Level 5 Drywall Finish, What You Need to Know

What is a level 5 drywall finish? Most people in the construction industry know that there are 6 levels of drywall, ranked from 0 to 5. But do you really understand what that means?

Let’s start by explaining that it is based on the level of finish, i.e., the level of preparedness for paint or other decorative coatings. Then, dive into Level 5 drywall finish: what it is, what it’s used for, and how to apply it.

What are the 6 Levels of Drywall?

The drywall construction, painting, and manufacturing trade associations recognize 6 finish levels of drywall surfaces for walls, ceilings, or other construction.

This ranking system was developed by the Gypsum Association in 1991 to standardize how walls are assembled and sealed during the building process.

This ranking system was announced in 1991 by the Gypsum Association to assist the construction industry to standardize how walls and ceilings are taped with drywall mud and prepared for paint, or additional finishes.

These guidelines define in detail the exact level of finish. To fully comprehend how you arrive at a Level 5 finish, it helps to understand the levels before it. 

Level 0

Level 0 finish means the drywall has been attached to the foundation or infrastructure but has no finish.

It is recommended for temporary construction, wall barricades, dust partitions, and other similar structures.

Level 1 Drywall Finish

Level 1 refers to the most basic level of finish. The drywall taping is set into the joint compound but is not embedded.

It is an unfinished state, allowing for the presence of tool marks and ridges. It is typically used in places not visible or accessible to the public, i.e., concealed areas such as above ceilings, service corridors, attics, crawl spaces, or a plenum area.

Level 1 finish is also known as fire tape, which is the minimum amount of taping required to achieve fire ratings on partitions.

When space is unfinished but still requires fire, sound, or rated partitions, firetaping with a level 1 finish is needed.

Level 2 Drywall Finish

Level 2 is also an unfinished state where the wall has yet to be painted, but the taping is more detailed and extensive.

Joint tape is embedded in the compound. Tool marks and ridges are allowed. Corner beads and drywall screw heads are covered, and excess mud is wiped away.

This level is used in garages, warehouses, and other storage areas.

The 5 Levels of Drywall Finish – Image Credit, ProForm Finishing Products

Level 3 Drywall Finish

Level 3 is ranked by how much treatment has been applied. At this stage, the taping must be embedded in compound with an additional coat to cover the taped joints and angles.

It requires fastener heads and beads to receive two coats, whereas a Level 2 finish, only one is required.

The finish must be smooth, and free from tool marks or ridges. This level is used with a medium to heavy final paint texture, but not for smooth painted surfaces or smooth wall design.

A level 3 finish is also commonly used for heavy-grade wall coverings.

Level 4 Drywall Finish

Level 4, like Level 3, is ranked based on how much treatment has been applied.

Here, there are two coats of mud or drywall compound applied to the embedded tape at joints and angles, while the fasteners, screw heads, and corner beads are covered with three coats.

The compound has to be smoother so that no tool marks or ridges are visible. This level is recommended for lightly-textured painted surfaces or lightweight wall coverings. Enamel paints, semi-gloss, and high gloss paints are not used.

At this point, the drywall is ready for Level 5 drywall smooth walls.

What is a Level 5 Drywall Finish?

Level 5 is the most complicated level of drywall finish. It’s a premium finish requiring the highest degree of skill to apply.

What is the difference between a level 4 and level 5 drywall finish? It includes all the steps of Level 4, but with an additional thin skim coat of joint compound applied evenly across the entire wall, ceiling, or surface of the gypsum board.

The skim coat creates a uniform finish and a perfectly smooth surface.

Level 4 Vs Level 5 Drywall Finish

You don’t often hear references to Levels 0 – 4 in the field, whereas Level 5 is often used as a buzzword for the highest quality smooth wall finish.

In short, it refers to drywall that has been taped, first- and second-coated, then sanded lightly to remove tool marks before a thin skim coat of joint compound is applied to the entire surface. The skim coat is lightly sanded as well.   

How many coats are in a level 5 drywall finish? There are three coats of joint compound, then a skim coat creating the smooth level 5 finish.

Level 5 Drywall Finish

The end result is drywall with a smooth, uniform surface that looks great under any conditions, such as severe lighting conditions, shadows, or high gloss paint.

There is also no chance of fasteners and screw heads showing through the paint. The finished level 5 surface will be ready for wall coverings or final decoration.

Another way of looking at a Level 5 drywall finish is a skim coat of drywall mud, or joint compound, completely covering a typical Level 4 finish.

