I recently wrote a technical article for the CSI Denver Chapter website, called “Why Specify a Level 5 Gypsum Board Finish?”
It’s written for an audience who already knows a little about gypsum board finish levels. But not all design and construction professionals know much about gypsum board finish levels. (Even though I worked as an architect before I started writing specs, I am not sure I knew there were different levels of gypsum board finish until I became a specifier.) So, this post includes both some of the basics on gypsum board finish levels, and a sort of a counterpoint to the point made by my article. (The point of that article, which can be found at
, is that a Level 5 Gypsum Board Finish is the industry standard when higher sheen paints are to be used.)
After all the gypsum board panels are installed (typically, by being screwed to the framing), they get “finished” with tape, joint compound, and accessories such as corner beads. The gypsum board spec section indicates the level of finish that is required to be achieved. Descriptions of the finish levels and their recommended locations are at the end of this article. The levels go from 0 to 5, with each level getting progressively smoother.
Level 5 is a Level 4 plus a skim coat of joint compound (drywall mud) applied over the entire surface of the gypsum board. Even if you haven’t heard of a Level 5 Gypsum Board Finish, you’ve probably heard of architects requiring a skim coat over the gypsum board. Level 5 involves more material and more labor, and therefore Level 5 costs more than Level 4.
Sometimes the costs rule, and Owners don’t want to pay for a Level 5 finish. But a discussion among project team members about gypsum board finish levels shouldn’t end there. Things to make sure that everyone understands are the following:
The more sheen, or gloss, that a paint has, the more starkly the irregularities in the substrate will show. (A gloss paint has a lot of sheen. A flat paint has very little sheen.) If the Owner insists on a semi-gloss paint on gypsum board substrates, as many Owners on school projects do (for cleanability), irregularities in the substrate will show, especially in severe lighting conditions. The thing to do is to reduce the irregularities. The industry has come to an agreement about the best treatment for substrates to receive higher sheen paints, and that is a Level 5 Gypsum Board Finish. If Level 5 is cost prohibitive, architects should not just agree to spec a Level 4 and hope that it looks acceptable; other measures can be taken with the goal of achieving the same uniformity of substrate provided by a Level 5 finish. If other measures are also cost prohibitive, the architect should suggest switching to a flat paint, or should make sure that the Owner understands, before the gypsum board is painted with a higher sheen paint, that it may not look as great as they’re hoping it will, and that they’ll just have to accept that, having rejected the industry standards as being cost prohibitive.
Some individual paint and gypsum board manufacturers have other requirements beyond the standard published by the Gypsum Association – some are more restrictive and some are less restrictive.
For example, on the less restrictive side, some paint manufacturers produce high-build primers that are intended to replicate a Level 5 gypsum board finish when applied over Level 4 finishes. High-build primers have the ability to fill in a substrate to a limited extent, and can provide a more uniform surface than a regular primer can. The Level 4 finish has to be properly executed for this to work. Some paint manufacturers accept this approach in lieu of a Level 5 finish for higher sheen paints.
On the more restrictive side, one paint manufacturer’s rep has told me that since a true Level 5 is so hard to achieve, many painters prefer to use a high-build primer in every case when higher sheen paints will be used, even when a Level 5 has been provided.
On the less restrictive side, another paint manufacturer’s rep has told me that although Level 5 is best for semi-gloss paint, an acceptable appearance can be achieved, even with semi-gloss paint, if a Level 4 gypsum board finish is properly done, and an appropriate primer is used. (This is the situation that you’d want to make sure that a cost-cutting Owner understands going in. It’ll be acceptable, but probably not up to the industry standard.)
A well respected spec writer in the Denver area, Jon Willis of ASCS, Inc., has told me that a Level 5 finish shouldn’t be necessary, even for higher sheen paints, if all the following conditions are met: layouts are chalked (and then strictly followed), plumbness and levelness of installed framing is verified with a laser, 5/8-inch gypsum board is used on the walls (not 1/2-inch), quality gypsum board installers are used, a Level 4 finish is done properly, the joint treatment extends at least 6 inches beyond the joint on each side, a high quality setting-type of joint compound is used for the first 2 coats, and a vinyl formulation topping joint compound is used for the final coat, each coat of compound is allowed to dry thoroughly and then gets sanded before the next coat is applied, all surface imperfections such as screws and tool marks are given the same 3 coats of compound that the joints receive, the finish coat gets a rough sanding first, followed by a fine sanding, a quality painter is used, high quality high-solids primer and finish coats are used (and aren’t thinned), primer plus a minimum of 2 coats of finish paint are used, and if the paint is spray-applied, the final coat of wet paint should be backrolled with a roller to achieve a light orange peel surface.
The emphasis in the above approach is on the quality of the work and the quality of the materials. With this approach, since the installers won’t be using more material to cover up imperfections in the substrate, the installation and finishing of the substrate are required to be more skillfully executed, and higher quality materials are required to be used.
In construction, things are literally built on the things that go before them. When the layouts are snapped accurately and then followed during framing, it’s easier to get plumb framing. When framing is plumb and gypsum board installation is well executed, different panels of gypsum board will be plumb. When different panels of gypsum board are plumb, the joints between them will be visually minimized. When joints are minimal to begin with, joint treatment ends up being less extensive. When joint treatment is less extensive, less joint compound is used, and therefore less sanding is required… you see where I’m going with this. The quality of the work that precedes affects the quality of the work that follows.
