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How to Tape and Apply Joint Compound to Drywall

Updated on April 04, 2016
wilderness profile image

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

Correctly installed drywall, ready for the mud.
Correctly installed drywall, ready for the mud. | Source

Taping and Applying Joint Compound to Drywall

For most home owners 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 tape joints and apply joint compound to drywall prior to painting. You will never become truly proficient on the level that professional drywall finishers are - finishing drywall is an art that takes years to become a master at - but you can learn to do a good job that you will be pleased with.

Be prepared to spend time on the job. I have seen a professional apply drywall tape and joint compound to an entire three bedroom apartment in less than 2 hours - you will be exceptional if you can accomplish the task of taping a single room in 2 hours. In addition, tape is normally applied the first day; on the second and third days you will apply joint compound again over all the joints and nails. Nevertheless you can learn to produce a good quality finished wall.

Materials Used For Taping And Finishing

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 | Source

Tools and supplies for applying joint compound

There is a variety of tools and supplies necessary and optional for applying tape and joint compound to drywall. You will, of course, need joint compound and drywall tape. 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. 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.

Tools For Drywall Work

Common tools for drywall work.
Common tools for drywall work. | Source

Several tools are necessary to apply joint compound or tape to drywall. You will need a 4" or 5" drywall knife, an 8" - 12" knife and perhaps a corner knife. A hammer or screwgun (a cordless drill is perfect here) will be useful for setting nails and/or screws. A 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.

Drywall tools to apply joint compound

A special knife for corners.
A special knife for corners. | Source

Preparation for applying joint compound

It cannot emphasize enough that preparation before you begin to apply tape and joint compound is necessary. 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 applying joint compound and tape will be much faster and easier with better results.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Poor drywall installation

This gap must be filled with a setting type of joint compound
This gap must be filled with a setting type of joint compound
Correctly installed drywall.
Correctly installed drywall.

Use the Proper Size Knife

Knife Size
Tape, cover nails or screws
Block Coat
Final, Skim Coat

Apply the tape and joint compound

You're ready to start applying the tape and joint compound to your drywall. Open the joint compound and, if separated with liquid on top, mix it just enough to mix in any liquid. Do not discard the liquid; it is not simply water, but part of the joint compound. For taping the walls it should be used as received without any dilution as any water addition also dilutes the glue and bonding ability of the joint compound.

There are three types of joints to have tape and joint compound applied over them; flat, butt and corner joints. Flat joints are those that have the wrapped, tapered edge of the drywall meeting another tapered edge. Butt joints are those that have cut edges of drywall meeting each other. (A tapered edge meeting a cut edge is unacceptable as it is not possible to finish it correctly). Corner joints are those that are in a corner, such as two walls meeting or the wall and ceiling. Flat joints are expected to be flat when finished as you will apply joint compound to fill in the taper in the drywall. Butt and corner joints will not be flat; a slight crown is inevitable as you apply joint compound over an already flat surface. Here, the goal is to cover the joint while maintaining the minimum crown effect. Appearance will be greatly improved if the compound is spread over a wider area; the inevitable crown is not nearly as noticeable that way.

There is an art to applying joint compound and now is the time to begin learning. When you begin to apply joint compound, load your knife with about 1/4 of what it could hold and, holding the knife nearly vertical to the wall move the knife across the wall. As you continue the stroke, slowly flatten the knife towards the wall, providing more joint compound to the wall. When smoothing joint compound already on the wall keep the knife at around a 45 degree angle to the wall. The more vertical it is the fewer air pockets will be produced and the smoother the surface, but also the more gouges you will produce with very small movements and changes in the knife. An intermediate approach at perhaps 45 degrees will work the best in the most circumstances. If you have never tried to apply joint compound a little practice with a piece of scrap drywall to learn how to handle the knife and how much pressure produces a layer of mud would be advantageous, but you can also learn while applying the drywall tape.

