Plaster 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.
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.
For our particular projects, several
obsessive intrusive thoughts things convinced me to select plaster instead of drywall:
- 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.
- 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.
- Plaster is more fire resistant than drywall. If you’re paranoid about that kind of thing this may sway your thinking.
- 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.
- 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.