For many years, contract documents used these and other equally nonspecific terms to describe how gypsum board walls and ceilings should look prior to final decoration with paints and other wallcoverings. And, for as many years, wall and ceiling contractors have tried to fulfill their obligations by providing the finish conditions envisioned but never truly described.
In the late ’80s, four trade associations representing the drywall and painting industries and trades recognized the potential for misunderstanding and misinterpretation inherent in this type of loose wording. The Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industries International, the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, the Ceilings & Interior Systems Construction Association, and the Gypsum Association developed drywall finishing nomenclature destined to bring an end to much of the subjectivity contained in the language of those old drywall specifications. The result was the publication, in 1990, of Recommended Levels of Gypsum Board Finish (GA-214), soon to be known by its short name, Levels of Finish.
Levels of Finish has become one of the most widely disseminated procedures in the history of the gypsum industry. Its breadth of propagation in a relatively short period of time is staggering. It has been published as a freestanding document; converted into a matrix layout document; made into a video production; and transferred into CD-ROM format. It has been the subject of numerous—both pro and con—magazine articles, is the basis for computer-based training programs for architects and contractors, and has been incorporated into the technical literature of numerous gypsum board, joint treatment, and coatings manufacturers. Since Levels of Finish is available as a free Internet download and has been incorporated into countless electronic specification programs, including Masterspec, a product of the American Institute of Architects, it is reasonable to estimate that more than 150,000 copies of the document have been distributed.
Levels of resourcesThe concepts that define Levels of Finish also appear in partial or modified form in consensus third-party standards such as ASTM C 840, Standard Specification for Application and Finishing of Gypsum Board. While the core concepts of the master document are honored in the consensus standard presentation, language describing some of the nuances of the various levels is slightly modified so as to make it more or less restrictive than the corresponding language in GA-214. The same is true for versions of the document that have been produced by regional and national trade associations. Users are urged to verify that the specific version of the document they are using is appropriate for the project under consideration.
All this has happened in just a little more than 10 years. By now, one would expect the terms associated with the six levels of finish (Levels 0 through 5) to be a part of the vocabularies of tens of thousands of contractors and designers across the continent. Yet, there are many who are not familiar with Levels of Finish and who, as such, have not reaped the benefits of being able to precisely describe the finish of walls and ceilings prior to the application of paints and other wallcoverings. These benefits include the ability to provide competitive bids on suitably finished surfaces, enhancing the appearance of the final decorative treatment, and creating satisfied clients. The remainder of this article is specifically for those who are unsure or unaware of what is meant by Levels of Gypsum Board Finish.
The appropriate finish for gypsum board walls and ceilings for specific final decoration depends on a number of factors. The primary architectural consideration is the location of the surface and the type of final decoration being specified. Painted and unpainted surfaces in warehouses and other areas where appearance is normally not critical may simply require the wallboard joints to be taped and the fastener heads to be “spotted.” In other cases, the desired end result might be a smooth, monolithic surface intended for painting or decorated walls and ceilings in occupied structures that may need additional finishing prior to the application of the final decoration.
Choose the correct levelAdditional factors that should be considered in selecting the appropriate level of finish are (1) the type and angle of natural and artificial lighting, (2) the type and color of paint and method of application, and (3) the type and texture of wallcovering material specified as the final decoration. Critical lighting conditions, gloss paints, and thin, smooth wall-coverings generally should have a higher level of gypsum board finish than do heavily textured surfaces that are subsequently painted or surfaces which are to be decorated with heavy-grade wallcoverings.
Once all factors have been evaluated, specifications can be written to the specific level of finish so contractors will better understand the designer’s expectations and are better prepared to present their most competitive bid.
One intent of Levels of Finish is to define a series of steps necessary to achieve acceptable appearances. It is not the intent to assign the responsibility of performing these steps to specific trades. For example, different versions of the document either recommend or require the application of a primer prior to final decoration. This recommendation or requirement, regardless of which document the designer references, is not intended to make it the drywall finisher’s responsibility to apply the primer. On the contrary, it means that the designer should incorporate the primer in the painting specification in order to assure an acceptable final appearance.
Each of the six levels of finish is described below along with examples of typical design conditions under which each level would normally be specified. Each level builds upon the previous level.
Level 0: No taping, finishing, or accessories. This level of finish may be useful in temporary construction or whenever the final decoration has not been determined.
Level 1: All joints and interior angles have tape set in joint compound. Surfaces are free of excess joint compound. Tool marks and ridges are acceptable. Tape and fastener heads do not need to be covered with joint compound. This level is frequently specified in plenum areas above ceilings, in attics, in areas where the wall or ceiling surface is to be concealed or in building service corridors and other areas not normally open to public view. Installation of accessories is optional at the specifier’s discretion in corridors and other areas with pedestrian traffic. A limited degree of sound and smoke control is provided by a Level 1 finish and in some geographic areas is referred to as “fire-taping.” However, where a fire-resistance rating is required for the gypsum board system, the design and details of construction must be in accordance with the appropriate rated system and code requirements.
Level 2: All joints and interior angles 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 are covered with a coat of joint compound. Surfaces are 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 is considered a separate coat of joint compound and satisfies the conditions of this level. This level is typically specified where water-resistant gypsum backing board (ASTM C 630) is used as a substrate for tile. It may be specified in garages, warehouse storage, or other similar areas where surface appearance is not of primary concern.
Level 3: All joints and interior angles have tape embedded in joint compound and one additional coat of joint compound applied over all joints and interior angles. Fastener heads and accessories are covered with two separate coats of joint compound. All joint compound is 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 3 is typically specified on surfaces exposed to public or occupant view and which are to receive heavy- or medium-texture finishes before final painting, or where heavy-grade wallcoverings are to be applied as the final decoration. It is not recommended where smooth painted surfaces or light to medium wallcoverings are specified.
Level 4: All joints and interior angles have tape embedded in joint compound and two separate coats of joint compound applied over all flat joints and one separate coat of joint compound applied over interior angles. Fastener heads and accessories are covered with three separate coats of joint compound. All joint compound is 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. A Level 4 finish should be specified where light textures or wallcoverings are to be applied. In critical lighting areas, flat paints applied over light textures will help to reduce joint photographing. The weight, texture, and sheen level of wallcoverings applied over a Level 4 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: All joints and interior angles have tape embedded in joint compound and two separate coats of joint compound applied over all flat joints and one separate coat of joint compound applied over interior angles. Fastener heads and accessories are covered with three separate coats of joint compound. A thin skim coat of joint compound is trowel-applied to the entire surface. The surface is 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. Level 5 is the premier level of finish and is highly recommended where gloss, semi-gloss, enamel, or nontextured flat paints are 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.
This article has attempted to describe the six levels of finish typically specified for gypsum board wall and ceiling surfaces. For complete information and descriptions of the levels of finish, download a copy of Levels of Gypsum Board Finish (GA-214) from the Gypsum Association’s Web site at http://www.gypsum.org.