Plaster is a paste that’s installed in layers.
Drywall is a panel that’s nailed to walls.
Installing plaster is time and labor-intensive.
Drywall is easy and affordable to install for DIYers.
Plaster installation can be highly customized.
Drywall is the default choice for walls, but it wasn’t so long ago (about 70 to 80 years back, in fact) when almost all homes were built with plaster walls. And although we tend to think newer is better, there are many good reasons for still choosing plaster. However, it’s not for everyone, and there are plenty of reasons why drywall is, and will likely continue to be, the go-to building material.
Plaster Pros and Cons
Plaster is a paste made with gypsum, lime, or portland cement that hardens when it dries. A wall usually has three different layers of plaster. It’s one of the oldest building techniques around, and if your house was built before World War II, there’s a good chance it has plaster walls.
Thicker than drywall with better air and sound barriers
Centuries-long lifespan if installed, maintained, and repaired properly
Resistant to mold
Can be used for walls, floors, and ceilings
Labor and time-intensive to install
Can crack if not installed correctly
Thick walls hinder WiFi signals
Hard to hammer in nails for decorating
Drywall Pros and Cons
Drywall is made of two layers of paperboard with a layer of gypsum in the middle. It comes in easy-to-use panels that are nailed or screwed onto walls and ceilings. Your house likely has drywall because it’s been the go-to building material for decades, thanks to its affordability and ease of installation.
Can be installed in one day by pros and DIYers
Easy to paint over
Many sizes and types to choose from
Can be damaged as the building settles
Water and mold damage is possible
Cutting, drilling, or sanding drywall releases gypsum dust into the air
Inhaling gypsum dust can irritate the lungs (use safety gloves, masks, glasses)
Harder to install on curved walls
Plaster vs. Drywall
Choosing between plaster and drywall can be easy because they’re just so different. Each option requires totally different budgets and time constraints, so that alone could help you make a decision.
Because plaster has a rough grain, it should be painted and not wallpapered (you need a smooth, clean surface to hang that pretty wallpaper!). In general, people find that plastered walls are more elegant because of their textured look, whereas drywall offers a perfectly smooth and blank slate for your creative vision. You can also hire expert plaster installers near you to create artistic designs on your walls, which is definitely a leg up from the usual wallpaper or paint job.
Most visually appealing: Plaster
There are three main types of plaster: gypsum, lime, and cement-based.
Gypsum: A soft, light, chalk-like material. It’s popular for indoor use because it’s easy to work with, doesn’t need to cure, and can be installed on brick or concrete for a smooth finish.
Lime: The main plaster of choice in homes built before 1919. It lasts a long time (it gets stronger over time) and can be used inside and outside.
Cement: A mixture of sand, water, and portland cement. It’s more commonly known as stucco and is used for home exteriors.
The common types of drywall are whiteboard, mold-resistant, soundproof, fire-resistant, VOC-absorbing, and plasterboard. They also come in different thicknesses, from 1/4 inch to 5/8 inch, with 1/2 inch being the most typical for homes.
Although there are more types of drywall available, plaster offers many more options for application and customization. Additionally, you can use plaster to create anything from textured designs on walls, to intricate borders in your ceilings, and additional architectural accents like columns.
More options: Plaster
It can happen to anyone: You're rearranging your furniture, and you accidentally push the corner of your table into the wall and make a dent. Or, you're using your hammer, miscalculate your swing, and make a hole in the wall.
This is a common issue with drywall. But if you made the same mistakes in a home with plaster walls, you probably wouldn’t have any holes to fix. Plaster walls are about twice as thick as drywall, and it's hard to make a hole even when you want to (try hammering a nail in a plaster wall and you'll see what we mean).
More durable: Plaster
Plaster installation requires expertise, which is why plaster walls cost more to install than drywall. Plaster installation costs$2 to $10 per square foot, but the cost can be substantially more if you want custom add-ons. These include special textures, molding, domes, and ornamental ceilings. If that sounds like too much to spend, there’s good news. Drywall only costs$1 to $3 per square foot if you hire a pro.
More affordable: Drywall
Ease of Installation
Installing plaster is not a job for the typical DIYer. It requires expertise and finesse, and many plaster installers have perfected the technique over years of practice. First, you install a lath, and then you apply the plaster. Then, apply three coats: the scratch coat, the brown coat, and the final coat. Each coat requires time to cure.
Installing drywall is a fairly easy job—even for beginner DIYers—and it’s one reason why drywall has become so popular. All you need to do is measure and cut the drywall to size, and then install them on the wall. The only caveat is how heavy the panels are—one 1/2-inch drywall weighs around 50 pounds, so you might need someone to help you do the heavy lifting.
Easier install: Drywall
Major plaster issues can lead to structural problems. Common problems are cracks in the walls or ceilings, bubbles in the plaster, and soft spots. Even if there are small cracks or bubbles, don’t just ignore them—they can indicate big problems. For example, there are different reasons why plaster walls crack, from the house settling to potential foundation issues. Plaster repairs cost $10 to $100per square foot.
Most drywall repairs are fairly easy. The most common repair is fixing a hole in the wall with a patch. Other basic drywall repairs include fixing small holes from old hangings or fixing popped nails. If you hire a pro, their services will run you about $50 to $75 per square foot to fix a hole, or you can DIY it for $10 to $30.
Easier to repair: Drywall
Maintaining your plaster should be an easy task. The only thing you should do is make sure you don’t get it too wet. Plaster is porous, so allowing water to seep in can lead to issues down the road like bubbles and cracks. In the most serious cases of moisture damage, you might need to replace the whole wall.
The best way to clean plaster is by using a soft cloth dipped in warm water. Wring out the cloth as much as possible, put a dab of soap on it, and make some suds. Rub the plaster with a soapy cloth, and then wipe it clean and dry.
The best way to maintain your drywall is to regularly repaint every three to five years to keep your house looking fresh despite the daily wear and tear. You can also do weekly or monthly maintenance by washing any stains with a soft, soapy cloth.
Easier to maintain: Tie
Length of Life
Properly installed plaster can last for centuries, making it an incredible investment. Drywall can last 30 to 70 years unless you notice signs of serious issues. These include mold, water stains, or termite damage.
Plaster is a non-toxic substance and the walls are better insulated, making plastered rooms more energy efficient. Lime-based plaster has an additional eco-friendly property: it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air like trees and plants. However, if you have an older home with plaster walls, your walls may have lead-based paint.
More eco-friendly: Plaster