Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comHi friends, Emmett here! Sarah mentioned she gets a lot of questions about drywall finishing, the texture of the walls in our home, and how to achieve those perfectly smooth walls. I’ve been plugging away on our home office renovation and of course- the designer (aka my wife) requested a level 5 drywall finish… which basically means she wants perfectly smooth walls. That’s always her preference, if possible. I thought it would be helpful to share some visuals and tips for achieving that super smooth finish with a quick skim coating tutorial. Click through for some helpful tips, finishing vocab (to pass along to your contractor, if you’re using one), and some tricks for achieving quality craftsmanship.

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comWhen is skim coating handy or necessary? If you’re trying to smooth existing drywall, cover wallpaper texture, or are repairing drywall skim coating is your best bet. In our case, the existing drywall in Sarah’s office wasn’t in great shape and had both texture, wallpaper removal lines as well as a two inch wide stripe around the room from removing the chair railing. Half of the sheet rock in the room is new and the other half is existing, so my goal was to skim coat everything to match, resulting in a level 5 finish.

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comFirst up… let’s chat about the finishing levels, which also kind of translates to the phases if you’re going for that smooth look. There are 5:

  • Level 0 // This means there is no finishing that has been completed. At this level, the sheetrock is just hanging on the wall or ceiling, with nothing done to it. Screws and joints exposed.
  • Level 1 //  Level one means that the joint tape has been installed and mudded, but nothing else has been completed.
  • Level 2 // This level means that you have skim coated a thin layer of joint compound over the tape and covered the drywall screws. If you’re planning to tile, it’s fine to stop at this level. Many tract homes receive this level in the garage.
  • Level 3 // This stage indicates a solid coat of joint compound has been installed to the tape and screws. Walls that will receive a heavy texture (like knockdown), often stop at this level. Level 3 finishing is meant for a highly textured wall outcome.
  • Level 4 // This is your classic drywall finish… the standard or norm. Level 4 receives an additional coat of joint compound to cover the tape, seams, screws, and has been sanded in between. This is the most common finish and can be painted or wallpapered nicely.
  • Level 5 // As you might have guessed, Level 5 is the gold standard. It’s as smooth as you can get, or the highest finish possible. There are no bumps, no texture, and it’s achieved by multiple skim coat layers that are finished with a good sanding.

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comIf you’re striving for a five finish, this is what I used to achieve that…

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comBefore we get started… the longer the skim coating blade, the flatter your finish will be. For scale, here I am with my 32″ skim coating blade. If your wall is very unlevel or uneven, you’ll probably want to begin with a 24″ blade, and hit the problem areas first before moving to the 32″. Ready to walk through the skim coating process?

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comFirst you’ll mix your joint compound with water. I eyeball (rather than measure) the mix, but it should resemble a thick cake batter consistency. Use your mixer attachment on the power drill until it’s smooth and well combined.

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comOnce you get a good consistency, you’re ready to paint it onto the wall. Using the roller with the 3/4″ nap, roll a section of the wall (I work a 32″ wide section about half the wall height at a time to prevent my mud from drying out too quickly). The texture from the nap should look something like this…

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comBelow is a closer look at the texture the roller leaves behind. It looks kind of scary, as we’re going for perfectly smooth walls- but the key is working in thin, layered coats.

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comNext, grab your skim coating blade and with firm, even pressure, sweep it across the roller texture. The goal is to remove as much excess joint compound as you can. Think of this as smoothing rather than building up a material. Work in sections and think thin layers!

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comHold the blade at a sharp angle and work quickly, as the mud dries out quickly. The goal is to work in long even sweeps with the blade, without lifting it from the wall. Many walls will require multiple coats. If this is the case, I try to pull my blade one direction (think up and down) for one coat, and then on the second coat I change directions (side to side). Whichever the direction- just make sure it’s a consistent, fluid motion.

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comOnce you have one section of the wall finished, move onto the next, repeating that same process. You will want to clean your blade in between sections, as the joint compound dries quickly and a clean blade works best for that ultra smooth finish.

