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 called framers 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.
Drywall and ceiling tile installers held about 121,200 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of drywall and ceiling tile installers were as follows:
- Drywall and insulation contractors - 63%
- Self-employed workers - 18%
- Nonresidential building construction - 6%
Tapers held about 19,800 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of tapers were as follows:
- Drywall and insulation contractors - 69%
- Self-employed workers - 18%
- Nonresidential building construction - 7%
- Painting and wall covering contractors - 2%
Drywall installers, ceiling tile installers, and tapers work indoors. The work is physically demanding. Workers spend most of the day standing, bending, or reaching, and they must often lift and maneuver heavy wallboard.
Most drywall installers, ceiling tile installers, and tapers work full time.
Education & Training Required
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 Skills Required
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.
How to Advance
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.
Overall employment of drywall installers, ceiling tile installers, and tapers is projected to grow 4 percent from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations.
Despite limited employment growth, about 12,300 openings for drywall installers, ceiling tile installers, and tapers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Most of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Much of the projected employment growth in these occupations is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020.
Employment of drywall and ceiling tile installers is projected to grow 5 percent from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations. Drywall continues to be the most common interior wall covering in buildings, so the demand for these workers is expected to continue to come from the construction of new buildings. Home-remodeling projects also are expected to be a source of job growth as owners of existing homes and other buildings make improvements.
Employment of tapers is projected to show little or no change from 2020 to 2030. The continued use of new tools that allow workers to do more in less time will limit employment growth of tapers.
The median annual wage for drywall and ceiling tile installers was $48,040 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,460, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $95,600.
The median annual wage for tapers was $61,080 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,980, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $100,160.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for drywall and ceiling tile installers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Nonresidential building construction - $59,180
- Drywall and insulation contractors - $48,000
In May 2021, the median annual wages for tapers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Nonresidential building construction - $83,610
- Drywall and insulation contractors - $60,360
- Painting and wall covering contractors - $48,610
Most drywall installers, ceiling tile installers, and tapers work full time.