Like any gangly teenager you simultaneously love and loathe, the “Levels of Gypsum Board Finish” document has grown up-it just celebrated its twentieth year of distribution. 

Like any gangly teenager you simultaneously love and loathe, the “Levels of Gypsum Board Finish” document has grown up-it just celebrated its twentieth year of distribution. As a sign of its growing maturity, some of the language in “the Levels” was recently modified and a 2010 edition of the document was published.

The original version of the Levels was published in 1990. Since then the text has been directly translated into two languages in North America (French and Spanish) and conceptually transposed and translated into at least six more languages internationally (French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Portuguese). Versions exist on at least three continents-North America, Europe, and Australia-and its concepts have been woven into videos, matrix charts, international standards, educational classes, sales aids, product specifications, books, and technical documents.

In its most basic version, the Levels publication exists as a simple four-page printed document. The current presentation format is identical to the initial 1990 layout despite three separate updates to the text of the document that occurred in 1996, 2007 and 2010. An epsilon version of the 2007 edition was released in 2008 when a new party joined the consortium that monitors the content of the document. 

Input From Five Sources

A common misconception about the Levels document is that it is a publication of the Gypsum Association and that the Association controls the content of the document. In truth, the document is modified based on input from five signatory organizations: the Gypsum Association; the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry; the Ceilings & Interior Systems Construction Association; the Painting & Decorating Contractors of America; and most recently, the Drywall Finishing Council. Quite likely the incorrect belief exists because the Gypsum Association was tasked with formatting and printing the original document in 1990 and continues that obligation; however, all five sponsoring organizations have equal input into the content of the document and participate in the formal review process when the document is modified.

The first four signatory parties created the document in 1990. The fifth, the Drywall Finishing Council, signed on in 2008. All five organizations distribute the document in both electronic and print versions, as do a number of regional contracting organizations. It is currently one of the most popular downloads on the Gypsum Association Web site.

While the format of the document is the same as the original version, in a few instances the text is significantly different. The 1990 version of the document was consistently interpreted to require extra coats of joint treatment with some of the preliminary finish levels. For example, a Level 2 finish that now requires only joint tape to be embedded in joint compound originally required “tape embedded in joint compound and one separate coat of joint compound applied over all joints.” After four years of discussion and nearly six years after publication of the initial document, the document was revised to reflect the current language.

In addition, the original version did not permit the use of “materials manufactured specifically for this purpose” to be used to create a skim coat as described in Level 5. The 1990 edition allowed only joint treatment materials-joint compound and joint treatment products-to be used to create a Level 5 finish. The language was modified in the 1996 edition to permit alternative materials.

The 2007 version was the first to specifically point out that a skim coat of joint treatment is not equivalent to, and should not be interpreted to be the same as, a coat of plaster. It also provided further guidance regarding some of the terms used in the document. Specifically, the term “trowel applied” had consistently become misinterpreted and many readers assumed it meant that the coat of joint compound used to create a skim coat could only be applied using a trowel. To remedy this misinterpretation, the document was revised to explain that the term was actually describing the consistency or viscosity of the joint compound and not the method of application or the tool used to apply the material.

Changes to 2010 Edition

The changes that appear in the 2010 edition of the Levels of Gypsum Board Finish are primarily intended to make the document consistent with industry practices and recent modifications in model building codes. The primary process change reflected in the document occurs where levels 3, 4, and 5 have been modified to incorporate new language that requires the first coat of compound and tape to be “immediately wiped with a joint knife leaving a thin coating of joint compound over all joints and interior angles.” It is believed that the new language better reflects the standard industry practice for the application of joint compound.

The explanatory language that accompanies Level 2 was modified to remove a reference to water-resistant gypsum backing board “used as a substrate for tile.” Because model building codes have evolved during the past decade to largely prohibit the use of water-resistant gypsum backing board as a tile substrate in wet areas, it was observed that the explanatory note was describing a practice that had become somewhat outdated. The note was revised to acknowledge that gypsum board can still be used as a base for tile in non-wet areas.

Level 5 explanatory language was revised to eliminate any reference to the application of paint. Previous language highly recommended a Level 5 finish where “gloss, semi-gloss, enamel, or flat paints are specified or severe lighting conditions occur.” The update eliminates the reference to the paint and highly recommends a Level 5 finish where “specified or where severe lighting conditions occur.”

The new edition also revised some of the document’s explanatory and introductory language. It now incorporates a paragraph that describes a finished surface and language that discusses the sheen levels of paint.

Despite the release of a new edition of the Levels, potential modifications to the text are already being discussed by some of the signatory parties. To date, the modifications involve issues relating to the proper use of drywall primer and the gloss and sheen levels of paint. No doubt that as the five sponsors conduct internal meetings to discuss the document, more issues will be addressed.