When renovating a house, there are always a few (or a lot!) of quirks that you find and have to deal with. When we first toured our current home, I was kind of confused by this long rectangular recessed wall niche and I knew pretty quickly it would need to be filled in. I can definitely see a use for built-in shelves and certain recessed nooks, but this was just an odd place/shape/depth for something like that and it was too shallow to use it as a shelf and too big to just cover it with a piece of art. After being here for a few months, we’ve come to guess that it used to be an old pass-through from the kitchen and when someone rearranged the kitchen they made it a boxed-in niche rather than just fill it in and make a totally smooth wall.
At the same time, I have definitely been wanting to (and also having to) learn some new home renovation skills on this house that I didn’t need in previous homes, and drywalling is one that’s at the top of the list! Since there are a few smaller drywall projects like this one, I thought it would be a great practice run. After a lot of tutorial videos and tips from family and friends that have done their own, I was ready to get this project started and I was so proud for doing it myself!
Our niche was constructed with a wooden box placed into the wall cavity and then they added trim around the edge to make it look more finished. The first step was to take off the trim, which we did by cutting the paint/caulk seal all the way around the edges with a utility knife (I like this kind that folds into itself for safer storage) and then we used a small crowbar to gently pry it away from the wall.
Once the trim was off, it was time to take out the wooden box inside! The way they had secured the box in the wall with nails and screws made it very difficult to get out, so we basically had to try and break it apart, and pry it out in chunks using this multi tool to cut the box and nails where needed. If you’ve never bought a Dremel before, get one!! It’s made so many things possible at this house that would have been so much harder/impossible if we didn’t have one.
Now that the box was out, it was time to add our mini studs to attach the drywall panel to. When filling in an area with drywall, you usually need to first build a frame of 2″x4″s all the way around the inside perimeter of your box to make a frame for the other vertical studs to sit inside of. But as you can see, there was already a frame in place in our niche (they had built their box to sit perfectly inside of the frame), so we got to skip that part. If you need a frame though, you’ll have to build your frame first by cutting and attaching a bottom and top 2″x4″ board the width of your opening and then add in the left and right side boards so you make a box. Each opening may have a different situation going on inside the wall, so you may need to problem solve a little for your particular wall setup to get your box in place.
Once you have your outer edge box, cut 2″x4″ studs to fit vertically within the box. Regular wall studs are anywhere from 16″-24″ apart, so just space them out somewhere within that range and have one all the way left and right as well (so I used five total for my 70″ opening).
You’ll want to attach your studs so that they are inset 1/2″ into your opening. That way, once you add your 1/2″ drywall on top, the drywall will be flush with the wall around it. An easy way to do that is to hold up a scrap piece of drywall on top of the board and move the board back until it’s flush and mark the location for the stud.
If your niche is more shallow than your 2″x4″s, then you’ll need to rip your boards smaller with a table saw (this one is great because it’s more budget-friendly, portable, and folds up small for when not in use) to fit the space and be inset that 1/2″ for the drywall allowance.
To attach your studs, use either a nail gun (battery operated ones are so much easier than dealing with an air compressor!) or a drill and wood screws to nail/screw in your studs at an angle (like you see above) on the top and bottom. To make sure they are secure, you can do two on one side and then a third between those two on the other side. Repeat on the top and bottom of each stud until all your studs are in place.
Once your studs are in, measure and mark the size drywall panel you need and then score your drywall lines with a utility knife and snap it to size. Use drywall screws to attach your drywall to the studs. You want the screws to be flush with the wall, don’t overtighten them or it will rip into the paper coating, so go slow and use a handheld screwdriver to finish the last few turns if you need to.
Now, normally you would start with drywall mud and paper tape to cover over your drywall seams, but if you have a good deal of wall damage around the frame like I did, it’s probably a good idea to do a rough coat of all-purpose drywall to fill in those large crevasses and gaps first (I also went over the screw holes as well). The mud will crack some when dry, but don’t worry about that. You’re just trying to build up the wall a bit so there’s some structure behind the tape and first coat of mud.
Now it’s time to add your tape! Mix up your mud with a little bit of water to loosen it up and knock out some bubbles (you can either do this with one of these in a bucket or with a small 1″ joint knife in a mud pan) until the mud just looks a little smoother and looser than right out of the can (you don’t want it too thin like pancake batter). Use a 6″ knife to spread on an even layer of mud over the seams, wet your paper tape so it’s damp, and place your tape on top of the mud (you can either pre-cut your lengths or do it as you go).
