Adventures in Drywall
Can We Pull Your Tooth
The dream job: A small commercial project with light-gauge steel perfectly framed with 8-foot ceilings. Untarnished board delivered at 2 cents a square. Your ridiculously high bid is welcomed because there wasn't another contractor for hundreds of miles around. You can take all the time you need. It's early May; the temperature's perfect, you're working next door to a Victoria's Secret model training center. Maybe located in a quiet section of town with little traffic, ample parking and a sports pub across the street with 24-hour NASCAR coverage on TV and 10-cent draft beer with free popcorn.
Then your partner slaps you. It's a cold rainy morning in March with fiercely whipping winds. You just pumped your last $2 into your rusted-out, overloaded pickup at the 7-Eleven, so you'll have to go without the putrid cup of coffee and rancid sausage biscuit you were going to call breakfast. You have a hangover that would make Dean Martin blush and you're on your way to repair a basement for a slumlord in a section of town that even the cockroaches avoid.
When you arrive, you find that one side of the bulkhead door is rusted closed and when you open the side that barely works, the combined scent of drowned rodents and mildew wafts up through your nose and thoroughly fills your senses. Pure heaven. You tiptoe through the minefield of sopping garbage on the floor and hope that the new owner hasn't recently plugged in a flea market sump pump with a frayed cord.
Then you turn the corner. Maybe you took the job because times were tough, because you owed money, or it was a favor for a friend. However, nothing you've done before prepares you for what's in front of you now.
There's little question that what confronts you was the work of a novice. Your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to tear out the drenched sheets of what was once rock, yet now resembles mud between two pieces of moldy paper. When it's all been removed, you will hang and finish new board. You know that this fix will last about two weeks before it returns to its current condition and it occurs to you that you could make a living coming back to this same basement each time it floods. Then you contemplate suicide.
Gimme that screwgun!This is one of the many products of the "do it yourself" trend. Many contractors have cut their teeth on remodeling a remodel, following the follies of an ill-advised, ill-equipped and ultimately ill-fated homeowner. Electricians probably experience the most frightening remuddles with plumbers running a close second. However, the drywall contractor's experience can be multi-dimensional. The nature of board and mud invites accumulated error. Add that to the fact that most of the DIYer crowd is either adding a room to an attic that's more cut up than a paper snowflake or a basement like the one described above, and you've got a surefire recipe for disaster.
Everybody's seen the result of these forays at one time or another. Sagging ceilings that appear to be a billboard for butt joints or walls with studs 3 feet on center and floating edges with no backer. Mesh tape peeking out at you from every corner through the texture, and cutouts that must have made the patch manufacturers a small fortune. Tape that's blistered like a sunburned Irishman on a Caribbean vacation. It is the work of the guy who wanted to finish his 13th coat of compound and chose 20-minute quickset so he could watch the Raiders game that afternoon. Oh, yeah.
None of this should come as a surprise. There is an endless stream of home shows, Web sites, books, magazines and videos, all promoting, if not extolling, the ease and gratification of completing projects of every description. Moreover, the truth of the matter is with the right tools and a little instruction, the weekend warrior can enjoy some degree of success in any number of undertakings from framing to painting. Yet, drywall seems to create the greatest challenges. The irony is that it probably appears so simple--just some board, screws, tape, bead, compound, a plastic pan and knife, and away you go.
The drywall sections of the big box stores are seductive in their simplicity. There are usually no salespeople there to answer questions, so how difficult can it be? There is no pile of instructional pamphlets to be found and when they showed that guy solo hanging 12-foot lids on TV, he looked like he was dancing on air.
You've seen these weekend warriors coming out of the store to their Volvos with 16 sheets of 3/8-inch 4-by-8s, a stick of metal and a 1-gallon pail of mud. You and your partner break ribs laughing out loud as the poor slob wrestles panels to the roof of his vehicle, breaking every other sheet in the process. He pushes the bead in through his open window and simultaneously slashes his leather seat and his thumb, creating a slaughterhouse effect. Ha Ha Ha, you can't stop laughing as you picture the sheets becoming airborne as he speeds down the road, then pulling over and salvaging the scraps. Yes, it's all fun and games until you get the call a few weeks later because this poor guy's wife is about to leave him and can you, Mr. Drywall Contractor Sir, please come out and finish this room he started?
Put the trowel downWe've all heard the misadventures of these wannabe contractors. There's the story of the guy who beamed with pride at being able to hang a multi-angled room and carry all of the scrap out in a 5-gallon bucket. Or the rocket scientist who went to remove his existing board from the walls with a circular saw. We're certain that every hospital emergency room staffer could recount a drywall injury tale, whether the simple back strain from a foolish lift, or the rusty utility knife that had a mind of its own. It's a good bet that there's an agreement between the drywall industry and the healthcare industry: Make drywall look easy and there will never be a patient shortage.
Yet, all of this allows the opportunity for you to ride into town on your white horse. If this is your choice, here are a few of the red flags we have encountered in the past:
"We just finished our bedroom. Can you give us a price just to sand it?"
"We need to save money on this house, so the builder told us we could paint it ourselves."
"We told the painter to use semi-gloss paint everywhere."
"I just need a price on finishing the drywall. My uncle Howard, the dentist, hangs drywall on the weekends."
"We called 12 drywall contractors, including the one who did our last house, and you are the only one who returned our call."
"We need the upstairs of our Cape Cod finished. Can you assure us there will be no dust tracked onto our mauve carpets?"
"My brother told me you need to check the finish at night with a Halogen light."
"How much will you knock off the bill if we help?" (By the way, the correct answer is, "I have three prices: 1. The contract price. 2. If you watch, the contract price is 15 percent higher. 3. If you help, the contract price is 30 percent higher. Any more questions?")
"Do you mind if we decorate the house after it's hung? We want to have my son's birthday party here this weekend. You won't even know we are here."
"They had to haul the block up our driveway in the back of a four-wheel-drive truck because it is so steep. Will there be a problem getting the drywall onto the job?"
Last but not least, the 320-pound building inspector who just red tagged the job because he was too fat to fit through the attic access is the homeowner's ex-husband.
It's a shame that some folks have to learn an appreciation for the skills of your trade through their own failures, but it will always be that way. Whether you're redoing that slumlord's basement or trying to grind down mud that seems to have been applied with a rake, you can rest assured that drywall is one vocation that isn't likely to become a national pastime very soon.
Oddly enough, when wallboard was introduced in 1894, it was intended as a faster, easier method of constructing a fireproof barrier than traditional plaster, and was looked upon by plasterers as a novice way of constructing a wall. Drywall has since risen to somewhat of an art form, although not because materials have changed tremendously, but because the trade has become so competitive and techniques have been handed down and improved upon through several generations.
So, whether you're soaking up the profit from that fat job you bid like a genius or slogging through some basement retrofitting rotted wood studs, remember: It's not just a job ... it's an occasional opportunity to experience how much damage a birdbrain can do with a credit card and a rented screwgun.