What is the difference between plaster and drywall? Both seem synonymous with walls and ceilings, so how are they different? Both drywall and plaster are made from gypsum materials, so the main difference is how the two are made and installed. 

Drywall incorporates gypsum between two thick sheets of paper to form a panel. Plaster is a pliable material often made from gypsum that is applied to pre-installed lathe to form a flat surface. Today, we will dig a little deeper into the application of each material and suggest a few pros and cons of each.

Is Plaster Harder to Install Than Drywall?

In most situations, plaster will be more difficult to install than drywall. Plaster installation requires skill not only to apply the material, but to mix the correct consistency as well. Drywall however, can usually be installed by a novice with a few simple hand tools.

Plaster often requires at least three coats of material to achieve a thickness of a quarter inch. In comparison, drywall panels are often installed in minutes and can apply a half inch of material in a single pass.

One disadvantage of plaster is that it requires more effort to install, and the process is slower. Plaster requires something to attach to, so the first step in a plaster project is the installation of lathe. Lathe can be either metal or wood (metal is the most common), which is attached to the wall to form a grid pattern. The plaster is then applied to the lathe by hand up to three times to form a durable surface.

Drywall is also installed by hand, but because the material is pre-formed into sheets, it installs much faster than plaster. Special drywall tools have been developed to make the process even quicker, such as screw guns and self-adhesive joint tape. Drywall does not require the level of skill plaster installation does, making it a popular choice for do-it-yourselfers. 

Another advantage drywall has over plaster involves finishing. Most drywall installations are finished to a level 3 finish, which only requires finishing of the joints and fasteners. Plaster, on the other hand, requires application of the material over the entire surface multiple times. Drywall finishing also usually dries in a day or two, while one coat of plaster can take several days to dry.

Why Would I Use Plaster?

Plaster is still widely used today, even though drywall has greatly replaced it in modern construction. One common use of plaster is in the repair of older structures. Drywall has been around for decades, but until its introduction plaster had been the go-to solution for centuries. Although the plaster tended to be lime-based, its use in fresco artwork throughout Europe essentially guaranteed it would never completely go out of style.

In the modern world, plaster is more of an art form, used in the repair of both historic structures and the design of modern buildings. Plaster dries very hard and is infinitely repairable, which is why structures built with it centuries ago still look great. Modern design trends such as art deco often utilize plaster to draw emphasis to a visual element in the room, like artwork.

Why Would I Use Drywall?

Drywall is used today because it is inexpensive, fast, and simple to install. Drywall makes up the walls and ceilings of most structures in the United States and has largely replaced plaster in residential construction. If your project requires speed, low cost, and reduced labor, drywall is likely your best option.

Unlike plaster, drywall does not require the installation of lathe over the framing. Drywall panels are usually about ½” thick, so a substantial surface can be installed over framing in a matter of minutes. A similar project might take days using plaster, because to get to the same point would require at least two steps, if not three. Plaster takes longer because each coat must completely dry before another can be applied.

Drywall is not only faster to install than plaster, but it is also easier to install because power tools can be used. Much of the physical effort required to install plaster involves carrying the plaster and transferring it to the surface. Then the plaster must be troweled out, adding even more physical effort. In most situations, applying plaster is a one-person job, so fatigue can set in quickly.

Drywall, however, is usually installed with two people, so they can work as a team to share the load. Drywall panels can also be delivered within feet of the installation with machinery, also reducing the effort required. In fact, most of the physical effort required to install drywall panels lies in the handling and lifting of the panels into place. Drywall tools such as a drywall lift eliminate much of this work, allowing the installer to focus their energy on a good installation.

Are There Other Benefits to Using One Instead of the Other?

Drywall can be considered the evolution of plaster. Plaster, like any technology, was eventually improved upon. Because drywall is made in a factory and not made on-site, the material is very consistent and stable to low tolerances. The manufacturing processes used to make drywall are the same pretty much everywhere, but not all drywall is the same.

Drywall has the huge advantage of specific design considerations depending on the application. For example, drywall panels used in wet locations like bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms are usually water-resistant. Drywall panels are fire-resistant, but there are versions designed to hold back fire for an hour or more. The ability of drywall to be modified makes it adaptable to both residential and commercial construction and substantially increases its use in both industries.

Although plaster cannot be installed as quickly or inexpensively as drywall, there are situations where plaster offers better results. Plaster is nearly incombustible, so it does a great job of resisting fire, especially when it is applied over metal lathe instead of wooden lathe. Plaster is also very dense, so it usually struggles to hold moisture that could invite mold or mildew.

Plaster also works far better than drywall on curved surfaces. Although drywall can be bent, the process is limited and tedious. Using plaster on a curved surface is really no more difficult than on a flat surface. 

Plaster is also much harder and more durable than drywall. Even small children can accidentally put a hole through a drywall panel, but plaster walls are much stronger. Plaster is also very easily repaired, so even if damage does occur the solution is often simple. 

Which Do I Use? Plaster or Drywall?

Generally speaking, most consumers will use drywall for interior walls for its convenience, cost, and speed. However, others may place more value in the infinite possibilities available with plaster. Many fall in love with the permanence and elegance of plaster, while others value the simplicity and adaptability of drywall. Consider carefully and you can’t go wrong either way.

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Matt Greenfield

Matt Greenfield is an experienced writer specializing in home improvement topics. He has a passion for educating and empowering homeowners to make informed decisions about their properties. Matt's writing focuses on a range of topics, including windows, flooring, HVAC, and construction materials. With a background in construction and home renovation, Matt is well-versed in the latest trends and techniques in the industry. His articles offer practical advice and expert insights that help readers tackle their home improvement projects with confidence. Whether you're a DIY enthusiast or a seasoned professional, Matt's writing is sure to provide valuable guidance and inspiration.

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