A Coat of Many Layers – Skim Coating Tutorial

Believe me when I say that there isn’t one square inch of the master bathroom that won’t have some kind of joint compound/skim coating on it.  As hard as I tried to get the wallpaper off evenly, and really I DID, and I think it would have been a LOT worse without the removal product I found, the hard truth is that I’m working with old drywall.  Since no sizing was applied to the wallpaper before slapping it on, the builders of my beloved Ugg-Duck made my job really hard.  Really.

But, I’m learning.  Hip hip, hooray.  And what is the purpose of this blog, if not to pass on the knowledge I’ve picked up?  Your frustrated ranting from yours truly lesson for this week is skim coating drywall.

drywall repair skim coat tutorial

 

First of all, we should start by clearing up a myth:  most drywall by itself is not smooth.  When first putting up drywall, you screw it in place, tape the seams, and cover them with joint compound.  But the paper covering the entire sheet of drywall is typically not smooth.  Many brands have a subtle texture like cross hatching, which can create a noticeable difference when you paint over the perfectly smooth seams vs. the sorta textured rest of the drywall.  So, the first lesson here is this:  You need to skim coat drywall if you want a smooth finish.  Now that I’ve gotten up close and personal with my bathroom drywall, I’m learning that the above is definitely true in my case.

Next lesson I’ve learned:  To do it right, you will have to put in the time and effort.  As much as I would like there to be, there is no easy button for this.  While I have turned my skim coat into a post-workday evening project, it took several of those evenings to learn to get it right, to get a rhythm going, and to start seeing finished results.  So remember:  it’s not impossible, but you will have to put in the time to see satisfactory results.  You can’t just slap it on and expect a smooth finish in the end.  You can’t expect the sanding step to take care of all of the loose ends (trust me, the sanding part of four walls is a real pain, and you want to give yourself as smooth of a start as possible to prevent hours of correcting later).  And paint won’t be forgiving of your mistakes.

Tool Selection

Create your smooth finish, and everything after it is easier.  Which brings me to my next tip:  The right tools for this job are key.  The right tools are the difference between getting half of a wall done in two nights versus three in one night.  To do it wrong, you’ll need only a bucket of joint compound (“JC” or “mud” as you’ll see in this post) and a 4″ metal putty knife.  To do it right, you’ll want joint compound, a mud pan, a wet rag, and a much wider knife called a joint knife or taping knife – I chose the 10-incher simply because I’m small, in a small space, and wielding anything larger felt like using a snow shovel – but there are wider versions available at your local Blue or Orange.

tools for skim coat

Tool shopping tips:  All-purpose joint compound is cheap, but I wanted to share a little tip to make things easy for you when shopping at the big box stores.  If you go to the paint aisle (where most people search for wallpaper remover, spackling, and other related materials), you’ll find that there is usually only one brand of joint compound, comes in small containers, and can leave you overwhelmed with all of the other vinyl spackling, interior/exterior compound, “smooth”, “flexible”, “high-performance”, “lightweight”, “fast and final”, BLAH BLAH BLAH types around it.  But if you want to save your money, clear up the confusion, and feel more like a pro (who doesn’t?), walk a few aisles over to where they sell the drywall.  Here you’ll find contractor-sized buckets of lightweight joint compound – simple, plainly labeled, and surprisingly cheaper.  You’ll also find taping knives in every size, sanding tools (sanding screens last longer and are a little quicker for a project like this rather than the traditional paper), and a mud pan (a plastic or metal trough-like container that makes using a large taping knife easier when trying to scoop up mud).

