Q: My husband and I just bought a house that has a "skip-trough" finish on the interior walls. We would like to make the walls smooth and then repaint them.
One friend advised us to apply joint compound with a 12-inch taping knife. Another said we should apply topping compound followed by a thick coat of primer.
How would you recommend we go about creating perfectly smooth walls? Should we hire a professional for this job?
A: If money is no object, the ideal solution would be to hire a master craftsperson to apply plaster to your interior walls. Nothing beats the hard, smooth finish of well-applied plaster. Trouble is, plastering is for all intents and purposes a dead trade, and master plasterers are few and far between. And, if you were fortunate enough to find one, the cost would probably be thousands of dollars.
So, given that plaster is not an option, take the advice of friend No. 1. Using joint compound to smooth the walls is the way to go. Be warned: This is a big job, and it’s going to take you a lot of time, but you and your husband can and should do it yourself. Only you will give the job the attention to detail it needs. Pros will come close, but you’re looking for perfect — so do it yourself.
What you call "skip-trough" is really a skip-"troweled" or textured finish. This method was popular in the ’70s and ’80s for a couple of reasons. The look was different and, to cut to the chase, it was cheaper. Skip-troweling allowed drywall tapers to get away with one less coat of mud and a whole lot less sanding.
Watery drywall compound was dipped from a mud tray and lightly dragged over the surface, producing small, smooth, raised patches and voids. The knife skipped over the surface, hence the name. The job went more quickly than a smooth-wall finish. Less time meant less labor cost and more profit for the builder. Little if any sanding was required.
In the ’80s and ’90s, skip-trowel texture gave way to an even faster finishing method, what we call "splatter" finishes. Drywall mud was mixed with compressed air and shot through a gun. The result was a different style, but still a textured finish.
Mud shot on the wall is allowed to partially dry, and then a drywall knife is dragged over it to reduce the high spots. The result is a finer texture, but a texture nonetheless.
Today the style is tending toward retro. That’s smooth. The method you’re going to use is called "skim coating."
Begin the job by preparing the room. Remove everything from the walls, remove all the furniture and take off all the electrical plates. Cover the electrical plugs and switches with blue painter’s tape. Then tape a 1-foot-wide piece of painter’s paper on the perimeter of the rooms and cover the floors with drop cloths. There’s no need to wash the walls, but do give them a quick wipe with a damp sponge to remove any dust.
Material and tools are simple and cheap. A 5-gallon bucket of joint compound, an 8-inch drywall knife and tray are all you really need. Except for a pro, a 12-inch knife is just too unwieldy. Joint compound is thick, so use water to thin it to the consistency of thick cake batter. Invest in a mixing paddle for about $10 and use an electric drill to do the mixing.
Pour some mud in the tray and spread it on the wall. Start at an upper corner and work from the ceiling down. Try for a smooth coat with minimal ridges. It’s a little daunting at first, but the learning curve isn’t too steep. Don’t worry about perfection with the first pass. Close is good enough.
Let the first coat dry and lightly sand the wall to remove bumps and ridges. Repeat the process for the second coat. After the second coat, the wall should be pretty close to smooth, with only a few voids. Give it a close inspection, patch any divots and sand smooth.
The next step is to paint with a quality drywall sealer. This seals the new mud and prevents the finish paint coat from soaking in. Skip this step and a two-coat job becomes a three- or four-coater. Inevitably, when the sealer dries, you’ll find a stray divot or two. Patch, sand and prime them. When dry, paint the walls in the color of your choice. Or you may choose to wallpaper, but that’s another column.