Plaster vs. Drywall

Plaster vs. Drywall

Plaster and drywall are the most common interior wall options for residential and commercial buildings. These finishes have significant structural and cost differences you must consider to determine which wall type will deliver the best outcomes for your application.

This guide will evaluate plaster versus drywall, discussing their differences and how to differentiate one from the other.

What Is Plaster?

Plaster is a white material comprising lime or gypsum that hardens when drying. It begins as a powdered substance mixed with water to create a paste before application. When installing plaster, you must apply it to a plasterboard or lath in layers, wait for it to dry, then finish it by sanding and painting the surface. 

Plastering is most commonly used for walls and ceilings, though it is sometimes used to cover stone and brick masonry. 

What Is Drywall?

Drywall comprises a combination of gypsum and water, which forms a plaster that is spread between two large, heavy-duty paper sheets. To install drywall panels, you can secure them to the wall using nails, screws or fasteners, then finish the surface with paint.

Drywall comes in various thicknesses and can be cut to accommodate windows, doorways and electrical outlets.

What Are the Differences Between Plaster and Drywall?

Aside from their composition, plaster and drywall have many additional differences you should keep in mind, including:

  • Durability: Plaster is harder, denser and more rigid than drywall, making it a more durable, longer-lasting solution. Drywall is sturdy but relatively soft due to the open cavities behind the drywall sheets, making it more susceptible to damage. 
  • Hanging: Driving nails into plaster to hang pictures or decor can cause the wall to crack or chip due to its dense, unyielding structure. Because drywall sheets are softer and more pliable, they allow for easy nail installation with little risk of damage.
  • Installation: Drywall comes in pre-cut sheets, which allow for fast and easy installation in a matter of days. Plaster installation is much more labor-intensive, typically taking weeks to complete.
  • Repairs: You can easily repair drywall using store-bought repair kits to cover holes, chips and cracks or by replacing the panels. While you can use a repair kit to correct minor plaster damage, larger issues will require professional assistance due to the complex repair process.
  • Cost: Because plaster installation requires skilled workers, it has much higher labor costs than drywall, which you can install yourself fairly easily. Material costs for both are comparable. 
  • Soundproofing: Due to their high density, plaster walls block sound transmissions better than drywall, which is thin and hollow on the inside. 
  • Insulation: It's much easier to install insulation in drywall due to the ample space behind it. Plaster is a better insulator on its own, but it's harder to add insulation to it without professional retrofitting. 
  • Finish: Plaster can achieve a smooth, polished look or a stucco finish. Drywall doesn't look as smooth or glossy as plaster but has various texture options. 
  • Applications: Drywall is commonly found in newer, more modern homes due to its easy installation and versatile finish. You can find plaster walls in older or more opulent homes where homeowners can afford to spend more on professional installation.

How to Tell Plaster From Drywall

You can conduct various tests and observations to determine whether a wall is plaster or drywall:

  • Building age: Plaster walls were most popular before World War II, while drywall wasn't used in residential buildings until the 1950s. As such, homes built before the 1940s are most likely plaster, while those built after the 1960s are likely drywall. Homes built in between could be either.
  • Cracks: Thin, weblike cracks can spread across plaster as it ages. Drywall will either be undamaged or have small, localized cracks where joint compounds were applied.
  • Pushpin test: Press a pushpin into the wall using your thumb and observe the effects. If the pin easily penetrates the wall, it's most likely drywall. If the surface resists, it's plaster.
  • Cross-sections: Try removing an electrical socket or switch plate and looking behind it at the wall's cross-section. Drywall will have a paper layer on either side of the white gypsum, while plaster will have thick layers of plaster over wood laths with no paper.
  • Attic walls: Most attics are unfinished, meaning you can clearly see the wall's backside. Plaster keys, identical wood laths and loose wiring indicate plaster. Drywall will have a paper backing, electrical boxes and widely spaced vertical studs.

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