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Drywall 101: How To Install Drywall

Even a do-it-yourselfer can hang and finish drywall like a pro. Here's some info to get you started.

So what is drywall anyway? Well drywall is usually made of gypsum with a sheet of brown paper on its back, and a sheet of soft, slighty fuzzy paper on its front. They usually come in a light gray color, but different applications (fireproofing, bathroom moisture, etc.) call for different types which usually come in other colors like blue or green. Drywall sheets are sold in pairs and are available in 1/2 and 5/8 inch thicknesses. 1/2 inch is good for walls, but the thicker 5/8 inch is best for ceilings and soffits.

There are basically two ways to hang drywall; horizontally or vertically. There are advantages to both depending on your situation. The main rule of thumb when hanging drywall is to get the absolute fewest joints possible.

Don't get out of joint

A joint is where two sheets meet. Smoothing the joint out with joint compound (also called "mud") to make the sheets look uniform is practically an art in and of itself so the fewer joints you get, the better. To minimize the number of joints, professional drywallers like to use really long 12 to 16 foot sheets. They'd hang two sheets horizontally one above the other ending up with a single long tappered joint and a handful of butt-joints. Handling sheets of this size is definitely a two-man job unless you have specialized equipment.

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The long edges of drywall sheets are tapered meaning there's a built-in grove that allows your joint compound to collect. This results in a nice smooth surface. When two tapered joints meet up, its fairly easy to work the compound to end-up with a very nice, very flat joint that you'll never see once its painted.

Butt-joints on the other hand occur when two sheets join up end-to-end. There's no room for joint compound to go so more work is necessary to sand down the compound to flatten the joint out.

Just hanging around

If you're alone to hang your drywall, you'd have to resort to using smaller sheets, usually 8 feet long and installed vertically. You would stand the sheets on end and screw them to your framed wall. Each 8 foot long sheet can perfectly span the height of a typical wall from floor to ceiling in one shot.

The joint you get from horizontally mounted drywall is easier to hide as it sits below eye level, and drywall finishers find it easier to work at a uniform height. You have more joints to deal with if you vertically mount your sheets, but each sheet is easier to handle for the do-it-yourselfer. This is my prefered route. If you attach the drywall to the studs properly, and take your time with the joint compound, you can easily hide any joints.

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If your ceiling is higher than the standard 8 feet, or have a vaulted ceiling, you'd have to rethink your drywall strategy and choose the approach (vertical or horizontal) that you're most comfortable with.

To attach the drywall to your wall, you would use either drywall nails or drywall screws. Nails require a special hammer with a rounded head that can push the nail into the sheet so the nail sits just below the sheet's surface. Drywall screws have a round, tapered neck allowing them to be driven below the surface of the panel without breaking the delicate paper. This makes it very easy to hide the nail or screw with joint compound.

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Don't drive the screw in too far or you'll risk breaking the paper. You'll also crush the gypsum board reducing the screw's hold on the sheet. If you do break the paper, gently remove the screw and drive it in elsewhere. You can use a box cutter to trim away any torn paper edges.

Drive your screws about 16 inches apart along the studs, nails about 6 inches apart. If you're hanging your sheets vertically, you're going to loose track of where the studs are, so once you have three or four screws in to hold the sheet in place, do a quick pass with a stud finder to spot them. Make a mark and use a level to draw a fine line from the top of the sheet to the bottom to help show where you should drive your screws or nails.

If you're hanging drywall over concrete, its important the panels not come into contact with the floor because they'll suck up moisture. Leave about half an inch to an inch of space between the floor and your drywall sheet. You can use a scrap piece of wood or drywall to act as a spacer. Screw the panel in, remove the spacer, and voila.

Walk the line

When hanging your drywall, make sure the edges line-up with the center of the studs. This is to leave enough room for the next sheet to be screwed or nailed to that stud. If you don't line-up the edges of each sheet over a stud, there'll be nothing to support the neighboring sheet's edge and some flexing will occur if you press on the finished joint. A crack will develop and your drywall job will look amateurish.

Take a look at Introduction to Wall Framing for Home Theater Builders for more information.

Once your drywall is mounted its time to finish the joints. A thin coat of joint compound is applied across the entire length of the joint. Then a strip of drywall tape is applied effectively bridging the gap between both pieces of drywall. The tape can be paper or a semi-rigid mesh material.

Once you put on your tape, another coat of compound is applied and smoothed out. Once it thoroughly dries, give it a light sanding to smooth out the rough edges. Joint compound is water based and tends to shrink as it dries, so you'll have to apply a few coats.


An excellent resource on how to apply joint compound can be found at Mike Bell's Drywall School. I recommend you follow Mike's suggestions on how to finish drywall, but don't be afraid to slide into your own style. You'll be rough at first, but near the end of your job you'll be an old pro.

Making the cut

There's no doubt you'll have to cut your drywall to adapt it to your room or project. The tools you'd need here are a box cutter and a drywall square. A drywall square makes it very easy to make nice, straight cuts along the width of a sheet.

You don't have to actually cut through the entire thickness of the sheet; just score the soft paper side of the sheet, flip it on its side, and put a bit of pressure along the back of the cut. The sheet should snap in two with a nice line. Then just finish off the cut by cutting the paper on the backside. This is similar to cutting floor tile or glass.

To handle more tricky cuts like electrical outlets and lighting fixtures, you would use either a drywall saw or a drywall router.

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Drywall looks light, but believe me when I say it isn't. Hauling 40 sheets of drywall from your garage down to your basement or to another room can get old pretty fast so you should definitely pick up a panel carry. If you can sucker one of your friends to help you ("You wanna to come over for steaks?" Sure!), then terrific. Otherwise, a panel carry is a definite life-saver if you're alone.

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