Decorative Drywall—No Longer Just a Pretty Face

Ulf Wolf

February 2009

The announcement that November 2008 housing starts were the lowest on record probably did not take anyone by surprise, but that does not make the news any less gloomy.

And it serves to underscore an inescapable truth: If the quantity of drywall work is declining—as is now the case across the country—then you must make up the loss in quantity by selling and providing quality-oriented work, if you want to stay in business and prosper.

As in, for example—you guessed it: decorative drywall.

Decorative Drywall: What Exactly Is It?
Not really a household term (yet), decorative drywall, by consensus, could be said to be any service or product offered and supplied to a customer over and above the standard "ready-for-paint” drywall offering, primarily with an aesthetic objective.

The list below is obviously incomplete, but decorative drywall could include one or more of the following elements: crown molding, arches, recesses, frames, patterned layers, multi-layered ceilings, textured surfaces, coffered ceilings, custom color coats, decorative details, sculptures and other artwork.

Dan Casey at Deco Drywall in Santa Barbara, Calif., a firm specializing in decorative drywall as the name implies, would add to the list: "foam details, Venetian plasters, embedded tiles and lath-and-plaster details.”

Then he sums it up with a nice tongue-in-cheek: "Actually, we consider any detail we can coax away from the finish carpenters or painters as decorative drywall.”

Another and very important definition of decorative drywall would be this: "That service you can provide at two to three times the hourly rate of standard drywall.” Why? Because when you shift gears from what many builders see as a utility man, to an artist, you command a whole different pay scale, which, again by consensus, runs roughly two to three times the standard drywall rate.

Wallets, take note.

Survival at Stake
For some—or many—expanding into the artistic side of drywall may in fact be the very path to revived prosperity, and well worth looking into and learning more about.

Tom Sass, of Muskegon, Mich., the winner of Trim-Tex’s Drywall Artist of the Year Award for 2006, definitely concurs: "I agree with you 100 percent: The decorative side of the job is one of the reasons we’re staying busy right now.”

Casey sees the same thing. "Today, I would say that 50 percent of our jobs involve some sort of decorative drywall application, and as for the remainder, we always show them our portfolio to at least get the word out.”

Joe Koenig of Trim-Tex, an Illinois manufacturer of decorative drywall products, puts it this way: "The drywaller does not make any money moving his scaffolding from one job to the next. He needs to learn how to sell aesthetic drywall—an upsell, really.

"Decorative drywall is a smart thing for contractors to get into, because now they can remain on a job site another few days and earn not only added income, but higher-margin income at that, instead of packing up and leaving for the next job, if indeed there is a next job.

"If you can save 10 scaffold moves a year, that’s 10 extra productive days. Not only do you add to your bottom line, but you also add more value to the job and the builder. And since houses are not exactly flying off the shelf right now, it may come down to what sets one builder’s product apart from another’s: perhaps it is that decorative drywall detail above the fireplace, or the decorative drywall feature in the ceiling over the kitchen table that sells one house before another.”

Replacing a Lost Trade
Decorative wall and ceiling features are, of course, nothing new. Stepping back a number of decades we find crown molding, layered ceilings and other aesthetic touches in homes and public spaces, but these were then the domain of the plaster artisan—an endangered, if not extinct, species on today’s job sites.

Says Sass: "What I try to explain to potential customers is that back then the plasterer was king; he was the one who would do the decorative crown molding, the layered ceilings and such. But that is pretty much a lost art now.

"Today, people are trying to achieve the same aesthetic effects with wood, which is not the greatest way to go since it will show seams. And because wood expands and contracts with the seasons, it will also cause cracks in the finish as a result.

"With drywall, however, since its expansion and contraction factor is more or less zero, you can do pretty much anything you want and see neither seams nor contraction cracks; yet, you can make it look exactly like wood with all the different types of [decorative drywall] beads. Basically, when it comes to the decorative uses for drywall, the sky is the limit.”

Decorative Drywall — The Cost-Effective Aesthetic As a result, decorative drywall has now become the most cost-effective way of adding aesthetic details to the building interior.

