Is That Really Drywall?

Steven Ferry

February 2006

The kind of effects being achieved with drywall in the hands of skilled applicators these days is on a par with plaster in terms of intricacy and look. This month, we focus on some of those producing decorative drywall, whether in terms of layered drywall or textured finishes.

Sumner Hunter is an unofficial but voluble spokesperson for the otherwise low-key Marek Brothers, a Texas contractor knee deep in detailed, decorative-drywall projects. Hunter feels that "one challenge in doing decorative drywall is never having had any success with two people applying it on the same job. The homeowner doesn’t notice it, and sometimes the builder doesn’t, either, but we do—it does not look the same, even if both applicators are artisans. Therefore, we have a strict rule to use only one person to apply the texture per job, no matter how large it is. He does have helpers working ahead and behind him, masking off and so on.

"Another challenge is that repairs after the fact are a little more complicated than a regular spray texture drywall job. Regardless of the quality of the construction trades, there will always be a few changes at the end of a job—holes to repair, a plug box moved, something of that nature. The ability to go patch, texture and paint it so the hole is not readily visible to the untrained eye because they have matched in the textures, is tougher with these hand-trowel textures. So we often send the original applicator to make the repair.

"Initially, the challenge was training the men to do these textures and then ramping up our staff as the demand increased dramatically. We used to have just one, and now are up to half a dozen. We are seeing a lot of hand-trowel work in accent areas in the higher-end production builder homes around here. But as we move up to the more expensive homes, we are seeing less pure spray-applied texture and more and more of either heavy, exotic hand-troweled texture—often four or five different styles in each home— or the completely smooth, no-texture Level 5 finish.

"We receive a lot of compliments from home owners and builders about our applicators, their being a guru, an artiste, easy to work with, etc. I believe they, and the textures they are applying, sell a lot of work for our company to many builders and homeowners. When you get into these high-end houses, word of mouth is the only advertising that works. It’s builders, architects, interior designers as well as owners telling each other. I’d say 75 percent of these higher-end houses have some hand-troweled texture, or as some people in Dallas call it, ‘skip trowel’ or ‘Monterrey Heavy Trowel texture.’ To us, it means different styles, the common feature of which is that they are all applied by hand.

"When we say ‘hand texture,’ we really mean that. The material is not sprayed up on the wall as some competitors here do. The material is thinned and sprayed through a spray rig, and then they play around with a knife. But the material is thinned so much this way that it has no guts or body. It lies flat on the wall and dries even flatter. We’re taking ready-mix joint compound straight out of the box using a thick matt roller as an effective transfer tool. You can hawk it, trowel it, too, but it is not as effective. The helper moves ahead, masking off the areas, while another rolls an area, maybe 10-by-10 feet, then the texture man will do his texture pattern. It is challenging to apply, as you have to do large areas and can’t stop and start in the middle of the wall; you have to reach a corner or other natural break, or you’ll see the line when the material dries. When you have large walls, it is a problem to keep going.

"One of the techniques the texture applicator uses involves knife work, leaving or erasing trowel marks. Another technique that gives a nice-looking texture is using an old stomp brush. Those old double brushes are pretty well obsolete because the texture they were used for is dated now, but they are still available. They really rough up the material. Then the applicator will smooth it down with a knife, leaving some of the background detail in place. Then, when the faux painters come along, especially glazing, it tends to fill in the recesses and make them darker, creating a lot of depth—which differentiates us especially from those contractors using the quick-and-cheap spray methods. There is a market for this, of course, because spray-on is more like 20-cents a square foot compared with the 40 cents for the true hand application. So we accommodate both pricing structures.

"We have also done layered drywall using a large variety of vinyl trim accessories from Trim-Tex in Chicago. When I started in this business, rooms were just rectangular, which made it easy with the big rectangular sheets of brittle gypsum board we used as our starting point. Now, the challenge is that we have to bend the stuff and make all these exotic shapes: groin vaults, barrel vaults, half barrels, cove ceilings, radius walls, art niches with round tops and backs, bull-nosed edges—we’ve done houses where there isn’t a 90-degree corner in the whole house, everything is round. Arch-top openings on radius walls, all the 90-degree angles bull-nosed out with rounded corner trim. Doing it is challenging enough, but to make it look just right, where the radii don’t have any flat spots, where the arches are true circular arches without wobble or deviation in them, where the domes are smooth and circular enough for the painters to go in and paint these domes, that is the challenge we strive to overcome.

"One house had a dome, painted with Sistine Chapel–type cherubs, etc. (see photo) In the old days, these domes were done with plaster. Architects are willing to use drywall now that they have discovered contractors who can turn out work on a par with plaster. We can do a dome out of drywall and joint compound at 20 percent of the cost of plaster. It won’t last 200 or more years, but that is not a major consideration for people who want the dome to look good for the 30 to 40 years they plan to occupy the house.

Better Margins

"Turnkey drywall jobs in this market start around 60 cents a square foot, up to 75 cents, depending upon whether there is a prime coat applied, plate heights etc., and the finish level. We charge about 40-cents extra a square foot on top of that for hand-applied texture. Twenty cents of that goes to the applicator, his helpers, and our total cost is 30 cents, so it is a good moneymaker for us. There is some sticker shock for anyone unfamiliar with this kind of work. For layers, it works out at around 40-cents a square foot extra, too, to cover the trim piece and the labor for designing, measuring, cutting and applying it.

"A Level 5 finish compares at about $1.10 to $1.25 a square foot in the Dallas market. For these, we use all 5/8ths board, glue and screw the board, one fastener in the field, three passes over everything, come back with a solid skim coat for the entire surface, sand touch up, sand touch up, prime sand touch up—numerous touch up passes until we finally have it smooth as a mirror. I have heard many times from production builders for higher-end houses, that if it were not for these add-on items like the hand texture, they would not be making money on the houses. These add-ons do improve the margins. This is not true of custom builders, as they are not as price-sensitive, but we still charge them the same amount.”

Builders, architects and interior designers were going to the Marek Brothers’ office to see sample panels, so they created a small design center. Builders are sending even more people over to make their selections and see what is available.

One looks like cracked-out brick with an old stucco mixed over it; another that looks like a stone block wall with grout. Marek lays out a grid with masking tape, and it’s all done with joint compound and paint.

Tom Rothengass of TAK Drywall in Chicago does decorative drywall mostly in residential projects, working for a couple of builders whose trademark is decorative foyers, master bedrooms and dining rooms. He finds the cost to be about the same range as Hunter, or perhaps a bit higher when working on laminate or layered drywall ceilings.

"Applying decorative drywall will take you at least twice the time as putting up regular sheets of drywall. Every time you cut and put up a sheet of drywall, whether a full sheet like 4-by-12, versus a 1-by-12 foot piece, it takes longer to put the one-foot up than the full sheet because you have to cut not only the length but the width. It’s like hanging another sheet of drywall. Materials, labor and design, to finish off a room with decorative drywall, come in at about twice the price of regular drywall, but it is well worth it and you can usually sell it to a builder.

"The most challenging or complex piece I ever did was my own dining room ceiling, half an octagon room, long and narrow. It is amazing what it takes to do this kind of work. If I were to tell people what I had in it, they wouldn’t want to pay that kind of money. I kept track of the amount of time it took: My carpenters spent two hours for design, and that is multiplied by two guys because there are two to snap lines, install drywall, etc. It took them 18 hours total to snap it out and install it, and then it took me five to six hours to install the trim. By the time you coat it—just the ceiling we are talking about here—that was another 16 hours for four coats, and then another four hours to clean it all up. So that was close to 45 hours for one ceiling. It’s a steep cost for what is essentially another nine sheets of drywall. The bill for that, six years ago, would have been $2,400 for labor plus a little bit for material.

"About 15 percent of the high-end homeowners we service go for this kind of decorative drywall and really love it because it is such a different look. People are tired of the same old look and are even commissioning murals to make their walls look different. For other owners, they like decorative but look at it as ‘a cost we don’t need to incur at this time.’

