Finishing Basement Walls without Drywall

The number of new homes being built with basements is declining; at the same time that there is a surge in the interest in finish basements on existing homes is rising. That may sound contradictory at first, without looking at the reasons for each of those changes. First, as the cost of building a new home is rising, those seeking to build a home are looking for ways to cut costs. An unfinished basement costs between $10 and $25 per square foot, whereas a monolithic concrete slab is only $4 to $14 per square foot. So eliminating a basement can lower the cost of building that home from $5,000 to over $20,000.

On the other hand, finish an unfinished basement is the cheapest way of getting additional living space, if the home has a basement. While the total cost of finishing depends on a host of different decisions, it is typically in the $32 to $47 range. Looking at it a different way, building three rooms and a bathroom in a 1,500 square foot basement will run somewhere around $57,000. In comparison, building an addition to the home costs anywhere from $80 to $200 per square foot, so even going as budget friendly as possible, it would cost more than double to add the same amount of room, building an addition into the backyard. And on top of that, yard space that might already be in use for other things would be lost.

Financially, finish a basement is a wise investment, providing additional living space for a reasonable amount, plus providing a return of 64% when the home is sold. That may not seem like a very high percentage, but it is one of the highest percentages of return on remodeling projects, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Please note that it is totally impractical to do any remodeling project from the viewpoint of improving a home’s value alone. While fixing up homes and flipping them can be a very profitable business, it is one based upon buying homes that are under market value, because of maintenance needs. Making those repairs and remodeling should not be confused with each other. While there may be times when it is practical to remodel, because the repairs needed are so extensive; most repairs will not fall into that category.

Another important thing to note is that the figures I’ve listed above are based on a contractor doing the work. When remodeling projects are done by the homeowner, putting some “sweat equity” into the home, the homeowner typically makes money on the project at the time of sale.

Even so, not everyone has this particular remodeling option available to them, as not all homes are built with basements. Something like 90% of the homes in the northern part of the country have full basements, while only about 24% of those in the south. That’s either because of a high water table, which would result in water leaks in the basement or the bedrock being too close to the surface, making expensive blasting necessary to get enough rock out of the way to dig the basement.

But assuming that the home has a basement available to finish, doing the finish is not as straightforward a job as it might seem. There are a myriad of questions to be answered, each of which is likely to affect other parts of the project. Many of those also affect the project’s overall budget or are determined, at least a little, by the budget that is available.

One of the big expenses in a basement remodel is finish walls, because there is so much surface area to cover. Not only do the perimeter walls have to be finished in some way; but there are partition walls to build as well. Some people go with straight drywall, putting it on all the walls, but others look at the project as an opportunity to do something different, covering at least some of the walls with other materials. These other materials are often installed over drywall; but don’t necessarily have to be. Since there are no structural modifications involved in finishing a basement, it can often be done without pulling a building permit and getting inspections. However, check with local laws before proceeding, just to be sure.

Start with the Structure

Somehow people have gotten the idea that drywall needs to be installed on basement walls as part of the structure; but that isn’t true, except in a few cases. Most materials attached to the wall have to be installed through the drywall and into the structure behind it, because the drywall itself is not strong enough to support the material being attached to it. About the only time material is attached to the drywall, without being attached to the structure behind it, is in cases where it is attached with adhesives, such as mirrors, or where the material is light enough to attach just to the drywall, such as with textiles.

When we talk about basement wall structure, there are two different things we could be talking about. The first is the walls that the basement itself was made of. These are typically made of concrete, although they can be built of cement blocks as well. Some old homes may have brick walls for the basement and there are a few homes around with pressure-treated wood walled basements; but that’s more of an experimental building technique, than something mainstream. The second is any structure put over the basement’s walls, for the purpose of attaching the finish walls. Most people use 2”x 4” construction for this, but there are other options available.

Before installing any sort of structure over the structural concrete or concrete block, we need to ask ourselves what finish wall we want to install. There is no sense going through the expense of building and installing a 2’x 4” wall, over the existing wall, if we don’t need it. Not only might we be spending time and money we don’t need to spend; but we would also lose space in the basement, as the walls would each stand out a total of 4” to 6” from the existing basement wall.

It is possible to eliminate the need for any sort of structural wall altogether, if the wall treatment chosen can be mounted directly onto the existing concrete or concrete block. Some people choose to just paint those surfaces, which is acceptable, but there are other options to consider as well (we’ll discuss those in a moment).