Skim Coating

Okay, so now that you’ve got the right tools for the job, it’s time to get to work.  Since even lightweight joint compound needs to be thinned out a bit for skim coating work, you might want to stir in thin texture compound if you have some.  Since you probably won’t, and I didn’t, I suggest using the free version:  water.  Scoop some compound into the mud pan, and start adding water a little bit at a time, mix, then add a little more.

mixing joint compound

It’s easy to think you’re adding enough and then be left with soup, which means adding more compound, more water, etc. until you get it right.  You’ll eventually want it to be about the consistency of thin pancake mix; if you find yourself thinking “oh, that must be why it’s called mud and not paste“, stop.  You’ve reached the right compound-to-water ratio.

mixing joint compound

Next, turn on your radio or set up some kind of music (like my playlist), because this is going to take a while.  Starting at the top right corner of your wall, scoop some mud onto your knife (just a little across the entire blade will do).

skim coat tutorial

At an angle, press the knife against and down the wall, leaving a thin layer of compound on the drywall.  You’ll want to scrape the knife across the wall in such a way as to leave a little of the mud behind, filling in the ridges and gouges while skimming over the entire surface. (*Note:  some of these photos have been darkened to enhance the difference between the wet mud and wall – it’s hard to see off-white on white*)

skim coat tutorial

skim coat tutorial

Then wipe off the knife on the side of the mud pan, and using the same motion as before, scrape the excess mud from the wall.

skim coat tutorial

skim coat tutorial

It will take some practice, but with a steady hand, you’ll get the hang of it in just a few passes.  And don’t be afraid to go over the same spot if you don’t like your first pass; the mud is thin and wet, so it’s forgiving until it begins to dry.  But if you find that you really liked your first/second/third try if it weren’t for thatlittlemistakethere, stop.  Little imperfections can be taken care of in a second pass once the first is dry and sanded.  If you start to see the blade of the knife get gunky even after scraping the excess off, use a wet rag to wipe clean and begin again.

You’ll want to continue doing this across the wall, but since the mud is impressionable until it cures, be careful not to overlap the edges of your various passes across the same wall or else find yourself working to fix a patch of wall you were already done with.  You will be working on this for multiple nights, so it doesn’t have to be covered all at once.  If it’s smoother looking than before you began your work, you’re on the right track!

Sanding

before sanding walls

After you are satisfied with the skim coat and it has had time to dry, the next task is to sand.  Wear a breathing mask and protective eyewear; and maybe a hat – dust will be everwhere.  If you’re going to be doing skim coats in several rooms like I am, consider investing in sanding screens instead of traditional wallpaper.  The sanding screens last longer and do not clog like traditional sandpaper, and also come in 220 grit to give your walls a smooth finish.  The screens attach to either hand or pole sanders, and you can also buy kits that attach to standard shop vacs to keep the dust level down.  I chose a hand/pole combo sander so that I have the option to use a pole extension for the ceiling areas, and also a comfortable and controllable grip to get the areas closer to the floor.  I’ve tested it out in various places on the wall, and so far it’s miles above traditional sandpaper or blocks.

sanding walls

In addition to the right tools, you’ll also need the right lighting to do a proper sanding job.  The better the lighting, the easier it will be to see areas where you have missed, scratches and pock marks on the wall, areas that are uneven, etc.  If you find such an area, you can easily take a normal putty knife and fill in gaps with extra mud or sand down ridges.  Try to fill in spots as smooth as possible to avoid having to re-sand later (though I did just for good measure).  It’s important to be systematic in your approach; any missed spots will be highlighted once you paint the wall.  Consider using a flashlight in one hand and the sander in the other, moving the light around in different angles to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

Cleanup Tips

  • Keeping your tools clean and ready for the next job is an important step that should not be missed.  (I realize how much of a hypocrite I am for typing that, but I’m trying to give the right advice here.  100 points to me at least for trying.)  Taping knives are thin and can rust if you leave putty on them – meaning your next project will either have distracting reddish-brown streaks everywhere (increasing the chances of missed spots and ultimately an uglier finish job) or will force you to purchase new tools.
  • I eventually got the hang of timing my evening right so that I wouldn’t have leftover mud, but if you wind up with some on your first day, do not put used mud back into the container.  During your skim coating process, you watered it down, scraped it along a wall with gouges, dirt, and (in my case) tiny bits of paper coming off the wall.  To keep the joint compound in tip-top shape for your next use, just get rid of the left over amount.
  • When rinsing off your tools and cleaning out the mud pan, do not (for emphasis, I’ll repeat, do not) rinse big gobs of joint compound down the sink or tub.  No one likes adding clear clogged drains to their to-do list.  And since you are all aware of how perfect I am (you can’t see it but I’m totally wearing a straight face as I say this), I am merely making a statement for all of you newbs out there – not that I would have any personal experience or anything.
  • For God’s sake, woman, take a shower already.

