Now that the inspections are over, it’s time to start closing up walls and that means drywall. Drywall is known by a lot of names: sheet rock, gypsum board, plaster board, wall board, etc etc etc. It’s a contemporary replacement in American building for plaster over lath board. It’s essentially just a light weight plaster pressed between sheets of paper. It’s easier, cheaper, cleaner, and faster to install than plaster. Compared to some of the other tradework, the process for hanging drywall is pretty straightforward. By contrast, it demands more of an artistic eye and creativity. Sheets of drywall are cut to size and then nailed or screwed to the studs of the wall framing. The fasteners and seams are then filled in with jointing compound (a creamy mixture similar to plaster that dries hard) that is feathered away from the indentation. Finally, the jointing compound is sanded smooth and the entire wall is sealed with a primer.
Carpenters spend a lot of their mental energy ensuring structures conform to a grid. Boards should be installed level and plumb (straight up and down). Framework should be straight and warped wood should be avoided. Drywall is the first step in finishing where blemishes really become apparent. A standard sheet of drywall is 4′ x 8′. If you’re hanging drywall and your walls and ceiling are exactly (or even very close to) perpendicular to each other, then it’s a relatively simple job to hoist the sheet up and screw it in. However, if one or more of your structures drifts at an angle, even one that isn’t visually obvious, you’ll know immediately when you dry to fit in your rectangle. You might have gaps at one end and not that other. Or worse, your rectangle might not fit at all and need one side shaved down. When cutting drywall, the process is pretty easy. You measure your line and score the paper with a utility knife. Then you brace the panel near the score and whack it to snap the plaster. The plaster will 99 times out of a 100 break right along your score line. Then you cut the paper on the back and you have a new, differently sized rectangle. However, while it’s easy to cut a bit of drywall that’s 3 or more inches thick, when you have to make alterations at less than 1 inch, it’s near impossible to score and break the board. Instead you have to go through a laborious process of cutting. Drywall is very brittle and cutting across small sections, whether you do it by hand or with a mechanical saw, usually results in a lot of crumbling and fracturing around your cut. So, while the perfectly squared room gets it’s paper hung in a few minutes, the poor drywaller who gets the crooked room has to spend hours hand cutting odd angles to get everything to fit together.
As you can imagine, we started with a crooked house. The age of the house has see to all manner of settling, shifting, and shrinking. Add to that the combination of old world framing techniques and the subsequent decades of alterations, improvements, replacements, and grafting new technology on to old. Sprinkle in some help from termites and foundation issues. And you get a crookie house. On top of that, I’m not an experienced carpenter. I know a little bit, but it’s far more academic than hands on. While there might not be any single damning mistake, a thousand little mistakes add up to some sloppy work. Hanging drywall reminds me of each and every little mistake and choice I’ve had to make along the way. For example, the framing of the ceiling joists doesn’t match between the main house and the addition. The builder’s solution way back when was to shim up the last 3 joists so they would meet the main house. My response in framing a new wall was to create a set of shims above my top plate so my plates were level. Unfortunately, in order to not have a ceiling with an obvious bow in it, this means I need to shim the entire length of the joists where my drywall is going to hang from it.
Finishing work is also a blessing. Even though it takes time to cut wonky bits of drywall, it’s very forgiving. If you get a space mostly filled with panel, when you come back through with compound, you’ll be able to smooth out all of those seams. This is where the artistry comes into play. If done well, post painting, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the problems were to begin with. And unless the framing is so poor that things are glaringly askew, a finished and painted room, even if slightly off, won’t be notable to anything short of taking a level and a square to each corner. Of course, that is until you start installing your molding.