall with water and pressed a wide taping knife flat against the mud, then I pulled the knife across the surface. I’d never used plastering tools, so I used what I had. The result was a bit more character than drywall, and the water combined with pulling the blade across the wall gave the mud a bit of a sheen. After priming, it was a reasonably pleasing finish.

    Kudus to you for reviving the look of plaster. In my opinion, it can’t be beat.

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