Career Guides

Career Guide for Drywall Installers

Drywall installers install drywall in new construction build for homes and businesses. Installing the walls in buildings is a crucial part of the construction process.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a drywall installer.

Drywall Installer Summary

  • Most workers learn their trade through informal training programs or through an apprenticeship.
  • Work is physically demanding.
  • Job prospects are expected to be good.
  • Workers may be idled when downturns in the economy slow construction activity.

Working as a Drywall Installer

Drywall and ceiling tile installers, tapers, plasterers, and stucco masons are specialty construction workers who build, apply, or fasten interior and exterior wallboards or wall coverings in residential, commercial, and other structures. Specifically, drywall and ceiling tile installers and tapers work indoors, installing wallboards to ceilings or to interior walls of buildings; plasterers and stucco masons, on the other hand, work both indoors and outdoors—applying plaster to interior walls and cement or stucco to exterior walls. While most work is performed for functionality, such as fireproofing and sound dampening, some applications are intended purely for decorative purposes.

Drywall consists of a thin layer of gypsum between two layers of heavy paper. It is used to make walls and ceilings in most buildings today because it is faster and cheaper to install than plaster.

There are two kinds of drywall workers—installers and tapers—although many workers do both types of work. Installers, also calledframers or hangers, fasten drywall panels to the inside framework of houses and other buildings. Tapers or finishers, prepare these panels for painting by taping and finishing joints and imperfections. In addition to drywall workers, ceiling tile installers also help to build walls and ceilings.

Because drywall panels are manufactured in standard sizes—usually 4 feet by 8 feet—drywall installers must measure, cut, fit, and fasten them to the inside framework of buildings. Installers saw, drill, or cut holes in panels for electrical outlets, air-conditioning units, and plumbing. After making these alterations, installers typically screw the wallboard panels to the wood or metal framework, called studs. Because drywall is heavy and cumbersome, another worker usually helps the installer to position and secure the panel. Installers often use a lift when placing ceiling panels.

After the drywall is installed, tapers fill joints between panels with a joint compound, also called spackle or “mud.” Using the wide, flat tip of a special trowel, they spread the compound into and along each side of the joint. They immediately use the trowel to press a paper tape—used to reinforce the drywall and to hide imperfections—into the wet compound and to smooth away excess material. Nail and screw depressions also are covered with this compound, as are imperfections caused by the installation of air-conditioning vents and other fixtures. Using increasingly wider trowels, tapers apply second and third coats of the compound, sanding the treated areas after each coat to make them smooth and devoid of seams.

Ceiling tile installers, or acoustical carpenters, apply or mount acoustical tiles or blocks, strips, or sheets of shock-absorbing materials to ceilings and walls of buildings to reduce deflection of sound or to decorate rooms. First, they measure and mark the surface according to blueprints and drawings. Then, they nail or screw moldings to the wall to support and seal the joint between the ceiling tile and the wall. Finally, they mount the tile, either by applying a cement adhesive to the back of the tile and then pressing the tile into place, or by nailing, screwing, or wire-tying the lath directly to the structural framework.

Plasterers apply plaster to interior walls and ceilings to form fire-resistant and relatively soundproof surfaces. They also apply plaster veneer over drywall to create smooth or textured abrasion-resistant finishes. In addition, plasterers install prefabricated exterior insulation systems over existing walls—for good insulation and interesting architectural effects—and cast ornamental designs in plaster. Stucco masons apply durable plasters, such as polymer-based acrylic finishes and stucco, to exterior surfaces.

Plasterers can plaster either solid surfaces, such as concrete block, or supportive wire mesh called lath. When plasterers work with hard interior surfaces, such as concrete block and concrete, they first apply a brown coat of gypsum plaster that provides a base, which is followed by a second, or finish coat, also called “white coat.” When plastering metal-mesh lath foundations, they apply a preparatory, or “scratch coat” with a trowel. They spread this rich plaster mixture into and over the metal lath. Before the plaster sets, plasterers scratch its surface with a rake-like tool to produce ridges, so that the subsequent brown coat will bond tightly. They then apply the brown coat and the white finish coat.

When plastering on non-solid surfaces, lathers are needed to help build supportive walls out of wire. This support base is put on walls, ceilings, ornamental frameworks, and partitions of buildings before plaster and other coatings are added.

