Plaster vs Drywall – Which is Better for your Home



american-clay-earthen-plaster-vs-drywallPlaster vs Drywall, which is best? As many of you know by now, I’m a stickler for historic accuracy when it comes to remodeling. Some might describe me as obsessive or possibly deranged, but they’re just haters. I prefer to be described as “particular”, or “having high standards” – that just sounds less likely to get me locked up in a padded room. My “particularities” led me to choose plaster instead of drywall when we had to replace several walls in our 1930′s vintage home. Sure, drywall guys will tell you they can match any texture, but drywall is still very different from plaster. Before you dive into hanging drywall in a vintage or high-end home, consider the alternative of plaster.

Plaster vs Drywall

These days you have two general options when it comes to finishing walls: the first is standard drywall, which we’re all pretty familiar with. It’s everywhere, and so is the dust from installing, sanding and finishing it. Drywall consists of gypsum sheets (sheetrock) screwed or nailed to the studs. Drywall compound and tape are applied to the seams between boards, and the compound is also coated over the fasteners to cover up the heads. A high-end level 5 drywall finish includes a final skim coat similar to a plaster job, but most drywall jobs aren’t done at that level. Even when they are, the finish durability is still underwhelming when compared to cement-like plaster.

Modern plaster, on the other hand, is typically applied over a special type of wall board referred to as blue board. The old style was usually applied over lath, but that method is exceedingly rare these days. Blue board looks like sheetrock (other than the color), but it’s designed to handle the high degree of moisture in wet plaster, and it’s engineered to create a tight bond with the plaster compound. The plaster is applied over the blue board either in multiple coats with a scratch and then finish coat (a more traditional style), or in a single or double veneer coat. Either way, the plaster covers the entire wall surface. Don’t confuse blue board with green board, (the green stuff is just moisture resistant sheetrock typically used in bathrooms for drywall projects, it’s not made for plaster).

Many people consider plaster finishes to be more high end than drywall, and they have seen a surge in popularity. I think mainly because of the unique expertise required (there are probably 1000 drywallers to every plaster pro here in San Diego), plaster projects tend to cost a bit more. All in all though, the two techniques are fairly comparable in overall price.

Why We Chose Plaster Instead of Drywall

For our particular projects, several obsessive intrusive thoughts things convinced me to select plaster instead of drywall:

  1. Plaster is much harder than drywall. This makes for a far more durable wall surface. This is vital if you have kids that think your house is a indoor race track. Drywall’s lifespan can be measured in decades, or less if it gets wet. Plaster’s lifespan can be measured in centuries.
  2. Our installer was able to perfectly match texture to the rest of our house. Anyone looking at the skip trowel finish and bull-nose details on the new plaster would have no idea it wasn’t original to the house. If you’re trying to match texture on existing plaster work, I’d definitely go with plaster if possible. There are lots of variations of plaster though, so if you’re matching, make sure your installer knows the best-suited plaster and application technique.
  3. Plaster is more fire resistant than drywall. If you’re paranoid about that kind of thing this may sway your thinking.
  4. The acoustics of plaster just aren’t the same as drywall. Plaster tends to create a much more echoey sound than drywall. Because Plaster is a bit thicker, more solid, and has more mass, plaster is also a somewhat better sound barrier. If you’re really concerned about sound proofing, check out our review and use of Green Glue Soundproofing compound that we used in conjunction with plaster walls.
  5. Plaster is a more unique skilled trade. We were able to find a true plaster craftsman with decades of experience and a great reputation here in San Diego. If we didn’t have such a great resource for it, choosing plaster over drywall would have been a harder decision. If you plan to do it yourself without much experience, drywall is definitely far more DIY friendly than plaster. As noted in our Top 10 Don’t Do It Yourself Projects Article, actual plaster work is not particularly DIY friendly. I tried my hand at it on a small job, and quickly decided it’s worth hiring a pro. After watching a pro do it, you’ll probably think plastering is easy. . . . trust me, it’s not.

