Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
If you spend any time around home construction, you’ll hear the terms “drywall” and “Sheetrock” thrown around. Often, the terms are used interchangeably since both are used for the paneling on interior walls. So, are they the same thing? Do Sheetrock and drywall both refer to the same product or is there a difference?
Drywall and Sheetrock mean (almost) the same thing. Sheetrock is a brand name for drywall made by U.S. Gypsum. All Sheetrock is drywall, but not all drywall is Sheetrock. This kind of product is also called gypsum board, plasterboard, and wallboard. All of those names refer to the same stuff. Let’s look a little deeper at drywall to understand this distinction.
What is Drywall?
Drywall refers to panels of gypsum plaster, pressed between heavy sheets of paper, and baked to a hard consistency. Drywall is used to make interior walls in buildings by covering the lumber frames. It’s popular because it is easy to install and cheap to finish. Chances are, you are surrounded by drywall as you read this article.
Gypsum is a type of soft, white stone. It is common in many areas of the world. To make gypsum plaster, the gypsum is mined, ground to a paste, heated and mixed with water and binding chemicals. The plaster used in drywall is the same type of plaster used for casts, papier mache, and art projects.
This product goes by lots of names. The source of the name gypsum board is evident. Wallboard is easy to figure out, too – it’s only used to make walls and nothing else. Plasterboard seems odd until you realize that the plaster used for casts and artwork is made from the same gypsum as drywall.
Sheets of drywall are usually four feet wide, eight feet long, and half an inch thick. They weigh about fifty-five pounds, give or take. Four by eight is a standard size for lots of sheet goods in construction, including plywood and wall paneling.
This size and weight is a good compromise between ease of handling and coverage. Smaller pieces are easier to use, but slower to install. Big pieces cover faster, but they take multiple people to handle. Four by eight sheets also fit a standard pickup bed; bigger stuff requires a trailer.
Drywall is available in thicknesses from ¼ inch to ¾ inch. Thinner drywall is used where the wall doesn’t need to be sturdy, but weight might be an issue. The most common use for thin drywall is covering existing walls without removing textures or plaster. The relatively lightweight quarter-inch drywall goes up smoothly and doesn’t weigh the existing wall down too much.
Thicker drywall – 5/8 and 3/4 inch – are used in apartments and commercial applications. The additional thickness gives better soundproofing and fire resistance. These are vital attributes in a commercial building. These thicknesses aren’t standard in stores but are available if you look around or place a special order.
Drywall can also be ordered in longer pieces – twelve and even sixteen feet long! These are specialty pieces used to cover walls in rooms with extra-tall ceilings. You can cover the wall without adding horizontal seams between pieces. You need a team of installers to handle these monsters. Besides the added weight, longer sheets of drywall are prone to breaking if they aren’t handled carefully.
Finishing the Wall
Drywall is installed using drywall screws to attach it to the wooden studs that make up the wall frame. Once it’s installed, the screws and the seams between pieces are covered with special tape. The tape is covered with plaster, which is smoothed with a trowel to hide the joint. This process is called taping and bedding if you are being formal. It’s called mudding if you are not.
The taped and bedded walls are usually textured as well, although that’s not always the case. Textured walls look a little more finished when they are painted. Smooth walls are most often covered with wallpaper.
Why Is It Called Drywall, Anyway?
Drywall is put up dry, obviously. But before drywall was standard, walls were made using a technique called “lath and plaster.” This technique uses long, thin strips of wood called laths to cover the space between the wall studs. Laths are usually about four feet long, one inch wide, and a quarter of an inch thick. They are nailed to the wall studs in rows separated by about three-eighths of an inch.
Once all the walls have been covered with laths, wet plaster is smeared over the walls. It usually takes three coats of plaster to finish a lath and plaster wall. The last coat is smoothed out and painted. These walls offer good insulation and soundproofing and have just enough texture to make the wall look good. However, putting up drywall instead of wet plaster has several advantages:
- Drywall installs much, much faster. It goes up in big sheets instead of a multitude of strips, and it doesn’t have to be covered. Just put it in place, poke in some screws, and it’s done.
