Proper Technique for Hanging Drywall

USA, Utah, Lehi, Drywall worker applying tape to corner between wall and ceiling
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Installing drywall, sometimes referred to as hanging drywall, is one of those “big bang for the buck” projects. With a small financial investment, you can substantially alter the look of an unfinished space, such as a garage, in little time. Successful drywall installation hinges on correctly anchoring the drywall panels to the framing members. 

Although you can install drywall by yourself, the job will be much easier if you have a helper or two--especially if you are covering the ceiling. The drywall is attached to framing with drywall screws or nails. The first step in the process, therefore, is to check studs and joists for bows or twists. The finished walls will look best if they are as flat as possible. Visually inspect the studs or joists to see if they are aligned in a straight plane. Alternatively, hold a long, straight board or level across the framing.

If any framing members stick out, trim them with a saw or plane (a power planer is perfect for this job). Fill in low spots with shims attached with nails or glue.

Choose a Drywall Fastener

At one time, using drywall nails was the standard method for attaching drywall panels to framing members, but these days, most installations rely on drywall screws. Drywall screws have a fluted head designed to recess slightly below the surface of the drywall paper without breaking it, and coarse threads for the best hold in the gypsum core of the drywall. Screws can be driven faster than nails, with less chance for damaging the face of the drywall; they also hold the drywall to the framing better than nails.

The best tool for attaching drywall is a screwgun, which can be adjusted to drive screws to the perfect depth. You can also use a cordless drill with an adjustable clutch, or you can use special drywall screw bits that fit into a drill chuck. These bits are designed to stop turning when the screw hits the desired depth.

If you prefer the “retro” approach and opt for nailing, use a drywall hammer, which has a curved face that leaves a small dimple around the nail head. And use ring-shank drywall nails. Screws should penetrate the framing at least 5/8 inch, which means that easy-to-find 1¼-inch screws will suffice for both 1/2-inch and 5/8-inch drywall panels. Nails should penetrate the framing at least 3/4 inch.

Avoid Overdriving Drywall Fasteners

Screws and nails need to be driven below the surface of the drywall so that they can be covered with joint compound and sanded to create a smooth surface. But they should not be driven so deep as to tear the paper surface and damage the gypsum core. Once the paper is torn, much of the holding power of the fastener is lost. 

A properly driven fastener is just slightly countersunk beneath the surface. Screw depth can be controlled on a screwgun or a cordless drill with an adjustable clutch, but proper hammering technique requires some practice.

Attach the Drywall

If you are covering both walls and ceiling, begin with the ceiling. When attaching drywall to ceiling joists spaced 16 inches on center, fasteners should be spaced 12 inches apart. On wall studs, the maximum spacing between fasteners should be 16 inches. Drive screws into each stud beneath the panel.

Attach fasteners every 8 inches along the untapered edges, but keep them at least 3/8 inch from the edge to avoid damaging the gypsum core. When using nails, plan to “double nail” (i.e., drive a second nail 2 inches from the first at each fastener location) along the face of the drywall.

After covering the ceiling, attach the top sheets to the wall. Before doing so, though, mark the locations of the wall studs on the edges of the ceiling drywall with a pencil. This will make it easier to find the stud centers when driving screws into the wall panels.

Once the stud locations have been marked, lift the panel into position. Drive a screw at the bottom of the panel into a center stud, then work your way out and up the panel. Lift the panel into place on the screws, then grab your screwgun in one hand while sliding the panel into position with your other hand and shoulder.

Bottom panels should fit snugly against the top panels. The easiest way to manage this is to use a drywall lifter. Commercial models are best, but you can make a suitable lever out of a couple scraps of lumber.

Tips for Installing Drywall When Working Alone

The best way to install drywall is to have some help (one helper is sufficient for walls, but two helpers are ideal for ceilings). Sometimes, however, the work just can’t wait for the help to arrive. When you face the prospect of hanging drywall by yourself, here are some tips that will make the job more manageable.

  • Rent a drywall lift. A drywall lift can hold a panel in place against the ceiling or against the wall, freeing both of your hands to easily drive screws.
  • Make your own lift. Homemade braces are not quite as effective as a lift, but they are easy to assemble and cheap. Make a brace by attaching a 4-foot-long 2x4 to a full-length 2x4 leg. The T-shaped brace should be about an inch longer than the height of the ceiling. Make two of them.
    Rest the brace against the wall at a slight angle, then rest one end of a drywall panel on the brace while you lift the other end into place. Slide the second brace under the other end of the panel as you lift it into place. Adjust the panel and braces until the panel is properly aligned.
    If you are working with one helper, consider making a single brace to serve as an extra set of hands.
  • Give it a rest. When installing top panels on a wall, you might find it easier to handle the panel by resting it on screws driven temporarily into the studs about 50 inches below the ceiling. Lift the panel into place on the screws, then quickly grab your screwgun or drill in one hand while sliding the panel up with your other hand and shoulder.