Says Koenig: "You add beauty to the home at a very low cost, because you use one of the lowest-cost substrates on the planet.”

The point to note here is that a qualified plasterer—if indeed you can find one—will charge the builder at least twice as much for a finished, decorated room than would a drywaller, even after you factor in his decorative-drywall detail at premium rate.

And should the owner employ a finish carpenter for the decorative detail, he would soon, again, discover that he is paying at least twice as much for the finished product as he would have paid the drywaller.

Higher Profit Margins
Which gives us this sweet bottom line: While you charge your standard rate for the drywall itself, you can then—once you have established yourself as a decorative craftsman—charge double or triple your hourly rate for the decorative drywall work.

Sass has put this into practice: "When it comes to Decorative Drywall, I charge a much higher labor rate. In fact, I charge by the hour—materials included, which do not come to much. Depending on the customer, and on the difficulty of the project, I charge between $55 and $150 an hour for decorative work.

"And here’s the best news: the materials to decorate, say, a dining room will run you between $100 and $200, which means that after the first hour or so, your remaining decorative work hours are sheer profit at a sweet rate.”

Then he adds, "Of course, some customers don’t buy into this, and then you may be wise to simply give some nice decorative work away, to plant a seed, to spread the word. The next time he—or his neighbor or partner—will pay my rate for it.”

Upsell: The Portfolio (or Lack Thereof)
The biggest problem you will run into trying to upsell standard drywall to decorative drywall is that customers, as a rule, have no idea that there is such a thing.

No, seriously, they don’t.

Randy Taylor of Maumee, Ohio—a true drywall artist—is well aware of this: "You have to let people know what is there, and what can be done. I often run into people who have never seen anything like my work. And you never see decorative drywall in the regular real estate or home magazines. It seems to be a well-guarded secret.

"Not that I do it on a large scale, but even a small decoration will add a lot to a house. We simply have to do a better job of selling it.”

Says Koenig: "There are customers out there who will put $20,000 worth of marble into a bathroom, but who wouldn’t dream of paying the drywaller an extra $2,000 to $5,000 to work some wonders on his home? Why? He has no idea what we can do with drywall today.”

That means that you must not only sell your customer, you must educate him as well. This is where your portfolio, if you already have a catalog of decorative work, becomes indispensable. You have to show the customer what can be done with drywall: in this case seeing is, indeed, believing.

Casey says: "I will admit, I could do a better job promoting it at times, so for me it comes down to how busy we are. However, having a nice portfolio and/or showroom will give you the best return on your time. Breathing excitement and enthusiasm about it to your clients goes a long way, too.”

Should you not have a portfolio yet, but have a growing list of completed projects: pull out that digital camera you got for the holidays, or hire a good photographer. Now.

If you have no finished decorative projects, resort to whatever you can find online. Just Google "decorative drywall.” Download and print the pictures, in color if possible.

Seeing is believing, and you must make a believer out of your customer. Then explain the financials: decorative drywall vs. plaster, vs. finish carpentry.

Once your customer realizes you can provide the quality and aesthetic finishes that normally require a carpenter or a plasterer, and at a fraction of the cost—even at your higher margins—the upsell will not be all that difficult. The owner will realize that he is receiving more for his money (especially important in these times) while at the same time achieving his vision for the building interior.

Other Advantages
Then there is the re-sale value.

Two houses, side by side: One with run-of-the-mill drywall boxes for rooms, the other with decorative drywall treatment. Guess which one will sell first?

Casey says, "To me the biggest benefit, other than being aesthetically pleasing, is the increased value and marketability of the home. It is truly amazing how a second layer ‘medallion’ ceiling in the dining room, for instance, adds an affordable, simple elegance to the room; or how an integrated color coat or Venetian plaster adds depth to a space once void of character. Once a prospective buyer sees that, the house sells itself. This is a huge selling point.”

But let us not forget the almighty paycheck.

