Drywall is common and ubiquitous in commercial and residential buildings today. Many of us barely think about it until we have to repair a hole smashed in it.
However, drywall has not been around forever, and actually took many years to establish itself as a popular building material. Today, we’ll look at how it came about, and why it went on to dominate the world of construction.
Before drywall existed, walls were constructed with a time-consuming process referred to as lath and plaster. This usually involved nailing up many thin strips of wood to the wooden structure of a house, to make up walls and ceilings. The wood strips, or lath, served as a substrate onto which skilled tradespeople would apply plaster.
The plaster was applied wet, and would take a significant amount of time to dry. Plastering walls was often impossible in cooler weather, and the job required significant skill to get quality results. Over the years, techniques and materials changed and improved, such as the introduction of metal mesh lath and quicker-drying plasters. However, the fundamental limitations of the process remained.
Quicker, With Less Mess
Various companies and individuals started experimenting with various methods of producing stiff, prefabricated boards of plaster in the late 19th century. The main root of modern drywall began when the Sackett Plaster Board company went on to develop SackettBoard around this time. It was made of alternating layers of plaster and wool felt paper, usually four layers thick.
Eventually, the Sackett operation was bought out by the United States Gypsum Corporation. The product was developed further, and was introduced to the market as “Sheetrock.” It featured a layer of compressed gypsum powder, in between a layer of paper on either side.
Some of these early products were used as lath, with small panels fixed to walls as a substrate for additional hand-plastering. However, the material was quickly developed into today’s large-scale drywall sheets.
Drywall offered significant benefits over the traditional lath and plaster technique. The large boards could quickly be affixed to a wooden frame, covering huge areas of wall in a fraction of the time it would take to nail up lath and start applying plaster. The resulting walls offered good strength and fire resistance, too. No longer would construction have to stop for cold weather, or wait for weeks while the plaster dried. Construction could instead continue at a rapid pace as soon as the boards had been fixed down, a job which required only basic skills. The only hand-plastering required was to cover up the joints between boards, and techniques developed rapidly to make this as quick and easy as possible.
Despite the step-change improvement that drywall offered, it struggled to catch on. The building industry was set in its ways, and using drywall was seen as corner-cutting rather than smart business.
World War II changed all that, however, when the labor force was suddenly tapped out on the war effort and efficiency gains were badly sought across all industries. Drywall had found its moment, and by 1945, it was quickly becoming the dominant way to build in the USA. It slashed weeks off the time required to build a house, leaving little room for traditional building techniques to compete.
Drywall does have its own drawbacks, of course. It can be difficult to get a truly smooth finish on drywall, as the paper surface tends to make that difficult. It’s also quite easy to damage. If you’ve ever been casually tossing your hammers around a room, or had a punch-the-wall competition, you’ve found out how easy it is to knock a hole through drywall.
It can also be a haven for mold, thanks in part due to the paper layer acting as a food source. Its semi-porous nature means such occurances generally require complete replacement. Water damage is a drywall killer, as well, whether by flood or by plumbing leaks. It’s far less hardy in such conditions versus traditional cement-based plaster construction.
Technology rarely stands still, and there are many options these days for finishing walls. New drywall formulations focus on environmentally sustainable production, or cutting down on acoustic transmission for comfortable, quiet homes. The veneer plaster method uses special thin “blueboard” drywall, which is then given a coat of plaster over the top for a higher-quality, faster, yet more expensive finish. Other options like concrete, wood panelling, and brick interior walls are all viable, too. And, if you’ve got the money to spend, one can still hire a traditional lath-and-plaster tradesperson, which is a particularly popular option for old-school “country-style” builds and classic restorations.
As it stands, though, drywall’s dominance doesn’t look to be fading anytime soon. It’s still often the cheapest way to finish interior walls, and the industry is worth billions of dollars a year worldwide. Expect to see drywall dominating residential and commercial construction for some time to come.