How to Drywall a Ceiling

We completed our ceiling drywall project about 4 years ago, so I'm not going to be able to recall important details that you should know before you begin. So instead, what follows is a basic step by step, intended to give you the basic idea of what is involved in drywalling a ceiling. This is not a comprehensive guide.

Ah, the joy of accomplishment. (Note: You can click on the photos to enlarge them.)

I will say that prior to this job I had never hung any drywall or done any drywall taping, and considered it best left to those that knew what they were doing. For a brief moment in time though, I was one of those people, but only because of one great book...

My hat goes off, to Myron Ferguson, for his book "Drywall: Professional Techniques for Great Results". That book was my single source to "be in the know" and to complete the ceiling drywall project you see here. The other reason I'm not going to go into details here, is that Mr. Ferguson has already done so in his book a thousand times better than I could, in great detail and wonderfully explained for the beginner. Get the book and "be in the know", if only for one or two projects. Drywalling IS within the do it yourselfers grasp, but expect it to take you much, much, longer than an pro. In the end though, you'll have something to be proud of.

In fact, I show my ceiling off all the time, and my best response was from an electrician recently, who said, "really, you did this! It's excellent. I've seen professional jobs that didn't look this good. I can't see a single flaw, wow, I'm impressed". Ah yes. Thank you! Or should I say, Thanks Myron! And now it occurs to me I'm showing it off here too!

Here's the tile ceiling as we found it when we moved in. There weren't any structural problems with it, we just weren't tiled ceiling lovers, so we decided one day to pull off a tile to see what was under it.

One tile lead to another and after a few minutes I had exposed an old plaster ceiling above with lath used to mount the tile to the old plaster ceiling. I now had myself in unfamiliar territory. That's when I started to do some research and bought Myron's book. (Ignore the hole in the wall, that's another story.)

After reading the book, the then next thing I did was made sure the tiles didn't contain asbestos. Not having any way to ID the tiles, and not knowing if they were of asbestos vintage, I sent a chunk off to a lab to get professional results (negative, not asbestos, cool).

We ripped the rest of the tiles down, and knowing that the drywall would have to go under the crown moulding, we pulled that down too. After the first piece of moulding snapped in half, the decision was made to also replace the crown moulding as part of this job (well it would only take a few 45 degree cuts and some nails right?... lol, I learned better, and I'll tell you that story some day, when you are older).

Anyway, we got it all down, cover the floor and entry ways with plastic (to keep the dust and debris from spreading to the rest of the house), and headed off to get supplies. Read the book for answer for the correction type and thickness of drywall you'll need for your job. Also, larger pieces mean less seams to tape later, but also mean heavier/larger pieces to deal with.

You are going to need a "drywall panel lifter". We rented ours from HD. You can fashion 2x4s into "T" shapes instead to hold the drywall pieces up (see Myron's book), but for us, the panel lifter was the only way to go.

Section by section you'll be hoisting the drywall and using drywall screws to anchor it. I had lath already there, that just happened to be exact the right spacing, and was attached to the ceiling joists above.

You'll want to be sure to stagger the sections, so that the seams don't align, which could promote crack/seam lines later. Also the placement and distance apart of the drywall screws is very important. The book will tell you all you need to know. Also, shown above is a cutout for a light receptacle.

Any drywall job requires a lot of screw gunning, but when you are working over your shoulders you may end up looking like this once all the pieces are hoisted up, and the zillions of screws are in place. Speaking of the screws, it's important that you don't break the paper when you drive the screws, you want them to be seated below the drywall surface, but not so much that they break the paper. There are special adapter heads you can get for screw guns that back the gun off when the screw has reached the right depth.

Just as you think the hard work is done (the zillion screws), the real fun begins. There are various types of drywall tapes and adhesion methods (explained in the book), which you then cover with layers of joint compound (read in the book about which to use). The general idea is to start with a narrower covering over the tape, let it dry, sand flat, and then apply another wider strip of compound over it, sand, then do it again with a wider strip. For the screw heads you do the same, without tape.

The "mudding" sanding, "mudding" sanding, is what really separates the men from the professionals. You can read all you want about it, but you soon realize that it's an art form, and one that even if you were good at following direction, and have the hand of a master sculpture, you not going to be much good at.

You'll get the compound spread out just about perfectly and then there with be a little groove in the compound created by some little tiny hard bit of compound on your spreader, and so you'll go to fix it, and there you go, you made it worse, much worse! Ah, it's challenging, fun, heartbreaking, enlightening, humbling...

Oh did I mention you sand between each layer of mud? Sure you do, so I hope you didn't glob it on, cause you're just gonna have to sand it off. Lots, and lots and lots of sanding, and lots and lots and lots of checking with a straight edge for level. Oh, yes, and it's all above your head, so I hope you shoulders are up for the workout. And you'll need to wear the right mask and goggles (see book). Good dusty, sweaty, steamy fun.