"The kind of work we do is similar to the plasterwork that used to be done in the old days. We do a couple of layers on the outside edges of the ceiling, and then a two layered medallion around the chandelier, giving a sense of depth. We paint or highlight the layers with a couple of different colors. Not to make it look like a circus, but when you take a color from the wall and put it on a couple of different layers on the ceiling, it highlights the chandelier in the dining room.

"We like to laminate with 5/8ths drywall for more depth. Typically, if you add two layers around the outside of a ceiling in a 14-by-16 room, using a 2-foot layer and then stepping it back 8 to 10 inches and then do another basic 1.5-foot layer, that adds up to as much drywall as you have on the ceiling to begin with. Then add a two-layer medallion: a 4-by-5 area for the first layer, step it back about a foot for a 3-by-4 second layer. If you add up all that extra drywall, you’ve come close to the amount of drywall you installed for the basic ceiling, if not more. We use Trim-Tex products to finish it off with all sorts of different trims.

"Challenges and difficulties are really limited to fastening. We glue and use a hi-lo screw to fasten the drywall to existing drywall. When you are doing layers or stepping a ceiling or a wall, where you break or cut your drywall, or where the joists or studs are running the wrong way, the hi-lo screws allow you to screw into the existing drywall.

"Nobody comes up with their own design. They pretty well leave it to us, which is appreciated because it gives us an opportunity to be creative. We don’t use computers to design anything. I would hate to think about the little I charge for this sort of work, versus what it really costs me. So to add the cost of computer designing, it would just scare people off. If you told them what it really costs, you might sell one in a hundred. We are doing decorative drywall as a value added to the builder and owner. I try to think it gives them more reason to use us, but I have had builders take my ideas and then have other, less-qualified people do the work. Some builders have very good trimmers and I have seen them do the work themselves, which I guess demonstrates how imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

Charles Yacob’s C&L Construction, located outside of Chicago, caters to upper line homes since he started in business as a strictly drywall contractor 16 years ago. Most of his work is in the North Shore area close to Lake Michigan. He also does design work with drywall, using layers and different corner beads to finish edges.

"It is time-consuming,” he explains, "you’re not just hanging whole sheets of drywall. Anytime you are doing detail work like this, it is more challenging. You have to make sure everything is equidistant and symmetrical, for instance, when double or triple layers have edges next to each other. But we have done some designs that have no symmetry at all in more modern homes.”

"Feedback we receive from customers is surprise that we can do what we do with drywall. They expect the result to be plaster or wood. But strangely enough, it is not easier to work in drywall. It is less expensive, for sure, and of course you have to paint it, you can’t stain it. But the work is detailed, including taping, corner beading, and drywalling. Wood you can sometimes set on a machine and cut it with different edges, so that’s a one-shot deal. With drywall, you have to cut the drywall, bead both sides of the layer, if that is what you are doing, etc.

"We do a lot of intricate work to suit the homeowner’s tastes and come up with different designs for each house. I always make some sort of change between each house. The number of homeowners who go for this kind of decorative drywall is basically any homeowner who sees the results. Obviously, it does not include owners who have a lot of wood in the house. It has to be someone who wants something slightly different from the regular drywall interior, which for my high-end clients is most of them.

"Doing decorative drywall starts with the design of the job. You have to practice a little bit first, to see how capable you are with the beads, because the beading is the trick to it. As you come up with geometrical designs and so forth, you have to understand how to figure out what you have to do to create those lines. I don’t use a computer to design; I usually do the designs myself and then tell the guys how to do it.

"It is amazing what you can do with drywall—it is very reasonable to install and finish. It’s what makes my job fun—everything is so unique. It’s also very detailed work. Many contractors, from what I have seen in the industry, are quick in-and-out applicators, but this work you have to take time over. You are not going to pick it up the first time and do it to perfection. Anyone new to it, I’d say take your time; don’t think of it as a quick fix or application, but create a finished product to the best of your ability. People will appreciate it.

"Decorative drywall gives drywall contractors something to create over and above the utilitarian installation of plain drywall. You can be more creative than you could ever imagine. As much as I whine about cost, decorative drywall is still faster, easier, more unique and looks just as good if not better than a carpenter building something. So take pride in it. I do.”

About the Author
Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Clearwater, Fla.