Top finish contractors from across the country share their favorite tricks of the trade and the products they prefer.

With only six years of experience, drywall finisher Luke Crawley has already discovered a product that Tom Hendricks, a finish veteran of nearly three decades, has never heard of. Both men work for commercial contractor Olympic Wall Systems, of Omaha, Neb. Crawley’s edge? Paper-faced metal bead.

Crawley demonstrates it by pulling a 10-foot stick of paper faced metal drywall bead, manufactured by USG, through a “hopper”—a specially designed bucket that applies joint compound to the inside of the bead. He walks to the corner and presses the stick in place. He centers it with a roller tool and removes excess mud.

Normally, drywall hangers would install corner bead before the finish crews take over. But on this project—a remodel of Omaha’s Children’s Hospital requiring a Level 5 Finish—Hendricks sees a finisher handling the bead with skill and ease.

Paper-faced metal bead has a strong paper tape laminated to a sturdy rust-resistant metal form and is applied to gypsum board walls with joint compound rather than with nails or clinch-on tools. It provides some real competitive advantages. Paper-faced metal bead not only installs more quickly than regular metal and plastic bead and eliminates job callbacks due to edge cracking and chipping.

But it’s only one of several products and finish techniques that today’s drywall companies use to achieve great results. What other tricks do finishers have? How do they get impressive results? What’s the secret to a great interior finish?

Pursuit of perfection

In many respects, gypsum board is not a particularly difficult surface to finish, provided one follows proper procedure and takes time to do a good job.

Still, contractors say more is involved than simply following instructions. They say the right tools and products can enhance production and improve the bottom line by minimizing callbacks. More importantly, certain trade secrets greatly improve the overall wall aesthetics.

For example, when asked what one product or technique contributes most to great finish results, Jimmy Wilson, finisher superintendent, Gypsum Systems, Elma, N.Y., pointed to a new joint compound mix: the lightweight products now available on the market.

“They don’t shrink as much (as traditional joint compounds), and they’re easy to sand,” says Wilson, who has been finishing walls for more than 30 years. “Lightweight muds are one of the best products to come out in a long time.”

Kelly Weirich, superintendant of Olympic Wall, agrees that lightweight joint compounds shrink less and require less fill. But one reason his crews use lightweight products is because they tend to flow effortlessly through mechanical tools.

“We do very little by hand unless we absolutely have to,” explains Weirich. “Everything has to work through the machines—the tubes, the pumps, the skimmer boxes—and the light weight works very well for us.”

Olympic Wall finishers offer various tool recommendations. Crawley, mentioned at the outset, says the hopper and roller he uses to apply paper-faced metal bead are essential for getting good results. He says they ensure the right amount of joint compound is applied to the paper-faced metal bead, and they achieve excellent adhesion along the beads’ entire lengths.

Besides the hopper and roller tool, Olympic Wall crews are believers in automatic joint compound applicators. Weirich, for instance, uses the new line of skimmer boxes from Ames Taping Tool Systems Inc. The Ames Power Assist Box—available in 7-, 10- and 12-inch sizes—lets finishers conserve their strength while they keep the joint compound flowing. The design uses box wheels to activate a spring-loaded “power assist” feature that applies joint compound with less force than standard flat boxes.

“Now we move down the joints twice as fast as we did before,” says Weirich, who notes that the time savings gained is spent elsewhere enhancing quality.

In the western U.S., veteran taper Jeff Brown, with Stitser Drywall, Sparks, Nev., uses mechanical tools to produce quality finishes. Brown’s trick involves covering drywall screws with the right amount of joint compound. He uses a 2-inch skimmer box to apply a coat of compound and then follows with a skim coat using a 3-inch box.

“I like the smaller boxes,” says Brown. “They help avoid crowning the walls when I spot the screws. The results are simply perfect.”

