Despite the crowd of admirers shiplap has gained in recent decades, drywall is still holding its own as one of the most popular wall materials. Both are well suited to a variety of decor styles, but beyond this, each has distinct strengths and weaknesses.
Know What You’re Getting
To decide what suits your walls and budget best, it helps to know exactly what goes into shiplap and drywall. Drywall is made from calcium sulfate dihydrate (gypsum) formed into panels. It’s most often sold in 4-by-8-foot sections of 1/2-inch thick, although it’s produced in a range of sizes and thicknesses. In addition to the standard white drywall, moisture-resistant green drywall (greenboard) is also available.
Shiplap is a little more complicated. The term specifically refers to thin wood boards with two opposing rabbet joints, or notches cut on the edges, designed to overlap and form a tight seal when the boards are installed in an alternating formation.
Square-edged wood boards, tongue-and-groove boards, and overlapping clinker (lapstrake) planks aren’t shiplap, although they’re often mislabeled as such. Shiplap might have gotten its name from the clinker planks used on ships, but the two have different shapes.
In many older homes, walls were lined with wood boards for weatherproofing. These might look like shiplap from the outside, but you can’t be sure without removing a board and looking at the edge. Because true shiplap can be expensive, some homeowners opt for faux shiplap using other types of boards to get the same look.
Appearance and Style
Shiplap has been trendy since the 1990s, but it’s not new. Its ability to stand up to inclement weather has made it popular since the 1800s, first for exterior cladding, then for interior use. Historically, shiplap was used for weatherproofing, not aesthetics. Builders lined walls with shiplap, then covered the boards with muslin or cheesecloth, then added wallpaper to hide the seams.
Today, those seams are a big part of shiplap’s appeal. The artisanal look of handcrafted wood shiplap evokes a warmth reminiscent of cozy seaside cabins and rustic farmhouses. At the same time, the clean, uniform lines have a modern feel that can freshen up an older home. This ability to complement both historical and contemporary homes equally well is a major reason shiplap remains so popular. It’s unlikely to look dated anytime soon.
Installed horizontally, shiplap creates a sense of space, making the room feel larger. Installed vertically, shiplap draws the eye upward and makes the room seem higher. Shiplap on the ceiling enhances this effect. Board width also affects the feel of the room. Narrow 4-inch Cape Cod shiplap is a classic, but it can also look busy and constricting, which is why 6- and 8-inch shiplap styles are gaining popularity.
Shiplap makes decorating easier because it’s strong enough to hold nails or screws for items of up to 20 pounds anywhere on the wall. You won’t need to search for studs as you would with drywall.
Drywall came on the scene in 1916 as an affordable alternative to plaster. The texturing technique of skim coating can give drywall the visual interest of traditional plaster, a look valued for its simplicity and restraint. This is a good choice if you want to give the room the sophisticated character of an Old World urban interior.
If you’re more interested in expression than restraint, drywall lets you or your contractor use layering and joint compound to create raised patterns or elaborate bas-relief sculptures for a completely unique wall. Without additional texturing, drywall provides a smooth surface for paint or wallpaper.
Cost and Installation
Drywall panels are cheaper than shiplap per sq. ft., but once you factor in the cost of installation, shiplap usually comes out ahead as the more budget-friendly option.
The average price for drywall is $15 per 4-by-8 foot panel or around $2.15 per sq. ft., but you’ll also need joint tape, joint compound (drywall mud), and a sander to install it. Once the installation is done, you’ll be left with a layer of fine sanding dust that’s a chore to clean up. Because installation is messy and laborious, many homeowners hire a professional for the job. Expect that to cost you somewhere between $1.50 to $1.80 per sq. ft.
In contrast, solid wood shiplap costs between $2.50 and $7.00 per sq. ft., although you might find it at your local sawmill for less. Plywood and medium-density fiberboard (MDF) shiplap boards are cheaper, but less durable.
The big advantage shiplap has over drywall is how easy it is for a DIYer to install with nothing more than a saw, level, stud finder, and hammer and nails. You can start from the top or the bottom, but if you’re not sure whether your boards will fit evenly, start from the top. This ensures you’ll have a full board where it’s most visible. Then fit the next board in place, level, and nail.
Fill the nail holes with spackle or leave them exposed for a homespun look. If you spackle, you’ll need to do a little sanding, but cleanup is a breeze compared to drywall installation. If you use pre-painted board, the job is done at this point. Painting after installation works, too, but take care not to fill in the visible gaps that lend shiplap its distinctive look.
Maintenance and Durability
For both ease of maintenance and long lifespan, shiplap is the clear winner. It’s easy to clean with a damp sponge, although you’ll need to pay extra attention to the gaps, which tend to collect dust. Genuine shiplap made of 3/4-inch thick solid wood can stand up to years of wear and tear.
Major damage is unlikely, and little scrapes and nicks only add character. If solid wood shiplap gets wet from a leaky pipe or broken appliance, it can be dried and saved. Plywood shiplap can tolerate some water, although MDF can’t.
Drywall is delicate in comparison. It’s prone to scratches and dents, which make it look shabby rather than charmingly aged. A door blown open, furniture moved carelessly, or a pet scratching can leave a hole that’s a hassle to repair. Drywall wicks up water quickly and breaks down when wet, so any water is likely to destroy it. This vulnerability to water damage makes drywall tricky to clean.
Because shiplap and drywall both have advantages, the choice between them depends on your priorities. If creating an atmosphere of cozy rustic warmth is your goal or you want a wall that’s durable, low maintenance, and easy to install by yourself, shiplap will meet your needs beautifully. For a more formal ambiance or greater flexibility in design, drywall is often a better choice.