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I recently had new drywall put up in the top floor of my house to cover a cracked plaster ceiling with popcorn texturing. I used a contractor, and when asked about a texture for the drywall my preferred option (smooth ceilings) was very expensive while a knockdown texture was not. I ultimately opted for the knockdown texture due to the cost difference.

I've been looking into doing something on my own to smooth out the drywall (while hanging it myself would probably not have been a good idea due to my skill level, I can do some other tasks adequately). Most options seem pretty involved, but I think that I could handle a skim coat if it's necessary.

But the skim coat process seems very similar to using spackle for small repairs in walls, which led me to wonder: would using spackle for smoothing a ceiling that has knockdown texturing work? There must be some drawbacks, or reasons it won't work at all, or else I would expect to see spackle as an option when googling ways to smooth the texture.

So I guess the best formulation of my question is: can I use spackle and a putty knife to smooth out my ceiling at all? And if it's possible, what are the drawbacks that make it such a (seemingly) unpopular option?

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    It could be regional, but in some places I think "spackle" is used to mean "drywall mud". Maybe just by homeowners, not necessarily pros (?) – StayOnTarget Feb 15 at 1:58
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    @StayOnTarget Mostly by people who don't know the difference. If you've never worked with mud vs spackle they're generally sold in the same area so people assume they are the same. Spackle is a thicker type and is often made out of different material (like vinyl) so it can fill larger holes more easily. Mud is more liquid so you can do things like flatten it out over long runs and put drywall tape in it – Machavity Feb 15 at 13:18
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    For your consideration: A textured surface is very forgiving of errors - small blemishes are hidden in the texture. A smooth surface is very demanding - the slightest blemish will show up quite vividly. If you don't believe me, take a Scotch Bright™ pad to an inconspicuous spot on your car and give it one rub. You'll see a huge , obvious spot where you made that one simple pass in the otherwise very smooth paint job. As noted in the answers, pros spend years developing their skills and it still takes them a lot of time to get a good looking smooth finish. – FreeMan Feb 15 at 15:19
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    @Z4-tier the link points to the accepted answer of this question. It isn't deleted, so should work fine for anyone. Maybe you clicked the Home Improvement link instead of the 'this' link. – TylerH Feb 16 at 14:56
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    @Upper_Case Consider wetting down the ceiling and scraping off the texture as well. About as much work and you don't have to buy new material, only remove existing material. – TylerH Feb 16 at 14:57
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Spackle might work, however it is specially designed for repairing holes and cracks and is more expensive than the product that is normally used for doing a skim coat: regular joint compound or topping compound.

You should do a bit of research and plan to practice with wide trowels/mud knives if you intend to do this yourself. Hanging the drywall is not the skill-heavy part of the job; mudding and sanding IS. Professional plasterers spend years/decades acquiring the skills to skim coat, it is probably the most experience/skill dependent craft in the trade...

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    Agreed with everything Jimmy Fix-it said. A few years ago I did a repair to a rental I owned...the drywall in the garage had been quite damaged by abuse and lots of penetrations from shelving and hangers, etc. I repaired the damaged parts, filled the holes and then skim coated the entire wall. I'm not a skilled drywaller, but it turned out pretty good. Use a wide blade, make sure your mud isn't too thick. I have found that sanding between coats isn't needed, just give it a good scraping with a dry taping blade to knock down any high bits and go at it again. Do until good! – George Anderson Feb 15 at 0:31
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    Agree with Jimmy and George. There's a reason it's so much more expensive, the skill involved. Get a good mud pan when purchasing your wide blade. – JACK Feb 15 at 0:36
  • ...ran out of comment space. ....I wouldn't use Spackle for skimming, it's more of a patch compound, dries hard and is hard to sand. If you have holes to plug, yes, use it, but use a "topping" mud to skim coat the knockdown. Also, did the ceiling get painted? You might have to "de-gloss" it, hopefully others will weigh in with more info. – George Anderson Feb 15 at 0:36
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    Mudding does require skill to do well, but the key ability professionals have is the ability to a great job fast. Search online for videos of pros tossing on a coat of mud smoothly and with blazing speed. Amateurs can do a fine job if they're willing to take their time, sweat the details, and sand the hell out of any mistakes. – HotDogWater Feb 15 at 22:02
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    Spackle is generally several magnitudes more expensive than plain drywall mud; nobody said anything about the expense of a crew to do the job. – Jimmy Fix-it Feb 16 at 13:54
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I just completed a similar project. I skim coated my bathroom walls with joint compound to cover up a paint job from a previous tenant that had resulted in crackling and flaking over the entire surface of the drywall.