Applying different types of plaster coating requires different techniques. When applying the brown coat, plasterers spray or trowel the mixture onto the surface, then smooth it to an even, level surface. For the finish, or white coat, plasterers usually prepare a mixture of plaster and water. They quickly apply this using a “hawk,” that is a light, metal plate with a handle, along with a trowel, brush, and water. This mixture, which sets very quickly, produces a very smooth, durable finish.

Plasterers create decorative interior surfaces as well. One way that they do this is by pressing a brush or trowel firmly against a wet plaster surface and using a circular hand motion to create decorative swirls. Plasterers sometimes do more complex decorative and ornamental work that requires special skill and creativity. For example, they may mold intricate wall and ceiling designs, such as cornice pieces and chair rails. Following an architect’s blueprint, plasterers pour or spray a special plaster into a mold and allow it to set. Workers then remove the molded plaster and put it in place, according to the plan.

Stucco masons usually apply stucco—a mixture of Portland cement, lime, and sand—over cement, concrete, masonry or wire lath. Stucco also may be applied directly to a wire lath with a scratch coat, followed by a brown coat, and then a finish coat. Stucco masons may also embed marble or gravel chips into the finish coat to achieve a pebble-like, decorative finish.

When required, stucco masons apply insulation to the exteriors of new and old buildings. They cover the outer wall with rigid foam insulation board and reinforcing mesh, and then trowel on a base coat. They may apply an additional coat of this material with a decorative finish.

Work environment. As in many other construction trades, this work is physically demanding. Drywall and ceiling tile installers, tapers, plasterers, and stucco masons spend most of the day on their feet, either standing, bending, stretching, or kneeling. Some workers need to use stilts; others may have to lift and maneuver heavy, cumbersome materials, such as oversized wallboards. The work also can be dusty and dirty, irritating the skin, eyes, and lungs, unless protective masks, goggles, and gloves are used. Hazards include falls from ladders and scaffolds, and injuries from power tools and from working with sharp tools, such as utility knives.

Most work indoors, except for the relatively few stucco masons who apply exterior finishes.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most workers learn their trade through informal training programs or through an apprenticeship. It can take 3 to 4 years of paid on-the-job training to become a fully skilled worker, but many skills can be learned within the first year. In general, the more formal the training process, the more skilled the individual becomes, and the more in demand by employers.

Education and training. A high school education, or its equivalent, is helpful, as are courses basic math, mechanical drawing, and blueprint reading. The most common way to get a first job is to find an employer who will provide on-the-job training. Entry-level workers generally start as helpers, assisting more experienced workers. Employers may also send new employees to a trade or vocational school or community college to receive classroom training.

Some employers, particularly large nonresidential construction contractors with unionized workforces, offer employees formal apprenticeships. These programs combine on-the-job training with related classroom instruction—at least 144 hours of instruction each year for drywall and ceiling tile installers and tapers, and 166 hours for plasterers and stucco masons. The length of the apprenticeship program, usually 3 to 4 years, varies with the apprentice’s skill. Because the number of apprenticeship programs is limited, however, only a small proportion of these workers learn their trade this way.

Helpers and apprentices start by carrying materials, lifting and cleaning up debris. They also learn to use the tools, machines, equipment, and materials of the trade. Within a few weeks, they learn to measure, cut, apply, and install materials. Eventually, they become fully experienced workers. At the end of their training, workers learn to estimate the cost of completing a job.

Other jobseekers may choose to obtain their training before seeking a job. There are a number of vocational-technical schools and training academies affiliated with the industry’s unions and contractors that offer training in these occupations. Employers often look favorably upon graduates of these training programs and usually start them at a higher level than those without the training.

Other qualifications. Workers need to be in good physical condition and have good eye-hand coordination, a sense of balance and manual dexterity. For drywall and ceiling tile installers and tapers, the ability to solve basic arithmetic problems quickly and accurately is required. They also should be able to identify and estimate the quantity of materials needed to complete a job, and accurately estimate how long a job will take to complete and at what cost.

Artistic creativity is helpful for plasterers and stucco masons who apply decorative finishes. In addition, a good work history is viewed favorably by contractors.

Apprentices usually must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED. Those who complete apprenticeships registered with the Federal or State Government receive a journey worker certificate that is recognized Nationwide.

