Plaster vs. Drywall: What’s the Difference?

The process and materials used to construct walls and ceilings has been in a constant state of flux for as long as people have been building homes. However, there are a few materials that have stood the test of time and continue to be mainstays in wall and ceiling construction today: plaster and drywall. Though their names are sometimes used interchangeably, these are two different construction materials with their own histories, compositions, and applications. They do share a common purpose: to create sturdy, seamless interior walls and ceilings.

What is plaster?

Plaster is a mud-like composition commonly used in construction for walls and ceilings. It comes in a powder made from a mineral compound like gypsum, and can also be made with lime, clay, or cement. When mixed with water, plaster forms a thick wet paste that helps fortify and smooth a wall’s surface. Plaster is also used for architectural details such as crown moulding, ceiling medallions, and quadrants, which frame features like windows and doors. 

The earliest known plasterwork dates to 7,000 B.C., when ancient Egyptians used plaster to line the interiors of houses and tombs. Before World War II, most wall construction used plaster. Builders nailed lath—slim, tightly spaced boards—to wall studs, which they coated with layers of plaster to form a smooth, solid wall. But the plaster and lath method wasn’t efficient, as it required a lot of lumber and time for the thick, wet plaster to dry. During World War II, lumber and labor shortages prompted builders to embrace using drywall for wall construction. 

Today, drywall has surpassed plaster as the industry standard for walls and ceilings. Every year, more than 20 billion square feet of drywall is manufactured in North America, according to the Gypsum Association. Plaster is still used for finishing walls, but lath has been replaced with drywall. 

What is drywall?

Drywall—also known as Sheetrock, wallboard, plasterboard, or gypsum board—is a panel of gypsum plaster sandwiched between two sheets of paper. Its width ranges from ¼ inch to ¾ inch. 

There are four main types of drywall:

Drywall is relatively affordable and easy to install. It’s also durable and can last an average of 40 years. 

How to install plaster

Most home interiors today that use plaster are made with a drywall base (rather than lath), and then coated with plaster. This combines the efficiency of drywall with the artisan-style finish of plaster. 

To apply a plaster finish, you’ll need a great deal of time and patience. Here are the steps:

How to install drywall

Installing drywall entails fitting drywall panels to create solid walls and ceilings. 

To install drywall panels:

MT Copeland offers video-based online classes that give you a foundation in construction fundamentals with real-world applications, like how to build a freestanding deck. Classes include professionally produced videos taught by practicing craftspeople, and supplementary downloads like quizzes, blueprints, and other materials to help you master the skills.

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