- There’s no drying time. Three coats of plaster have to be applied, smoothed, allowed to dry, then re-covered. This can take a week or more. Drywall doesn’t take nearly that long.
- Plaster finishing requires a skilled craftsman to make it look good. While the process of taping and bedding drywall requires skill, there is less difficulty in it than in smoothing large plaster walls.
- Plaster cracks and falls off the wall over time, especially if the house shifts or settles. Drywall is much more stable and looks new for a much longer time than plaster.
- Repairing cracked plaster is a major undertaking that requires the same skill as the original installation. Repairing cracked or broken drywall is a job that most homeowners can handle on their own.
As you can see, drywall is a much easier product to use than wet plaster. Compared to plastering, drywall costs less per hour, requires fewer hours, and lets contractors quickly move from covering interior walls to painting and finishing construction. In a business where time is money, plaster just isn’t feasible anymore.
What Is Sheetrock?
Sheetrock is a brand name for drywall used by the U.S. Gypsum Company. It’s kind of like using the word Kleenex when you mean facial tissue or Frisbee for a flying disc. Kleenex and Frisbee are names used by brands that have become so successful we forget it’s a brand. We just call any example of the product by the brand name, even when it was made by someone else.
Sheetrock is that way. U.S. Gypsum was one of the first companies to make drywall and the first to sell it under a brand name. The “sheetrock” name has been so successful that we confuse the product – drywall – and the brand name.
It also helps that the brand name – Sheetrock – describes the product so well. It’s rocks, ground up and pressed into a sheet. That makes more sense than the term drywall these days since lath and plaster have almost disappeared from new construction.
Where Did It Come From?
The first drywall product came out in 1903. It was made in small squares, about a foot on each side. This “Sackett Board” was advertised as fireproofing material – homeowners could nail up the gypsum squares over wooden walls to help prevent fires. That was a big deal when lumber was the only material used in homes, and open flames were used to cook, heat homes, and provide light.
The company that invented it was bought up by U.S. Gypsum in 1909; they introduced the “sheetrock” brand name in 1916. It took a while for drywall to catch on as a wall material. Since plaster walls are so much more expensive than drywall, people assumed that plaster was better. After all, how often do you encounter a cheaper product that’s better than an expensive one? That logic led builders to stick with plaster for years after drywall was invented.
The big switch from plaster to drywall took place after WWII. That was a time when many, many people were starting families. They wanted to move their children out of crowded cities and into new, clean homes in the suburbs. This created a huge demand for new houses. Once builders got in a hurry to build as many homes as they could, as fast as possible, plastered walls were dropped in favor of drywall.
Limits of Drywall
Drywall is used in most interior rooms, but it does have some limits. Gypsum absorbs water quickly; this limits drywall to areas that never get wet. It’s used in living, sleeping, and dining areas. Drywall use is limited in kitchens and bathrooms – places where the walls might get wet.
Areas around bathtubs and showers, around sinks, and behind stoves are all likely to get wet. Drywall isn’t used in these areas. If it is, it’s covered with something waterproof. Drywall is also limited to interior use. You should never use it outside – a couple of good rainstorms and your gypsum board walls will swell, warp, and disintegrate back into a pile of rocks.
Special Kinds of Drywall
For areas where the air is high in moisture, a special kind of drywall called greenboard is used. Greenboard is still a gypsum product, but it uses sheets of fiberglass rather than paper to hold the boards together. The fiberglass doesn’t absorb water and inhibits mold growth. When you use greenboard, you will also need mold-resistant tape and mud for taping and bedding.
For the wettest areas, don’t use drywall at all. Cement board is a product that uses cement bound together with reinforcing fibers. It won’t absorb water at all so that you can use it next to bathtubs and showers with confidence.
