Plaster vs. Drywall

Category: Materials


What we've decided in our own home, how we decided, and why you might do something differently...

Our Review

We generated lots of comments and ideas from our recent post on this subject. We've decided to write this entry in a 'review' format because we made a decision based on our own circumstances, but figured we'd lay it all out for others who may face similar choices in their own homes.

The first thing I'll acknowledge up front is that, when there was some debate and confusion during the decision-making process, Jeannie was right on all of this stuff much earlier than I was or anyone else involved (including some contractors) were. I'm learning I should trust her intuition (and her research!) much more than I probably do...something regular readers of this site probably could have told me a long time ago. ;-)

The second thing to get out there is that we went with regular drywall and we hired the work out. It isn't the original plan we had and it isn't what we'd do under normal circumstances, but it was right for us based on what we needed to do at this time given the fact that we've been living without a "clean space" for almost two years now, along with health and financial issues.

You may or may not do the same thing we did, but hopefully our experience can prove to be helpful regardless...

Material Differences
Plaster is a much older approach to the construction of interior walls than drywall, but both have evolved over the years. There are multiple ways to apply each approach, but their benefits are pretty much the same today as they've always been.

More common, faster to install, less labor intensive, less expensiveLess common, considered higher end, stronger finish, more labor and cost

You can debate and add to these points, but the overall pro's and con's that we saw most often distinguished the two options in this way.

Levels of Quality
Where things begin to get complicated is in the way that each of the two materials are installed. Decisions about technique can have as much or MORE of an influence on the finished quality, feel and cost of either approach. From our experience, few people actually understand all these factors well...this is where my aformentioned respect for Jeannie comes into play.

For plaster, the options today include ways that new plaster walls can be built but also ways deterioriated walls can be salvaged. While we'd already decided our walls had to come down because of extensive damage to the lathe, don't jump too quickly to that conclusion if your own walls just look bad--alternatives for repairing plaster are worth researching and can be less expensive than replacing entire walls.

If you're creating new walls, the most common modern plaster system is "veneer plaster"--drywall-like gypsum panels commonly called blue board. It goes up like drywall panels at first but is finished with a two-coat veneer plaster that ends up looking more like plaster than drywall.

For drywall, there are actually more choices than I hear most people (except Jeannie!) talk about. The first and more commonly discussed choice is in wall board size--sheetrock is available in either 1/2" or 5/8" thickness. The benefit of the 5/8" is added strength, less sagging, and extra sound deadening. On the other hand, 1/2" is definitely easier to work with and less expensive.

You can hang drywall with nails and screws...many contractors hang drywall with nailguns in order to put it up quickly. We are fans of drywall screws because it is more difficult for them to "pop", break the tape and show through the finish.

The next consideration is the level of finishing--I was surprised when J's research turned up an industry standard for five levels of finishing. None of our contractors or the books we'd read mentioned these options. The fifth level seems to go beyond the average installation--mudding all joints and screws--and describes a 'joint compound skim coat' not that different from the plaster veneer technique.

So, beyond choosing between materials, it is important to get specific about the finishing techniques to be used and the level of finish that you want--especially if you're hiring a contractor.

Cost Differences
There seems to be at least as much debate about the real cost differences between options as there is about the merits of each material and technique. While the bottom line is that drywall is cheaper than plaster, the range of material and finishing choices can provide a number of price points between the two extremes.

Regional Influence on Costs
In our own case, the costs also seem to be influenced by geography. While in a previous post Sully6 quoted a 25% price premium for plaster according to a This Old House article, we haven't seen the two price points to be that close here in Chicago. Checking around with contractors and our architect friends, they confirmed the quotes we had. I'm guessing that it has something to do with a shortage of skilled plasterer labor (and lots of old houses), a boom in restoration work going on in Chicago (especially in bungalows), as well as an abundance of semi-skilled drywall labor.

However, if you're looking yourself, don't take our word for it. On top of regional differences, on any given day a contractor's slow or busy schedule can push prices in either direction.

Contractors vs. DIY
A surprise to us was the (relatively) minor premium to have drywall professionally hung for us. While we went into the decision expecting to do it ourselves, the quotes and advice we received led us to conclude that hiring it out was worth it.

According to a contractor friend, drywall work breaks pretty cleanly into thirds--1/3 for materials, 1/3 for hanging, and 1/3 for finishing. When we asked for our bids to be broken out, that was pretty close to the truth. So, when we got a drywall bid that was surprisingly reasonable (and from a contractor we trusted), it didn't seem to make sense to take on lots of labor ourselves for a relatively minor savings.

Put another way, I could see myself doing other things on our own that would save us a lot more--with only so many weekends to "spend" we decided we should spend them other ways that will get us a higher ROHI (return on hours invested)!

A Bit More on Our Decision
So after all that, it's also worth mentioning other factors that definitely influenced what we did. If these aren't your issues, you could certainly end up with a different choice than we did (and hopefully also not criticize us for ours!)

As previously mentioned, the second floor project will tap-out most of our equity reserves. As we prioritized our overall restoration, we put some things low on the list that we can wait on but will save up for to do very well--replacing the fireplace, for example. Other things, however, have to be sooner for our own quality of life--a clean and finished master bedroom and bathroom definitely count there. So, we didn't have the luxury of waiting for more funds to trickle in until we put up walls.

Second, the upstairs rooms have a combined total perimeter of (approximately) 235 feet of width and 8 feet of height. The ceiling spaces alone for the second floor add up to (approximately) 685 square feet. A LOT of surface area. Half of that ceiling space is made up of very funky angles. Not your typical boxy rooms. Combine that with 5/8" drywall--enormously heavy--and you have a long, hard road if you are only working weekends.

