Plaster vs. Drywall for Walls: What’s the Difference?

For centuries, most homes around the world were constructed with plaster walls. However, from the 1950s on, drywall became much more common and ended up edging out plaster as the most popular interior wall finishing.

As a result, most older homes have plaster walls, while newer ones typically have drywall.

What’s the difference between plaster vs. drywall, and which is the better option?

Why did drywall emerge as a popular alternative to plaster, which has been used for hundreds of years?

In this article, we’ll answer those questions and more.

By the end of this article, I hope you’ll be able to identify the differences between plaster vs. drywall and which is ideal for your project.


What are Plaster Walls?

A plaster wall consists of a coating of a mixture of a mineral compound, binding agent, and water applied on a thin strip of wood, called lath. This mixture is applied directly to brick or concrete walls.

Lime was the original compound used for plastering walls before being replaced by gypsum, because of gypsum’s faster drying rate. That faster drying rate significantly shortened installation time.

When installing plaster walls, builders first fix lath on the house’s wall framework.

Then, the first of three coats of plaster mixture is added, which is the thickest. The thick consistency allows it to be applied to the lath easily and without dropping.

Two more layers are added, each thinner than the last, adding thickness and durability.

Each layer of plaster must dry completely before the next layer is added. The entire process can take a while to dry completely, typically between two to three or even six weeks. This is even longer in damp conditions.

It’s important to wait until the plaster is fully cured before painting. Otherwise, your paint will peel, and the plaster will not dry completely, undermining its structural integrity.


What is Drywall?

Drywall is a pre-made wall constructing material comprising of gypsum set between two sheets of paper.

It commonly comes in panels of 4’ by 8’, which are then cut to the desired dimensions before fitting them onto the existing wall studs.

To make drywall, gypsum is mixed with water and some additives. The additives depend on the manufacturer. These are included to add qualities such as water resistance to the drywall. The resulting mixture is a viscous material that’s flattened between paper then dried. This forms drywall boards, which are ready to be fixed on framing to form interior walls.

Cutting drywall sheets

Installing drywall is an easy process that doesn’t require much skill or experience. I completed my own DIY drywall installation project in my garage.

There were a few occasions when I could have used a helper, such as when lifting the boards and fastening them securely to the wall studs. But overall, the entire process is easily completed by one person.

I have an entire article on what tools you need for drywall installation, but I’ll summarize them here:

  • Drywall panels
  • Fasteners (nails or screws)
  • Joint compound/drywall mud
  • Hand tools (hammer, jab Saw, mud pan, taping knife)
  • Drywall corner bead
  • Sanding tools

Drywall joint compound (sometimes called ‘mud’) is added over the edges for a smoother finish, and helps create a seamless appearance. As with plaster, you need to let each layer dry before applying the next.

After the compound you’ve used on the corners and seams dry, you can paint your drywall. The result will be a seamless wall finish, with no obvious sign that different panels were used.


Plaster vs. Drywall: Differences

Plaster and drywall give interior walls a smooth finish, but they have many differences. Let’s look at some of the differences between plaster vs. drywall to help you make a decision about which one is best for your construction project:

Cost

The cost difference between plaster and drywall is one of the main reasons most homeowners began opting for the latter. The total cost of installing a plaster wall, including the cost of raw materials and labor, is much higher than that of drywall installation.

Plaster material can even be cheaper than some types of drywall. The cost of raw materials is mostly the same. However, what drives the price of installing plaster up is its cost in regards to labor.

While installing drywall can be a DIY project, placing a plaster wall requires an experienced and skilled plasterer. Even if you get someone to fix your drywall, they’ll not cost as much as a specialist plasterer.

Besides the expertise needed, another thing contributing to high labor costs for plaster wall installation is the amount of time required to install it.

With drywall, all you need to do is cut the panels to the desired shape, then fasten them to the framing. You have to install the laths for plaster walls, prepare the mixture, and then spread it on the lath in small portions. Having to add layers increases the time spent on a plaster wall.

At the end of the project, you’ll have paid the plasterer for many more hours of work than it would have taken with drywall.

Plaster wall

Durability

Drywall is more affordable for many homeowners, but if you want the more durable option, you’re better off with plaster. Compared to plaster, drywall is very soft and easily destructible; it can easily form dents when crushed or punched.

This difference in strength is due to materials and method of installation. When the wet plaster dries, it hardens into a rock-like solid. Its strength is further enhanced by the thickness formed during installation when applying multiple layers. This makes it almost indestructible.

A well-installed plaster wall can last for decades without cracking.

Drywall is susceptible to water damage. When exposed to high moisture levels over a long period, moisture will seep through the material and form mold behind the panels. The boards may also become saturated with water and bend, ruining their smooth appearance.

If you live in an area with high humidity, look for drywall panels made with water-resistant additives. You can also decide to go with plaster which provides a solid moisture barrier.

Insulation

It’s easier to insulate drywall during installation compared to plaster walls. Drywall leaves a cavity between the panels and the wall studs. You can fill this space with insulation material such as spray foam, loose-fill cellulose, and fiberglass batts.

With plaster, you don’t get this option.

Insulation options for a plaster wall include using thermal insulation paint. While this may help with slowing down heat transfer, it’s not as effective as having insulation material installed behind the wall.


Pros

Here’s a quick look at the pros of drywall and plaster:

Drywall

  • Less costly
  • Faster installation
  • Efficient insulation
  • Easy to install, can be a DIY project

Plaster

  • Durable
  • Structurally stronger
  • Less susceptible to water damage
  • Versatile, can be used on all wall shapes

Cons

Now, let’s look at the negative sides of each of these wall construction materials:

Drywall

  • Easily damaged
  • Limited durability
  • Vulnerable to moisture damage

Plaster

  • Costly labor
  • Requires expert installation
  • It takes longer to dry
  • Limited insulation

How to Tell the Difference Between Drywall and Plaster

When the installation for both drywall and plaster is complete, it’s hard to tell one from the other. Both can be finished into a seamless, smooth surface, then painted.

One way to tell the difference is with a puncture test.

Plaster is much harder than drywall. A small pin, or thumbtack easily goes through drywall, but it won’t go through plaster.

That means hanging pictures or shelves on drywall is much easier than on a plaster wall. Driving a nail or screw into a plaster wall will usually end up cracking it.

An easy way to tell the difference is to look at the inside of an electric socket. With the outlet cover removed, you can see the inside of the wall. If your wall is drywall, you should see a layer of white gypsum between paper. You’ll see layers of plaster and lath instead if your wall is plaster.

Another way to tell whether you have plaster or drywall is if you have an unfinished attic. You’ll usually be able to see the wall frames and the material behind the wall. The sight of paper reveals drywall, while lath indicates it’s a plaster wall.

In general, plaster walls are colder to the touch compared to drywall.

Finally, as a general rule, your home’s age can also help you determine which walls you’re dealing with.

Drywall was invented in 1916, so homes were built with plaster walls before that. Also, it wasn’t until the 1950s that drywall became popular with builders and homeowners, so most homes built before that period have plaster walls.


When Should You Use Plaster vs. Drywall?

Both drywall and plaster have their advantages and disadvantages. When comparing plaster vs. drywall, whether you should use one or the other is dependent on what you’re after.

If you’re looking for an inexpensive option, then drywall is the better option for you.

The cost of raw materials may be almost similar to plaster, but the rest of the preparation and installation process will save you a lot of money. Drywall is also great for quicker jobs, because you won’t have to wait for weeks for the plaster wall to dry.

If durability is your biggest concern, then plaster has more to offer. It is thicker and more solid than drywall, so it lasts longer.

Drywall can last for several decades, but moisture damage can significantly shorten this lifespan.

For soundproofing in your house, a plaster wall is usually much better. Since plaster dries to form a thick solid surface on the wall, it provides a stronger sound barrier compared to drywall. It’s worth noting that there is dedicated soundproofing insulation that installs underneath drywall to make your home quieter.

Installing drywall could be a fun project to take on (except for the sanding part).

Drywall installation is straightforward, with no need for complicated processes or special skills.You can install your wall with the right tools.

Some people also take on plastering DIY, but it’s advisable to trust a professional with this one, especially when you’re plastering entire walls. This protects you from mistakes that could lead to costly and more time-consuming repairs.