Plaster vs Drywall

We will teach you how to tell the difference between these two materials

Updated on:

Most of us have no idea whether we have drywall or plaster walls at home. However, sometimes being aware of this nuance can become rather important - for example, when you need to hand a picture on the wall and you are choosing the right hangers. In this case, it is important to know for sure what material your walls are made of. 

But how is it possible to define whether the walls of a house or an apartment are plaster or drywall, some of you may wonder? Well, it can be quite a challenging task indeed. However, when you read this article, things will become much clearer for you! 

First of all, we are going to explain to you what makes plaster and drywall different. You will get a detailed and very precise explanation of the most significant features each material has so that you can see the distinctions better. Moreover, we are also going to share a few methods with you that will help everyone to easily define which material their walls are made of.

In a new apartment before the choice - drywall or plaster?

What Is the Difference Between Drywall And Plaster

If one day you face the necessity of figuring out the difference between drywall vs plaster wall, you might find this task a bit difficult. See, it is very complicated to define it by only inspecting the surface of the wall visually. This is why we have prepared a detailed comparison chart for you below. In it, you will find the major features each material has. Like that, you will be able to better understand what makes these materials different.

MaterialPlaster is made by nailing strips of wood over wall studs. Then the wooden strips are covered with layers of plaster to get a smooth surface.Drywall is a sort of fabricated board made of gypsum that lies in between sheets of paper.
SizePlaster doesn’t have uniform thickness even though wooden strips are used of the same size.Drywall is made in uniform thickness and has a standardized size.
HardnessPlaster is more rigid compared to drywall.

Drywall is sturdy but it is softer compared to plaster. 

It can easily be penetrated by pins.

DensityPlaster is denser than drywall, which makes it more soundproof. Drywall is less dense and soundproof in comparison to plaster. 
PopularityThe plastering technique was commonly used before World War IIDrywall became popular after the 1940s as an economic and time-saving option. 
Installation/RepairYou will need more time and effort both to install and fix plaster walls. Besides, it requires a qualified worker. Installing and/or repairing drywall can be done by homeowners.
CostFor labor cost alone, plaster walls need at least three times more money than drywall.Labor cost is cheaper than for plaster walls, and materials’ price is comparable to the one for plaster.
DecorIt is more challenging to hang things on plaster walls since it is more brittle.It’s easy to hang things on drywall walls because they are softer than plaster ones.

Like that, now you see in detail what makes plaster and drywall distinct wall materials. And if you have ever tried to hand a picture or a photo frame onto your walls at home, you can tell for sure what they are made of! Now let’s learn more about the ways that can be used in order to figure out which material your walls are made of.

How to Tell If Walls Are Plaster Or Drywall

There are several popular ways you can use if you want to find out how to tell the difference between drywall and plaster. And this is what every homeowner should be aware of! See, when you know for sure what material your interior walls are made of, it will help you plan any remodeling works, in addition, it will be helpful when you need to repair your walls or simply hang a picture!

Find Out When Your Home Was Built 

As we have mentioned earlier, plaster walls were widely used before World War II. Even though drywall was invented in 1916, folks didn't use it in residential construction until the 1950s. Then, it eventually became way more popular than plaster walls after the '60s (mostly because drywall is cheaper, it is easier to repair, and it requires less time on installation).

So if you want to figure out what material your home walls are made of, here is a quick guide to use. With its help, you can find out what wall type you might have based on when it was built:

  1. Before the 1940s - most likely  plaster wall
  2. 1950s-1960s - may be plaster or drywall
  3. After the 1960s - most likely drywall

However, to use this method, you will have to find the needed documents that state the date your house was built. That means you might have to spend some time on some research!

However, here is a tiny hint for you: plaster walls tend to have that old-fashioned home aesthetic. Curved lines and arches are typically used in houses that have plaster walls. Drywall, on the contrary, is more suitable for straight walls.

Search For Any Cracks And/Or Flaking Paint

This is another simple way of telling what material your walls are made of. Just search for any cracks or flaking paint areas on your walls. Should you find any, you can be 99.9% sure that your walls are made of plaster! 

Why not completely sure, you may ask? See, even though drywall is much less prone to cracks, they can still appear, only in smaller areas. For example, you can find them in a place where a joint compound is used to seal seams or patch holes.

