As a self-employed remodeler, I often take on small interior
projects that require hanging and finishing no more than a few
sheets of drywall. Since I've never found a drywall contractor
who would show up to do these small jobs, I've learned how to
get them done myself. I'm nowhere near as efficient as a
professional finisher, so I still sub out the big jobs. But
when I'm remodeling a bathroom or a small kitchen, it's nice to
know that I don't have to wait on someone else for the drywall.
Also, these rooms get closer visual scrutiny than most; I like
being confident when I put down the sanding pole that the walls
are perfectly smooth.
For the most part, I use standard finishing tools to get the
job done. But I've discovered a couple of specialized tools
that simplify the work without costing a fortune. I've also
gotten cozy with a variety of fast-setting compounds that allow
me to apply multiple coats in one day.
When I hang the board, I plan the installation to minimize the
number of butt seams, since these joints take a lot more time
to feather out and finish properly.
Before starting the finishing stage, I always make sure that my
tools are clean and the materials are readily accessible. I'll
be applying setting compounds that have a limited working time
— often as short as 20 minutes — so it's critical
that everything be in place ahead of time.
I begin by covering all of the factory-tapered seams with
fiberglass mesh tape (see Figure 1). Because the mesh tape is
self-adhesive, I don't have to waste time laying down a bed of
mud on the seams before I apply the tape.
Figure 1.Before mixing joint compound,
the author covers all factory-tapered seams with self-adhesive
mesh tape. For corners, he uses paper tape, which he precuts
and precreases to keep the taping process moving quickly
But mesh tape isn't foldable, and it's not as strong as the
paper variety, so for inside corners — as well as for the
unavoidable butt joints — I still use paper. To conserve
working time after the mud is mixed, I cut every piece to
length, creasing the ones for the corners, then distribute the
pieces around the room so that each will be within arm's reach
when I need it.
Next, I put corner bead on the outside corners. I do a lot of
bathroom remodeling, so I prefer to use vinyl corner bead
because it won't rust in humid environments. I fasten the bead
with spray adhesive; before allowing the adhesive to set
completely, I check the position of the bead — using my
taping knife as a straightedge — to make sure it stands
proud of the wall surface from top to bottom. Once I'm
satisfied with the position of the bead, I cover the edges with
a length of mesh tape to prevent cracking.
On a small job, I can't afford to put on a layer of ready-mix
joint compound and then wait for it to dry overnight, so I use
a powdered setting-type compound for the first two coats. A
standard setting-type compound, such as USG's Durabond
(800/874-4968, www.usg.com), is all but impossible to sand; I
use the lightweight version, Easy Sand. Despite the name, this
compound is nowhere near as easy to sand as the ready-mix
variety, so I wipe the joints carefully.
Easy Sand comes in a range of setting times, from five minutes
to five hours. I keep a bag each of the 20-minute, 45-minute,
and 90-minute versions in my truck. That way, if I just have to
patch a hole, I won't have any downtime between coats; but if
I'm finishing the whole room, I won't have the mud going off in
the pan before I'm done.
Strictly speaking, those printed set times are not terribly
accurate, because the setting process is temperature-dependent;
if you want the compound to cure faster, just use hot water; if
you want to extend the working time, spread the mud out flat on
a hawk, rather than leaving it packed tightly in a pan. The
setting times are, however, a good gauge for when it's safe to
recoat. The mud doesn't have to be dry enough to sand,
just hard enough not to be disturbed by the
application of the next coat.
I mix setting compound with cool water in a clean bucket using
a D-handle drill and paddle mixer. Adding the powder to the
water works better than doing it the other way around.
In my experience, you need just over an inch of water in a
5-gallon bucket to mix a bag of setting compound. I stir the
compound until all the lumps are out and the mixture has
approximately the same consistency as a thick pancake batter
Figure 2. Properly mixed setting-type
compound is smooth and lump-free, with the consistency of thick
As soon as the setting compound is mixed, the clock starts
ticking, so I work quickly.