Companies like USG make a plaster in a multitude of varieties for specific uses. And there are even several companies like American Clay that make gorgeous evironmentally friendly earthen plaster, as seen in the image for this article. Whatever you decide, resources like Angie’s List can help in tracking down a local drywaller or plaster pro. Local plaster or drywall supply companies and the manufacturers of the products used can also be good sources for recommended installers. If you have experience with plaster and/or drywall and their pros and cons, we welcome your comments below.

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Comments

  1. I love plaster walls, they feel like stone. Drywall feels cheap and crappy by comparison. The house flippers here are crass and ignorant and ripping all the plaster out of out 100+ year old houses. Totally unnecessary and tragic. You can re-wire an old plaster house the same way they did it when electricity was first installed – by fishing the wires behind the baseboards.

    • Tim, I’m fully with you on everything but the rewiring. I’ve done my share of fishing wire, and it’s never as easy as it might seem. Sometimes, it’s downright impossible. Re-wiring an old plaster house entirely by attempting to fish wire isn’t a task I’d ever want to take on! With that said, I’m all for saving plaster walls wherever possible.

  2. Kirby smith says:

    Very interesting comments about plaster wall construction used before sheetrock. No one actually spoke about the lath that plaster was put onto in the old days. Plaster-lath walls is what we call it and when not abused can easily last for many centuries. Do not drive nails in it though. Big problems result from broken keyways.

  3. Am restoring a 1880′s home in Ventura County. The contactors that I have talked to want to tear down all the plaster walls to rewire, replumb and insulate the house. They want to put drywall up after. Is there a less invasive way to proceed? Do we have to insulate the walls (we ARE in Southern California, not Kansas)? Can we insulate basement and attic only? Do you know any qualified plasterers in Ventura County? I’ve looked through the internet but am coming up short.

    Jennifer

    • Hi Jennifer. Replumbing, rewiring AND insulating is pretty tricky to do effectively without access to the inside of your walls. Without knowing the details of the condition of your plumbing, electrical and home particulars, it’s hard for us to comment on what may or may not be necessary or possible with the restoration. Even in southern CA, wall insulation is nice to have. You may be able to find contractors that are more preservation-minded who can find ways to save some of the plaster from demolition. Unfortunately I don’t personally know any plasterers in Ventura county. One trick is to find a construction supply company in the area that provides materials for plaster work and ask them for interior plasterer recommendations. You might also find someone through AngiesList.com. Good luck with the project!

      • Thanks! I will look for a local supply company and go on Angie’s List. I know I won’t be able to save everything but am hoping to preserve as much as I can.

  4. Hi Marc. I am in San Diego also. My question is where do you find blue board. Neither Home Depot nor Dixieline knew what I was talking about. My plaster guy wants to use greenboard, which I know is wrong.

    • Hi Scott. I went to a place called Squires Belt, which looks like it changed names: http://www.gwbm.com/
      Based on your plaster guy wanting to use greenboard, I’m guessing he’s more a drywall guy than a plaster guy. If you want a great plaster pro (fair warning he won’t be cheap), then ping me via our contact page.

  5. Thanks for this info. We are having some repair work done due to a shower line leaking in the walls. I was trying to figure out why the contractor estimated the 2×2 hole in our closet at $300 in plaster. Now it makes sense and gives me a better feeling about my entire house.

  6. G. Veiga says:

    When Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast, we had just taken the roof off our house to add another level. Just our luck! The wind-driven rain found its way into the front wall of our house and traveled down into the basement. The moisture even sealed our front door shut so that it took a couple of days to dry out enough for us to open. We were worried about mold and repairing the wall, but our contractor said we were really lucky because it was plaster; there was no danger of mold and no need to repair — it would dry out just fine! Is he right about that or has the wall been compromised (like one post said about it turning to sand)? The plaster was applied over metal mesh.