So, my advice to architects is to talk to the Owner about expectations for painted surfaces, and the tradeoffs between costs and appearances. The contract documents must clearly convey the intent for the expectations for the appearances of painted surfaces. Talk to your paint and gypsum board manufacturers’ reps about their recommendations for your specific project. Consider whether the project is to be bid or negotiated. If negotiated, talk to the general contractor and his drywaller and his painter. If it’s to be a hard bid project, consider the skill level of the framers, drywallers, and painters you might get on your project. There are many factors to consider.
I encourage your comments!
The following are descriptions of gypsum board finish levels from “Recommended Levels of Gypsum Board Finish” published by the Gypsum Association.
Level 0: No taping, finishing, or accessories required. (Accessories include items such as cornerbeads.)
Level 1: All joints and interior angles shall have tape set in joint compound. Surface shall be free of excess joint compound. Tool marks and ridges are acceptable.
Level 2: All joints and interior angles shall have tape embedded in joint compound and wiped with a joint knife leaving a thin coating of joint compound over all joints and interior angles. Fastener heads and accessories shall be covered with a coat of joint compound. Surface shall be free of excess joint compound. Tool marks and ridges are acceptable. Joint compound applied over the body of the tape at the time of tape embedment shall be considered a separate coat of joint compound and shall satisfy the conditions of this level.
Level 3: All joints and interior angles shall have tape embedded in joint compound and shall be immediately wiped with a joint knife leaving a thin coating of joint compound over all joints and interior angles. One additional coat of joint compound shall be applied over all joints and interior angles. Fastener heads and accessories shall be covered with two separate coats of joint compound. All joint compound shall be smooth and free of tool marks and ridges. Note: It is recommended that the prepared surface be coated with a drywall primer prior to the application of final finishes.
Level 4: All joints and interior angles shall have tape embedded in joint compound and shall be immediately wiped with a joint knife leaving a thin coating of joint compound over all joints and interior angles. Two separate coats of joint compound shall be applied over all flat joints and one separate coat of joint compound shall be applied over interior angles. Fastener heads and accessories shall be covered with three separate coats of joint compound. All joint compound shall be smooth and free of tool marks and ridges. Note: It is recommended that the prepared surface be coated with a drywall primer prior to the application of final finishes.
Level 5: All joints and interior angles shall have tape embedded in joint compound and shall be immediately wiped with a joint knife leaving a thin coating of joint compound over all joints and interior angles. Two separate coats of joint compound shall be applied over all flat joints and one separate coat of joint compound shall be applied over interior angles. Fastener heads and accessories shall be covered with three separate coats of joint compound. A thin skim coat of joint compound trowel applied, or a material manufactured especially for this purpose and applied in accordance with manufacturer’s recommendations, applied to the entire surface. The surface shall be smooth and free of tool marks and ridges. Note: It is recommended that the prepared surface be coated with a drywall primer prior to the application of finish paint.
The following are recommended locations for different gypsum board finish levels from “Recommended Levels of Gypsum Board Finish” published by the Gypsum Association.
Level 0 Locations: This level of finish may be useful in temporary construction or whenever the final decoration has not been determined.
Level 1 Locations: Frequently specified in plenum areas above ceilings, in attics, in areas where the assembly would generally be concealed or in building service corridors, and other areas not normally open to public view. Accessories are optional in corridors and other areas with pedestrian traffic. Some degree of sound and smoke control is provided; in some geographic areas this level is referred to as “fire-taping.” Where a fire-resistance rating is required for the gypsum board assembly, details of construction shall be in accordance with reports of fire tests of assemblies that have met the fire-rating requirement. Tape and fastener heads need not be covered with joint compound.
Level 2 Locations: Specified where gypsum board is used as a substrate for tile; may be specified in garages, warehouse storage or other similar areas where surface appearance is not of primary concern.
Level 3 Locations: Typically specified in appearance areas which are to receive heavy- or medium-texture (spray or hand applied) finishes before final painting, or where heavy-grade wallcoverings are to be applied as the final decoration. This level of finish is not recommended where smooth painted surfaces or light to medium wallcoverings are specified.
Level 4 Locations: This level should be specified where flat paints, light textures, or wallcoverings are to be applied. In critical lighting areas, flat paints applied over light textures tend to reduce joint photographing. Paints with sheen levels other than flat and enamel paints are not recommended over this level of finish. The weight, texture, and sheen level of wallcoverings applied over this level of finish should be carefully evaluated. Joints and fasteners must be adequately concealed if the wallcovering material is lightweight, contains limited pattern, has a gloss finish, or any combination of these finishes is present. Unbacked vinyl wallcoverings are not recommended over this level of finish.
Level 5 Locations: This level of finish is highly recommended where paint is specified or where severe lighting conditions occur. This highest quality finish is the most effective method to provide a uniform surface and minimize the possibility of joint photographing and of fasteners showing through the final decoration.
The entire publication “Recommended Levels of Gypsum Board Finish” GA-214 is available free online, at