Another consideration is putting furring strips (1”x 2”s) or studs (2”x 4”s) flat on the concrete wall with concrete fasteners. While this would still entail buying the wood and the fasteners are actually more expensive than for framing a 2”x 4” wall, it provides space for wiring, without shrinking the size of the basement all that much.

Finally, if framing is required, it is worth considering using metal framing, rather than wood. While steel studs are about 40% more expensive than wood, they are lighter and easier to move into the basement. That can save on the work required to finish the basement. As they can be assembled with screws and any drill-driver, it can save on buying power tools.

Finishes that Don’t Require Framing

Using a wall finish technique that doesn’t require framing the wall is a time and labor savings. Of course, one of the key requirements for this is that the walls be in good shape to start with. Even if materials are being used that don’t require framing, if the walls are cracked or bulging, it might be necessary to frame the walls just to make them flat. It might also be necessary to frame them to hide any repairs that are made to the existing walls.

Minor irregularities really don’t require framing to hide. Small divots in the wall can be filled with concrete filler and bumps from where the concrete forms met can be ground down with a grinder to provide a flatter surface. Expect to do a little work to make the walls usable, especially if the wall material is being glued to the concrete, if framing is not going to be installed.

Painting the Concrete

The simplest way of treating those concrete or concrete block walls is to simply paint them. Obviously this will leave the texture of the wall intact and visible; but in cases where a rustic look is desired or where the finish isn’t an issue, it can be a good alternative. Be sure to apply a good sealing primer, before painting, as concrete is porous and will soak up a lot of paint.

When working with concrete blocks, it is best to paint the surface with block filler, before applying the paint. Concrete block is even more porous than concrete, so the need for sealing the wall is even more critical. Block filler is an extremely thick paint primer, with a high solids content. It fills the pores, providing a smoother, less porous surface for the paint.

Fabric

One of the easiest ways to hide a concrete wall is to cover it with fabric. While not a typical wall covering or something strong enough to hang pictures from, covering a wall with fabric can be attractive, providing a look something like an Arabian tent in the desert. While any fabric will do, avoid fabrics with a bold pattern, as they won’t really look right. It helps a lot to bunch the fabric slightly, like curtains are bunched, and that doesn’t work well with bold patterns.

One option for large pieces of inexpensive fabric is to find bed sheets on sale. These can be attached at the floor and ceiling or from a wainscot to the ceiling.

Veneer Plaster

The term veneer plaster doesn’t refer to a sheet material that is stuck onto the walls with an adhesive, like wood veneer is stuck to furniture. Rather, it refers to skim coating the walls with a thin layer of plaster. This might go over a special substrate, but can at times be applied directly to the walls, especially if there is no risk of moist coming through the walls.

Lath and Plaster

If the plaster can’t be applied directly to the concrete walls, the solution is usually to attach lath to the walls and then plaster over the lath. This is actually the construction technique used before drywall became popular and it still works just as it did back then, even though it is more labor intensive.

The first step is attaching lath to the concrete walls. This is usually done with concrete nails. Both wood and metal lath can be used. The lath provides something for the plaster to cling to, preventing it from coming loose from the walls. Once the lath is securely fastened, the lath is troweled on in two or more layers, seeking to get as smooth a surface as possible.

Exposed Concrete Blocks or Cement Board

Exposed concrete blocks and cement boards are an option to consider over concrete, as they can be attached directly to the concrete wall with mastic or mortar. It provides a rugged, industrial look that is very durable.

Brick or Stone Masonry

While not an inexpensive or easy option, covering the existing concrete with stone or brick will definitely provide an attractive look, which will be appreciated by everyone. This is the ideal look for someone who is looking for an accent wall which will really stand out and impress visitors.

basement finishing, framing
Basement finishing, Shane Bennett

Finishes that Require Framing

While there are plenty of wall options that don’t require framing, not everything can be done without framing. It may very well be necessary to install some framing in the basement, in order to install the type of wall covering desired. If that is necessary, I’d recommend looking at the options listed above, which take up the least amount of space, while providing the necessary support for the wall covering being used.

