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What are the five levels of drywall finish?

The mark of good drywall installation is that you don’t really notice it’s there. Though it often goes unappreciated, drywall does more than just add a surface covering to your walls. It protects against fire, insulates sound, and increases your home’s energy efficiency. But did you know that there are five different levels of drywall finish quality?

The level of drywall finish quality depends largely on the type of room where the drywall is installed. What works in the garage doesn’t work in a multi-million dollar master suite. Our team at Lamont Bros. has worked on hundreds of home remodels across the Portland-Metro Area.  Regardless of where or how we remodel a home, drywall installation is almost always part of the job. We know how important it is to match the quality level of drywall finish wherever we work. 

In this article, you can take a look behind the remodeling curtain and learn about the five different levels of drywall finish. We’ll discuss:

What is drywall and how is it installed?

Drywall is a surface covering material most frequently found on interior walls. It is made of gypsum and installed in panels, which are usually 4ft. by 8ft. Due to the natural properties of gypsum, drywall is fire resistant, sound absorbent, and an excellent thermal insulator. 

Step 1: Secure Drywall to the Wall

The installation process for drywall involves several steps and a few additional materials. The first step is to screw or nail the panel to the wall studs. It’s important during this step to make sure that the edges of each panel align as closely to one another as possible, as this will make the next steps much easier.

Step 2: Tape & Mud

Layers of drywall installation. Diagram by This Old House.

Once the panels are secured to the wall, the next step in the process is to conceal the seams. A skilled drywaller accomplishes this by using mesh joint tape along each butt joint, where one panel meets the other. The joint tape is held in place by a layer of drywall mud. A gypsum-based putty material, mud is applied before and after the joint tape using a wide putty knife. This is essential for hiding drywall seams and screw/nail holes. Joint tape applied over a layer of drywall mud is considered “embedded joint tape.”

Drywall mud comes in two forms: pre-mixed mud and fast-drying hot mud. The pre-mixed mud typically comes in a bucket and is already in “paste form.” It dries and hardens naturally by air. Hot mud, on the other hand, comes in a powder that must be mixed with water and a hardening compound before application. This form of drywall mud uses a chemical reaction to harden, and therefore can dry much faster than the pre-mixed mud.

Step 3: Texture

After taping and mudding the seams, the mud is then sanded down smooth to the panels. After that, it’s time for texture. Drywall texturing can add dimension and style to a space, and can also hide any small flaws in the drywall itself. It is typically sprayed on with a specialized hopper gun and can be applied in different styles. Orange peel and knockdown are the most popular drywall textures.

What are the different levels of drywall finish?

Depending on the location, intended use, and desired quality of a space, there are five levels of drywall finish quality, rated 1-5. In addition, there’s also a level 0. The degree of drywall quality depends largely on which of the aforementioned steps are taken during installation. It also factors in how many coats of mud the seams receive. 

Level 0 – Temporary Application

Requiring the least amount of work or materials, level 0 drywall involves simply securing the sheets to the wall. The sheets receive no mudding, taping, or sanding. Level 0 is essentially the bare minimum requirement for temporary installation. 

This is most often used when the drywall itself is temporary. It’s also common to use a level 0 drywall finish when the owner of the space has not yet decided on the final quality. It can always be taped and mudded later on. 

Level 0 drywall finish. No tape or mud on the seams.

Level 1 – Service & Utility Space

With the first official level of drywall finish quality, practicality is the name of the game. Level 1 drywall is intended to function as a smoke and sound barrier. The installers apply joint tape embedded in a single layer of drywall mud on all the seams and corners.  The drywall is left without texture or paint.

You’ll typically find level 1 drywall in service areas and other places where the general public isn’t intended to view it. This can also include ceiling cavities, attics, and utility closets.

Level 2 – Garage & Warehouse

Similar to level 1, level 2 drywall receives no texture or paint. The difference is that the drywall receives an additional coat of mud over the embedded joint tape. An additional coat of drywall mud must also be applied over the drywall fasteners, hiding any screw or nail heads.

If you go out into your garage, chances are you’ll be looking at level 2 drywall. The surface should be smooth and free of any visible panel seams, but you can still see the mud lines. You’ll find level 2 most commonly used in warehouse spaces and unfinished garages.

Level 3 – Standard Interior

In addition to the previous standards, level 3 drywall must receive an additional mud coating on all seams and corners. The fasteners must also have at least two filler coats. Upon completion, the entire surface of the drywall should be relatively smooth.

By the time you get into level 3, you’re dealing with a relatively standard interior drywall finish. This level is meant to be textured and painted. Typically, level 3 drywall is covered in a medium to heavily textured finish to hide any imperfections. 

Level 3 drywall, prior to texture and paint.

Level 4 – Upscale Interior

To achieve level 4 classification, the drywall must first have embedded joint tape on all seams and corners. After this, installers apply two coats of joint compound over the seams, one coat over the corners, and three coats over the fasteners. The result is a near-perfect blend between panels and seams.

Level 4 drywall receives very little texturing if any. Great attention to detail goes into keeping the surface so smooth. As a result, texturing over the smooth surface would be somewhat counterproductive. Rather, you’ll find this type of drywall finish with either flat paint colors or covered with high-end wallpaper. 

Level 4 drywall prior to texture and paint.

Level 5 – Luxury Interior / Art Gallery 

Getting a level 5 drywall finish requires incredibly skilled work and many hours to complete. In addition to all the taping and coating necessary for level 4, the wall then receives a full skim coat of drywall mud on every surface. The result is a perfectly smooth wall from edge to edge. Texturing over this degree of drywall would be a faux pas of epic proportions. High-gloss, reflective paint is the go-to finish. 

If you’re looking to find a level 5 drywall finish, you’re most likely to find it in an art gallery or luxury home. Because of the amount of work that goes into completing it, level 5 drywall can be incredibly expensive.

How to choose the right drywall finish for your home

If you find yourself confused about which option to choose after reading through the descriptions of the five different drywall levels, worry not. There are a few simple questions to ask yourself to help you decide.

How do you plan to use the space?

The first and most obvious question to ask when selecting drywall finish is “What will I use this space for?” For storage and utility purposes, a level 2 will work just fine. For normal living space, such as a living room or bedroom, a level 3 or 4 might be more appropriate. It is exceedingly rare to see a level 0, 1, or 5 in any kind of residential space.

How do you want to texture and paint your wall?

The type and amount of texture will have a direct impact on what drywall finish level you choose. For high to medium amounts of wall texture, a level 3 finish is the appropriate route. If you want light texture or none at all, you’re probably looking at a level 4. 

The color and sheen of your paint will also influence which of the five drywall levels you need. For matte and low-gloss paints, levels 3 and 4 are appropriate choices. For a wall with no texture and high-gloss paint, level 5 offers the best surface for a uniform shine.  As a general rule of thumb, the higher gloss of your paint and the less textured your wall, then the higher the drywall level should be.

What is your budget?

The final issue to consider is how much you’re willing to pay for your drywall installation. Since the labor and skill required to complete the work increase with each level of finish, so does the cost. For the interior of almost any home, a level 3 is the right balance between quality, affordability, and practicality. If you want to go higher, level 4 typically costs about 20% more than level 3. The cost difference from level 3 to level 5 can be over 30%.

Thinking about a remodel, but don’t know where to start?

The process of remodeling can seem intimidating at a glance. But, with the right remodeling team and a great design, you can turn your current home into your dream home without breaking a sweat. You can learn more about our client-centered design-build process through our website and remodeling blog.

Are you ready to start designing your next remodel? If so, there’s no need to go at it alone. Click the button below to schedule a free video consultation with a member of our design team.