Of course, many experienced finishers spot wall fasteners the old-fashioned way, with a basic, hand-held drywall knife. But here again, choosing the right tool—choosing the right size knife—is key. Hendricks prefers a 4-inch knife to apply the first two coats over fasteners. Then, for the final coat, he switches to a 6-inch knife. By keeping the areas of the initial coats small, Hendricks avoids the kind of ridging and crowning of the joint compound that he says happens when finishers use only 6-inch knives to spot screws.

No shortcuts

While there’s no substitute for experience, mechanical tools can speed up the work, buy some time and allow finishers to focus on the details, such as cutting out fractures, pre-filling holes and checking to see that screws are properly set before finishing.

Nevertheless, the best tricks one might summon mean little without good project planning and careful job structuring. For commercial jobs especially, finish superintendents say a key to getting great results lies in working closely, tightly and seamlessly with general contractors. It’s important, they say, to secure large runs to work at a time, so that finish crews stay occupied and can work themselves into productive, quality-minded rhythms.

“It’s tough to stop and start and stop and start—jumping all over the job site—and keep up the quality control,” says Rick Henahan, co-owner, project manager and estimator, Western New York Interiors Corp., Rochester, N.Y. “If we can’t do a complete job from start to finish, then we break the job down into sections. We try to finish one area before moving to another.”

Good finishers like to hustle, since being industrious and productive go hand in hand with the trade. Even so, no finishers interviewed said they would sacrifice quality just to save time. Good results, they say, come by fulfilling every step in the finishing process.

“There are no shortcuts. It’s three coats and sand it. Nothing less,” says the vice president at one of Chicago’s largest commercial wall contractors. “Any time you take a shortcut, you’re not going to end up with the best product for your customers.”

Residential wonders

Yes, drywall firms must temper their finishers’ tendencies to work hastily if they want a job well done. That’s true in commercial work, but also in residential wall and ceiling construction, where scrutiny on the part of homebuilders and home buyers is expected.

“I always tell my guys to slow down a little bit and be careful when handling the gypsum board,” says residential contractor Stanley Dziabuda III, owner of Stan’s Drywall Co., Howell, Mich. “If they start moving too fast, then they just bust the corners, and the tapers have to cut back and pack up the holes.”

Dziabuda’s crews work on high-end homes priced between $400,000 and $1.3 million. He speaks from experience in saying that working fast and skipping steps only invites trouble.

“Shortcuts will always come back to haunt you,” he says.

Perhaps the best advice for achieving great results comes down to having a quality work ethic. In the end, great finishes are not so much a matter of technique as they are an attitude.

“The main point—what I tell my guys more than anything else—is to do a neat and clean job. Look good. Be professional. Work hard,” says Wilson. “I’ve done a lot of jobs where the GC says not to worry about the punch list. But I say we should be neat and not leave globs of mud all over the floor. Be neat. Do a good job, and the results will always be outstanding.”

Sidebar: Producing Quality Drywall Finishes When Winter Winds Blow

Winter can bring costly problems unless preventive measures are taken. Fortunately, prevention isn’t difficult. Here are several common-sense tips for working with joint compound in cold weather provided by the finishing experts at USG Corporation:

Provide heat. Maintain a minimum of 55 degrees F (13 degrees C) throughout taping and finishing. Also try to avoid temperature fluctuations of more than 15 degrees F (-8 degrees C). Use central heating plants wherever possible.

Provide ventilation. Open windows slightly in various locations on the job site. Uneven drying can cause bond failure and delayed shrinkage.

Allow sufficient drying time between joint compound coats and before decorating begins. Whereas joint compound under tape requires overnight drying at 70 degrees F and 70 percent relative humidity, it requires two days of drying time at 50 degrees F and 70 percent relative humidity. In many cases, more than 48 hours of drying time is needed to avoid delayed shrinkage and joint discoloration.

Protect joint compounds from freezing. If freezing occurs, thaw them at room temperature. Never force thawing, and thoroughly remix thawed compound without adding water. Also, don’t allow any compound to freeze on the wall, since it will lose its bond strength.

Finally, don’t overthin compounds with water. Excess water doesn’t speed mixing, but will cause excessive shrinkage.