Drywall is ubiquitous. Most homes use drywall as a wall covering, and for good reason. Made largely from paper and gypsum, drywall is cheap to manufacture and equally cheap to purchase. You can cover large areas for little money. Since drywall is dense, it is excellent at slowing the transmission of sound.
But drywall isn't the only game in town, by any means. Despite drywall's many benefits, there are reasons why you might want a different type of wall covering.
Why Seek an Alternative to Drywall?
Drywall comes in flat sheets with straight edges but it does eventually require wet work in the form of drywall compound (mud) and trowels. So, despite its origin as an easier material to work with than plaster and lath, drywall still requires a deft, artistic hand to get right, especially in the finishing stages.
Sanding drywall mud is one of the most dreaded jobs in interior home remodeling due to the clouds of fine dust that it creates. Once installed, drywall is fragile and moisture can ruin it, making it a fertile breeding ground for mold and mildew. And finally, drywall has no inherent beauty. It's simply a blank slate, only as good as the paint you use to cover it with.
But there are alternatives to drywall. Some of these alternatives are designed for high-moisture environments such as basements, while others do have that inherent visual interest lacking in drywall. Even if you use drywall as the base, some of these other options can be installed on top of the drywall.
Textured Wall Panels
From 3/4-thick to 1 1/2-inch thick, these panels are called textured or 3D to distinguish them from other wall coverings such as paint, wallpaper, or fabric which are flat and hug the wall.
Textured 3D panels go over existing walls and are typically highly modern and stylish. Textured wall panels are often found in commercial establishments like restaurants, hotels, and clubs. While textured panels are expensive, they are mostly used only in moderation as accent walls.
Textured wall panels are made either of thin plastic or a type of dense, pressed paperboard similar to egg cartons. They are installed on the base wall with adhesive or with installation clips.
Basement Wall Finishing Systems
Basement wall finishing systems are part of a proprietary basement finishing system such as the familiar Owens-Corning system.
These wall panels are not sold separately and must be purchased as part of an entire finishing system, which must be built by certified installers.
Costs for entire systems run between $60 and $90 per square foot. This cost usually includes labor, as well.
The clear advantage of basement wall panels is their resistance to moisture. These panels have no organic materials that can rot or degrade.
Real Wood Wall Paneling
Real wood wall paneling has a lush, rich appearance that defies trends. Though it is commonly associated with cheap wood-look veneer pressboard, wood wall paneling has come of age in recent years.
Easy-to-attach J-channels and other invisible fasteners allow for easy installation on walls. It is rare to find solid wood paneling anymore. Veneers of exotic mahogany, zebrawood, wenge, or teak create the topmost 1/100th of an inch layer, drastically cutting down costs.
Veneer plaster is a thin layer of wet plaster that goes over everything. With veneer plaster, you will have fewer worries about joints because the entire surface is skimmed over.
Veneer plaster is the ideal combination of drywall and plaster. It combines the strengths of each of those two materials.
With regular lath and plaster construction, a monolithic (one solid layer) of plaster is applied to the wood lath strips. One problem with this is that this thick coat of plaster takes a long time to dry out.
But with veneer plaster, 1/2-inch gypsum drywall is applied to the studs and then a thin, veneer coat of plaster is applied to the entire surface of the drywall. One marked advantage is that plaster has a greater strength rating than drywall, so it is more resistant to the everyday knocks and scrapes that walls may encounter.
OSB or Plywood
OSB, or oriented strand board, is used mainly as exterior wall sheathing or as floor underlayment.
If you are dealing with a nonresidential structure, OSB may work well as an interior wall covering. While it is not fire-rated, OSB, particularly half-inch or thicker, provides a solid interior wall covering for structures like sheds and workshops—places where walls will get scuffed and bumped quite often.
OSB can be painted but the dazzle pattern of the stranded wood underneath usually will show underneath paint layers. Note, too, that OSB often has a waxy surface which makes it difficult for the paint to adhere.
Half-inch plywood will provide a similar wall covering, the main difference being that plywood is easier to paint, but still will show wood grain, and is easier to handle than OSB as it is slightly lighter.
Plaster and Lath
Plaster and lath is a traditional method of creating a finished wall with wood slats and wet plaster. Completely malleable, plaster-and-lath construction is like sculpture for your walls and can be used to create graceful curves that are difficult to achieve with drywall.
The plaster and lath method involves nailing up hundreds of parallel, horizontal slats of wood called lath and then trawling on wet plaster and squeezing it between the gaps between the lath so that it forms a bonding element called a key. After drying, the key keeps the finished plaster coat in place.
There is no need to replace lath and plaster simply because it is old. If you have areas of plaster that are cracked and/or falling down in places, it is recommended that you repair these areas rather than tear down the entire plaster wall. Plaster wall demolition is not easy, and it will fill up a roll-off dumpster quickly due to its weight.
One good resource about traditional lath and plaster wall covering is the Minnesota Lath & Plaster Bureau, where you will find a wealth of information about current lath/plaster techniques, as well as a substantial history of these building techniques.