Use your 6″ knife to pull down and gently smooth over the tape so your excess mud underneath squeezes out the sides (if your tape gets bunched up or wrinkled you can pull down and pull it flat with your fingers and keep going). Usually you do one lighter gentle pass and then do another pass with more pressure to get a nice smooth tape (this is a great tutorial video on taping).
Repeat on each of your four sides until all your joints are taped.
Wait until the next day to ensure your tape is dry and then check the tape for any air bubbles. Basically, you’ll run your fingers over the tape and listen for any hollow sounds. If you get to a spot that sounds very “papery and hollow” when you tap on it, then you’ll know you have an air bubble under there and you need to cut it out.
I had a few small air bubbles in my tape when I checked, so I just took an X-Acto knife and cut out the paper over the bubble. The little divot will get filled in when you do the next coat of mud, so it’s an easy way to fix the bubble.
Now you’re ready for your first layer of mud! I used a 10″ drywall knife, lightweight mud, and a metal med pan (metal is the best because you can really wipe your knife clean between each pass, which is super important). I added some water and a squirt of dish soap to my mud (they both make the mud a little smoother) when mixing until it resembled the consistency of pancake batter. You can also watch some tutorial videos and see how it looks if you want a visual video reference, but somewhere around pancake batter is what you’re aiming for and it won’t ruin your project if it’s a little off the ideal.
Use your wider knife to spread a layer of joint compound over the taped areas and the you’ll “cut” the outer edges by passing back over the edges putting pressure on the outside edge of your knife (this is a great tutorial to watch on cutting as well as the whole process) to feather out the edges to nothing so you have less sanding to do later. Wipe your knife clean on your metal mud pan between each pass down the sides and then do one pass over the middle hump to remove excess from the middle. Let your mud dry fully and repeat the process again with a 12″ knife so your joint compound is spread out even further and you continue to feather out the mud in a wider section.
Since my niche area wasn’t very tall (it was only 10″ tall), I decided to do a coat or two of mud across the whole inside of the drywall panel as the top and bottom would kind of meld together in the middle anyways when I feathered out the mud further and further. You don’t have to do that if you have a wider hole that you are filling, but since the two seams were so close, I just made the middle one smooth area.
Once your second coat of mud is dry, you are ready to sand! Some people like to sand in between each coat, but sanding just once at the end worked out fine and is less effort overall. You can use either a pole sander or a hand-held sander (these sanding sponges are great for fine finishing on areas and corners) and sandpaper sheets to sand your wall smooth. Sanding is a super messy job so make sure to have eye goggles and an N95 mask for dust protection. They do make sanders that already have a vacuum attached for dust control, but you can also hold a shop vac under your sanding to help suck up the bulk of the dust and make cleanup a little easier.
I first worked on sanding along the transitions from the wall to the edges of the mud until those were smooth and then I sanded the inside and smoothed out any ridges and bumps.
As a side note, there were a few patches that showed some clusters of tiny popped air bubbles once the mud was dry and sanded, so I just took some regular spackle and did a super thin layer over those clusters to fill them in and sanded them gently when dry. Those can come from the consistency of your mud not being perfect or just from beginner application of the joint compound, but they were really easy to fill so it wasn’t a huge deal.
Once the panel looked and felt smooth (it’s also good to run your hands along it to check for imperfections), it was time to prime it and get ready to add the final coat of paint! I would definitely suggest using a higher nap roller (one for semi-smooth or rough surfaces) to add your primer and paint since the new drywall will be totally smooth and you’ll want to add a little texture to it so it matches the texture of the rest of your walls (wall looks smooth but always has a little texture from each time it’s been repainted).
Now that the paint is added it feels insane that you can’t tell at all that this was anything other than a full wall in the past. I was so pleased with myself that I was able to complete the project by myself. Now I know that I can tackle the other similar jobs in the house as well! I will say that as a beginning drywaller, I’m sure that I didn’t get my mud as perfect and smooth on each coat as a professional would (although hopefully I’ll get there!), but in the end it all got sanded out and it looks amazing now that it’s done. If I can do it, you can do it! Hope this helps you DIY your way to a smooth wall at your house! xo. Laura