Drywall Finishing Levels

Drywall Finish Levels. Photo Credit: © Lee Wallender; Licensed to About.com

Updated November 16, 2016.

Dry walling can be a haphazard, chaotic experience--all of that sanding, mudding, and screwing can merge together into a single process if you're not careful.

That's why it helps to know about drywall finishing levels, a set of professional standards codified by the gypsum industry and drywall professionals. Finishing levels tell you exactly what must be done to achieve a certain type of finish.

Not All Finishes Work Everywhere

In a perfect world, all drywall--every square inch of it--would be mudded and sanded down to a mirror-smooth surface.While this is possible, it's not cost-effective. If you're hiring out the work, every step requires an additional visit from the tradesman. If you're DIYing it, it's yet another day or two you add to the entire project.

For instance, Level 1 drywall finish is frequently used in garages and workshops. Why mud and sand a space that is rarely ever seen? On the other hand, a car aficionado or an obsessive tinkerer might enjoy having a workspace that is as clean and smooth as any other wall found within the residential part of the home (I know this: I brought my workshop walls up to a Level 4 finish because I spend a lot of time in there).

Putting in wainscot? Then you don't have to put a premium finish on the lower 45" of your walls. It will get covered up anyway.

Because kitchens are often blanketed with cabinets and appliances, much of the wall space doesn't need a Level 5 finish.

Conversely, ceilings tend to get raked by natural light through the windows, highlighting pops, bumps, and depressions.

For many homeowners, nothing less than a Level 5 will do on their ceilings.

The 5 Levels of Drywall Finishes

  1. Level 0: Level 0 implies that no finishing of any type has been done. The drywall is only fastened to the walls or ceiling.
  2. Level 1: Embed your drywall joint tape in joint compound.
  3. Level 2: Skim a thin coat of joint compound over the tape.
  4. Cover drywall screw holes. You can stop at this level if you intend to cover with tile.
  5. Level 3: Apply a coat of joint compound to the tape and screws. Walls that will receive a heavy texture, such as knockdown texture, are appropriate for Level 3.
  6. Level 4: Apply another coat of joint compound to the tape and screws. Sand.
  7. Level 5: Apply skim coat.

There are three ways to apply a skim coat:

  • Roller: Thin out the mud and roll onto the wall with a thick-nap roller. Scrape off immediately.
  • Taping Knife: Apply a series of six or eight dabs of mud, each about 3"-4" diameter. Immediately smooth the array across the surface. Then scrape the mud off.
  • Spray On: Professionals have spray equipment to allow them to spray on drywall compound.

Tip: Find out how to repair drywall "orange-peel" texture from About Home Repair.

Do You Need a Level 5 Drywall Finish?

Long story short, a level 5 finish is a skim coat of joint compound (also known as mud) applied to a finish that you would normally receive.

The two instances when you need a level 5 coating: the finish will be glossy and/or light will be coming from an angle low enough to highlight bumps and depressions.

The level 5 is like icing on the cake. It's a premium finish that you will not get by default; you'll need to discuss this with your contractor or drywall installer.

Summary: Drywall Finish Levels

Should you discuss drywall finishing levels, in those terms, with your contractor or tradesman? I recommend discussing the eventual effect you want to achieve rather than throwing around terminology.

As a DIYer, I find the concept of finishing levels valuable because it aids me in remembering that not every room needs a Level 4 finish (and certainly not a Level 5 finish). It also slows me down and helps me keep each process separate.