Planning a home improvement project and wondering the difference between drywall and plywood?

Which one should you use, and why? Why has drywall become the housebuilder’s material of choice?

Well, in this article we’re going to give you those answers. We’ll discuss the features and differences of drywall and plywood and give you the full breakdown of these two useful building materials. Here, we’ll analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both and why they are suited to different things.

We’ll show you why drywall is both soundproof and fireproof… and why plywood is stronger. And we’ll cover some of the main uses for both. So, read on for our definitive article on Drywall vs Plywood – Why drywall is much more popular. Let’s get stuck in.

What are they?

Before we cover the features of each, let’s just take a quick look at what they actually are.

Drywall

Also known as plasterboard, wallboard or sheetrock (although sheetrock is a brand name of the US Gypsum Company). Drywall, ironically enough, is actually fifty percent water. Manufacturers mix gypsum with water and dry it between two sheets of thick paper. Raw gypsum is first dehydrated, then semi-rehydrated and mixed with fibers and additives. They then sandwich the mixture between two sheets of heavy paper and dry it. As it dries, it sets to a solid and rigid panel.

drywall
Drywall is actually 50% water. It’s sort of like a really solid paper mache.

The original idea was to make a panel of plaster. A way to make the finishing of internal walls much quicker and easier than the traditional plastering methods that were prevalent before world war II. Traditionally, the lath and plaster methods could take a week or more and require a high-level of skill. With drywall, it reduced both the time and the skill level required. Ease of installation has also meant that many DIY’ers are confident using drywall.

Plywood

Producers of plywood peel thin veneers of wood from tree trunks and glue them together with each layer’s grain at an angle (usually 90 degrees) to the last one. This cross-graining gives plywood its strength and directional stability (it doesn’t warp easily).

plywood
Plywood is made of thin ‘plies’ of wood glued together

Plywood comes in many forms and varieties and is made from softwoods, hardwoods and tropical woods. Depending on the wood and the glues used, plywood can be used for both indoor, outdoor, marine and even aircraft panels.

Comparing Drywall vs Plywood

While you can use plywood anywhere drywall can, the reverse is not true. Plywood has many outdoor and structural variants that drywall cannot replace.

But it is true that we can use both plywood and drywall for most internal walls. The decision about which to use comes from the requirements you need.

Before you decide on which to use, you must think about strength, sound, fireproofing, installation, and the type of room. Let’s discuss each of these features to learn more about them.

Soundproofing

Drywall is actually quite soundproof. The sandwiched gypsum does not naturally conduct sound well. If installed correctly, using drywall can be a good choice for rooms where sound might be an issue.

If you’re looking for further soundproofing, doubling up drywall panels can be a good idea. Especially in conjunction with other soundproofing measures such as double studding or insulation. You can also find specially constructed sound-resistant drywall panels.

Fireproofing

The combined gypsum and water core of a drywall panel is naturally fire retardant. As we learned above, gypsum contains around 50% water. If we expose drywall to fire, the water is first turned to steam. This absorbs thermal energy and acts as a firebreak. The heat is controlled until all the water has evaporated.

As the evaporation occurs, the drywall will lose structural integrity and begin to crack. In the end, all that it leaves behind is a crumbly dust which will burn up.

Builders improve fireproofing by increasing the number of layers of drywall used. For improved fire-ratings, manufacturers make specially designed drywall with additives to increase fire resistance and the time required before the drywall fails.

They do not treat normal plywood with any fire-retardants and it will just burn as wood. This makes it a poor choice if fire-safety is an issue.

Ease of Installation

If weight is a consideration, either for the weight of the walls themselves or for ease of installation, then plywood is the lighter choice. A similar sized sheet of drywall can easily weigh 20 pounds more than its plywood equivalent. This can be a problem if you’re looking for a light wall or you’re performing installation alone.

Installing drywall usually involves taping the seams, filling the joints, and sanding down. This can be time-consuming and requires a level of skill. Whereas plywood installation is usually easier and most builders simply fill the joints between boards. But this depends on the finish you’re looking for.

Strength

If you are looking to hang several heavy items on your walls, say in a garage or for bookshelves, you should consider plywood.

In order to hang heavy items on drywall, you will need to locate the studs and drill through the panel and into the stud beyond. This is because the gypsum core of drywall does not offer much structural strength. So, you must locate your screw in the wooden studs to get the strength you need to support any weight.