  7. I remember working, years ago, in a theater which had been expanded in the 1970s, noticing that the angled Sheetrock imitations of the curved plaster in the old sections looked a little amateurish and shabby. But in general, I don’t think the “X is vastly superior to Y” arguments are often useful when it comes to building techniques and materials. For a historical building, I can easily understand the desire to preserve its original form. But for houses, new and old, that aren’t of any historical significance, there are pros and cons to either. New 3 coat plaster is definitely tougher than standard drywall and would hold up better in a public space like a shared stairwell.It’s also better at resisting surface moisture. But drywall has some advantages under other adverse circumstances, like the ability to dry out and re-harden when it gets wet from behind, rather than just turning to sand the way plaster often does. Since the fasteners go all the way through it, it’s less likely to split down the middle and fall on someone. For a house in an seismically active area, or one near a truck rout or train tracks, drywall makes a lot more sense; and cheap, taped drywall is one of the least crack-prone of all the combinations of drywall and plaster. And there’s no reason all the walls in a house have to be the same; one can plaster the areas near light fixtures, then double-X-rated-drywall or cement-board the areas that get lots of abuse or need better sound and fire protection. All this, while the original plaster walls that don’t have problems can be lightly re-surfaced and left alone. It’s better to carefully and selectively replace the walls that need it than to do a tear-down and replacement of everything on the cheap. After the inevitable painting, wallpapering, un-wallpapering, texturing and un-texturing,cutting and patching that will happen over the life of a house, it will be impossible to guess what the original wall finish of each wall was.

  8. I know this is an old post, I am just wondering if your thoughts on the matter still stand. If I have my house appraised will it be worth more with plaster walls or will it not make a difference?

    • Hi Sam, I’d say my thoughts still pretty much stand from when the post was written. I don’t know that most appraisers will even pay attention to whether you have plaster vs. drywall. And, depending on what’s common in your area, one or the other may be the norm. Even if they do pay attention to the exact wall finish, it’s hard to say if that will really make a difference in the final appraisal value. Maybe we’ll luck out and an actual appraiser will weigh-in here, but if not, I’d call an appraiser or two and just get their opinion on it if you’re actually considering using one material over another for the purposes of maximizing the house value or appraisal. Good luck!

  9. Can you tell me who your plaster installer was? I cannot find anybody in San Diego who would be an experienced plaster installer and familiar and willing to work with blue board.

  10. What would you say is the life expectancy of drywall, versus plaster? how long can one expect each to last in a house of normal usage?

    • Hi Andrea. The actual lifespan of drywall and plaster varies pretty widely, and the figures themselves are debated. Generally, the lifespans for both tend to be estimated in decades. Plaster has been around much longer than drywall, and, as a result, you can find buildings hundreds of years old that might still have their original plaster intact. Drywall hasn’t been around long enough to point to similar longevity. Plaster is harder than drywall, and as a result is better able to weather daily wear and tear. The biggest factor in the lifespan of both is the quality of the installation, and what conditions the installation are subject to. Either wall type will have a much shorter lifespan when subjected to excess moisture, vibration, physical impacts, etc. Assuming a quality installation/materials and normal usage with no water damage, I would expect both wall types to last 40+ years, but the actual figure can be two or more times that. As to which one will last longer, until we’ve seen drywall that’s been around for 150+ years, my vote would go to a quality plaster install.

      • 40 years? Wow, I don’t want you anywhere near my house. All walls should last 100+ years. And all walls that a properly made will last 100+ years, drywall or plaster!

        • Dear sdsdf, please use your real name if you’re inclined to comment here in the future (as we tend to delete anything else as spam or content someone is not willing to put their name on). Might I gently suggest continuing to read the rest of that sentence? “. . . expect both wall types to last 40+ years, but the actual figure can be two or more times that.” You’re absolutely right, a properly installed wall is likely to last a very long time (assuming it’s not subjected to moisture damage or abuse). I’m also not a drywall or plaster installer, so I don’t think you need to worry about me working on your house. : )

  11. That has to be the longest running sentence, double *sigh*…….
    A real nice informative editorial commentary, thank you.

  12. Just browsing the net for pictures of what I want to try and re-create in my home and came across this amazingly well put together article of exactly what I want but I’m disappointed because since it’s not diy and it’s last on the priority list of things to spend money on getting other people to do in my home it’ll probably never happen. *sigh*

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