Last, as Jeannie has written from time to time, she's been working through some tough health issues. She is frustrated by the effect on her ability to get things done. And this also fuels our interest in getting a nice, bright, clean living space upstairs.

We're both very eager to have somewhat "normal" living arrangements again...and getting the walls up is a major barrier to that. Two years of 'camping with a mortgage' is certainly an incentive sometimes to do what we can to move things along! Given all this, we decided that going with a high-quality drywall job, hired out, was the right choice for us.

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One lesson Iíve learned (I know this will sound so obvious, but it was really a revelation for me) is that YOUR TIME IS VALUABLE.

During the first eight months my husband and I lived in our fixer-upper, all of our free time, every weekend, was spent cleaning, repairing, reading and just generally obsessing about the house.

I didnít have time to catch up with friends, read a book or see a movie-óyou know, all the stuff that keeps us sane and centered.

I felt guilty considering hiring people to do the work. (Not to mention there are no money trees in our backyard.) Well-meaning friends offered the occasional guilt trip. "Just rent a jackhammer," someone would say, "Itíll just take a few weekends to fix that."

Well, my husband and I are taking a time-out. Weíre focused on work that makes living here more comfortable. We hire the pros when we can afford to. Progress has slowed, but thatís OK. Iím not going anywhere soon.

So, I guess Iím saying, donít feel guilty! Spring is coming (at least, I hope it is). Enjoy your home and your free time. And good luck with the completion of this project!

Even though you're contracting it out, you may want to pick up a copy of Taunton's excellent book "Drywall" by Myron Ferguson so that you can monitor the job they're doing. I have a copy that is always out on loan to friends :-)

It's the best Taunton book I've found so far (on any topic).

It even covers the "5 levels of finish" that you mentioned.


Huh. Very timely. I'm pondering the same plaster vs. drywall debate in my bath... Er, bathroom that is.

This is one decision we don't have to obsess about. After the PO died, her children ripped out all the remaining plaster to quick-fix the house for sale. I get the impression it wasn't that bad, just a few cracks. Man, I would've liked the chance to repair and save it.

Oh, God yes! You have to hire help when you can afford it for your sanity. The end goal is to have a beautiful house that you can actually enjoy - who cares how you get there?

We just hired out a 60 sheet drywall job (1/2", 4X8 sheets), it took 3 guys to hang it 2 days, and 1 guy finishing the rest of the week. They really make it look easy, and for the 60 cents a square foot they charge for the job its worth it (the sheetrock is about 40 cents a foot). Your time is worth more than that and also you should focus your creativity on something that is a focal point in the room, not the walls which I consider to be 'background'. Also, you could seriously injure your back getting that stuff up on the ceilings. Then you would have ot hire even MORE stuff out like we did last year when my chief carpenter (and husband) hurt his back.
Thinking about your front door yet???

I wrote up a review a few weeks ago on a drywall book (Drywall, by Myron R. Ferguson). It talks about the 5 levels of finishing, and was quite helpful when we hung new drywall in the media room (we did a level-5 finish on the walls), and when we repaired the plaster in our stairway.

I'm not a big fan of hanging and finishing drywall, but knowing a few of the tricks goes a long way.

Drywall hanging is one of those things left to the pros, especially when dealing with a large space. My spouse and I did the bathroom ourselves, and after that hired the rest of the house out - worth every penny considering how long it would have taken us and the amount of stress involved in cutting out all of the outlets and openings. I did however, elect to do a level 5 finish myself - there was not anyone qualified to do that kind of work in our area for our price range. While plaster walls are nice, in the grand scheme of things I think the money is better spent on trim, hardware, tile and fixtures, where the difference in quality is very noticeable. A plaster wall vs a well taped drywalled one? Not so much......

The big item I noticed in your review on the decision are the words 'funky angles' in the ceiling. Measuring and cutting and fitting those pieces would be a very tough job for novices, so I'm glad you don't have to face that task now.

I agree with everyone and especially if you have those hard angles. We drywalled our 10' x 10' kitchen last August and is was really hard work even with a drywall lift. I am grateful neither of us hurt our backs! Good for you to get that done- I am sure there's plenty more you can do...

I am at work right now on completing our kitchen temporary facelift and structural work. One of our cement walls (1 step past plaster, one step before drywall, 1920's kitchen addition, and DAMN heavy, just a skim of plaster) and I threw up all 5/8 drywall on the wall and ceiling. The rest of the house is plaster, so since it will be a painted surface, and to look right, I am going with the level 5 on the finishing scale. I have used about 15 gallons of compound on around 200 square feet of wall, and the result is very nice. I've used the same technique to smooth a damaged textured plaster ceiling, and to screen and fix cracked plaster walls. The results are very plaster, without the cost. It just takes a very long time. You just need to make sure you have patience, time, and the right tools, namely a porter cable drywall sander with a good dustless vac.

Amen to the drywall sander w/dustless vac. Our bathroom was sanded by hand and the dust was horrible. I also have a really funny image of Steve my boyfriend looking like a "goth" with all that white powder on his face. Also, the finish was not as nice. We would never consider drywalling again without a drywall sander and a drywall lift for the ceiling.

Did you say drywall dust?

This was pre the drywall sander. The funny thing is that just behind me is the only window in the room. That window had a fan blowing the dust out onto the street (row house on the sidewalk), and at this very moment a young environmentalist girl was speaking to my neighbor at his front door some 10 feet away from the window about helping to "Give us a fresh breath and make our air cleaner." She looked to her left only to see a white cloud of chalk blowing from my house. Too funny.

Now with the sander, a shop-vac with HEPA filter and drywall dust filter bags, there is no need to even close the door of the room I am working in!


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