There you have it – a full skim coating tutorial by a non-professional first timer who lived to tell the tale.  Next up – priming the walls, getting rid of the painted linoleum floor, installing tile, replacing the vanity, and re-grouting the existing shower tile.  No big, right?

Right?

Comments

    • Linda says

      Way to Go! from one single gal to another, I like your realness and ability to tackle the job! I too have an old bungalow style home that I am proud to call my OWN, and am working on sheetrocking over old walls as well as ripping out old thin paneling and replacing it with new sheetrock. I have to say it is not easy! So reading how you went about fixing your home has been very helpful, keep the tips coming!

  1. says

    I am still laughing over your quote at the top of your blog “I'm not going gray, that's just paint in my hair!” haha!! I LOVE it!! I am SO going to start using this line… I hope that okay! :) Thanks for linking up at the Sassy Sites Free For All party! When you get a chance, come back by and see what we've done for the American Crafter's competition… and maybe vote for us too! *wink*

    xoxo!
    Marni @ Sassy Sites!

  2. says

    Wow- great tutorial and such a big messy dusty job!! Taping and sanding is so NOT a favorite job of mine to do because of all the dust… kudos to you for this big job! Thank you for sharing at FNF~ Hope you will come back and share the next steps too! :)

  3. says

    Thanks for the tutorial! I've been in the middle of my own wallpaper removal nightmare, lately, so I will be needing to do some skim coating soon!

  4. says

    SO helpful! Thanks so much. I'm doing this in my kitchen after multiple attempts at getting wallpaper off. I tried skim coating it on my own and stopped halfway through. Obviously I needed this tutorial first. Thank you!

  5. Fili says

    Amazing Tutorial! Wayyyy better than any books or even videos in Youtube. Thank you very much. I've learn lots

  6. Pidge says

    My walls in my bathroom look a lot like yours after removing the old wallpaper, but I believe mine was skim coated. In some places it's peeling up like paint. Anyway, where the brown paper is exposed….do I need to skim coat just that area 1st if I'm going to texture my walls? I'm so overwhelmed!

  7. says

    @Pidge If it's peeling up like paint, you may need to to a more thorough sanding job or cleaning. That peeling could be due to painting over areas that still had glue residue (but I'm only guessing). For textured walls, DIYDiva.net is a great resource. And to answer the skim coating question, if the brown part isn't *too* gouged, you might be ok to just do the texture over the top, since it's supposed to be uneven anyway. Fill in major dents/dings with a thicker version of the joint compound, let dry, then do your decorative texturizing!

  8. Anonymous says

    Excellent post. I love paragraph 4! I'm in the middle of mudding my bathroom walls after removing wallpaper. It's been a learn-as-you-go experience. Hopefully, my patience will pay off in the end!

  9. says

    right on! great tutorial. I think the most important thing to have is your playlist ready to go

  10. says

    I O-ficially love your site! I am the worse drywaller … getting by the project but a looong way off. This helps tremendously. Thanks!

    I'm think of buying and cutting drywall for practice. Will be pure entertainment for family, friends and the neighbors, but I refuse to be whipped by drywall!

