Plaster walls

(Bob Kast / illustration)

Dear James: We are planning a substantial room addition to our dream home. We are not on a tight budget, and we want everything done right. Should we use plaster walls or standard drywall walls?

— Sheila T.

Dear Sheila: Hmm — plaster?! Most people think that real plaster walls are a relic from yesteryear. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Real plaster walls are making a strong comeback and with good reason. In almost every aspect, plaster is superior to drywall.

New plastering systems, particularly plaster veneers, make plaster walls more affordable. Although plaster walls may cost about 30% more than drywall, they will push up the overall project cost by only a couple percent. This is a bargain for improved appearance and durability.

As a brief background, drywall is soft gypsum with paper on each side. It is nailed or screwed in place and the joints are finished so that they are supposedly hidden. Plaster, on the other hand, is somewhat similar to cement in that, when it is mixed with water, a chemical reaction causes it to form a strong, hard surface. It covers the entire wall with no joints.

The advantages of plaster are many, especially for your long-term dream home. Plaster walls look better with a flatter, more even surface. They also take paint uniformly — a real plus when you use a semi-gloss paint that accentuates imperfections. With drywall, paint often appears different over the joint compound than over the drywall.

The superior hardness and strength of plaster is a great plus. It nicks less easily than drywall, so it maintains its beauty even with children around. It can be washed without the possibility of water damage as with drywall. Once cured, plaster is resistant to short-term water exposure.

Also, if you plan to wallpaper, or should I say change wallpaper or paint in the future, it is easy to strip old wallpaper off plaster without damaging the wall surface. You can use stronger enzyme solutions and scrape more vigorously to remove the old adhesive.

Keep in mind that plastering, even with the newer veneer systems, is not a typically do-it-yourself project like drywalling. You can do some of the work, but an experienced skilled plasterer will have to apply the plaster. I have a lot of building experience, but I would not try it again myself. I tried once and it ended up looking like a poorly iced layer cake.

Unlike older wall plastering methods that required wood lath or small gypsum lath pieces common in the 1950s, plaster veneer is basically a one-step process. Large 4-by-8 gypsum-based lath panels are nailed to the studs for the plaster base. A thin 1/16-inch layer of plaster is applied over this, creating the smooth, hard finished surface.

You will have to decide whether you want plaster or drywall before any wall finishing has begun. The gypsum lath panels used for plaster veneer walls are different from standard drywall panels. If you have already put up the drywall, it is too late to select plaster.

These special panels for plaster are often called “blueboards” because they have a special water-resistant paper coating with a bluish color. Without this special water-resistant coating, the moisture in the plaster would damage the inner gypsum core. This application moisture is why standard drywall cannot be used with plaster.

Don’t worry about repairing a plaster wall if your kids do crack or nick a wall. There are several types of new plaster compounds available that have quick set times. These adhere much better to the existing plaster wall than premixed vinyl joint compounds.

You can try out your skills with a trowel. When the plaster is completely dry, it can be sanded smooth.

James Dulley is a mechanical engineer, an avid Do-It-Yourselfer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Email your questions to him at Here’s How. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

James Dulley

James Dulley

James Dulley is a mechanical engineer, an avid Do-It-Yourselfer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Email your questions to him at Here’s How. The opinions expressed are his own.