Achieving the Perfect Finish

Mark L. Johnson

November 2005

Bill Sherman recently had his hands full at the U.S. Navy Intelligence and Reconnaissance Lab in Rome, N.Y.

"The job started out as a design-build,” said Sherman, project manager and estimator at J.V. Sgroi Company, Inc., Syracuse, N.Y. "There had never been any mention of a Level 5 Finish. We bid it Level 4.”

The Navy, however, wanted Level 5 surfaces. Somehow, the general contractor missed that detail, and J.V. Sgroi faced the prospect of skim-coating 122,000 square feet on budget pricing. The solution? A relatively new high-build primer-surfacer.

The Navy approved the switch, and J.V. Sgroi finishers applied 1,010 gallons of the primer-surfacer to ceilings, bulkheads, soffits, partitions and columns for about half the cost of skim-coating and priming.

"The Navy was happy with the finish,” Sherman said. Clearly, great finishes can be achieved without compromising job profitability. It’s often just a matter of using the right products and techniques—a noteworthy point for drywall companies hoping to meet the high expectations of today’s builders and developers.

"Most builders want a Level 5 Finish, but pay for a Level 3 standard,” said Rick Schwartz, owner of Marietta Drywall, Inc., a residential contractor based in Marietta, Ga. "It’s getting harder to compete having to put so many extras into today’s houses.”

Given the pressure to perform, many contractors turn to their peers for advice—but often receive only dubious input. One contractor, for example, recently shared his concerns on a forum at JLC Online, a Web site hosted by The Journal of Light Construction.

The contractor, a carpenter by trade, had hung gypsum board in an attic that had knee walls, sloped ceilings, a flat ceiling center and off-angle joints. He wondered how best to finish the off-angles.

"I wound up with globs of spackle on one side or the other, and a joint that waved like a drunken sailor,” he posted.

"I hear your pain. Got a job coming up with a hip ceiling,” replied a fellow framer. "I’m hanging drywall, but gonna hire a real taper for this job.”

Another contractor put it simply: "Once the framing is correct,” he wrote, "the rest is a breeze.”

It seems everyone has a view on what to do. But not every product, or technique, brings consistent results. The fact is that a perfect finish is not "a breeze” to achieve. It requires experience, proper framing, careful gypsum board application and the use of some key products. Here’s what you can do to create perfect walls and ceilings:

Three Perfect Products
Experienced drywall contractors say few products have truly changed their work. Good results, they say, start with good habits—pre-filling the fasteners, sanding carefully and doing careful touch-up work. Three products, however, have made the drywaller’s life a lot easier. They are as follows:

Power-assisted corner applicators for producing precise mud-flow rates while finishing corners, such as the MudRunner™ from Ames Taping Tool Systems Inc.

Paper faced metal corner beads for achieving crack-free corners.

Latex-based, high-build primer-surfacers for applying a Level 5 finish in one step.

Do such products really make a difference? Take high-build primer-surfacers, for example. While requiring airless spray equipment to apply (see accompanying story), these products allow contractors to achieve a Level 5 Finish without having to apply separate skim coats and prime coats. This is significant because many builders insist on monolithically smooth surfaces.

A decade ago, for example, about 5 percent of all new homes in Rockford, Illinois, called for smooth walls and ceilings, according to Ken Polhamus, president and CEO, Great Plains Drywall, Inc., Rockford. Today, "30 to 35 percent of everything we do is ‘smooth,’” said Polhamus. This shift from textured to smooth would have been difficult to fulfill—and costly—had Polhamus not invested in airless spray equipment and assumed the role of a painter. His company handles about 750 homes a year.

"When a painter uses a crummy primer, it’s always the drywaller’s fault,” said Polhamus. "So, I do the priming. I build it into my price.”

Coast to coast, more drywall contractors take that view. Quinn Pidcock, president and co-owner of Norris Drywall, Pocatello, Idaho, and his fellow owners recently invested in an airless sprayer. The deciding project was the Railroad Credit Union in Chubbuck, Idaho.

Pidcock said the owners "wanted the perfect finish.” Skim coating would have worked. But Norris Drywall used a USG primer-surfacer. According to Pidcock, two applicators finished 30,000 square feet of walls in three days, and that included a half-day learning curve. The owners of the Railroad Credit Union were extremely impressed.

Three Perfect Practices
Besides using quality products, top drywall contractors say several practices contribute greatly to an interior’s final appearance.

Here are three practices guaranteed to get great results on any job:

Glue the gypsum board to the studs and fasten with screws (in wood-framing applications).

"We screw and glue,” said Marietta Drywall’s Schwartz, speaking of the wood-framed residential construction typical for his company. "We don’t just nail the board up.”

Marietta Drywall’s crews tack the gypsum board in place with nails, but screws are the primary means of holding the board. All fasteners are eventually pre-filled with joint compound.

Pre-fill the joints. Successful contractors swear by this step.

"I pre-fill everything—even my butt joints,” said veteran drywall contractor Chris Culp, owner of Custom Quality Culp Drywall and Paint, Hilltown, Pa. "That’s why I get the calls, the money and the big-time housing. It comes to me.”

Sand the joints carefully. An important step, sanding is one of several ways to prevent texture variations between the joints and the gypsum board’s paper facing.

Culp prefers using specialty sandpaper—3M™ Filmback Drywall Sheets, available in several grades (see photo on the next page). He says the sheets help him avoid scratching the gypsum board paper facing.

"I can sand an edge and over-sand an edge, and I won’t burn the paper,” said Culp. "I’ve never had problems with photographing or burns.”

Quality and Dependability Factors
Perhaps the best advice for achieving perfect finishes comes down to setting exceptional standards of professionalism and accountability for your company.

"The reason we get so much work is because I’m ‘Johnny on the spot,’” said Scott Koeppen, owner, Precision Drywall Inc., Huntley, Ill. "I’m on the job daily, dealing with builders and homeowners directly. If I say I’ll be there by 8, I’m there by 8. It’s about being dependable.”

Koeppen is not just all talk.

His company track record proves that much good comes from being quality-focused. In its first year of operation, Precision Drywall grossed $130,000 in business. Five years later, in 2004, the company handled $1.5 million worth of drywall work, and Koeppen expects this year’s revenues to double.

Koeppen and his wife and company president, Kacey Koeppen, believe that successful interior finishing is all about making people a priority. And that starts with the customer.

"We never accept downpayments,” Koeppen said. "We never accept a penny until the customer is satisfied.”

Beyond the customer, however, the Koeppens believe dependable employees are just as important in the finishing process as using great products. To that end, the Koeppens offer each of their roughly 40 employees a full range of benefits—a 401(k) retirement plan, health insurance and paid vacations.

"I’m not aware of another drywall company that offers what we do,” said Koeppen. "We run our company like it’s a Fortune 500 corporation, not a mom-and-pop outfit.”

Yes, achieving great interiors involves stringent job oversight, numerous inspections and the use of quality materials. But in the end, the one factor that matters more than anything else in achieving the perfect result is having a motivated, professionally trained and conscientious team.

"It’s not easy to find great people,” Koeppen said. "But that’s how you get perfect results day in and day out.”

About the Author
Mark L. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Shenandoah, Iowa. He writes frequently about interior finishing techniques and projects.