  11. Anonymous says

    Hi there. I got a bathroom mess. What started as a routine wallpaper removal ended up as a drywall paper removal also. I found your website via google and read the blog on Drywall Skimming. I am gonna put it to the test as soon as I am done with this comment and visit Lowes to buy what I need. My question is: Can I apply the mud to the bare wall or should I primer first. I can't get a straight answer from anyone. I am going to go without the primer and see how that works. By the way, I am not sure how to comment using those profiles so I have to use the anonyamous name. I will let you know how it turns out. In addition, I spent most of the night reading about your Ugly Duckly home and am very impressed. Keep up the good work. Reellucky

  12. says

    Well, since I can't respond directly to Anonymous messages, I'll do my best to answer for everyone who may have had this question. Think of primer as a precursor to paint. Before applying either, you want the wall to be as smooth as possible, so you apply mud to fill in any gouges BEFORE you apply primer and paint. Another reason for applying primer after you mud the walls is to make sure that the paint doesn't lose its sheen in any spot (dead giveaway of a patch job). The mud smooths out the wall, primer will coat the entire wall, and then the paint will stick to the primer. Make sense?

  13. Anonymous says

    Hi there again! Yes, it makes very much sense to put the mud on the un-primered wall. Once I applied the mud, it stuck like glue. Thanks, I really appreciate the information. As it turns out I won't have to skim the whole area (thank goodness), just where the scraper dug in and exposed the rock. I have already feathered some of it in and its starting to look pretty good. Still got a ways to go though. Just like you, gotta go to work and continue the project after hours. Ha! I get to sand tomorrow afternoon and night. Fun. Fun. But, I did get a mask and glasses. Thank you for the information again and I will check back later. Reellucky

  14. says

    Thank you SO MUCH! I headed to Lowes today to get the drywall supplies. Tomorrow I tackle the next stage of bathroom redo. Got overwhelmed/confused by the person in the paint dept when it came to sealers and couldn't remember what you had used. So back tomorrow :-)

  15. says

    This is great in that a)you've been there and b)obviously succeeded and c) I'm not a failure in that I know I am going to have to skimcoat the bathroom AGAIN. (Thanks for not being infallible!) And thanks for the reality check that I have to relive this nightmare if I hope to achieve anything remotely like decent results when I wallpaper. *sigh*

  16. [email protected] says

    I have a son with an ugly duckling house. All textured thick wallpaper, gouges, and compound stuck here and there. I copied your article and I'm ready to help him get one room at a time done. I should be 70 by the time we are finished, but your article made me feel powerful!

  17. Anonymous says

    I recently brought a house and thought taking the wallpaper down was going to be a breeze. Well, lets say the living room was easy because the walls were prime before. but, the dining room is another story. The walls weren't prime, so when I removed the wallpaper on 1 wall I said their is no turning back. I call several contractors (whose prices were out of this world). I kept googling & kept googling because no one gave me a direct answer. So here I found your site & I am so happy because I am running to the store with my list. Thanks for the info & for being so thorough with the steps.

  18. Feven says

    Hi Sarah,

    This tutorial is amazing!! I'm in my 20s and just started learning how to do home improvements, so thank you so much for documenting this stuff. I used to shiver with intimidation when I went into a hardware store, but no longer :)

  19. says

    Hey Sarah, I guess I am far behind in reading this, but I am not ashamed that I'm a “newbs” so I'm going to try to not be ashamed of this question… What's the difference between this and sparkling??? Eek! Embarrassing!

    Thanks,
    Margy

  20. guston says

    Are you using the “green” Sheetrock brand all-purpose joint compound thinned down and/or the lightweight “blue”? Thanks.

  21. Anonymous says

    Thank you so much for putting your experience out! This is truly helpful!

  22. Anonymous says

    Thanks for this site. Vinyl wallpaper top layer peeled off ok and DIF took the paper backing down to the glue layer (finally found that good product). Now the glue layer seems permanently welded to the wall despite primer I applied to vinyl-covered wall board (mobile home) before papering. I bought Zinsser oil based AllPrime to coat the gluey walls. Am thinking to skim coat, then spray on orange peel oil based texture, more primer and paint. I've found conflicting opinions but puny hands can't stand much more of the glue battle. Do you think this will work, or will it slump off the walls one fine day?