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comReload your paint tray with joint compound and start on the next section. Using a bucket with a lid will keep the viscosity consistent for longer as you’re smoothing with the blade. I prefer to mix a large batch, which requires less time and cleaning.

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comOnce the walls are totally dry, you can begin to apply additional coats. Sarah’s office walls were pretty smooth to begin with and I ended up installing three layers. One layer per day. Once the wall are done you will then have to use a corner trowel and apply a coat to the corners for a consistent finish. Give the final coat a full day to dry, then you’ll sand the drywall for that ultra smooth finish. In color, it may not look perfectly even, but as long as it’s super smooth, the primer will do the trick to even the color prior to paint. It should look something like this (don’t be alarmed by color differences)

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comIf you’re looking for a level 5 finish and are using a contractor, it is absolutely something you will need to discuss with them in advance, as it’s a premium finish and not the standard (which is level 4). It really doesn’t use a whole lot more material, however it is very labor intensive. One last thing to note is this tutorial is showing skim coating over a wall that had paint-over-wallpaper. The texture of the wallpaper as well as the seams were visible but it wasn’t in too bad of shape. Skim coating works on textured/popcorn ceilings or any walls that had years of patches and damage to them. This is our perfectly smooth and freshly skim coated wall…

Perfectly Smooth Walls: A Skim Coating Tutorial - roomfortuesday.comI hope those tips and insight proves to be helpful for your next big project! Would you also like tips on sanding? It’s pretty self explanatory and there are lots of ways and tools to help with sanding… I think that’s just personal preference. We splurged and bought a secondhand drywall sander to make quick work of the project, knowing that 70% of our house still needs drywall work. It hooks into our shop vac which means much less dust (which is exactly how I sold Sarah on that purchase, haha). Hand sanding works just as well though! It just requires more time, with a bit more dust, and a lot more elbow grease.

Let me know if you have any questions in the comment section and I’ll get back with you sometime this week. Thanks for reading and cheering us on with the office reno… it has been a slow go, but we’re cruising along.

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  1. Good morning, Emmett! Clear and concise explanations, as always. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a house with such smooth walls! Our 1940s house has all the textures. I’ve had fun trying to match them in several rooms. Ugh. I do have a couple of quick questions. I wonder what is the difference among the weights in joint compound? I would assume that heavier was better for longevity. Although, to be honest, I don’t remember having a choice…maybe because I always buy premixed. My second question is about sanding. Is it only required when you are aiming for a super smooth finish, or does it help with adhesion of subsequent coats? I confess that I have never *really* sanded when I skim coated entire walls, only when I was patching. That sounds like the worst job ever! You definitely needed a drywall sander. Once you’re finished with the skim coating, are the built-ins (and trim) next? Everything is going to be SO beautiful…well worth the time! I hope you’re having a super week, Emmett!

    1. Matching texture is not easy! We’ve had to do that in the past. I’m going to let Emmett answer your joint compound & sanding questions (because he definitely knows best). He finished all of the sanding last night, so next up is primer & paint… then built-ins and millwork! SO exciting. I hope you have a great Tuesday, Peggi :)

    2. Emmett Gibson says:

      Hey Peggi! The different weights,in my opinion, come down to preference. There is typically All Purpose, Topping, and Dust Control/Lightweight. I’ve used all and sometime wonder if I can tell the difference, however the I will say there is no wrong answer, but most use the all-purpose for embedding the tape, and use a topping or lightweight for all subsequent coats. Next up is priming, touch ups for any spots I missed sanding, and then paint. Then on to millwork (cabinets,base, crown, casing)! Thanks!

  2. I think the what is a standard finish varies a lot by region. I live in Texas and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a level 4 wall. Everyone either has a light knockdown texture or an incredibly light orange peel (my understanding is they use a very watered down light orange spray texture and then knock it down to remove any peaks like a combination of orange peel and knockdown). Regardless level 4 is considered a premium finish everywhere I’ve lived.

