100 Years of Ceilings and Walls

The History of Tools and Materials. Perspectives on How the Profession Has Changed.

Mark L. Johnson / August 2017

In the 1920s, National Gypsum Company used a sash weight test to show how its gypsum wallboard was strong but not brittle.

 

Oscar A. Reum, president of the Contracting Plasterer’s International Association (predecessor to AWCI) addressed union officials attending the 25th Convention of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Finishers’ International Association on October 5, 1920, in Boston.
    
“The threads of this great and important industry have gradually been gathered together,” said Reum. OPCFIA had existed for 25 years. CPIA, representing plastering employers, formed in 1918. Reum called for unity.
    
“We are interdependent upon each other,” he said. “The full measure of success cannot be achieved unless there is the honest cooperation of both of us.”
    
The attendees burst into applause. Reum was a master at articulating common interests and stirring up core values.
    
“The journeyman of today is the contractor of tomorrow,” Reum said. In other words, contractors and plasterers have common goals. “It is the part of wisdom for both of us to join hands in the protection and advancement of our craft.”
    
AWCI’s history shows 100 years of cooperation despite the constant pressure of change. Here are the milestones and perspectives that relate to the industry’s tools and materials.

Gypsum Wallboard
In 1926, National Gypsum Company began producing a gypsum wallboard unlike any at the time. It was stronger, lighter and less brittle than the wallboard from United Sates Gypsum Company and Universal Gypsum.
    
But back then, carpenters didn’t like gypsum wallboard. They said it chipped and was hard to move around a job site. Furthermore, dealers resisted change. New products had to prove their value, which is why National Gypsum favored a show-and-tell with its board.
    
One day, an eager National Gypsum salesman called on a Niagara Falls building materials dealer. He brought two sawhorses, a pile of sash weights and wallboard. He placed the wallboard on the sawhorses and threw sash weights on top of them. National Gypsum’s wallboard held two to three times as many sash weights as other boards.
    
Gold Bond—named after a certificate offering $5,000 to anyone who could prove its claims untrue—changed the industry. It made gypsum wallboard easier to use, which made it poised to supplant plaster and lath construction.

Plaster Spray Gun
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, plastering contractors evolved. Some became gypsum wallboard and exterior finishing contractors. Others converted to general contracting. Some, such as McNulty Bros. Company in Chicago, held out against change.
    
“We preferred to catch up at a later time,” says Joseph Feldner, McNulty Bros. president and former AWCI board director.
    
In the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, members the McNulty family developed tools, materials and methods for interior finishing.
    
In 1951, Joseph M. McNulty, and others, received United States Patent 2,555,238 for a plaster spray gun. The invention provided a uniform thickness of plaster “wherein the exposed surface will be smooth.”
    
In 1968, J.D. McNulty received U.S. Patent 3,391,037 for a “method of covering joints.” It was a thin coat of plaster applied to an “open-mesh web of fiber glass material that has a pressure-sensitive adhesive applied on one side.”
    
Some patents were assigned to Plastering Development Center, Inc., Chicago, a McNulty Bros. entity. Others were assigned to a McNulty or an associate. The McNultys worked closely on their inventions with U.S. Gypsum, E Z On Corporation and other firms, Feldner says.
    
The inventions improved quality and saved on labor. McNulty Bros. used their spray guns and pumps to apply fireproofing on some the tallest buildings in Chicago.

The Self-Tapping Screw
In the 1940s, gypsum wallboard construction received intense support from its manufacturers. They beefed up their sales training and began calling architects. This led to wallboard gaining greater acceptance.
    
Drywall’s buildup came at the right time. World War II had created a global housing crisis. Japan, for example, lacked lumber to replace its housing stock destroyed during the war. Australia faced a building materials shortage. The United States saw family formation increase and a great need for homes when soldiers retuned from the war. Gypsum wallboard could deliver walls and ceilings faster than wet material systems.
    
The 1950s and 1960s saw a trend toward taller buildings. Building taller created demand for lightweight and non-combustible materials, such as cold-formed steel framing, says Larry Williams, executive director of the Steel Framing Industry Association.
    
At first, the rise of cold-formed steel occurred behind the scenes. In 1959, Dietrich Industries operated “in the Western Pennsylvania hills providing skid lumber to steel mills,” says Greg Ralph, vice president of strategic development at ClarkDietrich Building Systems. “When they dropped off the skids, they’d see scrap coils [of steel] laying in the back of the mills.” In time, Dietrich began private labeling steel studs for gypsum wallboard producers.
    