  23. Anonymous says

    A tip I learned a couple of float jobs ago is to get rd of the sand paper. In the drywall aisle you should be able to find a large closed cell sponge, about the size of 2″x3″x8″long. Using a small bucket with clean water, wet and wring out the sponge. Rinse the sponge every few minutes and ring it out well. As you rub it over the surface of the mud it will soften the surface layer of the mud allowing you to work it like you would with sandpaper. On fresh gyp board it will fill in the surface of the paper as you work over the tape seam and nail head giving you a real thin skim coat. Best part is no more sandpaper dust.

    • says

      Yes, on fresh board, the sponge method works great, and I would still recommend it as a last step in drywall repair or if filling in a single hole on drywall. But I have had less luck when repairing damaged drywall with the sponge method. I have sometimes experienced that re-wetting the surface causes bubbles if the drywall paper was weak from wallpaper removal. I do like the sponge enough for quick repairs!

  24. Anonymous says

    Is there anything that can be done to make the walls smooth if paint was applied before skimming?

    • says

      As in, wallpaper was removed and there are gouges in the wall, and someone painted over the holes and damage without smoothing it first, or painted on top of wallpaper?

      Painting on top of wallpaper is usually very ugly. You'll still need to take down the wallpaper, repair, then paint if that's the case.

      If someone didn't skim after removing wallpaper and the wall is bumpy because they didn't smooth certain areas, you could either try sanding the wall a fine grit sandpaper sponge (depending on how extensive the surface is damanged) and repainting or you'll have to skim over the areas, smooth down, and prime and paint.

  25. anna says

    I tore down a wall between two sections of the same bathroom. Then I noticed that one 'room' had knock-down and the other 'room' had orange peel.It took two coats (at least) of skimming to get the room smooth. I found that using my 18v Skil battery-powered sander with 220 grit paper worked fantastic for smoothing out the layers.

  26. says

    Thank you so much for your tips!!! I love that you tell me all the things NOT to do, that I would have ordinarily done. I took the wallpaper off the kids bathroom wall, and it was surprisingly easy… but the wall has this weird texture to it, so I haven't painted it yet. Luckily, my kids love me, so they don't complain about their drywall bathroom :)

  27. says

    Wow! I just bought a house on the water for my wife of 45 years. The house is falling down. Literally. I felt overwhelmed. Bit off more than I can chew sort of thing. Then I found your posts. I can do this. I can do this. Keep up the good work and especially the blogs. And thanks from those of us who realize how tough it is to write clearly and make it entertaining.

  28. David says

    This advice was great! I am working to smooth out the walls in my San Francisco house that was built in the late 1990s with that horrible orange peel texture. Big mistake I have made is that I haven’t properly thinned the joint compound. I see now that it needs to be much thinner. Thanks!

  29. says

    Thanks so much for doing the legwork on this! I spent several hours the other night trying to figure out what the heck I was doing when it came to making my walls look presentable after thinking “I’ll just rip down this wallpaper and paint, and it’ll be a cinch!” No siree-bob. I’m finding out this home improvement stuff isn’t for the faint of heart. This post was exactly what I needed!! Thank you!

      • says

        What did you do about the walls behind toilet and the sink? Did you just skim around them? We have wallpaper behind the fixtures. I’ve peeled it as close as possible. Trying to decide if I really need to move them.

  30. Ken says

    Nice tutorial. We redid our kitchen, which had 30+ years of various layers of paint and wall paper. The main exposed wall was a mess. We should have replaced the drywall, but instead, we floated the entire surface of the wall; 3 coats of mud. Came out looking good once it was painted, however…..

    With the entire wall surface being joint compound, it is not durable. A slight hit that would not leave a mark on painted drywall, creates gouges and we have to do something. We are thinking about putting up paint-able wall paper with a subtle pattern to keep our original design & colors. Any other suggestions?