I'm not sure how long it took me to do the taping/mudding/sanding. It's somewhere between a few long weekday nights to, too embarrassing to reveal.

Ahhhhh look it's done! I'm not sure who was happier, me, or her. Two things to note: 1. I'm not even sure this was the final photo of the mudding job, but it's close (see the beer on the chair? You're going to enjoy "Miller Time" after this job is done). You might even consider hanging the drywall and then having a pro. come to tape/mud/sand it. That, for us, was by far the longest part of the job. You can see in the upper right a few crown moulding samples being tested for size.

Before (this is daytime)

And here's the after picture. (Night, colors might be better in the day). In our previous place we were stuck on painting our walls sand color, (similar to the before shot above) so we thought we'd be daring and try something different. Next time we paint I think we'll go lighter again. We also put up new curtains, shades, and installed a overhead light. And we removed the built-ins on the left and the doorway back left.

Also just a reminder, you must get Myron's book (below) to do your drywalling project if you are new to it. No I don't sell for this guy. I'm not related to or know him, and no I don't receive kick backs. But I must say I feel like thanking him for his help on my drywalling the ceiling project. I've skipped many important details above, so please get his book.

In the end, the hard work was well worth it. Not everyone can stare at their ceiling and find great joy. We can! Have fun.

Myron Ferguson: Drywall: Professional Techniques for Great Results
DIYNetwork: Replacing Ceiling Tiles with Drywall
This Old House: Video showing hanging ceiling drywall and cutting hole for fixture
Easy2DYI: Quick Flash video overview of hanging drywall on a ceiling

My Standard Disclaimer: This is what I did. This does not mean this is the best way, the right way, to building code, or even safe for your needs. So you are on your own with your project. I make no promises about the information presented here. I'm just a do-it-yourselfer, not a professional at all, sharing my story. So if something goes wrong with your project, you are on your own. Good luck, and have fun!

All content and photos, copyright 2009, Dover Projects.

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  1. Hi Peter --

    Thanks for the article - precisely what I needed, though i'm not entirely sure how I came across it. Been looking for weeks...

    I finally got curious enough last night to remove a piece of the exact same ceiling tile as yours, and to my surprise found the furrings and plaster as you did. This runs through all of the living room, foyer, and kitchen.

    A few questions:

    1. Approx how long did this take you - start to finish? Including tape, mud prime, paint, finish and moulding? (after pic looks great - btw...)

    2. How long did it take you get a test sample back (asbestos)? The ceiling plaster is likely asbestos free, but I'm also removing wall paneling and am concerned that the insulation is not!

    3. I noticed you opted (wisely) to leave the plaster and stips in tact and DW'ing right over it all. I'm installing recessed lighting - do you recommend actually removing plaster/furrings so as to safely install the cans?

    4. I'd really like to do all three rooms at once, but don't want to totally overrun the first floor of the house, especially since access to the 2nd floor is confined to these three rooms.

    Thanks again for the article - I'll be looking through the other things you have going on with great interest.

    Email is fine, if you prefer to respond that way...



  2. Hey Jeremy and Carolina! First, I saw your comment back in September and realized I couldn't answer some of it well, so I did what any sub average person did and let it sit to deal with another day. My apologies. I'm guessing now you've done the job, and might have your own feedback. Anyway, I'll give the questions my best shot now, for others anyway:

    1. I think this question was my stumbling block for a reply... Answer: I don't remember exactly. Short answer, there were a few weeks off between various stages, so all in all, perhaps it took about 1.5 months! I think I say above in the article the time it took was too embarrassing to reveal! I'm counting installing the crown moulding here too. If you've never done drywall before, or crown moulding you might want to get a quote for the whole job, or you could get a quote just for the tape/mudding, and you hang the drywall.

    2. I had to ask the wife this one. Again, I'm foggy on this answer and so is she. I think a couple of weeks?

    3. Now you are getting into fire hazard/code territory, and the correct answer is something best left to a pro. electrician. I do know you'll be using "remodeling recessed lights" vs. cans put into during original construction. And if the cans are surrounded by insulation they will need to be "IC Rated" (Insulation Contact). In addition the housings need to be a certain distance from combustible materials. I have an article that shows what pros did in my kitchen here: and it's the exact same thing you are facing with drywall over older plaster and lathe. They only cut a hole for the can (through all materials of course), but didn't remove more than needed. I didn't have insulation up there.

    4. I'd suggest you do one room to start, as a test. Also, as you suggest, doing all three rooms will indeed overrun the first floor, mostly with dust.

    Good luck and again apologies for not getting back sooner!--Peter

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