Pegboard

While not the kind of thing that most people would want to use throughout their basement, covering a section of the wall with a pegboard can offer some interesting options for decorating and storage. If pegboard is to be used, be sure to use ¼” thick board, rather than 1/8” thick, so that the board lays flat and doesn’t buckle. The thinner pegboard is more flexible and therefore likely to become wavy when weight is put on it.

A fairly extensive selection of pegboard hangers are available. These can either be used to hang things directly to the pegboard or as hangers for things like shelves and bins to store and display items on the wall. Pegboard is a high-density fiberboard, so it is fairly strong; but due to how thin it is, make sure that it is well supported by the structure behind it.

Cork Board

Like pegboard, cork board gives the homeowner the option of having a wall that is versatile, either for decoration or as a family message center. It can be thought of as turning one wall in the basement into a giant bulletin board.

Because cork is rather weak and can break fairly easily, it needs to be mounted directly to a substrate. This could be the cement walls themselves, if the walls are smooth enough. However, most people mount their cork board to drywall or plywood with an adhesive.

Wahoo Walls

The Wahoo Wall system is an interlocking panel system, made of polystyrene walls. These interlock together, providing insulation. The panels are held together with a spline, inserted behind the skin, making assembly and installation extremely easy. The surface can either be smooth or textured in a variety of different ways.

Corrugated Metal

One of the popular looks today is a more industrial look. There are several ways of achieving this, amongst which is to use corrugated metal roofing material on the walls. This can be screwed directly to structural backing, without any drywall in-between. Run the ribs on the corrugated metal vertically for the best possible appearance.

Slatwall

Slatwall is a product made for the retail sales industry out of MDF. The sheets have T-slots cut into them, allowing fixtures that are designed to be used with slatwall to hook directly into the wall and be moved to change displays. In a home basement, they can be used to make an accent wall, where seasonally-appropriate décor can be changed out.

Slatwall is also used by some woodworkers to make a tool wall in their workshop. With that in mind, slatwall might be useful in any basement room that will be used as a work area, whether that would be the laundry room or a crafts room.

Vinyl Siding

The same sort of vinyl siding that is used on the exterior of homes can be installed on basement walls. If the floor is left concrete and the overhead floor joists are left exposed, perhaps after staining them, it can give the effect of being on a patio, rather than in the basement.

Wood Slats

One of the most attractive options for finish out a basement wall, without using drywall, is to install wood slats. This style started out with using salvaged slats from pallets, but has morphed into using a wide variety of materials for the slats. Today, the most common material used for this is wood laminate flooring. Wood laminate flooring systems interlock together fairly easily, making them easy to install on the wall. They are much easier to work with than the old tongue-and-groove hardwood floors, while providing a similar, attractive look.

If wood flooring is to be used for a wood slat wall, without drywall underneath it, it is a good idea to go with one of the thicker flooring options available. A wall that is ½” to ¾” thick is going to be much stronger than one that is only ¼” thick.

Textured Wall Panels

There are a variety of different textured wall panels on the market, from textures that appear to be random geometric shapes, to imitation shiplap and beadboard. Imitation stone and brick walls are available in a variety of different styles to match almost any tape. Depending on the type purchased, it may be possible to attach them directly to the concrete walls of the basement, but some styles require a structure and even a backing board to attach to. That will depend on the manufacturer and will be specified in the material’s instructions and on the manufacturer’s website.

Just Plywood

If a rustic look is desired, it can easily be accomplished by just installing plywood panels or making board and batten walls out of plywood and 1” thick dimensional lumber. One of the more classic looks with plywood is to single the surface with a torch, bringing out the grain. This can then be varnished to protect the finish and keep the carbon from rubbing off the wall.

One nice thing about plywood is that it is basically self-supporting, as long as there is something to attach it to. Even a thinner sheet of plywood (3/8”) can be mounted on 24” centers with little risk of it bowing.

Finishing the Project

Whenever using any of these alternative methods of finish basement walls, be sure to trim out the edges of the walls properly. That will do more to make the wall look finished than anything else. Even a concrete block wall that has baseboard installed and molding around openings and in corner will look finished. On the other hand, the best and most expensive wall coverings won’t look finished, without taking that extra bit of effort to install the right sort of trim.

Basement recreation rooms tend to be places of a lot of play, including horseplay. Take that into consideration with the choice of wall finish, including any paint or varnish that is to be used. It’s worth spending a little more on quality finishes that won’t chip or scratch easily, rather than having to repaint or refinish the walls after just a few years.

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