Drywall: Understanding Levels of Finish

by | Jan 24, 2023 | Drywall

It’s easy to take drywall for granted. A necessary component of most builds, it has the power to distinguish architectural interiors from rough-hewn industrial to expected interiors to lavish luxury – all based on its finish. That is why it’s critical to understand the levels of drywall finish and ensure the correct one is specified in job estimates. The standards were first published in 1990, when five major trade associations involved in the manufacture, erection, finish and decoration of gypsum wall and ceiling systems convened to develop an industry-wide Recommended Levels of Gypsum Board Finish, GA-214-10, formally published by the Gypsum Association. The collaborating associations included Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry (AWCI), Ceiling & Interior Systems Construction Association (CISCA), Drywall Finishing Council (DWFC), Gypsum Association (GA), and Painting and Decorating Contractors of America (PDCA). The group identified six total levels of drywall finish, which we explore here.

Drywall Finish Level 0: Temporary Construction / Final Design Not Determined

A Level 0 finish features hung drywall only. There is no taping, finishing or accessories required. In theory, a project will never specify Drywall Finish Level 0. It’s a temporary level used when interior designers are finalizing specifications to help the construction timeline continue moving forward.

Drywall Finish Level 1: Smoke Barrier Application and/or Non-Public Area

This level includes joint taping and bare fasteners, both exposed. It can be specified in non-public areas such as attics or building service corridors for its one major attribute – providing a sealed smoke barrier. In some geographic regions, this finish is known as “fire-taping.” But it’s important to know there is a specific “fire tape” product designed to slow down or prevent household fires from occurring. This tape is treated with silicone and cannot be mudded or painted over, and requires specialized primers for any further treatment. So, be sure to get specific in your needs to avoid unexpected additional project costs. A Drywall Level 1 Finish is commonly specified both to meet building fire codes and when possible, to other non-public areas to help reduce overall project costs.

Drywall Finish Level 2: Substrate for Tile and/or Area of Low Design Concern  

Level 2 finishes are most often specified where gypsum panels will be used as a substrate for tile, or in garages, warehouse storage and similar areas where appearance is not a concern. It is the first level where tape is embedded in a joint compound and wiped with a knife, leaving a thin layer of compound over the tape. There is only one coat of compound applied to fasteners and accessories, making tool lines and ridges acceptable with this finish. Raynor specifies Drywall Level 2 Finishes frequently as part of our high-end projects, to help preserve budget for spectacular statement walls in other areas. To see an example of how the different drywall finishes work together, check out our Sparkman Wharf project’s interior, which included Level 2 finishes covered with composite wood and Level 5 smooth walls. Medium to Heavy Texture No Smooth Walls

Drywall Finish Level 3: Medium-to-Heavy Texture / No Smooth Walls

A Level 3 finish is the must-have drywall finish for exposed, public walls. It features two coats of compound on fasteners and accessories, and one coat on joints and angles. The surface should be free of tool marks and ridges and features medium to heavy texture, applied either via spray or hand. It’s ideal for light-color flat paints in areas with compatible lighting, meaning the likelihood for perceived imperfections in the finish is greater than with a Level 4 or Level 5 finish. Level 3 drywall finishes are not a suitable finish for smooth walls or for light wall coverings (e.g., wallpaper), but may be acceptable for heavy-grade wall coverings (e.g., barn wood). That said, there is no reason to incur the cost of a Level 3 finish if your design calls for the surface to be covered in a heavy-grade wall covering. Instead, specify a Level 2 finish and save your budget for other areas of design.

Drywall Finish Level 4: Light Texture / Non-Continuous Texture / Wall Coverings

The Level 4 Drywall Finish is the classic drywall finish. It’s the most common type of drywall finish in residential and commercial buildings alike and provides a good base for paint applications. With three coats of compound on accessories and fasteners, two coats on flat joints and one coat on angles, this finish is perfect for light texture or non-continuous texture and wall coverings. In critical lighting – areas where light from fixtures or windows reflects onto a surface and highlights imperfections – Level 4 finishes require flat paints applied over light texture to reduce joint photographing. Level 4 is an ideal base for lighter color flat paints, but unbacked vinyl wall coverings, darker color paint, and any high-sheen level and enamel paints should be avoided. Simply put, the Level 4 Drywall Finish considers minor imperfections acceptable and applications beyond flat paints will highlight these imperfections. So, any project requiring statement walls requires Level 5.

Drywall Finish Level 5: Smooth Statement Walls

A Level 5 Drywall Finish is the best of the best. It features the same coats of compounds to accessories, fasteners, joints, and angles as a Level 4, but it also features a full surface treatment coat. This ensures the final wall has a smooth, uniform surface with no tool marks or ridges, and limited possibility of joint photographing and/or fasteners showing through the final decoration. It’s the finish to use in high-visibility statement walls and anywhere smooth wall designs are decorated with non-flat paints (sheen/gloss), other glossy decorative finishes, deep/dark paints and where critical lighting occurs. Level 5 smooth walls have become a symbol of luxury in both residential and commercial builds yet are still extremely cost-effective when compared to other recognized luxury elements (e.g., art, furniture, wall coverings, etc.). Even better, investing budget in Level 5 smooth walls will also provide the flexibility to evolve interior design as needed using either paint or light wall coverings. A beautiful example of Level 5 finish is our RSM Corporate Office project. Always Specify Drywall Finish Levels

Always Specify Drywall Finish Levels

There is a long list of industry lingo and/or company-created names that “equate” to drywall finish levels, but it’s best to specify the EXACT drywall finish level according to the Gypsum Association standards in your job estimates to ensure everyone is on the same page. We at Raynor have more than 60 years of experience and have completed hundreds of projects working with top general contractors and owners. There isn’t a scope for drywall, stucco, EIFS or stone that we haven’t seen and we’re happy to work with you to determine the best drywall finish level for your job. With our team of craftsmen, you can be confident that we have the expertise, skill, and professionalism to deliver the best quality work and the commitment to finish the project on schedule and per the project parameters. Contact us to learn more about our professional exterior and interior wall and ceiling finish services. To learn more about the Raynor Group, click here.
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