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Wall and Ceiling Finishes

One question facing self-builders is whether to go for a wet or dry system of wall covering. The wet techniques use cement renders and gypsum plasters, and occasionally products like lime renders or clay; the dry systems use dry-lined plasterboards. While wet techniques are a traditional part of British building, the dry techniques are imported from countries where timber frame is prevalent. Ceilings are almost invariably fixed with plasterboard, but here there remains a choice about whether to cover them with a wet Thistle Finish plaster, to dry-line or to comb on Artex. Price wise, there is very little to choose between the systems — though dry-lining tends to be a little cheaper and quicker.

Wet Plaster

Can be applied either as a cement render undercoat with a gypsum skim finish, or as a gypsum skim finish on plasterboard. Either way, when done well, you get a superb shiny finish which looks fantastic — at least initially. The main problem with wet finishes is that they are prone to cracking, especially in new houses where there is considerable drying out and movement involved in the first year or two. None of this cracking is in the least bit dangerous – it doesn’t mean subsidence is occurring – and many people live happily with it, knowing that these bedding-in problems can be filled in at the first redecoration. However, for many unsuspecting souls it is a source of genuine grievance and complaint.

The Finest Plastering

There's no need to cover your plasterwork when it looks this good.

Plaster can provide a range of effects

1. Tegula by Butcher Plasterworks is a fibrous plaster feature wall tile;
2. Plaster can provide a range of effects, like this dappled wall by Armourcoat;
3. Light plaster applied with a trowel and worked in to achieve a rustic look by White Allom Studio


Dry finishes are always applied to a board backing (though it doesn’t have to be plasterboard). The usual way of doing this is to apply filler to the joints and over the nail holes, sand the surface and then just apply paint. It’s not as difficult as applying a skim plaster finish and it’s much less prone to cracking but, done badly, it can look poor. The wall finish is similar to what you would get if painting onto lining paper (which is basically what you are doing) and this may not be glossy enough for some tastes.

Other Options

Plastering, whether wet or dry, is the simplest and cheapest way of finishing walls and ceilings. But there are other options you might wish to consider in some locations. Many self-builders elect to use different backing boards. Fermacell, in particular, has carved out a niche with DIY self-builders: it’s more expensive to buy than regular plasterboard, but it is dead easy to fix and only requires a simple paint finish. It also provides excellent sound-proofing, and enables you to hang radiators and towel rails directly off it without having to put timber supports behind.

Timber panelling is another option, though strangely it’s gone out of fashion for internal use just as it’s come into fashion for external claddings. Other specialised finishes include ceramic wall tiles and feature brickwork.

Perfect Paintwork

Finish your surfaces perfectly every time with our quick tips

  • Always paint your room in this order: ceilings, walls, doors, windows, radiators then skirting boards last.
  • Allow a little extra time and effort to thoroughly clean and dry the surfaces to be painted. New plaster must be clean and dry before painting, and does not need to be primed. Wipe all surfaces with a tack cloth to remove any dust or hair.
  • Emulsion paint (either matt or shiny) is for walls and ceilings; gloss paint is for wood and metal; exterior paints are just for outside use.
  • Use the calculator at to work out how much paint you need to buy.
  • Opt for low-VOC eco paints if you can’t stomach the strong scent or are worried about any negative health effects of solvent-based paints.

The right colour paint can really complete a room

1. Blue Grass from Fired Earth;
2. Citrine from The Little Greene Paint Company;
3. Farrow & Ball’s Light Stone and Off White;
4. Fired Earth’s Gentian

Block work vs. Studwork

Your internal (i.e. room-dividing) walls don’t have to be built the same way or to the same specification as your external ones. Indeed, the points at issue are quite different: external walls are designed to be load bearing, to keep moisture out and to keep heat in; internal walls may or may not be load bearing and people are mostly worried about their sound-proofing characteristics.

If you are building in timber frame, the internal walls will be supplied as part of the package. But if your structure is blockwork, then you have a choice. Many people opt for blockwork walls downstairs and studwork walls upstairs, especially if there is a timber floor separating the two. If the internal walls are load bearing, then they require foundations at ground floor level, or additional support (i.e. beams) at first floor level.


What about brick finish? Brick is a beautiful option as a feature wall and can be achieved in any building by using brick slips (a 20mm section of a brick) that is applied just like wall tiling.

You can find brick slips now from a few brick manufacturers such as and