In time, cold-formed steel producers popped up throughout the country. Some had produced corner bead and thereby expanded into producing metal stud and track, Williams says.
    
But the key moment was the invention of the drywall screw.
    
“The self-tapping, self-drilling screw was the key to [cold-formed steel framing] taking off,” says William Courtney, president and CEO of ClarkDietrich Building Systems. “This was the intersection of wallboard, steel and fasteners.”
    
The 1967 U.S. Patent 3,358,548 assigned to Illinois Tool Works was “for drilling and fastening a first work member to a harder second work member.” It had “a pair of frangible wing-like elements on the shank … capable of boring a hole,” the patent description states.
    
The self-tapping drywall screw created opportunities for power tool manufacturers, noted AWCI’s Construction Dimensions. By 1990, 1 billion to 1.5 billion drywall screws were being fastened on projects each month.
    
By the early 1980s, engineers had designed load-bearing, cold-formed steel mid-rise buildings. By 2004, 81 percent of the interior walls built in the United States used cold-formed steel framing, according to the Steel Framing Alliance. In 2011, AWCI helped organize SFIA and promoted unity within the industry.
    
“As our industry struggled to grow up, AWCI was the adult in the room that kept the manufacturers working together,” Courtney says.

Energy-Efficient Systems
The 1973 OPEC oil embargo of the United States led to an energy crisis. Homeowners, commercial developers and building regulators all wanted to save energy. This brought energy-efficient systems to the fore.
    
For example, Dryvit, a stucco-like exterior insulation product, grew rapidly. “A wall and ceiling contractor can increase his portion of available project money when he starts going after the exterior,” said Frank Morsilli, founder of Dryvit Systems, Inc., in 1982. “Almost any good contractor can open up his opportunities.”
    
In the 1980s, exterior insulation and finish systems became huge. AWCI Executive Vice President Joe Baker Jr. helped found the Exterior Insulation Manufacturers Association (now the EIFS Industry Members Association) in 1981. By 1989, AWCI’s Construction Dimensions estimated the EIFS market to be in excess of $1 billion and growing. AWCI’s technical committee on EIFS spearheaded a pre-apprenticeship training program for vocational schools in the United States and Canada. Pilot programs began in the early 1990s.
    
Unfortunately, problems with EIFS applications in Wilmington, N.C., came to light as contractors unfamiliar with the system made errors in areas such as window flashing, causing a barrier-type system to fail there. Manufacturers responded by introducing water-managed EIF systems, which had built-in drainage and met the codes. Yet, some insurance carriers stopped covering EIFS contractors. AWCI’s Executive Vice President & CEO Steve Etkin played a pivotal role by helping reestablish insurance coverage for EIFS contractors.
    
In the late 2000s, the energy code changes affected exterior wall assemblies. The 2009 and 2012 International Energy Conservation Code® and the ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2013 called for one to four inches of exterior continuous insulation be used to create a new exterior thermal envelope. The amount of insulation depended on the building location by climate zone. But the code required foam board even in warm zones, so contractors had to adapt. AWCI’s Exterior Envelope—Doing It Right® seminar helped them meet the new requirements.

Refined Methods of Working
Over the years, AWCI was worked closely on implementing standards and helping members to adopt new technologies.
    
In 1992, AWCI worked with the Gypsum Association on standards for five levels of drywall partition finishing. “It was put in place to manage expectations and start communication between architects and contractors,” says Robert Grupe, AWCI’s technical director. GA-214, “Levels of Gypsum Board Finish,” was the first document to instruct wallboard finishers on levels of quality. “It eliminated a lot of ambiguity,” Grupe says.
    
In 2002, the Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry published a paper on stachybotrys, a genus of molds that had become an industry crisis. “The contractors were on the firing line for it,” Grupe says, “so AWCI got involved.” The foundation’s “Mold: Cause, Effect and Response” white paper helped contractors understand the problem and its remediation.
    
Since the 2000s, technology has revolutionized the industry. Laser-based optical devices and electronic job-tracking tools have improved site layout and workflows. Tablets, PDF annotation software, 3-D building information modeling and augmented reality technologies have created a new department: visual design and construction.
    
“The IT side of our business is changing,” Grupe says. “AWCI has put together a Construction Technology Committee to focus on it.”
    
Clearly, the industry has marched onward in a spirit of cooperation since the days of Oscar Reum. His was a simpler world in which to operate, but it was no less dynamic than ours is today.
    
“The one constant in our industry is change,” says Feldner. “Stay with the times, or be swept away.”

Mark L. Johnson is a historian, researcher and writer. Reach him on Twitter, @markjohnsoncomm, and at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.