Like many other amateur finishers, I used to apply the first
coat of joint compound with a 4-inch taping knife. Then I
realized how inefficient that approach was.
I now use a 12-inch broad knife for nearly all of my flat
finishing because it lets me quickly and easily spread on a
large quantity of mud and wipe the seams clean (Figure 3). The
trick is to hold the blade parallel to the seam and apply the
mud in one long, sweeping motion.
Figure 3.Instead of using a puny taping
knife, the author fully loads a 12-inch broad knife with mud,
holds the knife edge parallel to the seam, and covers the tape
in one long, sweeping motion (left). To wipe the joint smooth,
he holds the knife at a shallow angle and applies gentle but
equal pressure to both ends of it (right).
I cover the mesh tape with a layer of mud, then immediately
wipe it down, holding the blade at a shallow angle and applying
equal pressure to both ends of the knife. When I come upon the
unavoidable butt seam, I apply the mud in the same manner, then
embed a length of paper tape in the mud before wiping it
Outside corners. Once the flat work
is done, the corner beads are next. Working from the bottom up,
I hold the fully loaded knife blade parallel to the bead and
cover it and the taped edge with mud, then wipe away the excess
using the bead as if it were a screed.
Inside corners. Instead of a taping
knife, I use a 3-inch lamb's wool corner roller (Bon Tool Co.,
800/444-7060, www.bontool.com) to apply joint compound to
an inside corner. I screw the roller onto the end of a broom
handle — which enables me to reach the ceiling without
stilts, ladders, or scaffolding — then dip the roller
into my bucket of mud, push it into the corner, and coat both
sides at the same time (Figure 4). I push the tape into the
corner with my fingers, using just enough pressure to keep it
in place. If the joint compound I'm using has begun to stiffen,
I can buy a few extra minutes of working time by dipping the
tape into a bucket of clean water beforehand.
Figure 4.To rapidly finish inside
corners, the author submerges a 3-inch lamb's wool paint roller
in the bucket of mud (top left), then places the roller in a
corner (top right) and applies just enough pressure to evenly
coat both sides of the corner at the same time (bottom left).
Then he grabs a precut length of tape and presses it into place
with his fingers (bottom right).
To apply and finish the corner tape, I use an ingenious device
called a corner flusher (800/444-7908,
www.betterthanevertools.com). This gizmo
consists of an adjustable pole with a ball on the end to which
various sizes and shapes of "flushers" can be affixed (Figure
5). The flusher — a highly refined version of those
disappointing handheld corner trowels that most of us have
tried and tossed away in frustration — has specially
designed ridges that feather the mud evenly and capture the
excess, rather than letting it squeeze out the sides.
Figure 5. With specially designed ridges
that channel the joint compound and feather the edges, a corner
flusher makes quick work of taping and finishing inside
To bed the tape, I snap on the narrow (2-inch-wide) flusher. I
push the tool into the corner, apply steady inward pressure,
and gently pull the tool from one end of the corner to the
Keep It Clean
Setting compounds are difficult to clean up if they are
allowed to harden, so I make it a point to scrupulously clean
all the tools between each coat. In fact, I keep a bucket
half-filled with water specifically for washing tools as I
work. A stiff-bristle nylon scrub brush makes short work of
removing rapidly hardening compound.
I never clean the tools in a customer's sink, because these
compounds can congeal in the trap and cause a nasty clog.
If I'm finishing a typical 5-foot-by-7-foot bathroom, I'll use
Easy Sand 45 joint compound for the first two coats. Its
45-minute working time is all I need to cover and tool all the
Then, after I've cleaned the tools, I can immediately start on
the second coat. I mix the compound to the same consistency as
for the first coat. I also load the flat work, beads, and
fasteners the same way, using the 12-inch broad knife. But I
take care to feather the edges an inch or two beyond the first
When I get to the inside corners, I again roll on the
compound, making sure to completely cover the tape. For this
step I snap on a wider (3-inch) flusher and work the corners
just as I did for the first coat. If I've properly coated the
tape, the wider head will leave a flawless inside corner in its
If I find a low spot where the corner roller didn't leave
enough mud in the corner, it's no big deal — I just roll
a little mud into the trouble spots and make another pass with
Once I'm satisfied with the appearance of a corner, I move on
to the next one, knowing I won't have to revisit this corner
until it's time to sand.
After cleaning the tools, I eyeball the second coat, looking
for high spots or ridges that I can shave off with a taping
knife before the compound has set firmly.
For the final coat, which I will have to sand, I switch from
setting compound to a medium-weight ready-mix compound (which
has a red or purple lid, depending on the manufacturer). I
prefer medium-weight because the all-purpose compound (green or
black lid) shrinks more and is harder to sand, while the
lightweight variety (blue lid), which is very easy to sand, is
too susceptible to dings and scratches before painting.
There's no way to know how long a new pail of joint compound
has been sitting in a warehouse, so when I break open a bucket,
I always give it a good stir with the paddle mixer. To prevent
air bubbles that can leave crevices on the surface of the
joint, I plunge the paddle mixer to the bottom of the pail, run
the drill for about 30 seconds at medium speed, then pull the
mixer to the top in one smooth motion.
For the third and final coat, I often add a small amount of
water to thin the mix (usually about a soup can's worth);
otherwise I'll have to do too much sanding to get the feathered
edges to blend with the drywall.
I lay on my final coat the same way I did the previous ones,
taking pains to make sure the compound overlaps the edges of
the previous coat by at least an inch. For the flat seams, this
means I lay out two parallel tracks of mud on either side of
At this stage, I shouldn't have to touch the inside corners.
But if I discover a gap or some other imperfection that can't
be sanded away, I will cover it with a dollop of mud and wipe
it smooth with a 4-inch taping knife that I keep in my back
At this point all that remains is to clean my taping tools,
pack up, and leave the compound to dry overnight. I'll return
the next morning for the final sanding.
I've tried a variety of dustless sanding devices. Some were
too bulky to fit comfortably in confined spaces and others
didn't produce the quality I require, so I continue to sand by
To contain the dust, I seal the work area off from the
occupied portion of the house, and if possible I put a fan in
an outside window to create negative air pressure. To protect
myself from drywall dust — which may contain carcinogens
— I always wear a tightfitting respirator with
replaceable filters (rather than a cheap paper dust mask) when
One tool I've found that makes this job a lot less miserable
is the Radius 360 pole sander (866/675-2401,
www.fullcircleinternational.com). Unlike a
standard rectangular sander, the Radius 360 features an
oversized (10-inch-diameter) sanding pad with a unique swivel
head that lets me change directions without fear that the
sanding head will flop over and dent the drywall (Figure 6).
Since a nonmarring rubber bumper surrounds the head, I can rub
the sander along the inside of a corner without carving a
Figure 6.A Radius 360 pole sander covers
more ground faster than a standard rectangular sander, and its
soft orange bumper won't wear a groove in the corner. An angled
sponge sander makes quick work of the spot in the corner where
the round sander can't reach (above).
I run the sander back and forth across all the flats and
fasteners. With joints, I've discovered that the best approach
is to run the head parallel to the joint a few times and then
perpendicular to it.
Sanding goes fast with the Radius 360 because I can change the
pad's direction of motion without worrying about the
orientation of the head. I generally outfit this tool with
220-grit sandpaper, but even with such fine grit, I rarely have
to spend more than half an hour sanding a 5-foot-by-7-foot
The only places this tool can't reach are the points where the
inside corners meet. To polish those spots, I use a medium-grit
angled sanding sponge. I put the pointed angle of the sponge
right into the corner, zip it back and forth once or twice,
then move on to the next corner.
After the corners are done, I take a quick walk around the
room holding a powerful work light in one hand and the sponge
in the other. I usually find a few minor imperfections that
need further sanding.
Then all I have to do is vacuum up the dust and get ready for
Greg DiBernardo owns Fine Home Improvements
of Waldwick in Waldwick, NJ.