Certification and advancement. Some organizations related to masonry trades offer training and certification intended to enhance the skills of their members. For example, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers International Masonry Institute confers designations in several areas of specialization, including one for plastering. Candidates who complete a 12-week certification program can earn a designation as a “journey level plasterer” by passing a competency-based exam. Experienced candidates can become trainers and earn a designation as “Certified Instructor or Journeyworkers and Apprentices in the Trowel Trades.”

Drywall and ceiling tile installers, tapers, plasterers, and stucco masons may advance to supervisor or general construction supervisor positions. However, it is increasingly important to be able to communicate in both English and Spanish in order to relay instructions and safety precautions to workers with limited understanding of English because Spanish-speaking workers make up a large part of the construction workforce in many areas. Knowing English well also makes it easier to advance. Many workers become independent contractors. Others become building inspectors.

Employment as a Drywall Installer

Drywall and ceiling tile installers, tapers, plasterers, and stucco masons held about 237,700 jobs in 2008. About 19 percent were self-employed independent contractors. The following tabulation shows 2008 wage-and-salary employment by specialty:

Drywall and ceiling tile installers 151,300
Plasterers and stucco masons 49,000
Tapers 37,400

Most workers are employed in populous areas. In other areas, where there may not be enough work to keep them employed full time, carpenters and painters usually do the work.

Job Outlook

Employment of drywall and ceiling tile installers, tapers, plasterers, and stucco masons is expected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations. Job growth, however, will differ among the individual occupations in this category. Good job prospects are expected overall.

Employment change. Overall employment is expected to grow by 12 percent between 2008 and 2018. Employment of drywall and ceiling tile installers—the largest specialty—is expected to grow 14 percent, reflecting growth of new construction and remodeling projects. New residential construction projects are expected to provide the majority of jobs during the projection decade, but home improvement and renovation projects are also expected to create jobs because existing residential and nonresidential buildings are getting old and need repair.

Employment of tapers is expected to grow 13 percent, which is as fast as the average. Demand for tapers, which often mirrors demand for drywall installers, also will be driven by the overall growth of construction activity.

Employment of plasterers and stucco masons, on the other hand, is expected to grow 7 percent. Despite an increased appreciation for the attractiveness and durability that plaster provides, growing use of cheaper and easier to install alternatives, such as drywall, will impede employment growth for these workers. Nonetheless, stucco masons will experience some employment growth due to demand for new polymer-based exterior insulating finishes that are gaining popularity, particularly in the South and Southwest regions of the country.

Job prospects. Job opportunities for drywall and ceiling tile installers, tapers, plasterers, and stucco masons are expected to be good overall. Many potential workers are not attracted to this occupation because they prefer work that is less strenuous and has more comfortable working conditions. Experienced workers will have especially favorable opportunities.

Besides opportunities resulting from job growth, many drywall and ceiling tile installer and taper jobs will open up each year because of the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Skilled, experienced plasterers with artistic ability should have excellent opportunities, especially with restoration projects. Decorative custom finishes, expensive homes, and large-scale restoration projects will further result in opportunities for plasterers in the Northeast, particularly in urban areas. For stucco masons, the best employment opportunities should continue to be in Florida, California, and the Southwest, where the use of stucco is expected to remain popular.

Like many other construction workers, employment in these occupations is sensitive to the fluctuations of the economy. Workers in these trades may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, shortages of these workers may occur in some areas during peak periods of building activity.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Drywall and ceiling tile installers, tapers, plasterers, and stucco masons 237,700 266,200 28,500 12
Drywall installers, ceiling tile installers, and tapers 47-2080 188,700 214,000 25,300 13
Drywall and ceiling tile installers 47-2081 151,300 171,700 20,500 14
Tapers 47-2082 37,400 42,300 4,900 13
Plasterers and stucco masons 47-2161 49,000 52,200 3,200 7
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Drywall Installers

The median hourly wages of wage and salary drywall and ceiling tile installers were $18.12 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $14.23 and $23.80. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $11.64, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $31.72.

Median hourly wages of wage and salary tapers were $21.03 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $15.45 and $28.27. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $12.62, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $34.91.

Median hourly wages of wage and salary plasterers and stucco masons were $18.01 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $14.36 and $22.94. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $12.01, and the top 10 percent earned more than $29.59.