As for the plaster walls, when they get cracked, those cracks have a prominent spider web-like shape and they tend to go in all directions. Flaking paint is also more common for plaster than for drywall. That’s because when the plaster was widely used, people typically painted their walls with oil paints. 

And quite often, latex paint was covered with a layer of oil-based one without the correct primer. As a result, after a while, walls painted this way usually started to flake.  

Do the Pushpin Test 

A pushpin test is one of the simplest ways to define the material of the walls. And by the way, this is what some experts do when they need to find out quickly what wall they are working with. 

To make this test, take a pushpin and press it on the wall with your thumb. If the pin pokes into the wall easily, be sure you are dealing with drywall. If it doesn’t, then that’s plaster.  

A pushpin can penetrate drywalls easily because, as you already know, they are softer compared to plaster. Meanwhile, lath and plaster walls won’t even budge with a thumbtack unless you use a hammer. 

As for nails, plaster walls tend to resist them because of the flexing of the laths in the wall. Sometimes, if you do manage to hammer a nail into the plaster, the hole is slightly larger than the nail.

Knock On Your Walls

Yes, this may sound strange, but knocking is another way to check what your walls are made of. And besides, this is the simplest way to do that! You need nothing except your own fingers for that.

The scheme is super easy. You just need to knock continuously moving sideways on the surface of the wall. Keep on knocking and listen carefully while doing that:

  • If you hear a hollow sound followed by a dense sound when you reach a stud, you are knocking on drywall
  • If you are knocking on plaster, it will have the same thick sound all the way

However, if you have plenty of spare time and you don’t mind getting dirty a bit, you can opt for one of the methods described below. But you should note that they will take some time!

Look Behind the Wall

To do this, you will have to remove a switch plate or electric socket so that you could take a peek and check the cross-section of the wall. If your wall is made of plaster, you will see layers of plaster with no paper in sight. You may also see plaster that seeped out between the laths. 

If your wall is made of drywall, you will see that there is a layer of paper on either side of white gypsum. In addition, any wiring behind drywall will be enclosed by an electric box, unlike in plaster, where the wiring is loose.

Go to the Attic Or Basement

In quite many homes, these two places are often left unfinished. Thanks to this, you can see the backside of your walls easily and find out what material they are made of. 

  • If you see plaster keys, loose wiring, and lots of same-sized wood strips, that is a clear sign of a plaster wall
  • If you see wall studs standing vertically and spaced further from each other, that’s drywall. The electrical boxes for the wiring can also be noticed

These are the most common methods you can use in order to find out what material your walls are made of. As you can see, some of them are simpler whilst others take a bit more time and might get you dirty. Luckily, since you have alternative options available, you can choose which one to make use of. It will mostly depend on how much time you have. 

Should You Replace Lath And Plaster With Drywall?

This question is often asked by many homeowners who feel concerned about the material of their walls. People tend to think that plaster is somewhat “worse” than drywall simply because it appeared earlier and thus it is considered a more old-fashioned material. However, we would not recommend you take quick decisions! 

If your walls are functional and you like how they look, there is obviously no need to get rid of the plaster and lath and replace it with drywall! With proper and regular maintenance and painting, plaster walls can be easily kept in good condition for quite a long period of time.

However, if you are undertaking a home renovation project that requires you to modify, add, or remove a wall, it is much easier to complete the new construction with drywall rather than plaster. Below, we have collected the handiest tips that will help you find out whether or not your plaster walls should be replaced with the newer drywall ones:

  • There is no need to replace a plaster wall if it is in good condition
  • If you are renovating plaster walls, it is easier and cheaper to use drywall in the renovation than build new plaster walls
  • Drywall is easy to cut and install for beginners while plastering walls is a multi-step process that might require professional attention

Of course, when deciding between these two materials, you need to take a few facts into consideration. Drywall is more popular than plaster because it is fire resistant, easy to install, and also because of lower material costs. 

In addition, you will get a cleaner result in the end much faster by installing drywall than you will get by trying to build new plaster walls. In comparison, installing plaster walls requires nailing laths and furring strips, as well as spreading several coats of plaster. In new construction or renovation, drywall is obviously much better.

Well, now you are aware of the major distinctions between such popular wall materials as plaster and drywall. We provided you with the list of their significant features and characteristics thanks to which you will be able to see the difference easier. Also, we explained how you can find out which material your walls are made of. Since each of the methods we shared with you is pretty simple, all of them can be used even if you are a novice at wall construction and materials.

Publication date: