The Subtle Art of Feathering Drywall Joint Compound

Hey guys. No picture today. Just something I’ve been thinking about as I toil away tonight on the house.

As expected. I’ve hit a spot where improvements are slow and nearly unnoticeable.  I’m collecting bits and pieces for my water pressure setup. I did a little electrical run this morning in the unfinished bathroom. I drilled three holes in the tub and test fitted my faucet. Stuff like that.

The epitome of tiny incrimental improvements, however, is on the single wall that I’m trying to finish before the water stuff and countertop are “moved in.” The walls need some protection, and that means paint. So while the rest of the house remains mostly unfinished, my kitchen wall needs the most attention at the moment.

If you’ve never done drywall work, it goes in steps. One step is hanging the drywall, the next five or six are applying and finishing joint compound, and then there’s paint. That’s right. Joint compound isn’t a one-and-done thing. To make a wall appear completely flat, it must be applied in layers. The first comes with a bit of paper tape covering the seams, the next a thin layer over the top, which is sometimes done while the tape is still wet from the first step. Then there are two finishing steps with bigger drywall knives, followed by touch-ups, smoothing, and sanding.

Between each “step” that you take (there will be fewer for experienced drywall hands), there’s a 24 hour waiting period. The current layer must dry completely before the next can be applied. The tension is like playing chess via mail, and realizing that you made a mistake after the postman picks up your last move.

I was about to hang it up tonight, call it good enough, and put up my primer coat for the paint, which I purchased earlier today. But in all that sanding and dust from this one tiny wall segment, an error appeared that cannot be painted over in good conscious. One small bit of tape around an outlet had worked itself loose with the sanding, and when I tried to remove the loose area, the whole piece came up. Now there is a little rectangular divot below one of my outlets, about 1/32th of an inch deep. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was an eyesore, trust me.

Anyway, I popped the lid off my mud bucket (mud is another name for joint compound) so that I could fix that spot. Instead of going straight at it though, I decided to work on my technique, so as not to make it worse. I did a second pass over a large number of screw heads that only had one layer of mud applied, leaving little pinholes and wavy spots to mark their locations.

I wasn’t just patching those spots though, I was practicing my feathering technique. Sometimes a screw head is a tad too close to the surface, and one edge will poke out a bit. Mud is applied and then taken off not with a swift scrape of the knife, but by giving the outer edge (away from the imperfection) more pressure so that the finished application has a slight taper that hides the little bump. This feathering technique is also used to smooth the joints, making the transition from mudded wall to bare drywall smooth, thus reducing the sanding required. I spent a lot of time tonight sanding joints where there was a tiny amount too much of compound meeting the wall.

You might say to ignore these little defects, but I know well from building rockets, and from my old man doing lots of body work on cars, nothing brings out every tiny flaw like a fresh coat of paint. Unnoticeable cracks become gaping cavernous canyons. Unsightly blemishes appear everywhere. In this case, we aren’t talking about the difference between a factory paint job and a show car. We’re talking 3rd grader art project versus the Mona Lisa. The flaws will be noticeable, and I’ll have the rest of my life to stare at them and wonder if the extra hour or so would have been worth the effort.

The night is darkest before the dawn, according to the proverb. The same is true in art, writing, and learning to feather joint compound properly so that it doesn’t require two hours of sanding. I spent time on those screw heads, getting the edges of my spackle razor thin. So much so that I could see the edges drying before my eyes as I worked. Running my finger over the spot confirmed a smooth finish. They’ll still need a quick sanding, but no more than a light scuffing to eat that edge, versus the laborious scraping that I undertook earlier on my taped joints.

Repetition was the key. Scraping each screw head to perfection, taking the extra time to learn control over my six-inch taping knife, watching the differences as I adjusted the angle of the edge toward the wall. Like straight shaving: angle, pressure, and pattern are the keys.

Often when someone finishes a draft of their first novel, they quickly fall into the editing slump, and it isn’t that much different from my desire to just paint and be done with it. They want the book published, they want it done. Details show, they shine more than the perfect areas between each mistake. Learning any craft means reaching that point of wanting to “get it done,” and then pausing to re-evaluate what you are creating. Calm down, take your time, learn the technique. With any luck, it’ll mean a better manuscript and a better chance of landing an agent. If you’re going to take a break, start writing the next book.

With any luck, I’ll learn enough of my drywall finishing technique on this wall to make the rest of the house a little easier on my sanding arm.

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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

6 thoughts

    1. Never heard of the click test, but I’m learning from my mistakes at least. I can see the difference now from when I started.

        1. ah, gotcha. There’s a few that are sitting high as a matter of circumstance, but it hasn’t been a problem for the most part. Most of them are in the tapered ends, and the ones that aren’t are not sticking up much, so I’ve been feathering around them.

  1. I learn so much from this blog. Click test! Who knew?
    And I know what you mean about paint bringing out every imperfection. In your case, it’s not like you can retreat to the other room…

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