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How to Tape and Apply Joint Compound to Drywall

Dan is a licensed electrician and has been a homeowner for 40 years. He has nearly always done his own repair and improvement tasks.

Correctly installed drywall, ready for the mud.

Correctly installed drywall, ready for the mud.

Taping and Applying Joint Compound to Drywall

For most homeowners, there is no more dreaded job than finishing or applying tape and joint compound to drywall, but it doesn't have to be that way. With a little time and effort, the average homeowner who is reasonably handy around the home can successfully do the finish work prior to painting. Finishing drywall is an art that takes years to master, so although you may never become that proficient, you can do a good job that you will be pleased with.

  1. Prep the wall.
  2. Apply at least three layers: tape with compound, a block coat, and a skim coat.
  3. Let the wall dry completely and sand before applying the next layer.
  4. Paint the wall.

Each of these steps is described in detail below, with photos and videos to guide you.

How long will it take?

Be prepared to spend time on this job. I have seen a professional apply drywall tape and joint compound to an entire three-bedroom apartment in less than 2 hours, but the average homeowner should expect to spend about 2 hours on a single room.

In addition, tape is normally applied the first day; then, on the second and third days, you will apply joint compound again over all the joints and nails.

An all purpose drywall mud, along with two common types of drywall tape

An all purpose drywall mud, along with two common types of drywall tape

Tools and Supplies You'll Need for Applying Joint Compound

You will, of course, need joint compound and drywall tape.

What kind of joint compound do you need?

Joint compound comes in two "flavors"; hot mud and pre-mixed.

  • Hot mud is primarily used for patching small areas, filling holes, and very quick work as it is plaster based and sets up quickly. Speed Set or Quick Set are trade names for this type of joint compound.
  • Most work is done using normal pre-mixed joint compound, and for the most part an all purpose formulation is more than adequate. Both "taping" and "topping" formulations are available, but I do not recommend them for the homeowner as they are different to work with and have a different feel—stick to one formulation so that you can become more familiar with it.

What kind of tape do you need?

Drywall tape also comes in two styles; a fiberglass mesh with glue on one side and a paper tape with no glue. Both will do the job quite well, but the fiberglass mesh is a little easier to use. It is also considerably more expensive, so larger jobs usually use the paper type.

Common tools for drywall work.

Common tools for drywall work.

Tools for Drywall Work

Several tools are necessary to apply joint compound or tape to drywall. You will need...

  • 4" or 5" drywall knife.
  • 8" - 12" knife.
  • Corner knife.
  • Hammer or screwgun (a cordless drill is perfect here).
  • Drywall pan is well worth the cost; for the average homeowner a plastic one is much cheaper than stainless steel and works as well.
  • Sandpaper will be used, in 100 or 150 grit, and a small sanding block is handy.
  • A razor knife or box cutter can be useful.
  • if your project is over finished flooring, some kind of floor covering is absolutely necessary; applying joint compound is messy and you will drop more than a little.
A special knife for corners.

A special knife for corners.

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Prep the Wall First

It cannot emphasize enough that preparation is necessary before you begin to apply tape and joint compound. Your finished job will not only depend on this, but so will the amount of time and work needed as you proceed. Take a few minutes to check out the installation of the drywall, correcting minor problems as you discover them, and you will find that the job will be much faster and easier with better results.

How to Prep the Surface

  • Check for protruding nails and/or screws. Nails and screws should be driven just slightly under the surface of the drywall, but not so much that they break the paper surface. Any protrusions will make a smooth surface impossible to achieve. Loose nails may be driven the proper depth but a twisted or deformed stud can still allow the drywall to move in and out as it does not actually contact the twisted stud. If this happens the nail will eventually "pop" through the joint compound so make sure the drywall is firmly attached to the studding behind it. A second nail is often placed about 2" from the first to firmly fasten the drywall.
  • Check the seams. Drywall that has been crushed into an adjacent piece is not acceptable and must be either replaced (preferable) or at least the crushed protruding area trimmed off. Again, any protrusions will result in an unsatisfactory job.
  • Look for gaps. Gaps between pieces of drywall need to be filled if large. When applying joint compound, the compound will fill a small gap of perhaps 1/8" without trouble, but larger gaps will result in delayed shrinkage and a depression or cracking down the road. Apply a setting type of joint compound to fill gaps; large holes must be filled with additional drywall. Do not try to fill a two or three inch hole with joint compound of any type. Make sure the joint compound is not only set hard but dry before continuing.
  • Clean. Walls should be reasonably clean before proceeding. Large amounts of dust, sawdust, or other materials will result in a lumpy wall and difficult application of joint compound. It is not necessary to vacuum or brush the entire wall, but heavy accumulations should be removed.
  • Cover floors. As noted above, finished flooring needs to be covered; you absolutely will drip joint compound and while it is water soluble and not difficult to remove, you will probably drip a lot of it. Do not try to pick up and re-use such drippings as they will always contain foreign material that will show up on the finished wall. Just dispose of it.