I once thought that old wood-veneer paneling needed to be torn
out and replaced with new drywall to properly give paneled
rooms a smooth, painted finish. But about 25 years ago, a good
friend of mine showed me how he skim-coated paneling with
Durabond setting-type joint compound (USG, 800/874-4968,
a technique he'd used to renovate several of his apartments. To
this day, those walls are as smooth and sound as can be, even
after years of being rented out to families with
Over the years, I've skim-coated a lot of paneling. It seems
that in the late '60s and early '70s, almost every home
received some sort of wood-veneer-paneling makeover. In fact, a
few government-subsidized projects, such as the housing built
for workers involved in the construction of Chicago's O'Hare
Airport during World War II, actually required wood-veneer
paneling on the interior walls. In one of those developments
now a comfortable Chicago suburb of small homes
called Harwood Heights — we recently contracted to do a
kitchen-cabinet replacement. Our clients wanted to brighten up
their kitchen with new paint before installing their new
cabinetry. To help keep their costs down, our proposal included
skim-coating the paneling instead of hanging new drywall.
Here's how we did it.
Durabond is much harder than regular drying-type joint
compounds, so it resists cracks and checks caused by seasonal
changes in humidity, which makes it a very sound filler for
finishing paneling. It also sets up much faster, so we can
complete projects in a more reasonable time frame (usually one
to two days from start to finish) than if we installed new
But for the Durabond to adhere the way it should, the paneling
needs to be properly prepped.
My first step is to remove any inside corners and scribe trim.
Baseboard removal is optional; it's really only necessary if
new baseboards are planned.
Then I examine each of the walls carefully, pressing all areas
with my hands to make sure the paneling is firmly attached to
the framing. Where it's loose, I secure it with a crown stapler
or a finish nailer (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The paneling has to be securely
fastened to the framing before skim-coating; a lot of extra
holes here doesn't matter, since they'll be filled with setting
compound anyway (top). Next, the walls are cleaned thoroughly
with a TSP solution to degloss the paneling and remove wax and
Next, I use a strong trisodium phosphate (TSP)
solution to degloss the paneling and remove any wax film or
dirt that would interfere with adhesion. I leave the solution
on the paneling for several minutes, then wipe the walls off
with a cloth, rinsing frequently.
Corners. On outside corners, I nail up conventional
metal corner-bead, which I then feather either with regular
joint compound (if time allows) or with Durabond (Figure
Figure 2. The author prepares outside
corners for joint compound by first nailing up metal corner
On inside corners, if there is a significant gap, I use paper
drywall tape embedded in Durabond to ensure that cracking or
hairline checking won't appear later on. If the gap is minimal,
I just caulk the corners after priming.
At the corners where the walls meet the ceiling, I use the
same approach. On this project, the ceiling had a popcorn
finish, so I used caulk.
Working With Durabond
There are a number of different versions of Durabond, with
different setting times. For this project, I used Durabond 45
for the skim-coat filler. As its name implies, Durabond 45
remains workable for about 45 minutes and is ready to sand in
approximately one to two hours, depending on the relative
humidity and the consistency of the final mix.
Durabond also comes in other versions with different curing
times. For custom-closet "same-day" wall preparation, we use
Durabond 20 to fill holes from removed closet hardware and for
other quick fixes. Sometimes we use a heat gun to help speed up
the curing process so that we can sand even sooner.
Mixing. The challenge here is to gradually mix water
with the powder and stir until you have a good putty-type
mixture without lumps. You don't want the Durabond to be too
soupy (it's pretty easy to add too much water), because that
can slow down the drying time and cause shrinkage.
Since there's only so much Durabond 45 that you can apply
before it starts to set up, I don't usually use a mechanical
mixer. This 10-foot-by-16-foot room took a few hand-mixed
After mixing, I allow the Durabond to slake for about a minute
before applying it to the walls.
Application. I use standard joint-compound tools to
apply the Durabond. If the overall texture of the paneling is
very smooth, only a narrow mud knife is usually needed to
bridge the grooves, which greatly reduces the amount of
compound you have to sand (Figure 3).
Figure 3. When skim-coating, the author
uses the narrowest taping knife possible that will allow him to
completely fill the grooves without applying excess material
(left). After an hour or two, the setting compound has hardened
and the walls are ready to sand smooth (right)
But because the walls in this project were in poor condition,
I had to use wider knives, resulting in a corresponding
increase in sanding time.
It's possible that some paneling will require only a single
coat of compound, so it pays to check for smooth, full buildup
to see if a second coat is really necessary.
Sanding. Even though setting compounds are harder to sand
smooth than regular joint compounds, you can still use a pole
sander. To keep the mess to a minimum (and the customer happy,)
we always try to use some sort of dust-collection method.
In some cases, we'll rent Porter-Cable's drywall sander/vacuum
unit, which allows us to finish sanding rooms like this one in
about an hour.
Finally, we apply a quality primer with good adhesion and
color-blocking properties before painting the room (Figure
Figure 4. After priming (left), the walls
are ready for any necessary final caulking (right) and a coat
of finish paint.
As always, it never pays to skimp on the quality of the final
finish. We have found that about 48 hours of "curing" is
required for full hardness and durability of the primer and
paint. Be gentle with the new walls for at least that period of
It took us 32 man-hours and $46 in materials to finish smooth
this room's 412 square feet of paneled wall, including cleanup
Figure 5. The finished skim-coated
paneling is as smooth as drywall, but with a harder and more
All the existing door and window casings, bases, and ledges
remained in place, and we didn't have to reset any electrical
boxes. If we'd rented a power sander, we'd have saved about six
man-hours of labor (but would have had to add the $50 rental
fee). Now, if only we had a quick cure for shag
Ron Rodewald manages ClosetMaxx Custom
Closets, a family-owned remodeling business in Crystal Lake,