Home Projects: Finishing Garage Walls

Garage walls take a lot of abuse from humidity and damage from impact. Cheap luan plywood is a good material for long-lasting garage walls. Here's how to install it:

In new house construction, garage walls are often left unfinished or only partially finished by the builder, and many homeowners never get around to doing anything about it. If your builder installed drywall or "sheetrock" inside the garage, but it wasn't finished properly by floating and taping the joints, and priming and painting, sooner or later you will have problems with moisture and mildew. Most garages are not climate-controlled like the rest of the house, and are subject to a lot more humidity, creating a perfect environment for mildew.

Drywall or sheetrock is not the ideal material for use in a garage anyway, as garages are often used as workshops or "catch-alls" for house-hold junk and the walls quickly get banged up. It doesn't take much effort to inadvertently knock a hole in a sheetrock wall while moving stuff around or working in the garage. There is a better way to finish your garage walls that is both inexpensive and long-lasting. Use exterior-grade luan plywood, which is smooth and will take a nice finish of either paint or clear polyurethane, and will resist rotting and mildew, while being much tougher than sheetrock if it is bumped.

Installing luan plywood in your garage is relatively easy. It comes in standard 4x8 foot sheets, and is available in various thicknesses, but all you need is the ΒΌ -inch thick variety, which is cheap, lightweight and easy to handle. Your job will be easier if there is no sheetrock already installed. Then you can see where the wall studs are and nail the luan directly to them. If sheetrock has already been hung, but not floated and taped, you can still find the studs by seeing the nails or screws that were used to fasten the sheetrock. The luan can be applied over the sheetrock, if you like, or you can tackle the messy job of tearing it all off first.

Use full sheets wherever possible. The framing studs are supposed to be spaced on 16-inch centers by the framing carpenters, so 4-foot wide panels will fit perfectly with each edge landing in the middle of a stud for nailing. But if the total length of any of the garage walls works out to be anything other than a multiple of four, you will have to cut at least some of the sheets at the corners to get them to fit. To accurately cut full-size sheets of plywood, you will need sawhorses to support the work, a tape measure, a chalk-line for marking a long straight line, and a power circular saw.

Use finishing nails to attach the luan to the walls and a nail set to drive the heads of the nails slightly beneath the surface. This way they don't snag rollers or brushes when you paint or clear-coat the luan and setting the nails gives you a more professional look.

The seams where the panels of luan meet can be covered with thin strips of wood such as the strips sold at home-improvement stores for trimming screen porches. Larger strips of molding that is made for trimming the inside corners can also be purchased if you want a finished look.

Once all the molding and trim is installed and the nails set, your garage walls are ready for painting or clear-coating. If you paint, you will have to apply at least 2-3 coats, including a primer coat, and you will have to fill the nail holes (where you embedded the nails with the nail set) with spackling. You might also have to do a lot of caulking in the corners depending on the exactness of your cuts with the circular saw.

For these reasons, instead of painting, I recommend rolling on 2 coats of clear polyurethane. Luan plywood has a beautiful grain that will be brought out by this finish. You won't have to caulk or fill nail holes, and the clear finish will not show dirt like a painted surface and will last for many more years than any paint job.

With the walls finished with durable luan plywood, you are now ready to install shelves or hooks for all that stuff you don't have room for in the house; or with your new-found carpentry skills, you might decide to convert your garage to a woodworking shop.

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