19 tips for better drywall installation
A bit of drywall knowledge will go a long way. So will a helper. Having extra hands around when installing drywall is a huge help. If installing drywall is new to you, or you just don’t feel confident in your skills, you might want to choose a partner who knows a bit about the process.
These tips won’t make installing drywall on a cathedral ceiling super easy, but they will go a long way when it comes to standard wall or ceiling drywall installation.
Keep It Clean
Screws, nails and other items laying on the ground will damage drywall and slow the process. Even tools left on the floor can cause drywall to break if a sheet is laid on top of them.
Start Up Top
Cover the ceiling with drywall before moving to the walls. Wall drywall will help cover up some of the gaps around the perimeter of the ceiling during the difficult portion of the job. Wall drywall will also assist in supporting the ceiling drywall around the perimeter of a room.
Installing a sheet of drywall, then cutting the window and door openings, is often the easiest approach. There’s a much lower chance something will go wrong this way, whether that’s the sheet breaking during installation or you cutting the opening in the wrong location.
A Few Pencil Marks
Adding a few pencil marks to a piece of drywall before it goes up will go a long way in helping you get the first few screws in place to secure the sheet. This is especially true when working alone.
Driving screws too deep will weaken their ability to hold the drywall in place. Driving screws not far enough will cause problems with mudding, priming and painting.
The two long edges of drywall taper by about 1/8" over 2". This is so the main drywall joints are easier to fill and smooth out after installation. Factory tapered edges should generally go side by side, and any edges you cut should also be placed side by side, if possible.
Close, But Not Perfect
When installing drywall you need to be close, but perfection isn’t needed. In fact, using tolerances that are too tight can get you into trouble. Any closer around this outlet might have caused the sheet to crack.
Cut, Don’t Rip
This outlet was cut a bit too tight and when the sheet was pressed in place a small piece broke, which in this case isn’t the end of the world. Resist the temptation to pull the broken portion off, as it will likely cause the problem to get bigger.
A sharp knife will go a long way to ensuring clean, accurate cuts.
Use a narrow drywall knife to apply the drywall compound to the clean joint. A wider tool will help you even out the inconsistencies after a coat or two has been applied.
This photo was taken late in the process of applying drywall compound. It’s hard to tell in this photo, but the wide seams are flat and even and there’s not a lot of excess compound on the wall. Less drywall compound means less sanding, less dust and being able to move to the next step more quickly.
1. Start with a clean floor
It’s sometimes helpful to lay sheets of drywall on the ground to measure or cut them. If there’s even one screw on the ground it will make a dent in the drywall. Even if it is on the back face of a sheet, it will cause a weakness in the sheet. Keeping your work area clean is good practice anytime, but especially so when installing drywall.
2. Drywall the ceiling first
Installing drywall on the ceiling is the hardest part of the job, but the reason to start at the ceiling isn’t just to get the trickier part out of the way. If you install the ceiling first, the wall drywall can overlap it when it gets installed. You can butt the wall drywall up to meet the ceiling, leaving a gap at the floor. The gap at the floor will be covered by baseboard, so that’s not a problem.
Also, when you install drywall on the ceiling there will be sections between joists that aren’t screwed in place. Butting the wall drywall up to the ceiling drywall will help support the unsecured ceiling drywall.
3. Consider getting a second pair of hands
As I mentioned before, a second set of hands can help, especially when it comes to the ceiling. It can sometimes be a challenge working around someone’s schedule, but doing so even if it’s just for the ceiling portion of the job will lower stress levels and leave you with a better result. If after the ceiling is done you want to work solo that’s your choice.
4. “Like” edges go together
The two long edges of a sheet of drywall are tapered in thickness. This taper starts about 2″ away from the long edge and reduces the thickness of the edge by about 1/8″. This is so when the tapered edges on two sheets of drywall meet it will be easier to tape and mud, creating a smooth, invisible joint.
A joint is easiest to mud when two tapered edges meet, but that’s not always possible. Whether it’s to reduce waste or because you need to butt the 4′ wide edges of drywall together (very common on a ceiling) you’ll have to deal with joining non-tapered edges eventually. Mudding and taping is easiest when you butt either two tapered edges together or two non-tapered edges together.
5. Mark sheets with stud lines
Making a light pencil mark on the piece of drywall you’re about to install makes it easier to locate the studs once the sheet is against the wall or ceiling. This is especially true when you’re working alone. Having a few studs located when you’re balancing and positioning a large piece of drywall is tricky enough. Trying to guess where a stud is makes the process even more frustrating and difficult.
You don’t need to mark all the studs; a few main studs or other framing members will likely do. This can also be very helpful around windows, doorways or other unique areas of framing.
6. Start screws before lifting a sheet into position
Very helpful when you’re working alone, this tip is also helpful for when the area where you’re going to install a specific sheet is tricky, for whatever reason. Working in a stairwell, around windows or on a ceiling might make a piece of drywall challenging to position and secure. If three or four screws are already started in the drywall before you lift it into place you won’t have to fuss with fiddly screws or where they should be driven.
7. No protruding screws
A drywall job means you’ll likely drive a thousand screws or more. Each screw is a small area that will have to eventually be filled and sanded down the road. A screw head that’s seated just below the outer surface of the sheet of drywall is fairly easy to fix. A head that’s protruding 1/32″ above the surface or even perfectly flush with the surface is going to provide you with nothing but frustration in the future. Once drywall mud covers it, you’ll eventually sand the dried mud off, revealing a shiny head. Paint will never fully hide it and that screw will stick out like a sore thumb until it’s fixed.
