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Drywall Alternatives

Is There Any Alternative Wall Covering To Gypsum Wallboard?


Drywall is a miserable stuff. Granted, the innovation of drywall and its influence from the 1950s and 1960s onward was a vast improvement over the former method of building interior walls, which was plaster and lath.

The plaster and lath method involves nailing up hundreds of parallel, horizontal slats of wood called lath and then trawling on wet plaster and squeezing it between the gaps between the lath so that it forms a bonding element called a key. After drying, the key keeps the finished plaster coat in place.

Yet drywall is still difficult to work with, and it is not entirely dry because it doe involve the application of joint compound, followed by sanding of the dried compound. Because it creates clouds of fine dust, drywall sanding is one of the most dreaded jobs of all in home remodeling.

And that is just the installation aspect of drywall. Once it has been installed, drywall is very fragile and easily damaged; it is heavy; moisture can easily ruin it; it can develop mold and mildew; and as anyone who has ever tried to hang a picture on drywall knows, it's devilishly difficult to attach items without the use of special wall anchors.

Because of these reasons, many people are interested in finding alternatives to drywall. Below I have listed some drywall alternatives. But the fact remains that drywall is still--for all its strengths and evils--the best and often only material available for closing up interior walls. These drywall alternatives listed are to be used at your own discretion: building codes vary from place to place, and usually do dictate the usage of some type of gypsum board (drywall) due to the material's ability to retard fire.

For example, when I recently installed interior wall covering in a remote outbuilding in my yard which contains no living space and no services (electrical, plumbing, sewer, etc.), I was free to use any kind of drywall-alternative. But when you're dealing with residential space, the building code may be different.

1. N-Wall

N-Wall comes from National Wall Systems, Inc., and is styled and advertised expressly by the company as a green and alternative material. It is 3.5" inches thick (so it is comparably sized to regular walls), made of fiberboard, framed in metal, and each panel is movable and interchangeable. N-Wall system wall panels reach from the floor to the ceiling and will accept electrical service and window punch outs.

Product literature does not indicate what kind of fire rating N-Wall has, though.

2. Veneer Plaster

Veneer plaster is like the love child of drywall and plaster. It combines the strengths of each of those two materials. With regular lath and plaster construction, a monolithic (i.e., one solid layer) of plaster is applied to the wood lath strips. One problem with this is that this thick coat of plaster takes a long time to dry out. But with veneer plaster, half-inch gypsum drywall is applied to the studs and then a thin, veneer coat of plaster is applied to the entire surface of the drywall. One marked advantage is that plaster has a greater strength rating than drywall, so it is more resistant to the everyday knocks and scrapes that walls may encounter.

3. OSB or Plywood

OSB stands for oriented strand board and is used mainly as exterior wall sheathing or as floor underlayment. If you are dealing with a nonresidential structure, OSB may work well as an interior wall covering. While it is not fire rated, OSB, particularly half-inch or thicker, provides a solid interior wall covering for structures like sheds and workshops--places where walls will get scuffed and bumped quite often. OSB can be painted but the "dazzle" pattern of the stranded wood underneath usually will show underneath paint layers. Note, too, that OSB often has a waxy surface which makes it difficult for the paint to adhere.

Half-inch plywood will provide a similar wall covering, the main difference being that plywood is easier to paint (but still will show wood grain) and is easier to handle than OSB as it is slightly lighter.

4. Plaster and Lath

Even though we spent several paragraphs "tearing down" plaster and lath as a wall covering, it should be noted that we are only discussing this as a new wall covering, not as an existing wall cover. If you currently have walls covered in lath and plaster, you already have a remarkably good and strong wall surface. There is no need to replace lath and plaster simply because it is old. If you have areas of plaster that are cracked and/or falling down in places, it is recommended that you repair these areas rather than tear down the entire plaster wall. Plaster wall demolition is not easy, and it will fill up a rolloff dumpster quickly due to its weight.

One of the best resources I have found for information about traditional lath and plaster wall covering is the Minnesota Lath & Plaster Bureau (link below). Here you will find a wealth of information about current lath/plaster techniques, as well as substantial history of these building techniques.

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