Drywall: Levels of Finish

Anthony P. Centurelli, P.E.

Drywall: Levels of Finish 

For two weeks following Hurricane Sandy and a powerful Nor’easter in the fall of 2012, a residence under construction lost power and heat. During the power outage, the drywall “tapers” continued to apply joint compound as the second and third coats. The exterior temperatures remained above freezing for about a month until December when exterior temperatures dropped to below freezing at night.  

In January 2013, the walls and ceilings were primed. In February 2013, when the painting subcontractor applied paint on the walls and ceilings, the homeowner noticed lumps throughout the residence along taped joints and on screw heads. The lumps were not noticed prior to the application of paint. The contractor reported that the lumps on the walls and ceilings are a result of the gypsum board and compound freezing following the power outages associated with Hurricane Sandy and/or the nor’easter. EDT concluded that the lumps on the walls and ceilings were a result of inadequate surface preparation and not a result of a storm or a power outage.

In 1990, as a means of resolving the common problem of describing how gypsum board walls and ceilings should look prior to final decoration and paint, such as non-specific terms of “industry standard” and “workman-like finish”, five major trade associations concerned with the manufacture, erection, finish, and decoration of gypsum board wall and ceiling systems developed an industry-wide Recommended Levels of Gypsum Board Finish, GA-214-10, produced by the Gypsum Association. The five major trade associations are 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 ).

The Levels of Finish are:
Level 0: No taping, finishing, or accessories required. 

This level of finish may be useful in temporary construction or whenever the final decoration has not been determined.

Level 1: Joint tape exposed, bare fasteners. Tool marks and ridges are acceptable.  In some geographic areas, this level is referred to as “fire-taping.”

Frequently specified in plenum areas above ceilings, in attics, in areas where the assembly would generally be concealed or in building service corridors, and other areas not normally open to public view.

Level 2: Joint tape embedded, one coat on fasteners. Tool marks and ridges are acceptable. Joint compound applied over the body of the tape at the time of tape embedment shall be considered a separate coat of joint compound and shall satisfy the conditions of this level.

Specified where gypsum board is used as a substrate for tile; may be specified in garages, warehouse storage or other similar areas where surface appearance is not of primary concern.

Level 3: One coat atop embedded joint tape, two coats on fasteners. Free of tool marks and ridges.

Typically specified in appearance areas which are to receive heavy- or medium-textured (spray or hand applied) finishes before final painting, or where heavy-grade wall coverings are to be applied as the final decoration. This level of finish is not recommended where smooth painted surfaces or light to medium wall coverings are specified.

Level 4: Two coats atop embedded joint tape, three coats on fasteners. All joint compound shall be smooth and free of tool marks and ridges.

This level should be specified where flat paints, light, textures, or wall coverings are to be applied.  Paints with sheen levels other than flat and enamel paints are not recommended over this level of finish. Unbacked vinyl wallcoverings are not recommended over this level of finish.

Level 5: Two coats atop embedded joint tape, three coats on fasteners, “skim coat” of joint compound on the entire surface. The surface shall be smooth and free of tool marks and ridges.

This level of finish is highly recommended where non-flat paint is specified or where severe lighting conditions occur.  This highest quality finish is the most effective method to provide a uniform surface and minimize the possibility of joint photographing and of fasteners showing through the final decoration.

Recall that the homeowner did not notice lumps throughout the residence along taped joints and on screw heads in the primer coat, but only noticed the lumps after the paint was applied. This is consistent with a Level 4 finish. It was not known to the contractor if a Level 5 finish was specified.

More Interesting Facts Pertaining to the Levels of Drywall Finishes

Skim Coats:

A skim coat is essentially a "film" of joint compound intended to conceal small imperfections, smooth the texture of the paper, and create a more uniform surface to which the final decoration can be applied.  There is no specific thickness that constitutes a proper skim coat. A skim coat is not a plaster veneer. Plaster veneers are installed on blueboards (drywall with blue paper), which are not intended for moist areas. Greenboards (drywall with green paper) use paper that is moisture-resistant and is installed in non-tiled, moist areas, such as bathrooms and basements. 

How the Levels are utilized in cost estimation:

Construction specifications and cost estimation data publications, such as the AIA MasterSpec and RS Means, used by design professionals, reference the Gypsum Association levels of drywall finish. Xactimate (often utilized for insurance claims) does not reference the Gypsum Association levels of drywall finish, but rather itemizes descriptive finishes.

Representative Xactimate line items are:

Drywall -hung, only (no tape or finish) – this is comparable to Level 0
Drywall -hung & fire taped only – this is comparable to Level 1
Drywall -hung, taped, heavy texture, ready for paint – this is comparable to Level 2
Drywall -hung, taped, ready for texture – this is comparable to Level 3
Drywall -hung. Taped, floated, ready for paint – this is comparable to Level 4
Drywall -hung, taped, with smooth wall finish – this is comparable to Level 5
Thin coat plaster over gypsum core blueboard – this is comparable to veneer plaster on blueboard

Xactimate provides details for some terms: 

Ready for texture – this is comparable to Level 3
Xactimate Note: This item will include the following steps: tape coat, 1st coat, and 2nd coat sufficient to prep for an additional finish that needs to be applied such as heavy hand texture or sprayed acoustically.

Ready for paint – this is comparable to Level 4
Xactimate Note: This item is intended to account for the type of finish, which is the most common, simple finish in each market. Simple and common finishes can vary between regions between a smooth taped finish, a simple hand, and/or a simple spray texture. This item is intended to account for any of these situations. The simple and common finish of drywall includes the following finish process: tape coat, 1st coat, 2nd coat, and final prep for a paint finish. The final step may be sanding and touch-up, or hand-applied or sprayed-on (orange peel) texture.

Smooth wall – this is comparable to Level 5
Xactimate Note: This item includes the following steps: tape coat, 1st coat, 2nd coat, and then the walls must be coated with a thin layer of mud to avoid surface flaws showing the difference between the gypsum board and joint compound.

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