The earliest wall finish was probably some form of mud, a crude plaster smeared over stone or stuffed into the gaps between logs. Today, chances are the walls in your home are sheathed in drywall—panels made of gypsum sandwiched in heavy paper. It’s also called wallboard and Sheetrock (or just “rock”), a trade name of the U.S. Gypsum Corp. Easy to work with, nonflammable and durable, drywall has largely supplanted lath and plaster for sheathing interior surfaces. Sheets of drywall are screwed or nailed into place, the joints are bridged with a special paper drywall tape, and then all the cavities are filled with joint compound, universally known as “mud.”
Hanging drywall is easy. Finishing joints is a bit more work, but it’s well within the do-it-yourselfer’s reach. You can’t do it without the proper tools, however. A good cordless drill-driver is indispensable. Joint work requires special knives you’ll use to embed tape and build up the three mud layers so that joints are all but invisible. Take a look at the tools that follow. Most are inexpensive, and all provide the ineffable pleasure that comes from having the right tool for the job.
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The first skill of drywalling is measuring accurately: “Measure twice and cut once,” as the old saying goes. This 25-foot measure is about right for most jobs; anything much longer can be cumbersome to handle.
Once you’ve marked measurements at either end of a drywall panel, snap a line between them with a chalk line. Easy does it—this is not archery. Pull the taut line an inch or three above the face of the drywall and release.
When you score drywall, there’s no need to cut through the whole sheet. One or two firm passes along a straightedge are enough to score the paper surface. If you sharply snap the scored sheet over the edge of your work table, or just stand it up and smack it on the back with your fist, the gypsum core will snap. Then all you need to do is cut through the paper backing to completely sever the section. Keep plenty of replacement blades on hand; a sharp blade saves you a lot of work and ensures clean cuts.
Screwing drywall into place is the only way to go. And the best way to drive screws is with a cordless drill-driver. If you don’t have one yet, here’s your excuse to buy one. It’s probably the most versatile power tool you can have, and for most homeowners, the first power tool to buy.
Magnetic Driver Bit With Sleeve
A magnetized bit is essential to hold screws as you drive them. The magnetic bit grips the screw, while the retractable sleeve reduces stripping and prevents wobbling.
6-inch Taping Knife
The drywalling workhorse is the 6-inch knife. Use this versatile tool to fill nail or screw dimples and to bed the tape in the first layer of joint compound. It’s also handy for repairing smallish holes in drywall, say, anything smaller than a fist. You’ll do a lot of work with this tool, so pick a good one.
10-inch Joint Knife
Once you’ve sanded your first coat of mud, use a 10-inch knife to feather out the second coat. (A professional can actually finish a joint with this tool.) This broad knife greatly minimizes sanding—something you’ll come to appreciate after you’ve finished a few joints.
18-inch Joint Knife
You may have to go to a specialty supplier for an 18-inch joint knife, but it will be worth the search. It takes a bit of practice and a strong wrist to spread a thin layer of an 18-inch swath of mud, but the results are well worth it.
Inside Corner Tool
Make perfect inside corners with this handy tool. It smooths both inside surfaces at once and creates a 1/2-inch inside corner radius as it goes. It’s the only way to do inside corners.
Lend method to your mudness with a proper joint compound container. It holds enough compound for several long joints and allows you to scrape and reload your knife between applications.
Applying and feathering out the mud is the fun part of drywalling; sanding isn’t. There’s an interminable amount of sanding to smooth joint compound once it dries, before applying the next coat. And we know of no way to speed up the process. Power sanders can’t be trusted because they’ll rough up drywall’s paper surface. Damp-sponging joints (rather than sanding them) does the same. A good foam-backed hand sander, whose sandpaper sheets can be easily changed, makes the best of a tough job.
Because of the extraordinary amount of dust produced by sanding a room full of joint compound, get the best respirator mask you can afford—one with replaceable filters. It’ll save you a lot of wheezing and coughing. While you’re at it, buy the best pair of safety goggles you can afford, too.
A friend of ours swears that her shop vacuum saved her marriage while she and her husband drywalled their house. Vacuum all surfaces when you’re done sanding them, and successive coats will stick better. At the end of every day’s sanding, thoroughly vacuum all surfaces—including the soles of your shoes. This is especially important if you’re living in the house while drywalling parts of it.
The aforementioned tools are our essentials. The ones listed below are also worth considering because they’ll save you a lot of frustration on a task that already has plenty.
We’d be happy to sell you the handsome drywall T-square shown here, but truth is, unless you’re drywalling a whole house, you can get by with almost any metal straightedge to guide your utility knife. More than once, we’ve managed the job with a framing square or a 4-foot level.
Make quick work of cutouts and other small jobs with a handy drywall saw. It’s light, sharp and stiff enough to plunge directly through gypsum board when you need an opening for an electrical box. It cuts fast, too, and it’s inexpensive. Keep one in your toolbox: It’s handy for all kinds of rough work.