Drywall panels made of gypsum sandwiched between thick sheets of facer and backer paper are now the standard material used to construct most wall and ceiling surfaces. While this material revolutionized the home construction industry after it was when it came into widespread use during the 1940s, it is not without drawbacks. For do-it-yourselfers and many professionals, the large size and heavy weight of drywall panels are its two most negative characteristics. Coupled with its unwieldy nature and its nearly china-like fragility, drywall can result in aches and pains for even the strongest person. Ultralight drywall is an alternative to standard drywall that promises to shave off some of the weight to make the carrying and hanging drywall a little easier.
Ultralight drywall is a generic term for a building material that is about 25 percent lighter than standard drywall. A panel of 1/2-inch thick ultralight drywall weighs 13 pounds less than standard 1/2-inch thick drywall sheets. According to the Sheetrock UltraLight specification sheets, ultralight drywall is composed of gypsum or calcium sulfate dihydrate (85percent or less), cellulose (10 percent or less), starch (5 percent or less), and crystalline silica (5 percent or less), an ingredient list roughly similar to conventional Sheetrock.
While the formulas for ultralight drywall boards are proprietary, a slightly higher degree of pregelatinized corn starch and a special type of surfactant may help account for the lightness and the strength. Also, the introduction of a gaseous foaming agent to the gypsum slurry likely adds more air pockets to the wallboard, reducing its weight. This foaming agent may also be responsible for better-shaped pockets that provide superior structural strength.
Easier to carry and transport
Easier to install
Produces slightly less dust when cutting
Slightly higher cost
Slightly more brittle than conventional drywall
Ultralight Drywall Cost
Ultralight drywall typically costs slightly more than standard drywall, but not by an amount that is significant for most DIYers. For pros, ultralight tends to run about 20 cents per square foot, while standard drywall runs about 18 cents. This difference becomes significant only for very large jobs. At major big box home improvement centers, you can expect to pay around $10 to $12 per sheet of 1/2-inch drywall, and the cost differences between ultralight and standard are so slight that they are often rendered invisible by whatever weekly sales specials are being conducted.
Maintenance and Repair
Installed correctly, ultralight drywall has the same profile for maintenance and repair as standard drywall. Some users report that ultralight is somewhat more susceptible to cracking under impact, but the damage is generally easily repaired with a little additional taping and mudding work.
There is no appreciable design advantage for ultralight drywall over standard drywall. This is a material that can be used for all wall and ceiling finish surfaces in any residential application.
Ultralight Drywall Installation
Ultralight drywall is cut, installed, and finished in exactly the same way as standard drywall. Panels are cut to fit, then positioned against framing members and anchored with drywall screws. Seams are finished with drywall tape and several layers of drywall compound, which is sanded smooth before the walls are painted. Some pros report that because ultralight is less susceptible to sagging, they can attach overhead panels with fewer screws. However, manufacturer's instructions are virtually identical for ultralight drywall and standard drywall, and DIYers are advised to treat both types of drywall identically when installing.
Ultralight Drywall vs. Standard Drywall
The main difference between ultralight and standard drywall is, obviously, the weight. A conventional 1/2-inch thick sheet of drywall measuring 4 x 8 feet weighs around 57 pounds.
According to drywall maker USG, a 4 x 8-foot sheet of Sheetrock brand UltraLight Panel weighs 13 pounds less, for a total of 44 pounds. Some do-it-yourselfers who find standard 1/2-inch drywall too heavy may find this weight to be significantly more manageable.
The weight advantage of ultralight becomes more significant with thicker panels. A 4 x 8-foot sheet of standard 5/8-inch thick drywall weighs 74 pounds, and a 23 percent reduction in weight offered by ultralight can be significant. But be aware that thicker Type-X drywall may be required for some installations—for example in garages or around furnace rooms to retard the spread of fire. Ultralight drywall does not meet these requirements.
Consider, too, that drywall sheets often come bundled in pairs—two sheets sold as one, with a paper binding strip down the edges. If you choose to keep the paper binding strip in place, you might conceivably be carrying 114 pounds for every bundled pair of 1/2-inch 4 x 8-foot conventional sheets. So, the 26 pounds of weight savings per bundled pair of conventional boards can be helpful.
Does Lighter Mean Weaker?
USG notes that their light wallboard has "superior sag resistance" and that it hangs well on ceilings with 24-inch on-center joists. The company also says that the product is "stronger pound-for-pound than standard 1/2-inch drywall." It may, however, be weaker on a square foot basis, which is the anecdotal evidence from installers and contractors. Professionals report that ultralight panels may be more brittle and more prone to edge breakage than standard drywall panels. But Datasheets for the product state that, for hardness and flexural strength, Sheetrock UltraLight "meets or exceeds" ASTM C-1396 Specifications. For DIYers, there is really no reason to avoid ultralight drywall out of concerns for its strength.
Top Brands of Ultralight Drywall
U.S. Gypsum (USG) and Georgia-Pacific (GP) are the two leading manufacturers of ultralight drywall in the U.S.
- USG was the first company to introduce ultralight drywall, and they continue to do this with their Sheetrock UltraLight Panels brand. This product comes in both 1/2-inch and 5/8-inch non-fire-rated thicknesses.
- GP makes a light drywall product called ToughRock Gypsum Board in 1/4-inch, 3/8-inch, and 1/2-inch thicknesses. This product is slightly less than 44 1/2 pounds per 1/2-inch-thick sheet at 4 x 8-foot size. In terms of weight, it is comparable with Sheetrock UltraLight.
Is Ultralight Drywall Right for You?
USG's product is largely marketed to the professionals—either drywall hangers who carry the product every day or to contractors who need to think about issues such as workplace injuries and productivity. Adopting ultralight drywall may have a significant impact on a contractor's bottom line at the end of the year.
For do-it-yourself homeowners, the weight savings will be felt with every trip made from the home center to the truck and from the truck to the house. Drywall is always heavy and unwieldy, and there is no way to get around that. But this slightly lighter board may help do-it-yourselfers with the difficult loading and unloading tasks and especially when it is necessary to hold the sheets overhead for ceiling installations.