Plywood offers greater structural strength, and for most uses it is unnecessary to locate the studs. You can simply screw straight into the panel. For rooms like a garage or other storage where you may want to screw lots of fixtures to the walls, this makes plywood a good choice.

Repair

Plywood is more durable and will tolerate larger knocks before damaging than drywall will. If you are building a wall that may need to tolerate hard use, then consider plywood.

However, once damaged drywall is usually easier to repair. For a normal sized hole, you can fill drywall, sand it and it will be as good as new. Usually, plywood requires a larger repair, and often this can involve removing the whole panel and replacing it. You then need to re-finish a larger section of the wall.

Moisture

Both plywood and drywall have their challenges when it comes to moisture.

They do not treat normal indoor plywood with any additives that prevent mold, and they do not construct it with waterproof glues. This means that in very hot or moist climates (or bathrooms) plywood isn’t the best choice. You can risk mold or delamination (the glue between layers loosens and the plies separate).

They make drywall of paper, gypsum and additives. If exposed to water for any length of time, the gypsum core turns to paste, and the paper weakens. While normal levels of moisture in the atmosphere are OK, in areas where the drywall risks getting wet, such as bathrooms and kitchens, you shouldn’t use it without proper protection and evaluate other options to see if plywood or similar would be better.

Finish

Drywall and plywood give different types of finish, and require different amounts of effort to get there.

If you install drywall correctly, tape the joints, and fill and sand, you will have a smooth ready to paint, plain surface you can do almost anything with. Just don’t underestimate the effort and skill required.

With plywood, you get a natural wood grain pattern. Cheap plywood tends to look cheap, but if you get a hardwood veneer, you can create a warm natural finish that looks great. If you don’t want the wood look, you can use cheaper ply and then paper and paint.

Waste

It’s worth a quick note regarding wastage and environmental considerations.

Both plywood and drywall use energy intensive manufacturing processes and most standard manufacturers use chemicals and additives in both. Because of the similar installation methods, they also produce similar amounts of waste and you can easily lose 15% to cutting and shaping.

But plywood is re-usable and sometimes recyclable so that the waste does not go straight in the bin. Whereas drywall is not and you simply have to throw the waste away.

Cost

While both plywood and drywall come in a variety of options and therefore prices, usually drywall is slightly cheaper than its standard plywood equivalent. But the cost of the panels is not the only consideration and its important to factor in the time and materials required for installation as well. Depending on the finish required, costs can vary quite a lot for installation for both drywall and plywood so it’s necessary to calculate your particular project to see which comes out on top.

Uses

Now that we’ve examined the major features of plywood and drywall, let’s look at some of the more common uses for each.

Drywall

Builders commonly use drywall for standard internal walls. It’s cheap, easy to install and is ready for any kind of finish you want.

installing of drywall for internal walls
Drywall is commonly used for standard internal walls since its cheap

If you require or are worried about fireproofing, drywall is the best option. It’s natural fire-retardant abilities are hard to beat, and if you require a particular fire-rating, there is drywall for that too. In a house fire, the difference between saving your home or not could be the difference between drywall and plywood walls.

For your sound studio, or even your kid’s bedroom, drywall provides better soundproofing properties. So, if sound is a consideration for your project, choose drywall.

Plywood

You can use plywood in garages where the extra strength means you can hang and store more of your stuff. It is also used in rooms that have a lot of physical activity where the greater durability is a bonus.

two male holding a plyboard on a rooftop
Plywood is best used where you can take advantage of the extra strength

Specialist types of water-resistant plywood are often used in bathrooms and kitchens where it may be exposed to moisture.

Conclusion

Both drywall and plywood have their uses in building projects, and while plywood has a greater variety of uses and functions, nothing quite beats drywall at its primary purpose.

If you have a standard internal wall to build, the combination of fire and soundproofing, cheap and easy installation, easy repairs and countless finishing options make drywall number one. And these are the reasons drywall is the standard housebuilder’s choice.

But, if you have a specialist requirement such as a garage or a wet room, then you should consider plywood. It’s wide varieties of options with waterproof, weatherproof, and strength make it the best choice for hard use. Just remember that if you’re building a garage or similar, you will need other forms of fireproofing.

We hope you have a clearer idea of the differences and uses of drywall and plywood. Now you know what to look out for and what the challenges are with each one, it’s time to decide and plan you’re next project. Good luck and happy building!