A wise man once said that the only true reward for good work is the good work itself. That plays here as well. Casey says, "It really feels great to leave a homeowner with your well-wrought masterpiece.”

But Koenig reminds us that not only will the drywaller take great pride in the finished product, he will also walk away from the job with "a better looking paycheck.”

Show ’em What You’ve Got
Blame this one on the housing market, too. The pre-2006 housing boom meant that houses had to go up quickly. Drywall was thought of as "just another utility,” like plumbing and water. The decade leading up to 2006 was so busy that, to quote Sass: "Everybody and his brother jumped on the drywall bandwagon, many of whom had never seen wallboard before, much less hung any.”

At that time, people grew accustomed to seeing mediocre (or worse) drywall work. By association, all drywall craftsmen earned a reputation for fast, often, shoddy work.

"We are working very hard in our area to change that perception,” Sass says. "I think we’re doing a pretty good job. We’re pointing out to people that more than 80 percent of what you see in a house is drywall, so why not try to improve on that and provide a few extra things? Once they see our portfolio and see what can be done, it really makes people excited. The word is now spreading, and we are being viewed as craftsmen again.”

Craftsmen who are artists.

There is the tastefully and elegantly enhanced dining room and the recessed picture in the living room, and there is the financial remuneration to go along with it.

Then there is the artist, who has elevated drywall to another level.

Taylor says, "I do see drywallers adding extra lines to the ceiling and such, but they don’t—to me—embark upon artistic adventures yet. That is what I strive to do: to make my work a piece of art instead of just an aesthetic drywall enhancement.

"I’m not a drywaller by profession—in fact, I taught art for the last 25 years … but I can do drywall. And now I’m letting my artistic leanings find play in drywall.

"We just finished a hotel in Monroville, Pa., and in it we were given fairly free rein for the lobby, so we created three large sculpture pieces, all out of drywall; they really were a hit with the city officials.

"The point is that more of this has to be done, and more people have to be aware of what can be done with drywall.”

Practice, Practice, Practice
Okay, so far all of this is news to you. What do you do next?

Koenig has some advice: "Try it. Yes, of course there will be a learning curve. Anything new takes time to learn, so don’t expect to make a killing on the first job.

"Practice, practice, practice. Then take lots of pictures—assemble your portfolio. Give it away to begin with, if you have to, but take pictures of it.”

Casey suggests using your home as your blank canvas: "For those who are only thinking about it, or who are just beginning to offer decorative solutions and consequently don’t have a portfolio: make your office, or your home or your garage your showroom. Practice on your own home.

"Don’t expect to become rich from your early efforts, but view them as a way to up the ante on your competition by offering something extra.

"Now, for most drywall artisans—drywall is an art after all—the basic skills are already in place, so it really is a matter of learning the idiosyncrasies of the different products you are offering. For instance, plasters behave much differently compared with drywall mud, but the manufacturers offer literature on how to obtain the desired effects, so with some reading and practice, off you go.

"You will need a few specialty tools for some products (like using stainless trowels instead of rusty ones on decorative coatings), other than that, the investment in tools is pretty minimal.

"Above all, creativity is the tool most needed.”

Koenig suggests visiting the Web sites of manufacturers that make the products that allow you to feed your creativity. Then, he says, "Find something you like, then figure out how you can do it. Then tell the customer—show him the picture: ‘I can do this for you.’

"Be willing to try it, be willing to burn and learn as needed. Pay attention. Talk to the companies that supply decorative drywall products and tools, read their literature, read the installation instructions—very important: read the installation instructions—and watch the videos, and certainly: be creative.

"The coolest thing about drywall is that if you can frame it, you can drywall it. If you can make the skeleton underneath, you can put a skin on it out of drywall. And you can bend this drywall, you can wrap it, you can curve it. … It’s truly amazing how far you can bend it.”

Given the current economic climate, and given how much the drywall hanger can stand to gain in the decorative field, it would certainly be safe to say that decorative drywall has come into its own, and is no longer just a pretty face.

Coeur d’Alene, ID-based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.