Fire-resistant drywall is also available. Type X and Type C drywall are thicker than standard drywall and are made with fiberglass that resists burning for twice as long as standard drywall. Building codes require this kind of drywall around fireplaces, laundry dryers, garages, and other places with an increased risk of fires.
There are a couple of reasons that Type X and Type C drywall aren’t used in single-family homes. First, they cost about 20% more than standard drywall, so it’s more cost-effective to use standard drywall. Second, the fire protection aspects of this drywall are most effective when the wall is a complete seal, as in an apartment building. Flame retardant drywall doesn’t help as much when it’s next to an open door.
Is Drywall Safe?
If you are in your house looking at the drywall all around you, there’s no need to worry – it’s probably safe. The gypsum is enclosed between sheets of paper and sealed with paint. The biggest danger
Believe it or not, the top threat when installing drywall is pulled muscles. It’s heavy stuff. A standard 4×8 sheet of half-inch drywall weighs about fifty-five pounds. Thicker sheets can weigh as much as 120 pounds! Make sure you have help if you are going to move drywall around so that you stay safe.
Having adequate help also saves you money on supplies. Drywall sheets are somewhat fragile and will break if you drop them. Protect your muscles and your supplies by team-lifting drywall. Another option for handling drywall sheets is a drywall jack. Also called drywall lifts, these tools let you load a sheet of drywall, wheel it into place, lift it against the wall or ceiling, and hold it securely while you screw it into the wall.
Much of the risk of handling drywall goes away when you can hoist it with mechanical help. Drywall jacks cost a few hundred dollars, and some stores rent them as well. If you are putting in a lot of drywall yourself, this is definitely a tool to look into. It will save your back and your friendships.
The other danger that can occur when installing drywall is dust from cutting the drywall and sanding the mud when you tape and bed the walls. Wear a respirator or dust mask to protect your lungs and stay safe when you install drywall. Breathing lots of drywall dust can cause the same kinds of lung problems that afflict miners and quarry workers, so keep your mouth and nose covered.
There was a problem with contaminated drywall installed between 2001 and 2008. Most of the bad drywall was installed in 2006 and 2007. The largest number of cases of contaminated drywall came from Florida, with Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia also having many instances of problem drywall.
The contaminated drywall contained sulfur in the gypsum. You can recognize it because it has a rotten egg smell and causes copper pipes and wiring to blacken. The drywall may also cause itchy or red skin patches in people who are exposed to the drywall. If you think you might have contaminated drywall, consult the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for more information.
Your house is not at risk of contaminated drywall if it meets the following criteria:
- The drywall was installed before 2001 or after 2008
- The origin of your drywall was not in China.
- If you are outside the named states, you are probably safe; these states make up over 90% of the known cases, with half in Florida.
Surprisingly, some drywall helps reduce pollution. Instead of mined gypsum, it’s made from reclaimed coal ash. The power plants that burn coal to make electricity treat the ash after the coal is burned. The resulting ash contains gypsum that can be turned into drywall. The leftovers from power generation are built into houses rather than thrown in a landfill!
Drywall can also be recycled. This is done by taking old drywall, stripping off the paper coatings, and grinding the gypsum back to powder. The powder is re-formed into drywall sheets that can be installed in new homes. This is a much better alternative than throwing the old stuff into a landfill.
Old Sheetrock is also recycled into other products, including cement and fertilizer. If you are working on a project that will require you to remove drywall, check your local options to see if you can recycle the old drywall that you are removing.
Pro tip: If your home was built prior to 1978, it might contain lead-based paint. If that’s the case, you won’t be able to recycle your old drywall, and will probably have to treat it as a hazardous material.
How Much Does It Matter?
The different names for this product don’t matter much. If you go to the home improvement store and ask for Sheetrock, you’ll get panels of drywall. They may or may not be Sheetrock brand panels, made by U.S. Gypsum, but they will be four by eight panels of gypsum plaster. If you really want Sheetrock brand panels, you can find them. However, once the panels are hung and painted, you’ll never notice a difference. Sheetrock and drywall are the same stuff.
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