A Complete Guide to Drywall Finishing Levels
Oct 02, 2021
Drywall finishing is the final step in the drywall process. Once drywall sheets are hung and installed, this final step entails taping and mudding so the walls are seamless, firm, and ready for paint.
There are five different drywall finishing levels, each with its own group of standards set by the five trades for ceiling, wall, and drywall installation systems—the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry (AWCI), Ceiling & Interior Systems Construction Association (CISCA), Drywall Finishing Council (DWFC), Gypsum Association (GA), and Painting and Decorating Contractors of America (PDCA). All drywall finishing projects require the same basic steps.
What is drywall finishing?
Drywall finishing is the process of mudding, taping, and coating drywall to fortify walls and prepare them for paint. Here’s an overview of how it works:
- Pre-fill any joints or gaps in the drywall with a thin coat of hot mud. This is a powdery joint compound mixed with water before application. Pre-filling ensures all joints, screws, and uneven surfaces are smoothed and covered; it may also hold screws in place.
- Tape the mud. This is the process by which drywall tape— either mesh or paper tape—covers spots where two drywall sheets meet, like flats, corners, or butts (where two non-tapered sheets of drywall meet). Taping covers separate drywall panels and smooths the wall surface. It also reinforces exposed areas such as corners and helps them hold their shape. To begin taping, apply taping mud along the joint, then place and press drywall tape over it. Wipe away excess mud.
- Coat the tape with a layer of topping compound—a powdery mud mixed with water—once the taping mud has dried. Coating is the final step in a basic drywall finish, and depending on the finishing level, gets applied with boxes or handheld knives.
Drywall finishing levels
Drywall finishing is designated by levels—industry-wide standards that guarantee consistency throughout every project.
There are five drywall finishing levels, each progressing in detail and number of coats, starting with Level 1 as a preliminary finish, and ending with Level 5 as a highly polished, carefully layered finish. Here’s a closer look at each one.
Level 1 drywall finish, also known as a fire tape, is typically used in garages, storage rooms, mechanical rooms, and any purely functional area that doesn’t need to be decorative. The standard for a Level 1 requires all flats, butts, and angles to be taped. Corner bead—a firm application that fits onto corners to make them crisp—is installed, and screws are coated once with coating mud.
Level 2 drywall finish, known as a top coat, requires flats, butts, angles, screws to be coated once with coating mud. Level 2 is often found in closets and areas covered with shelving, which can be painted to hide coating marks.
Level 3 drywall finish, also known as a skim coat, requires all flats, butts, angles, and screws to be coated twice. Angles are boxed, meaning they’re smoothed with a wheeled box tool filled with mud, and the corner bead is coated twice. If you’re texturing your drywall— whether it’s orange peel, popcorn, or skip trowel—a Level 3 finish should suffice. Because Level 3 is still somewhat rough, however, it isn’t ideal for well-lit spaces in homes that require smooth walls. Level 3 is mostly used for storage spaces or areas with textured walls.
Level 4 drywall finish, also considered a “smooth finish,” requires everything—butts, angles, flatts, screws and corner bead—to be coated three times, with all angles boxed. At this point, there should be nothing shallow or hollow on the drywall sheet, and no box or tool marks of any kind. Most home interiors are at a Level 4 finish, which is sufficient for installing wallpaper.