Here’s a great video previewing the levels of drywall finish.

When is Level 5 Drywall Used?

A Level 5 finish is the gold standard. However, different areas and rooms require different levels of finishing.

Any wall that is hidden from view, such as behind a kitchen cabinet in a residence, or in a storage area in a commercial building, does not require Level 5. 

A Level 5 Drywall Finish is Typically Used in Two Settings:

1. When the final coat is glossy, or when non-flat paints are used.

2. When walls, ceilings, and surfaces are in critical lighting or similar areas. Light coming from fixtures or large windows angled low enough to show irregularities, such as bumps and depressions, and must be skim-coated.

The ceiling is a good example of an area where a Level 5 finish may be required. This is because ceilings can be raked by natural light streaming in through the windows, highlighting flaws in the finish.

READ more about construction wall types –

What Is A Demising Wall?

How is Level 5 Drywall Applied to Walls?

Because hanging drywall is an interim step in finishing a wall, mistakes can be covered up.

It’s the final step – the drywall taping and finishing – that causes headaches because that’s the stage everyone will see. You have to get it right.

Whether you are a commercial drywall contractor, residential contractor, small business owner, or do-it-yourselfer, it always helps to have a few extra tips about getting the smoothest possible Level 5 drywall finish with skim coating.    

The skim coat can be applied with a thick-nap roller, taping knife, or spray finish. When using a taping knife, 6 or 8 dabs 3” to 4” in diameter are applied to the surface, and then the excess compound is scraped off with a joint knife.

level 5 drywall finish
Spray applied level 5 high build primer. Graco, and other sprayer manufacturers, specialize in equipment for high build primer level 5 application.

Professionals often use special spray equipment that can also be purchased through drywall supply yards or rented at home improvement stores. 

Here is our recommendation for using a roller, which is an effective method for the DIY crowd.

Initial Sanding

First, sand the wall’s surface with a pole sander. 

This assumes you have completed the previous finishing process to a level 4 standard.

All joints and interior angles should include tape with joint compound and a consistent, thin drywall mud coating.

Dust Removal

Using a brush, remove all the dust, drywall mud, and chunks of joint compound from the surface.

Create the Compound

Mix the drywall joint compound with water until you get a consistency that is not too thin. To test the consistency of the mixture, dip a roller with a thick nap into the solution.

It should cling to your roller, not drip off it. You can also purchase pre-mixed drywall primer, which is ready to spray or roll onto surfaces straight from the bucket, often referred to as high-build primers.

USG Tuff-Hide Primer
USG Tuff-Hide Primer

Apply the Compound

Roll the compound over the entire surface of the wall. You should move your roller up the wall rather than down to prevent drips. Use a single long pass, and go over the seams to blend them in.

The compound should be applied in a heavy coat – if it’s too thin, it will dry too quickly, preventing you from removing it.

Remove the Compound

After rolling an area with a width of 4 feet, remove the compound right away with a finishing knife. Apply compound that is still wet to any area that has dried to make it easier to remove.

Remember, a Level 5 finish is a thin film, not a veneer plaster finish. Your goal is to even out the entire surface as a priming coat, not to trowel a thick layer onto the wall. 

Final Sanding

After the wall has completely dried, which might take an hour or two, go over it with your pole sander using 220-grit sandpaper until you have a uniform surface.

Level 5 Drywall Cost

You might be wondering how much more a level 5 finish costs from a level 4. Because it’s a premium finish, there’s also a premium price to pay. A level 5 finish can cost $2.00 to $4.00 per square foot, depending on the labor rate.

It’s a highly labor-intensive process, and the material cost is only a small percentage of the overall price.

Is a Level 5 Finish Worth the Price?

You might be asking yourself if a level 5 drywall finish is worth it.

Once you compare the final results between a level 4 and a quality level 5 skim coat finish, you will be glad you went the extra mile. There’s no comparison between a level 4 and the smooth finish of a level 5.

Now that you have a grasp on high-quality Level 5 drywall finishing, go out and take your work to the next level!

READ more about other popular drywall products –

What You Need To Know About Ballistic Drywall

Sheetrock Vs Drywall: The Guide To Gypsum Panels

DensShield Tile Backer For Your Next Project

Structural Steel Studs And Wood Studs

Additional Resources –

Tuff-Hide Level 5 Solutions Brief – USG Sheetrock

Recommended Levels of Finish – Wall and Ceiling Bureau

Current Pricing on Level 5 Drywall Tools – The Home Depot

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