You can read a bit about the difference between drywall joint compound (mud) and spackle here, but there a few chief differences in application:

  1. Drywall mud sands very easily and very smoothly. You can slather it on over a wide area and then fairly quickly take out all the lumps and bumps. This is especially important if you are a DIYer, because there will be a lot of lumps and bumps. In general, it's a forgiving medium. You can always put on another coat and do some more sanding if you're unhappy with the results.

  2. Drywall mud is easier to apply to large areas. In fact, you can thin it down with water and roll it on if you're doing a really large area. For a smaller job, this may not be worth the effort.

A few tips from someone who has been there: the downside of the ease of sanding is that this stuff is incredibly dusty. Make sure you have a proper respirator and consider starting with a fairly thin layer and building up if needed. Also, you might reach a point where the surface is flat but you have some pitting. At this point, consider throwing on a layer of primer and then filling in the problem spots with a final touch up. That way, when you sand down the touch-ups, the primer will protect the rest of the new surface from the sandpaper.

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    A proper drywall sanding setup with a vacuum port can be VERY worthwhile for dust control. Needs a vacuum with a decent filter, of course. – Ecnerwal Feb 15 at 2:45
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Using spackle to smooth the texture will be more expensive than using joint compound. Both will set hard and have about the same working and setting time.

The problem with trying to smooth an already textured ceiling will take a lot of work and depends on the how course or textured it is now.

It can be accomplished by a diligent DIY-er and the correct tools. You will want a 12 inch dry wall knife, a mud pan, a sanding pole with sander, and 4-5 gallons of joint compound (depending on the square feet of the ceiling and the texture to be covered.

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I don't know about spackle being more expensive. I am going to disagree with most on here on that point (and I am right).

Notes:

  • there are more variations of spackle than joint compound (drywall mud)
  • spackle is much much harder to smooth in bigger areas
  • spackle is much much harder to sand
  • no matter what you do, you have to get rid of most of the knockdown texture first
  • one of the biggest hindrances is that you live there and this is one of the messiest repairs you can do - you have to basically firmly cover or remove everything from that floor and tape off that floor

So all of that being said is I have a crew that does "spackle" (modified spackle that is hard as a rock on dry). There are two guys that I know that can do this. Well anyone can just like I can hit a baseball 350 feet... give me 50-100 swings and it will get done.

They can buy the spackle at maybe 1.5-2 joint compound cost. That's all they need and it is one coat. No sanding, no dust, no 2nd and 3rd coat... Done.

It is an artist working though. These dudes are good good. If I had just a normal "mud" guy do this it would be a mess, cost a fortune to sand it right and maybe never look smooth. That is your issue. You are not an artist with a rigid material.

So to do it yourself you are looking at joint compound plus 3-4 coats (being realistic for a newbie). Your materials will cost more and be messier.

Spackle can be a one step process but requires way way more skill.

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A tradesman would remove the old ceiling and replace it with a new sheet of gyprock. An easy job if you have the equiptment, like a lifter to get the sheet in place.

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  • OP mentions replacing ceiling drywall is out of the question due to their experience/comfort level, and the fact it is in fine condition would make replacing it just to tackle a texture change extremely wasteful. – TylerH Feb 16 at 14:53

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