Woodshop: Installing Drywall

Drywall is a magical material. It covers walls, it hides plumbing and electricals and HVAC, it accepts any kind of paint job, it provides enough strength for a variety of wall hangings, and it’s easily patched and repaired. And all that in a lightweight, easy-to-cut package. But while drywall is easy to work with, its goal – perfectly plumb finish walls free of bumps and visible joints – is not at all easy to achieve.

The best advice I can give you about installing drywall, if you want it to look good, is to hire a professional. And not just any old building professional, but a drywall specialist. Nobody else has the experience and skill to cut the sheets right, align them right, screw them in the right distance, and give you that perfect finish.

Still want to install drywall yourself? OK. Start with the ceiling, then do the walls from top to bottom. It’s fine to leave an inch gap between the bottommost sheet and the floor, because later you’ll install baseboard to cover the gap. Make sure all your joints are factory edge to factory edge – they might taper to make space for the tape and mud that will eventually obscure the seams. Your outer sheets are the ones you’ll cut to fit the shape of your wall.

Scoring a line with a utility knife and straightedge.

Scoring a line with a utility knife and straightedge.

Straight cuts are quite literally a snap. Measure and draw on your sheet the line you want to cut. Then, using a utility knife, score the gypsum board’s paper coating. (You only need to score one side.) Now imagine the drywall is a book and your score line is the spine, and apply force to close the book. Your sheet will break along the score line with a very satisfying SNAP. Just slice through the paper coating on the other side, and your cut is complete. Repeat as often as necessary to get the shape you need… and remember, once you snap a piece off, you can’t put it back.

Drywall sheets are usually screwed into the studs, not nailed, because the impact of a hammered nail can crack the gypsum. Drywall screws hold great, but a screw head can easily penetrate the outer paper coating, making the connection useless. You’ll need a special drill bit with a gauge that stops the drill as it reaches the wall surface. You’ll also want to run a straightedge across the studs to confirm they’re all in the same plane.

Screwing a drywall sheet to the studs behind it.

Screwing a drywall sheet to the studs behind it.

Here we go. Hold up your cut (or whole) sheet of drywall so the seams are flush with all the seams surrounding it, tack-screw it in a couple places, check alignment, and finish screwing. Don’t leave any part of any screw head sticking out beyond the wall surface, or you’ll be cursing when you go to paint. Also, make sure every screw catches on a stud behind, or it’ll get stuck partway embedded. Any mistake, you’ll need to pull out a screw and then fill in the hole later when you tape and mud.

I told you it wasn’t easy.

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