Achieving a Perfect Drywall Finish

As a drywall contractor with four decades of experience, I’ve installed and finished every level of drywall on projects ranging from basic garages to high-end custom homes. When it comes to a flawless, impeccable drywall surface, the highest level of finish is level 5.

Most drywall installations stop at level 4, which is more than sufficient for many situations. But for homeowners who want that ultra-smooth wall worthy of flat paints and critical lighting, a level 5 drywall finish is the only way to go.

Drywall Finishing Levels Explained

Before we dive into the fine details of a level 5 drywall finish, let’s quickly review the various drywall levels established by the Gypsum Association:

Level 0 – This is essentially an unfinished drywall installation with untreated joints and no taping or finishing compounds applied.

Level 1 – Joints are roughly embedded with drywall compound, but there is no taping or finish coats. Not recommended in most residential applications.

Level 2 – Joints and fasteners are embedded and taped with one coat of drywall mud over joints, angles and accessories like corner beads.

Level 3 – This is considered a “heavy” residential texture finish. Level 3 includes embedding tape and coating with two separate applications of drywall compound over joints, accessories and fasteners.

Level 4 – The “standard” level specified for most drywall installations. Level 4 takes the process one step further by including a thin skim coat of joint compound over the entire surface to provide a more uniform finish.

Level 5 – This is the highest level of drywall finish for the smoothest, most consistent results. It involves a full skim coat of drywall compound applied to the entire surface then sanded to an ultra-smooth finish.

As you can see, levels increase in labor and number of drywall compound applications. Stopping at a lower level leaves more potential for visible drywall joints, tool marks from finishing tools, and irregularities in the surface.

The Level 5 Advantage

Most builders opt for a level 4 drywall finish. This provides a decent, mostly flat surface that looks good with standard flat paints, moderate lighting and from typical viewing distances.

However, walls with a level 4 finish can still show some joint outlines, extra buildup around taped corners, and minor tool marks when viewing up close or with strong side lighting. It’s not quite the perfectly smooth, uniform surface provided by a meticulous level 5 skim coat and the proper drywall tools.

With today’s open floor plans and expansive walls, better lighting, flat paints, decorative plasters, and high homeowner expectations, a level 5 drywall finish shines – literally. You get an absolutely smooth, consistent and unblemished surface from edge to edge, floor to ceiling.

Some other advantages and uses of a level 5 finish include:

– Walls coated in high-gloss paints or lacquers designed to highlight every defect

– Walls next to bright windows where any imperfection gets exaggerated

– Homes/rooms with dramatic lighting or harsh angles that create shadows

– Large/tall walls where imperfections will be magnified

– Archways, columns, curved surfaces requiring a perfectly smooth coating

– High-end homes where only first-class finishing is acceptable

– Warranties against future drywall cracking, bulging or nail pops

– Critical stucco coats and level 5 drywall go hand-in-hand

How It’s Done

As you might expect, achieving a level 5 drywall finish requires meticulous preparation, application, and sanding.

First, we complete drywall installation, taping and a level 4 finish over the entire surface using an automatic taper, drywall flat boxes, corner finishers, taping knives and joint knives. Multiple applications of drywall compound are needed to properly build, smooth and coat all joints, angles and fasteners.

With that base layer complete, we come back and skim coat the entire surface by hand-troweling on a thin, smooth layer of drywall finishing compound (often “green” all-purpose joint compound for easiest application). An extremely wide skimming blade allows you to apply a consistent, tight skim coat over vast areas.

Technique is crucial at this stage to apply just enough joint compound to fill any pinholes and cover textures without leaving buildup or excess thickness on the walls. The skim coat essentially “re-faces” the entire surface, embedding the paper covering of the drywall with solidified joint compound.

After the skim coat dries, the real work begins. We painstakingly sand using pole sanders, hand tools and drywall finishing sponges to remove any protrusions, excess buildup or irregularities from the skimming process. You have to meticulously sand between coats until the entire surface is perfectly smooth and uniform with no detectable drywall joints or ridges beneath for a high-quality finish.

At this point we’ll often apply specialized finishing compounds as topcoat products designed specifically for wide, smooth surfaces like a level 5 finish. These filler coatings “clear coat” the drywall in preparation for final sanding before paint.

Needless to say, a level 5 drywall finish like this is extremely labor intensive compared to basic taping and finishing work. It requires specialized skills, tools, attention to detail, and a lot of time spent nailing down that perfect, glasslike surface. But for discerning homeowners, it’s worth it.

Stainless Steel Taping Tools and Beyond

Today’s drywall professionals have an incredible array of tools at our disposal to achieve superior drywall finishing like a level 5 skim coat and sand. We’ve come a long way from basic drywall taping knives and corner tools.

Modern automatic tapers can coat an eight-foot-high wall with a perfectly uniform layer of drywall mud over all seams and angles in a single pass. These tools eliminate hand application for the big surfaces, ensuring an ultra-flat foundation for the skim coat to come.

We’ve also got awesome drywall flat boxes – rectangular tools with stainless steel finishing blades that glide over walls leaving dead-flat, tight skim coats. For smaller sections, drywall skimming blades provide pinpoint accuracy or can broadcast filler coats over an entire room if needed.

Drywall sanders with vacuum-powered heads make quick work of dust while smoothing down a level 5 finish to a perfectly flat plane. Along with specialty compounds designed for these fluid skimming techniques, we’re able to achieve seamless results once reserved only for plaster.

Obviously, this level of flawless finishing is reserved for premium projects and homeowners with an eye for absolute perfection (not to mention the budget for significant time and labor costs). Many general contractors stick to level 3 or 4 for most residential jobs.

But if you demand the highest level of drywall finish on your interior walls and ceilings, a level 5 skim coat is the only way to go. With experienced and skilled finishers employing specialized tools and techniques, you’ll get an unblemished surface worthy of scrutiny under any lighting condition.