    • Sarah says

      I’m sorry to hear you’re having those kinds of issues! My process kept the coat of mud fairly thin (it would be practically nonexistent in most areas, and then sanded); I’ve done it in two of the bathrooms and haven’t seen a gouging problem like the one you’re describing, so maybe the 3 coats of mud were too thick? Or maybe I need to throw more elbows around in the house? Ha. I think a paintable wallpaper would be a good solution, but there other options too that you might be open to (such as horizontal wood planks, or beadboard, or using spray texture to create a knockdown textured effect, which might make dents and dings less noticeable).

    • PF says

      I had the same problem after smoothing a wall in a high traffic area. The easiest solution is the keep some touch up paint on hand. Eventually, it will need to be repainted anyway, and after a few coats of paint have hardened (they cure slowly), the walls will be as durable as any others. If the situation is intolerable, an oil based primer or PVA will toughen it up, but if you use PVA, you’ll have to find some paint that will stick to it. Also, in some areas, you can still get veneer plaster (which is supposed to be much more ding resistant) done, but to make it stick to an existing wall you’ll need a special bonding paint first.

  31. John says

    Very helpful! I’m trying to smooth and paint interior bulkheads on my boat so am using a different type of putty but the technique is essentially the same. Thanks much!

  32. Matt says

    Joint compound isn’t particularly strong. Thin it out, and it’s even weaker. It might be worth your while sealing the wall with gardz or an oil-based primer, such as cover stain, BEFORE AND AFTER skim coating. BEFORE to lock any wallpaper glue residue to the wall that might prevent your joint compound from sticking, and AFTER to penetrate your joint compound and harden it so your paint isn’t just sticking to a layer of joint compound dust. I’ve been there. After skim-coating, priming, and painting my bathroom, I masked off the trim to paint it, and the painters tape pulled the paint and primer right off the joint compound. You could call it primer failure, or you could call it weak joint compound. Tomato Tomahto. Either way, the paint peeled, and the way I’ve learned to prevent it is to seal it with Gardz or a quality oil-based primer. Thinned-out-lightweight-ready-mix-top coats don’t dry hard, they are forever chalky, and water-based primers that only stick to the top layer of dust can’t stand up to painters tape.

    • Sarah says

      Agreed. I used oil-based primer in my master bathroom after all was said and done, with excellent results. I tried a paint and primer combo in my guest bath when I did the same thing in there, and the paint wouldn’t stick as well. Great advice!

  33. Jenn says

    Sarah – GREAT tutorial! I’m skim-coating my dining room ceiling this weekend… wish me luck. I’ll need it.

  34. Murtaza Sakarwala says

    Hi Sarah.

    Great tutorial, you made a most messy job sound very easy & fun.

  35. PF says

    This is useful advice, and will be necessary in a lot of situations. But there are times when smoothing and painting an existing layer of wallpaper is the most expedient rout. If the paper was put up soundly and smoothly, and taking it off will ruin the wall underneath (this can happen with crumbly plaster as well as drywall), it’s easy to simply tape the seams with fiberglass mesh and 2 coats of redi-mix (hot mud for the first coat, if you like), sand and paint it. Then cut out any ripples or bubbles and cover the edges of the cutouts with fiberglass mesh, mud over those, sand and paint the patches. It’s quicker than it sounds because the tape acts as a screed, making the patches smoother than they’d be without it. I did this in my parents house and told the realtor, as well as all potential buyers, all said that it looked fine and had no problem with it. It’s a judgment call, eventually you get a feel for what will work and when.

  36. Audry says

    This website was… how do I say it? Relevant!!
    Finally I’ve found something which helped me.

    Cheers!

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  1. [...] the walls. We applied a skim coat before priming and painting 2 coats of Sherwin Williams Upward. Here is a great tutorial on skim coating. I really think it was the most important step in the painting process. Wallpaper can hide a [...]

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