On the other hand, a screw that’s been driven too deep, and has broken the paper face of the drywall, will be weak and may let go of the drywall down the road. This is where a happy middle ground is best; not too shallow, not too deep. I’d aim for about 1/16″ below the surface of the drywall. Most drills and drivers have a chuck that adjusts to limit torque, so experimenting on a scrap piece may give a setting that stops driving at the desired depth.
If your plan is to fix all the protruding screws before mudding that will take a surprising amount of time. While you already have the driver bit in the screwhead do yourself a favour and sink it properly the first time.
And while we’re on the topic of drywall screws, make sure they are driven perpendicular to the drywall’s surface, or one side of the head could be too deep even though the other side is still proud of the drywall’s surface.
8. Screw depth: the exception to the rule
When driving the first two or three screws of a tricky sheet you might want to temporarily leave their heads slightly above the surface of the drywall. Somewhere around 1/32″ to 1/16″ will do. This will provide a bit more strength to support the entire sheet until you’re able to sink a few more screws and be sure the sheet is going to stay put. Just make sure to return to those first few screws and drive them home properly.
9. Install drywall, then cut door and window openings
Cutting weird openings into drywall before you install it can make it very weak, causing it to break as you position it. Leaving a sheet whole (or mostly whole) will allow you to fasten it to the wall safely. As long as you know where the general opening is, you can cut into it and remove the waste after the sheet is fastened to the wall. An oscillating multitool is great for making these sorts of cuts, as you can even run it along the stud or other structural material surrounding the window or door opening. A simple drywall saw will also do the trick.
10. Make notes
Speaking of making note of where openings are, one great way to remember where studs, openings or other important things are is to write them down on a piece of drywall scrap. Sooner or later you’ll have scraps around so use them to jot down a few basic measurements in trickier situations. Often studs are easy to find, but when working into corners or around window and door openings it’s best not to trust your memory.
This approach can work wonders even before a sheet is installed. While it’s on the ground waiting for an outlet hole to be cut, take a few measurements where the box is located, then bring the scrap to the sheet and locate it on the sheet before cutting.
11. Perfection isn’t necessary
Some tasks require tight tolerances. Drywall isn’t one of those jobs. It’s rare you have to be overly accurate, and doing so only slows you down. Being too accurate also leaves the door open to having to shave 1/8″ of material off a piece of drywall for it to fit properly. Tape, drywall compound and other drywall accessories allow you to cover up any small gaps later in the project. Knowing how accurate you need to be is the difference between constantly being frustrated about having to recut something and having the project move along nicely.
12. Don’t force it
When you’ve cut your electrical outlet opening and have the sheet in place, don’t press the sheet into place with excessive force. If the sheet isn’t going into place against the studs properly, remove the sheet, double check your box location and make any adjustments before putting the sheet back into place. Often the opening was cut even just 1/16″ too small or to the side, causing problems. Forcing it into place will usually result in a crack and a much larger problem that needs fixing.
13. Don’t tear the paper
Whether it’s the area around electrical outlets, windows and doors, or even at the edge of a sheet that was cut, resist the temptation to tear any loose drywall facing off the sheet. It will almost always run into the sheet of drywall, rather than towards the edge, causing more problems down the road. Use the same knife you’ve been using to score the drywall to remove that piece of drywall facing that’s taunting you.
14. Keep it sharp
Maybe it goes without saying, but a sharp knife is going to work a lot better than a dull one. It will also reduce frustration and time wasted. Either keep extra blades nearby to make a quick change when needed, or simply snap off the dull portion of the blade and expose a new, sharper edge. A new, sharp blade will immediately bring a smile to your face, not to mention speed up the task and improve the quality of your cuts.
15. Don’t overlap joint tape
It can be very tempting to run the vertical and horizontal tape over each other, but that will create a thicker area of the joint that’s more difficult to cover up and prepare for primer and paint. Run tape in one direction (across or up and down the wall) then apply tape in the other direction, stopping to cut this piece of tape when you reach the first piece of tape.
16. Narrow to wide
When applying drywall compound (also called “mud”) to the joints, start with a narrow drywall knife (4″ will likely work well) and with future coats increase the width (up to about 12″ wide). This will allow you to fill most of the joints at the start of the process with the narrower knife, then feather the edges of the joints with a wider knife at the end of the mudding process.
17. Not too much mud
The point of mudding is to level the joints and create strong joints for priming and painting. Don’t leave excessive mud on the wall when mudding, as it will only have to be sanded off, creating more dust and taking more time. It might also cause you to run out of mudding compound prematurely. Like screw depth, there’s a happy medium when it comes to how much drywall compound to use. It might take some time to figure that out, but for now know that more isn’t necessarily better.
18. Mudding is a process
Don’t get the idea in your head that you can fill the entire joint in one pass. You will either apply so much drywall compound that it will crack as it dries, won’t dry properly or just take ages to dry. It also just simply won’t fill the joints flat and prepare them for paint. Even the best drywallers take a few steps to mud the joints. Three application stages is something to aim for, but if you need another pass or two of mud that’s not a problem. Think of mudding like applying a quality finish to a piece of furniture; you generally need a few coats of proper thickness, rather than one extra thick coat, to give you a lasting finish that will look and feel good. Making sure the joints are invisible now will pay off down the road with a job well done.
19. Prime, then check
After you finish the task of drywalling, and you return from the paint store, apply a coat of wall primer. When dry, go over the wall with a portable light to check for any dings, cracks and other imperfections so you can patch them. The slight sheen of the primer will help you find the areas that need a touch of drywall compound before you apply the paint. This is also a step that can be taken before applying the primer.