Skim coating smooths over rough walls

DEAR DESIGNER: We recently moved into an old house. One of the bedrooms has fancy plasterwork on the walls that is dated and busy. What can I do to hide it? Tearing down the wall is not an option at this time. — Gail

DEAR GAIL: No need to tear down the ugly (and messy) plaster. There is a process called skim coating that works well over heavy plaster and/or uneven walls. Basically, the walls are coated with thin layers of drywall mud, each coat smoother than the next. The final two layers are sanded for a final smooth finish. This process also is used as a preparation for wallpaper when dealing with textured surfaces.

Like painting a room, preparation is time consuming but worth the effort. First, clean your walls by wiping away the dust with a damp sponge. Next, use painters tape and brown paper to tape off all the trim in your room. Dried drywall compound is removable, but can cause damage to your painted surfaces.

Cracks need to be treated with extra care. Merely putting drywall plaster in and over a crack will only ensure the crack will appear again. Clean out the crack, put in joint compound and use drywall tape. Once it dries, you can treat it like the rest of your walls.

Next, it’s time to apply thin layers of drywall compound (mud) onto your walls with a 10- or 12-inch trowel. Typically, you will use an all-purpose drywall mud. But, if you are in a hurry, there is a fast-drying product called hot mud. Because the layers must dry completely before the next layer is applied, hot mud can save lots of time. Its hefty price restricts it from being used for all jobs. Use an all-purpose joint compound or topping compound for the final coat. These have a finer grain and are easier to sand.

Be aware that trouble spots usually become visible while applying the coats of compound. It’s better to see these spots and fix them early on rather than after the painting and clean up is done.

As you can imagine, sanding can be a messy job. Be sure to wear protective goggles and a face mask. To create a dust barrier, hang plastic (also known as Visqueen) over the windows and doors. Important note: Turn off your air conditioner and/or furnace. The fan can blow these fine particles throughout your home and you may be dusting for weeks.

Finally, apply a drywall primer on your walls. Fresh drywall is porous and needs to be sealed before applying paint or wallpaper glue.

The savvy do-it-yourselfer is completely capable of applying a skim coat. However, don’t underestimate the time and physical labor of it all. Professional plaster/drywall guys will breeze through the process and make it look simple because they do it all day long. If you want a fast and efficient job, call in the expert.

Skim coating doesn’t cost as much as you might think. Depending on how badly your walls are damaged and on the new type of texture you want, a 10-by-10 room can cost as little as $690. However, if you are on a tight budget, need some plaster therapy, want to burn a lot of calories or simply experience the pride of doing it yourself, why not give it a try.

Cindy Payne is a certified interior designer with more than 25 years of experience, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers, as well as a licensed contractor. E-mail questions to her at deardesigner@ or send them to her at Project Design Interiors, 2620 S. Maryland Parkway, Suite 189, Las Vegas, NV 89109. She can be reached online at

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