The straight edge shows the taper on the finished edge of the drywall.
The straight edge shows the taper on the finished edge of the drywall. | Source

Applying the Tape

The mud is ready for the paper tape here - note the depth on the penny.
The mud is ready for the paper tape here - note the depth on the penny. | Source

Applying tape and joint compound

Taping - The First Coat

If using a fiberglass mesh tape, stick the tape to the drywall down the center of the joint, and apply joint compound over it with a four or five inch knife. This layer of joint compound should be pressed firmly onto the tape, but not so hard as to leave the tape exposed. The objective is to fill the holes in the mesh tape as much as possible while still covering the tape completely. Do not, however, cover the tape with a thick layer of joint compound; just the minimum to cover the tape. Small patches of tape that are still exposed will cover with succeeding coats. It can be difficult to cover both sides of a corner joint at one time as the knife tends to scrape off the material on one wall while smoothing the joint compound on the other wall. If necessary, this step can be done on separate days, doing one side on one day and the other on the next day after the first side as dried.

If using paper tape apply a thin layer of joint compound to the wall (see picture for how much) and gently press the tape into it using only enough pressure so that it stays on the wall without holding it. The tape is slightly rougher on one side than the other and you must make sure the correct side is to the wall. The side to be applied to the wall is the outside of the roll, but can also be found by grasping the tape on each side and gently bending it. It will easily bend only one way, making a V of the tape; that V is to fit into a corner joint and will tell you which side is to lay on the wall. Once the tape is on the wall, it is pressed into the tape with the knife, once again with just enough pressure to firmly embed it into the applied joint compound but not so hard as to squeeze all the joint compound out from under the tape. There should still be a definite taper on the flat joints after this process; you have another two coats to apply before the surface is to be flat. Applied joint compound that has squeezed out from under the tape is scraped off using the same knife and can be reused unless it has picked up trash from the wall. Corner joints to be taped with paper tape must have both sides done at once, and a corner knife is a very useful tool to have for that purpose. It is set with the angle at a little over the normal 90 degree wall angle so that when pressure is applied it is still just slightly over 90 degrees; this produces a layer of applied joint compound that thins as it gets further from the center of the joint.

Normally at this time the nails or screws are covered. Apply a small amount of compound over the screw and, wiping at right angles to the application stroke, remove the excess. You should be left with a screw sized shallow hole filled with joint compound. Often times an entire row of screws are cover with one stroke, then the excess removed from each one individually or in one additional stroke. Carry a hammer or screwdriver and set any nails or screws that you can feel the knife go over.

Be very careful to remove all the excess, whether it be a small ridge in the applied joint compound or a little nubbin of compound left where it shouldn't be. If you don't get it now you will have to sand it out before the next application of joint compound or it will leave an uneven surface.

Applying the tape and joint compound

Fiberglass applied and ready for joint compound
Fiberglass applied and ready for joint compound | Source
Bending the paper tape into a V to find which is to go to the wall.
Bending the paper tape into a V to find which is to go to the wall. | Source
paper tape applied.  Cavities in the center will fill with the next coat.  A bit of compound on the far side must be removed.
paper tape applied. Cavities in the center will fill with the next coat. A bit of compound on the far side must be removed. | Source
Tape applied.  Note the effect of the raised screw near the corner of the photo
Tape applied. Note the effect of the raised screw near the corner of the photo | Source

Apply the block coat of joint compound

A quick note on drying time between coats. Each coat must be allowed to dry completely before succeeding coats may be applied. Room temperature is good for this and individual coats should dry in about a day, but colder temperatures or high humidity can increase the time to as much as a month in very unusual circumstances. Incomplete drying can cause delayed shrinkage; pre-mixed joint compound will shrink as it dries and if a second coat is put over a layer of compound that is still damp under the surface that first coat will shrink later, causing the second coat to shrink or crack.

Before applying the second coat of joint compound, make a quick look-over of your tape coat and repair or sand away any protrusions from the surface. It is common, though not recommended, to thin the joint compound slightly (one pint of water per 5 gallons of joint compound) for the second and third coats. It is easier to pull under the knife and makes fewer air pockets, but also falls off both the knife and wall easier. For a beginner doing only a room or so, the recommendation is that it not be thinned.

The object of the second, or block, coat is to remove any imperfections (there will be many) in the tape coat and to extend the width of the applied joint compound. The three types of joints are treated somewhat differently, although all with the eight or ten inch knife.

The flat joint will need one pass with the knife to apply the joint compound followed by one or two more to smooth the compound, remove air pockets, clean up the edges, etc. You will be left with a joint around 10 inches wide.

The butt joint will need two passes to apply the joint compound. As the center of the joint is already crowned slightly from the tape you must apply joint compound to each side of the crown, to about six or eight inches out on each side. Each side will then need one or two more passes to smooth it, followed by a pass or two down the center to remove the ridge that has been left there.

Corner joints are best done over two days for the beginner. It is very difficult to apply joint compound to one side of the corner and then the other side without disturbing the first side, although the corner knife may be used again for the block coat.

In all cases, the block coat is applied quite thin - 1/16" is too heavy and will probably need sanding, especially on butt joints. The block coat needs to be done as neatly as possible - you are approaching the finished product. Any imperfection at all will show up in the final, skim, coat; it is not uncommon to lightly sand the block coat after it is dried to make a superior job. This is also the time to apply joint compound a second time to the nails and screws, using the same method you did for the first coat.

As textured ceilings and walls have become more and more common the block coat has often become the final coat, needing only sanding, texturing and paint for a complete project. It results in cost savings for the professional and usually has a smaller crown on the butt joints. If you decide to take this route, however, be aware that it becomes even more imperative that a very good block coat be applied with an absolute minimum of imperfections, and this is difficult for most homeowners. A skim coat is recommended even when anything but the heaviest texture is to be used.

The block application of joint compound

Block coat has been applied thin enough the tape can be discerned in places.
Block coat has been applied thin enough the tape can be discerned in places.

Skimming a block coat

Apply the skim coat of joint compound

After drying the block coat you are ready to apply the final, skim, coat of joint compound. This is the last chance you will have to produce a perfect job, so make the best of it and check carefully for any imperfections in the block coat. Remove all protrusions and any trash that has made its way into your work. A light sanding is recommended, but may not be necessary depending on the quality of what you have accomplished so far.

The skim coat should be at least eighteen inches wide over both flat and butt joints, and at least a foot each way on the corners. This time each type of joint will get a full knife width on each side with a final pass again in the center to remove the inevitable ridge. Take a great deal of care to produce a flawless surface, without ridges, air pockets or grooves from trash in the mud or on the knife. You will sand this coat when finished, but it will pay large dividends to take extra time during the application to produce as flawless a surface as possible. The skim coat is quite thin, just enough to cover what is there and make a minimum depth coat further out. This does not mean that you will see drywall through a wafer thin coat of joint compound; there must be something there or you may as well not do it at all!

The skim coat process is again the time for a final coat on nails and screws. One last time use the same procedure as you have already used twice and cover nails and screws.

After the skim coat has dried it will need sanding, either with sandpaper or a damp sponge. Sandpaper makes a much bigger mess with dust everywhere, but wet sponging is more difficult to get a good job with. Most people prefer sandpaper, around 100-150 grit. Either way, try not to scuff the paper on the drywall - roughened paper will flash through paint and show up in splotches on the finished surface. A little paint and your home improvement project is complete. Not as hard as you thought!

A final thought. I once had a neighbor that begged some joint compound from me (I was the quality super at a joint compound manufacturing plant for 22 years) to finish his basement, but did not ask for advice or help. He ended up sanding off nearly an inch of joint compound, using a belt sander to do it with and nearly destroying the drywall underneath. His whole house was a fog of dust for a week. Don't make that mistake; yes you will sand it, but only minimally. Make each coat as near to a finished product as possible, given what you are trying to accomplish with that coat. You may get tired of working on it, but you will be happy you did in the long run.

If you are one of the people that would like to do a project requiring drywall work but resist the idea because you don't really know how yet, let me suggest that you read a short hub on new homeowners. While the hub is aimed at the new homeowner learning to do their own repair work the message is just as applicable to the handyman with a little more experience.

Skim coat

Finished skim coat
Finished skim coat


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    • Stacie L profile image

      Stacie L 6 years ago

      this is well written.

      i didn't use Spackle tape on a pint and now it's "moving".

      I will do it over.


    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      On a "pint"? Not sure what you mean, but all joints do need the tape for a little extra strength.

      Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad the hub was of some value to you.

    • SEOshortcuts profile image

      SEOshortcuts 6 years ago from San Francisco CA

      As a former jack of all trades (I just identified myself as a former electrician on another of your hubs - I've done it all!) I must say this is the most technical treatment of the subject I've read.

      Very well done, all told.

      I usually kept mudding until it was perfect, in my eyes anyway - and with the new automatic taping tools available for rent - it's messy - BUT well worth the very low cost to rent.

      Makes a lot of this go by in a snap.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      While I've worked with people using Ames tools, I've never personally used them - none of my home jobs were worth the effort to try to learn how. I've seen newbie applicators using the taping tool, however, and it doesn't look easy to learn.

      I've always just stuck with the hand tools for my home repair or inprovement jobs and think most homeowners should do the same. Even if an entire house was to be taped and finished I doubt it would be worth the effort to learn how to use the automatic tools - A skilled experienced taper can tape and apply joint compound to the drywall in a 3 bedroom house in just 2 or 3 hours by hand. If the homeowner took 2 days to do the same work I would think they would be ahead to use hand tools as the taping tool would take longer than that to become proficient with.

    • preservemypics profile image

      preservemypics 5 years ago

      Very thorough and well written. Thanks for the info. I learned the hard way at my old house about taping the joint. Every crack or joint I filled with spackle cracked right back open. It is worth doing it right the first time.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Thank you. Yes, applying joint compound is worth doing right the first time. The savings in time and effort are enormous if you don't have to correct and fix the previous days work!

    • profile image

      John 5 years ago

      I like how these types of articles, which are obviously written by someone who gets paid to do this job, give you hints on how to do the job but try to scare you in the first paragraph or two into thinking that you can't do this job like an experienced professional. This is a subtle trick to get people to call a professional and pay big bucks for something that you can readily do yourself. The truth is that drywall mudding/taping is not that difficult. By educating yourself a bit with a good drywall book (check your local library) you CAN, contrary to what this article states, make your job look just as good as a professional's.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Sorry, John, but I am not paid by anyone to push the hiring of professionals; rather I try to teach people how to do the work themselves.

      While I was the quality super at a plant making mud for 22 years, I left that occupation a decade ago and have no contact with anyone in the field.

      Yes, I pointed out that the homeowner will never have the years of experience to keep up with a professional that can tape an entire home in a couple of hours. I also very plainly stated that a homeowner willing to put some time into it can produce a completely satisfactory job.

    • sonfollowers profile image

      sonfollowers 5 years ago from Alpharetta, GA

      Good stuff. After you've sanded, should anything be done to get the remaining dust off of the wall before you paint? I'm not sure if a wet sponge is a reasonable idea or not.

      Great hub. Very well written.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      A wet sponge is often recommended because it doesn't create dust to breathe in. No one I've ever seen likes it, though - it is very difficult to get a job that equals sanding.

      If you're painting with a high gloss paint on a wall without texture you might consider vacuuming the wall or simply wiping it down with a rag or towel. Normally the dust does not create a problem, but if you've done a lot of sanding it CAN show up as a "pebbly" surface after painting. Normally there are at least two coats of paint applied (counting primer) and often three; it would be unusual to have a little dust show through that much paint.

    • profile image

      wildbillnj 4 years ago

      Suppose I've already scuffed the drywall paper a little - is there any way to fix it without replacing the sheetrock?

      And I think the last answer didn't quite address the question. The question wasn't whether to sponge *instead* of sanding. It was whether to sponge the dust off the wall *after* sanding. I'd also like to know what the expert recommendation is on that topic.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      @wildbillnj: It will actually take quite a bit of scuffing before the paper is really damaged to the point it will flash through the paint. If it is, though, you can simply add a very thing coat of mud over the area and sand it smooth. Some jobs require that the entire wall be skim coated to produce the best possible finish, so spreading the skim coat out some won't hurt a thing.

      I would not sponge the dust off at all. A vacuum will do much better if you have large quantities of dust still on the wall, but a small handbroom will do the job as well. Small amounts of dust left are normal and nothing to be concerned about.

    • profile image

      chris wright 4 years ago

      I've looked at a lot of websites and video clips that show you how to tape and mud sheet-rock. This one is exceptionally written: the writer has the learner in mind at all times. I've been doing a lousy job of mudding for decades and never learned from anyone who was very good. I feel like I have a good guide and am looking forward to using this info next week. Thanks a lot.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Thank you Chris. I remember my first attempts and the problems I had. Common mistakes that most people make and that I addressed here. For the most part I try to write for the homeowner, not the professional (who already knows what (s)he is doing and doesn't need my help). I hope your project goes well this time.

    • John-Rose profile image

      John-Rose 4 years ago from USA

      Wilderness, I got the chills reading this article. I don't mind taping and mudding drywall, but I hate sanding it. My wife would not hesitate to agree there. Thanks for the hub. I'll definitely be using it as a refrence down the road. ~ John

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      You're more than welcome, John. The key here is to put only what mud is needed; not to make extra thick coats that then need excessive sanding.

    • John-Rose profile image

      John-Rose 4 years ago from USA

      @Wilderness I keep telling myself that, but my hands wont listen and the coats always end up thick. I'll get it down eventually. Until then, there will always be a nice pile to sweep,mop, or vacuum up and fine film of dust throughout the house whenever it drywall time.

    • profile image

      Brian 2 years ago

      I would note a couple extremely basic things that may help someone. First, any decent quality straight knives are actually curved just slightly. The convex side of the curve should always be the side pressed against the wall. This will help immensely in achieving a smooth finish, especially when skimming. Second, the knife should be held with the index finger on the metal part of the blade, and the other fingers gripping the handle. This grip will provide maximum control over pressure and angle of the blade. And lastly, the most common mistake of a new finisher is to have a dirty knife. Of course, your knife will never be perfectly clean while using it, but one of the major uses of the pan is to regularly wipe the knife, both front and back. Look for it in the above video, and you'll be surprised to notice he cleans his knife on the pan after almost every single stroke. This will prevent build up of dry mud, which eventually cause lumps, and having a clean edge also results in a smoother finish. Hope this helps someone.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Good tips - thank you! All I can add is that many people (including myself) often use two fingers on the blade instead of just one. It doesn't really matter and seems more personal preference than anything.

    • profile image

      Brian 2 years ago

      @wilderness, Aye, there is certainly room for personal comfort and preference. I use two fingers myself sometimes, especially with wide knives when I have to skim whole walls. Key point is that a hammer-like grip, wrapping all four fingers around the handle, will never give precise control, especially over pressure.

      Thank you for a great article, by the way. I forgot to specifically thank you for it in my first comment.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Not only does a tight grip give poor control but it is also very tiring.

      Thank you for the compliment. It is my hope that it will help people.

    • profile image

      TheHumanSponge 2 years ago


      First, thank you for writing such a powerful post. Second, why do many drywall workers frown on the idea of using a sponge to wet sand the drywall; after all, does not this dramatically reduce cleanup?



    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      In my experience it is very difficult to get as smooth a surface with a damp sponge, plus the sponge needs constant cleaning. This is bound to add to the time and time is money. Most good applicators need very little cleanup behind them anyway, so clean up is minimal.

    • profile image

      AnnaJean100 16 months ago

      We are having trouble with small depressions over the screws. We used three or 4 coats, the last one topping compound. The wall is perfectly smooth over the screws, by touch and by a flashlight at an steep angle. When primer sealer is applied it looks great until it drys, when the dimple appears. We have tried several brands of primer sealer. We refill and sand the holes and paint again - same thing, although a little less. Everything is allowed to dry thoroughly between coats and excess dust removed. any ideas?

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 16 months ago from Boise, Idaho

      My only thoughts are that either it isn't actually smooth and level (try a straight edge over it) or that it isn't actually dry. It may feel dry, but that doesn't mean that anything but the surface IS, and that would result in delayed shrinkage later on. It would be unusual over screws, but it is possible, and it can take weeks for mud to dry completely in high humidity coupled with low temperatures.

      It is also possible that the difference in surface texture between mud and wallboard is making it look like a depression when it really isn't. Again, check with a straight edge. Gloss paints may make this problem stand out more than usual.

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