Drywall Finish Levels Explained

Drywall Finishing Ceiling
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Hanging drywall is a relatively straightforward project, even for do-it-yourselfers. And because it is an interim step in the overall process of finishing a wall, any mistakes that do occur can still be covered up. But the final task of finishing drywall can easily frustrate even very skilled DIYers. Finishing is the very last stage, and this means that you have no more opportunities to fix flaws. This is it; you need to get it right.

Drywall finishing requires a good deal of craftsmanship, which is why the gypsum industry and drywall professionals have codified a set of professional standards that breaks the process of finishing drywall into five distinct levels. Serious DIYers should take note of finishing levels if they want their finish to look as professional as possible.

Drywall Finishing Levels

  • Level 0: Level 0 implies that no finishing of any type has been done. At this level, drywall is simply fastened to the walls or ceiling.
  • Level 1: This level means that drywall joint tape has been embedded in joint compound, but nothing further has been done.
  • Level 2: This next level means that you have skimmed a thin coat of joint compound over the tape and covered the drywall screw holes. You can stop at this level if you intend to cover the wall surface with tile.
  • Level 3: At this stage, finishers apply a coat of joint compound to the tape and screws. Walls that will receive a heavy texture, such as knockdown texture, can end at this level. It would be pointless to progress beyond this level, since texturing will produce a finish that is rougher than level 3.
  • Level 4: This is the classic drywall finish. Here, you apply another coat of joint compound to the tape and screws and sand the dried compound. This is the level that typically is used when a wall surface will be painted or covered with wallpaper.
  • Level 5: This highest possible level of drywall finishing involves applying a skim coat, if applicable.

There are three ways to apply a skim coat:

  • Use a roller: Here, thinned joint compound is rolled onto the wall with a thick-nap roller. Excess is scraped off immediately.
  • Use a taping knife: A series of six or eight dabs of mud are applied, each about 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Immediately, the mud is smoothed across the surface, then excess mud is scraped off.
  • Spray finish: Professionals have spray equipment to allow them to spray on drywall compound. This type of equipment can be rented at rental yards or even at some home improvement stores.
illustration of drywall finishing levels
The Spruce / Lisa Fasol

Perfection Is Often Unnecessary 

In a perfect world, all drywall—every square inch of it—would be mudded and sanded down to a mirror-smooth surface. While this is possible, it's not cost-effective. If you're hiring out the work, every step requires an additional visit from the tradesman. For DIYers, it's yet another day or two you add to the entire project. The nature of the space and how you use it may dictate the level of drywall finish that's appropriate:

  • Garages and workshops: A level 1 drywall finish may be completely sufficient in garages and workshops. Why mud and sand a space that is rarely ever seen? On the other hand, a car aficionado or an obsessive tinkerer might enjoy having a workspace that is as clean and smooth as any other wall found in the residential part of the home.
  • Wainscot-hidden wall surfaces: Putting in wainscoting? Then you don't have to put a premium finish on the lower 45 inches of your walls since it will get covered up anyway. A level 1 finish is fine for these areas.
  • Cabinet-hidden walls: Because kitchens are often blanketed with cabinets and appliances, much of the wall space doesn't need a level 5 finish.
  • Ceilings: Conversely, ceilings tend to get raked by natural light through the windows, highlighting pops, bumps, and depressions. For many homeowners, nothing less than a level 5 will do on their ceilings. At the very least, ceilings always call for a level-4 fiinish.

When Is a Level-5 Drywall Finish Needed?

A level-5 finish is a skim coat of joint compound (also known as mud) applied to a finish that you would normally leave at level 4. 

There are two instances when you need a level 5 coating: when the finish will be glossy; or when light is be angled low enough to highlight bumps and depressions. A level-5 finish is like icing on the cake. It's a premium finish that you will not get by default; you absolutely will need to discuss this with your contractor or drywall installer, as it is not normally considered part of the finishing process. 

Bottom Line

Should you discuss drywall finishing levels, in those terms, with your contractor or tradesman? Excluding level 5, it is generally not needed, and might even insult a tradesman who already knows his or her craft. 

But as a DIYer, you may find the concept of finishing levels valuable because it aids you in remembering that not every room needs a level-4 finish (and certainly not a level-5 finish). Understanding the finish levels can also slow you down and help you achieve the best results.