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5 Standard Levels of Drywall Finishes And What You Need to Know About Them

Unless you are an interior designer or in the industry, you may not realize there are different grades of drywall finishes. To be clear, we are discussing the actual smoothness of the finish, not a texture. Textures are usually applied using machinery like a texture hopper, but today we will discuss the five levels of drywall finishes and how they differ. Each level adds another step, such as additional coats and added areas to be finished.

source: canva.com

What Are the Different Drywall Finishes (Levels)?

The five levels of drywall finishing essentially represent the quality, or smoothness of the finish, and how much of the project will be affected. Technically, no finish at all is considered level 0, so really there are six levels, but we will discuss levels 1 through 5 in greater detail. The different levels of finish are usually found in different locations, so we’ll mention where you might find each of them.

Level 0 No Finish

We mention level 0 drywall finishing because it does have a purpose. Sometimes drywall is installed simply to separate interior spaces and is only functional in nature. In non-public, non-plenum areas like a barn for example, finishing would have no practical effect.

Level 1 Drywall Finish

Level 1 drywall finish is common in areas that need drywall and sealing, but are never seen by the public. Level 1 includes one coat of drywall compound (known by the professionals as mud) and tape in all the inside corners (corner bead is used for outside corners). The fastener heads are ignored in a level 1 finish. You may wonder why the installer would even bother with one coat if the public will never see it. 

The reason is generally for fire safety. Drywall has excellent fire retardant properties, but fire can spread anywhere air can pass. Many commercial buildings use the space above the ceiling for air circulation instead of separate vents. Known as a plenum space, this area can spread a fire due to air circulation, so the tape and compound are applied to any joints to prevent air from passing between the panels.

Level 2 Drywall Finish

Level 2 drywall finish adds another coat of drywall compound in an effort to make the surface even smoother. In a level 2 drywall finish, the fastener heads are also addressed and covered with drywall compound. Level 2 drywall finish will only appear where it can be seen, so level 2 drywall finish will not include any other areas, like behind appliances or tile.

Level 3 Drywall Finish

Level 3 drywall finish is what most of us have in our homes. Level 3 drywall finish adds another layer of drywall compound and imbeds a layer of drywall tape over the joints. Some drywall tape, like fiberglass, is self adhesive and does require the additional compound for adhesion, but it is applied anyway in a level 3 finish.  Level 3 drywall finish is typical for walls destined to be textured or covered with a covering, like wallpaper.

Level 4 Drywall Finish

Level 4 drywall finish is recommended for surfaces to be painted with flat or eggshell paint. Shiny paint reflects light quite well, emphasizing shadows and detail. The pros recommend using a paint that reflects little light on a level 4 drywall finish, which would be flat or eggshell, to hide the tiny imperfections in the finish. Level 4 drywall finish adds a second coat to all the fasteners as well.

By the way, this is why ceiling paints are usually flat or have a very low sheen. Ceiling paints are designed for ceilings because ceilings tend to be very large, visually unbroken spaces. Unlike a wall that may include artwork or windows, ceilings tend to be large and flat, so waves or other defects in the ceiling drywall are amplified. Ceiling paints work to reduce the light reflections that could illuminate these defects.

Level 5 Drywall Finish 

Level 5 drywall finish is the smoothest finish possible. Level 5 drywall finish takes level 4 and adds a skim coat to the entire drywalled surface. In effect, this skim coat covers all visible imperfections and results in a visually perfect surface. Level 5 drywall texture is suitable for matte, semi-gloss, and high-gloss paint sheens. Level 5 drywall finish is common in structures with strict lighting conditions, like art galleries.

What Are the Different Kinds of Drywall Compound?

Drywall compound is a mixture of gypsum and water, and is available in different consistencies for different applications. Drywall compound is available in powder form, which you just mix with water. However most drywall compound comes premixed for a specific application because it saves time for the drywall finishers. Generally, there are five main versions of drywall compound:

Taping Drywall Compound

Taping drywall compound is fairly coarse and is great for setting paper drywall tape. Taping compound contains coarse gypsum not suitable for smooth finishes. Taping compound is common on professional projects because the tape setter and the top coater are often two different people. Working in tandem, these two can follow each other while working simultaneously.

All-Purpose Drywall Compound

All purpose drywall compound is likely the most common and is very popular with do-it-yourselfers. All purpose drywall compound comes premixed, but it is usually mixed with water to thin it. All purpose joint compound can be used for the entire project to set the drywall tape and cover the fasteners.

Lightweight Drywall Compound

Another alternative to premixed drywall compound, lightweight is a few pounds lighter than traditional all purpose drywall compound. Finishing is tiring on the arms, so the lightweight compound is easier to use. Be sure and read the directions if you want to thin lightweight drywall compound, however as not all can be thinned.

Top Coat Drywall Compound

Top coat drywall compound uses very fine gypsum dust to create a smooth, consistent finish. Top coat drywall compound can be purchased premixed, or in powder form. Generally, top coat drywall compound will be the last material to touch the surface before priming.

Quick-Setting Drywall Compound

Quick setting compound is handy for repairing small blemishes very quickly. Whereas all purpose drywall compound may take days to dry, quick setting drywall compound usually has a work time of about five minutes. After application, the product can then often be sanded and primed in a matter of hours.

What Tools Do I Need For a Level 3 Drywall Finish?

Installing a level 3 drywall finish is doable by a serious DIYer. Assuming the drywall is installed and ready for finishing, you’ll just need a few tools for a level 3 drywall finish. Here’s a list of the common tools needed for a level 3 drywall finish, but others are available:

  • Drywall Knives

For a level 3 drywall finish you will need three drywall knives and a drywall compound trough, also known as a mud pan. You’ll need an 8”, a 10”, and a 12” minimum, but a 16” is also a good idea. You can buy them as a kit, but take care of them. They will require cleaning after each use or they will rust and become useless.

  • Drywall Compound Trough (Mud Pan)

Drywall compound pans hold the compound until you are ready to load it onto your drywall knife. Never load your drywall knife directly from the bucket because you can accidentally introduce contaminants from the surface back into your bucket. The mud pan lets you get just what you need and work from it only. That way if your knife gets dirty, you don’t ruin an entire bucket of compound.

  • Corner Trowel

Even the pros struggle to smooth out 90 degree corners, so they use a corner trowel. Corner trowels are two-sided, with a flexible blade on both sides. The trowel is loaded with compound and pressed into the corner firmly, expelling any overflow of the compound. Corner trowels smooth both sides at once, eliminating troublesome knife marks.

  • Mixing Paddle and Cordless Drill

Level 3 finishes generally require thinning down the drywall compound, but it depends on the compound. Typically this is accomplished with water, a mixing paddle, and a cordless drill. Since the compound will need to be about the consistency of cake batter, a power tool will save a lot of effort. You’ll definitely need a mixing paddle and cordless drill if you plan to mix your own dry compound.

  • Sanding Block

Sanding blocks are not necessarily required for a level 3 drywall finish, but they are very handy. Level 3 drywall finish often requires a bit of light sanding, usually with 150 grit sandpaper. Sanding blocks can be attached to pivoting extensions poles, allowing the user to sand both walls and ceilings without changing grips. Obviously, this also makes sanding high areas possible without a ladder.

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