    1. Definitely, Jenn! It also depends on the age of a home or when it was built. The norms have certainly changed over the years. In that case (opting for a common texture), you’d stop drywall finishing at level 3, then add the texture (orange peel, knockdown, slap brush, etc). My personal preference is a super smooth wall, so when we’re installing new drywall or totally renovating a room- that’s always what I specify or ask Emmett to do.

  3. So I know that this isn’t the purpose of the post, but would you use the same steps to try to match a plaster finish (minus the sanding)? That’s the closest I’ve seen to the texture of plaster (using the roller). Really appreciate the level of detail you went into, and especially the pictures!

    1. I’ll leave this question for Emmett! Our first home had plaster walls, but it has been a long time since we’ve worked with plaster and I’m not entirely certain… he’ll have a good answer for you though :)

    2. Emmett Gibson says:

      Hi! It definitely would be. In our old home we had plaster and drywall however I tried to remove all the plaster from an entire wall (corner to corner) rather than having 2 types of wall finished on a a single plane. You can tie them together but this helps eliminate seeing the difference!

  4. Thank you so much for writing this post, Emmett! I wish I had known all of this info when I was having drywall work done, but there are still a few rooms in my house that I’m going to be finishing myself, so I appreciate the clear and detailed information. I’m now off to buy a skimming blade!

    1. Emmett Gibson says:

      I am happy you found it useful. There also a lot of skim blades out there, but the Level 5 brand is by far the easiest to use – if you are worried about the price there is always a strong secondhand market for them too!

  5. Good morning Emmett! Thank you for the clear explanations. I wasn’t aware there were different levels of drywall finish, but this makes perfect sense. I apologize in advance; I have ALL the questions!
    I will be trying to achieve this smooth finish in multiple rooms (eventually), but we currently have knockdown texture throughout. What sort of prep needs to be done to the existing drywall before skim coating? Additionally, is it necessary to sand in between coats, or only after the final coat has been applied?
    In terms of materials, speaking specifically about the joint compound, can you use the same weight in a bedroom that you use in a bathroom? Or is there a recommended weight to use for damp rated areas?
    When it comes down to using the scraping knife, do you have any tips for smoothing the joint compound around a bullnose corner? Every corner in our house is bullnose.🥴 Would it be worth it to remove the trim pieces and take the corners back to standard? In California bullnose corners are considered an “upgrade”, but they sure complicate things! For the sake of giggles, you’d likely be unimpressed with the horrifying cuts the builders made to accomplish the base trim. 🤣😂 When these rooms get skim coated, we will be installing new base, using a standard corner cut and filling the gaps instead, but I always wondered about removing the bullnose form…already it sounds labor intensive.😅
    For rooms where wallpaper will be applied, is it necessary to prime the walls after skim coating?
    Lastly, is a drywall sander one of the items that can be rented from a big box store? Out of curiosity (you don’t have to answer this one if you prefer not to), what does a drywall sander run if buying new or used?
    You and Sarah are such a wealth of knowledge in these areas, and your hard work certainly pays off in spades! The spaces the two of you tackle are out of this world gorgeous. Thank you for putting together this tutorial, and have an awesome week Emmett! P.S. the office is looking outstanding!

    1. Emmett Gibson says:

      Hi Lauren, I’ll try to answer all your question-
      1.) I would prime any old surfaces being skim coated. If the walls are heavily soiled (kitchen/bath/oil/finger smudges) the. Wash the walls first then apply primer.
      2.) only sand the final coat. In between coats use a small taping knife to knockdown any ridges or clumps before applying the next coat.
      3.) mud types are the same throughout the house- most pros use all purpose for the 1st coat and a lightweight for the final coats.
      4.) all drywall, wallpapered or not, should be primed first.
      5.)I agree- I’m not a fan of rounded corners. They do make quite a mess taking them out, but now would be the time to replace before skim coating. If you are skim coating both sides of the bullnose corner then I would buy an outside bullnose tool to smooth the corner. If you are only skim coating the one side I would just run your skim blade flat to the edge and sand/taper the skim coat to where the bullnose starts rounding.
      6.) our sander is the nicest one available- 1,250 new and I picked it up for 750 with a few other accessories. I’m sure there is cheaper ones and yes you can always find an equipment rental store locally!

