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Building Standards: Drywall

In this series, our goal is to educate you the homeowner on what building industry standards are for your residential construction project. Once you know what to expect, you can communicate to your builder if you want something above and beyond the standard so y'all can be on the same page and (s)he can give you an accurate price.

Today's topic is Drywall

Different levels of drywall finish

Drywall has many different levels of finish that come in at different price points and finish qualities. Don't think of them as one is better than another. Instead, they are different solutions to different problems. Some areas need something covering the walls and that's it, others need to be (almost) as smooth as glass. Some areas you might be able to choose a lower level of finish as others to save on your budget, while others might be the most prominent area in your home and need to have the highest quality finish available. Which areas need what finish is a conversation to have with your builder.

Level 0

Drywall boards are mechanically fastened (glued, screwed, and/or nailed) to the walls. Nothing more.

Somewhat common in unseen storage spaces, workshops, or possibly garages (although not usually). This is the lowest level of labor, so it's also the lowest price point.

Level 1

The joints between the installed drywall sheets have been embedded with joint compound (more commonly called "drywall mud") and drywall joint tape has been applied.

Less common than Level 0. I haven't seen a part of a home left at level 1. There won't be much difference in price between this and level 3, so you might as well go level 3.

Level 2

A thin "skim coat" of drywall mud is applied on top of the joint tape and the screw/nail holes.

Again, not very common. Unless you plan on covering this wall with tile or some sort of paneling, you might as well get to level 3

Level 3

A second coat of joint compound is applied to the taped joints and screw/nail holes.

Wall or ceiling texture

This is what you would use in areas like a garage or anywhere you plan to apply a texture (such as popcorn or orange peel) to a wall.

Level 4

A third coat of compound is applied where needed and all walls, joints, and corners are sanded smooth and the dust is cleaned up.

This is far and away the most common finish for drywall and the standard for most painted walls.

IMPORTANT NOTE: a level 4 finish will have imperfections. Any imperfection that you can't see from 6 feet away, straight on, in normal lighting will be considered within tolerances. What isn't covered in a level 4 finish are imperfections you can only see inside of 6 feet away, at a harsh angle (think looking down a wall in a hallway), or with a special light (like a flashlight or the light of the sun setting or rising going across the wall).

Level 4.5*

This isn't a standard level of finish, just what I consider as one. Some drywallers will offer an additional level of finish where they spray or roll on a thin coat of drywall on the walls after level 4 is complete. They'll often refer to this as a level 5 finish, but it's not quite. These finishes are nice on places like ceilings, hallways, and stairways where a lot of steeply angled light would expose normal imperfections in a level 4 finish, without having quite the cost of a true level 5 finish.

Level 5

Drywall mud is applied to the surface and hand scraped smooth.

Setting light across a wall

This is the highest level of standard finishes. It is very labor intensive and the price will reflect that, so most homeowners will only use this for very specific applications for areas that HAVE to look great. There is no actual perfect finish; every wall made from drywall will have some imperfections when inspected closely enough, but this is the one that gets you closest.

Knowing what level of finish you want in each aspect of your home, and then communicating that to your builder, will give you the best combination of value and quality in your build.

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