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What Is Drywall and What Is It Made Of?

stacks of drywall in a room

Drywall is a cheap, easy-to-work-with construction material that is widely used across the globe to build walls and ceilings. It takes very little time and effort to install and can last for many decades. Even if you’ve never done any construction, you’ve probably already seen sheets of drywall when trying to repair cracks on the walls or change the wallpaper/paint.

But what is drywall made of, anyway? What are the most common uses for it? Are there different types of drywall out there? What sets them apart? We’ll cover all these questions in this detailed guide, along with the biggest pros, cons, and frequently asked questions. So, if you are ready to learn everything there is to know about this oh-so-popular material, join us, and let’s get started!

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How Does It Work?

In the construction world, drywall is a “workhorse”. It comes at a low price and doesn’t take a degree to cut, shape, and put to good use. That is why drywall covers the flat surfaces in most modern-day homes (at least in Western countries). Most likely, the framings in your home are covered with it. This is interesting: since the post-WW2 construction boom, drywall has been used to build millions of private homes and apartment buildings in the States.

Today, North American companies manufacture more than 20 billion square feet of drywall per year. It is not at all fancy, nor does it take long hours to prepare, which is exactly why it’s so popular. This material is also known as plasterboard or wallboard. Gypsum board is another common name for it. So, why gypsum, you might ask? Is that what sheets of drywall are made of? That’s right! Here’s a more detailed look at the individual components that make up a standard drywall panel.

man painting drywall with smooth white
Image Credit: Dmitry Kalinovsky, Shutterstock

What Is Drywall Made Of?

No matter how big, small, thick, or thin the drywall is, it’s made from gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate)—a natural soft sulfate mineral. This is an environmentally-friendly product, and to make it hard and sturdy, gypsum plaster is put through a dehydration process. Next, it’s mixed with hardeners and additives like paper pulp or starch that give it the desired shape and consistency for various projects.

The type of chemicals used and the thickness of the drywall sheets give it certain properties. We’re talking about resistance to fire, humidity/mold, and impact, along with the ability to block outside noises. Now, while gypsum is, indeed, the main “ingredient” in any drywall panels, it’s always wrapped in fiberglass or heavy paper. Here’s how drywall is used in construction:

  • First, it’s secured to the framing with a set of screws or nails (a regular set will do)
  • Next, the joints between the individual sheets are taped and covered in mud to make a uniform surface
  • After that, construction workers sand the wallboard panels to achieve an even smoother finish
  • Finally, the wall is painted or textured. Once the finish gets dry, the work is done!

What Are the Different Types of Drywall?

One of the best things about drywall is that it’s available in different variations, each specifically formulated and manufactured for specific needs. And, they’re very easy to set apart from each other by checking the color (no, drywall isn’t always gray or white) and the cardboard/fiberglass surrounding the gypsum. Here are the most commonly used drywall types on the market:

  • Standard Drywall Panels. You’ll often hear construction workers refer to standard drywall as the whiteboard. Produced on a large scale, it is cheap and widely available. Standard drywall is usually 1/2-inches thick and comes in 4×8-feet sheets, which makes it a flexible and reliable material. Most private houses and commercial buildings in the States are built using this drywall.
  • Green Drywall Sheets. Also known as mold-resistant drywall, green wallboard is wax-coated which protects it from above-average moisture levels. The outer wrapping paper, in turn, is much thicker and that makes the sheets even more resistant to mold and mildew. Bathrooms, laundry rooms, and kitchens—that’s where green wallboard is frequently used. It’s a bit more expensive than regular drywall, but still rather affordable.
  • Paperless Drywall. Often mistaken for green drywall sheets, paperless drywall is what you might call the next step in evolution. First, instead of paper, this drywall has fiberglass as backing. More importantly, the gypsum itself is water-resistant. Compared to regular drywall, paperless panels cost +/- 30% more ($25–35 for a standard 4×8-feet sheet). But, they’re well worth it for the right project.
  • Purple Drywall. If you’re looking for the ultimate protection against moisture, mold, and mildew, consider investing in purple drywall. It’s even more expensive ($20–60 for a 4×8-feet panel) and is wrapped in 100% recycled paper. That means the mold won’t have anything to feed on and reproduce. Purple drywall is only used when it’s clear that the boards will be in permanent contact with water.
  • Type C/X Drywall. Fiberglass is constantly used to fire-proof basements (where the furnace is usually installed), garages (packed with tools and devices that could cause a fire), and other potentially hazardous areas. That’s exactly why Type C and Type X drywall panels are wrapped in fiberglass. So, what’s the difference between these two types? Type C is recommended to use on ceilings as it doesn’t shrink under extreme heat. Type X, in turn, can keep the fire away for up to an hour.
  • Blue Board Drywall. Planning on covering the walls in your house with plaster? Then plasterboard will be a perfect choice. Also known as the blue board, it serves as an ideal foundation for veneer plastering. Blue board drywall boasts strong resistance to mold and it’s a go-to material for bathrooms. As for the price, it costs roughly the same as green drywall.
  • Soundboard Drywall. Even the cheapest type of drywall will block outside noises to a certain extent. As for soundboards, or soundproof drywall sheets, they are rich in polymers and wood fibers that prevent sound waves from penetrating the walls. This is quite a thick material and takes a bit more expertise to work with.
  • VOC-Absorbing Drywall. A new product on the market, VOC-absorbing drywall panels has proven to improve the air quality instead of contaminating it. By literally “soaking up” all the hazardous chemicals in the room, these sheets make it a safer environment. Along with that, they minimize the growth of mildew.
stack of moisture-resistant drywall
Image Credit: Kirill Gorshkov, Shutterstock

Where Is It Used?

Drywall is the go-to construction material for walls and ceilings. Once the framing structure is in place, you’re free to nail or screw the drywall sheets onto that frame. Along with that, drywall is also used by designers to create beautiful ornaments, arches, eaves, and other (rather complex) architectural elements. Drywall can be thick or thin, and also large and small. Here’s a quick look at why that’s important:

Different Thickness for Different Tasks

So, for building the walls, 1/2-inch sheets are the golden standard. If you want the drywall to be fire-resistant, use 5/8-inch panels instead. The ceiling will also benefit from slightly thicker sheets as they will last longer. Thinner sheets (1/4 inches) are only good for covering curved walls and masking cracks on thicker panels. The same is true for 3/4-inch drywall: it’s used for patching up old, worn-out, and cracked drywall.

The Size Also Matters

Most drywall sheets you see out there are 4×8 feet. First, these are cheap. Second, since they’re relatively lightweight, they don’t require two sets of hands for transportation. Besides, most framing structures are specifically built to accommodate drywall boards of this size. With that said, to achieve a smooth surface that holds paint well, you might want to choose 4×10-foot sheets instead. They’ll be 50% heavier and cost more.

Next, we have 4×12-foot and 4×16-foot. These aren’t as common, though, especially when it comes to standard construction or DIY plans. However, for large-scale projects, the bigger the panels, the faster you can cover the frame with drywall. Ultimately, it all comes down to what your current requirements are.

two men installing drywall on the wall
Image Credit: DUO Studio, Shutterstock

Advantages of Drywall

  • Highly affordable. Drywall is cheap—that’s its biggest advantage over other construction materials. To produce it, manufacturing plants don’t have to use expensive or sophisticated equipment, and that’s why it’s available at such a low price. More importantly, industrial-scale production helps keep the prices low.
  • Flexible and versatile. While drywall sheets aren’t the most pliable material out there, they are, indeed, easy to work with. You can cut them right there and then with a regular construction knife. Also, most drywall sheets can be secured to beams and columns both vertically and horizontally.
  • Extended lifespan. Expect drywall to last for up to 70 years (30–50 years on average) in a dry environment. Regular drywall sheets won’t be able to serve for that long when exposed to extreme levels of humidity, though. But if it’s purple drywall, you won’t have to worry about that.
  • Can be painted over. Regardless of what type of drywall you use to cover the walls or the ceiling, it will be able to hold paint. And, the paint will “stick” without any sanding.
  • Easy to fix. What if one of the panels cracks? Will you have to replace the entire wall? Not quite! Drywall sheets are easily repaired by cutting out the damaged parts and replacing them with new ones.
  • Acoustic and thermal insulation. Regular drywall won’t be very impressive in this regard. Still, you will get some basic noise reduction and absorption along with heat insulation.

Disadvantages of Drywall

  • Messy to work with. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of working with drywall, you know how messy it can get. Primarily, we’re talking about the dust that is released into the air. Cutting it fills the whole room with dust. Even if you just move it around, the dust will still find its way into the atmosphere.
  • Can be hazardous. Drywall dust is full of silica and gypsum. Both compounds can irritate your nose, throat, and eyes. But don’t worry: you’ll only be in the risk group if you sand drywall boards for at least a couple of hours straight.
  • Weak against water/mold. This mostly applies to green drywall, of course, but, since you might not have the budget for the more resistant types that cost extra, this is still a con.
  • Not exactly lightweight. It depends on the size of the sheets. As mentioned, 4×8-foot drywall isn’t that heavy. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to handle the larger sheets (4×12 and 4×16) without help.
applying putty on drywall
Image Credit: Alyona Tec, Shutterstock

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What’s the Right Size for Drywall?

To answer this question, you need to first decide what kind of a project you’re working on and what role the drywall will play in that. If you’re not a pro but like to work on some DIY stuff in your garage, go with 4×8-feet sheets. The biggest reason for that is flexibility. These panels can be cut with basic instruments/tools and are fairly lightweight.

At the same time, people that do this for a living (like construction workers) often opt for much bigger sizes. Again, depending on the task at hand, large drywall sheets can get the job done faster and cleaner. Still not sure which size to pick? Go back to our detailed breakdown and comparison of the various sizes, drywall types, and thickness/density. That should help make up your mind!

Is Drywall Better Than Plaster?

This greatly depends on the nature of the project you’re working on. Drywall panels are more stable, don’t need to be sanded, and take a lot less effort and investment to repair compared to plaster. On top of that, they come in different sizes, which, again, can’t be said about plaster. Drywall is not a perfect construction material, though. Plaster is more flexible, long-lasting, and not nearly as heavy. That means no extra set of hands will be required.

Furthermore, with plaster, you won’t have to worry about mold/mildew growth, as it’s practically immune to it. Speaking of that, plaster is also more resistant to fires and outside noises and does a better job of keeping cold air out and warm air in. To match it, you will have to invest in a more expensive type of drywall, like purple, blue, or green. Summing up, each material has its pros and cons.

When to Use Drywall

  • Heat and sound insulation is a priority
  • You want an easily fixable surface
  • The work has to be done in a short time
  • You need a cheap building material
When Not to Use Drywall
  • Hazardous materials are off-limits
  • You can’t work with heavy panels/sheets
  • You don’t want any construction dust
  • High humidity is common in your area

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For a DIY enthusiast, drywall is a go-to material simply because it’s affordable, easy to cut/shape to your liking, and gets the job done fast. Now, depending on how large the sheets are, you might not be able to pull the project off. On the bright side, average-sized panels shouldn’t be that hard to handle. Speaking of that, there are lots of different shapes, sizes, and types of drywall available on the market.

Durable, long-lasting, easy (and quick) to repair, and mostly hassle-free, drywall is an essential element in any construction project, no matter how big or small it is. True, drywall does generate dust and is overall messy. But if you pick the right type, you’ll get a soundproof, water-resistant, or non-combustible material for a very low price!

Featured Image Credit: Zakhar Mar, Shutterstock


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