      Thanks for your comment and good luck with those pesky bullnose corners!

  6. Thank you! Super helpful! Out of curiosity, from a design standpoint, is a level 5 finish a “proper” finish for when doing millwork like panels and wainscot?

    We recently redid a bathroom and did picture frame molding on all the walls ans installed bardboard over the drywall to get the smooth finish, but after seeing this I’d be up for just skimcoating the walls.

    However, for a quicker fix in some other rooms in our house, I’d like to do some molding on the walls, but the walls are all in an open plan and I we can’t make the move to skim coat or cover all the texture in those rooms. Will the molding look bad or unrealistic (for lack of better description) on top of knockdown or orange peel? (Not sure exactly what it is, but we are in Texas and its the norm).

    Would love your thoughts on this!

    Thanks! And this tutorial is the best I’ve seen on this topic!

    1. So glad to hear it, Jaylyn! I would say a level 4 is sufficient for millwork and paneling, but level 5 is definitely the designer preference if you’re going for that clean, classical look. Sometimes it’s easier to replace the drywall or material completely and other times skim coating works great… it really depends on the space and your plan for it. We’ve done both! Personally, I don’t love the look of additional millwork (panel moulding, chair rail, wainscoting, etc) installed against a textured wall. I think it’s easier to get away with the typical crown and base, but the extra treatments are tricky because they’re two different styles. I chat more about that specific topic in this post: Have a great day!!

  7. Thank you so much for this Emmett! I’ve called around and received ridiculous quotes to skimcoat a 259 sq ft room. And when you call drywall contractors in NC to ask for a level 5 on painted walls, they say that is just one coat. I like how you did 3.

    This takes a lot of the anxiety and guesswork out of DIYing it. I want smooth and flawless walls before I paint, so I’m definitely going to order the tools you listed and give it a go myself.

    I will probably go for the Radius360 Pole Sander, which will require a bit of a workout, but is cost-effective for the job. Lol

    1. Emmett Gibson says:

      Hi Ana! It is easy but like many things practice makes perfect. And when I drywall I see EVERY minor imperfection and it kills me. You will do good! My best advice when skim coating is make sure you have a solid even pressure when moving the skim blade. You don’t want to build up a thick coat. Also, if you do not push hard enough you will end up with tiny air pockets after sanding. A pole sander is just fine with 220+grit if your skimming was done well enough, very little sanding should be needed. I went with ultralight mostly out of personal preference but I also believes it is less dusty when sanding. Good luck!

  8. Curious, why did you use the USG UltraLightweight Ready-Mixed Joint Compound instead of the USG All Purpose Ready-Mixed Joint Compound?

  9. Hi! Thanks for the detailed explanation, is there a reason why you didn’t use PVA as a base prior to mudding?

    1. Sure thing, Rachel! We’ve never used PVA when skim coating or mudding- it has never been necessary for our process. I’m sure there are many ways to get the same result though!

      1. Actually, upon chatting with Emmett- we do occasionally use PVA… it just depends what we have on hand, but it achieves the same result.

        1. I’m confused lol, so when does Emmett use PVA vs not?

          1. We hardly ever use it, honestly … he prefers the joint compound I linked in the post!

  10. Kasibante Robert says:

    When can I use water while smoothing a skim coating?

  11. Great article. I am getting ready to have Level 5 finish through out the whole house. How do you repair nails that coming out? Also, do I need to scrape olr paint or just go over?
    Thank you.

    1. Sarah Gibson says:

      To repair nail holes on Level 5 (since they’re small), we just use spackle or joint compound, followed by sanding to ensure it’s smooth and matches the texture. If you’re asking about preparation prior to coating, it’s best to ask the contractor you’re working with (it sounds like you’ve hired it out). Typically, they’ll take care of everything. Hope that helps!