Have you ever walked into a new building and noticed uneven plasterboard walls or ceilings? As a project builder, it's your responsibility to ensure quality finishes, yet many builders fail to clearly define the level of plasterboard finish in their contracts. This oversight often leads to frustration, extra costs, and poor results.

There are three 'Levels of Finish' for plasterboard - 3, 4 and 5, ranging from 'fair' to 'premium' - and each has specific requirements to achieve a smooth, professional result.

If you don't determine the right level of finish before the frame goes up, you're setting yourself up for trouble. The tolerances for frame alignment and plasterboard installation vary significantly between levels of finish.

Clearly defining plasterboard levels of finish in all your contracts will save you headaches, hassle and a whole lot of hard-earned cash in the long run.

What Are the 3 Levels of Plasterboard Finish?

The three levels of plasterboard finish define the amount of work needed to make plasterboard walls and ceilings smooth and ready to paint. It's important for builders and contractors to specify the level of finish in contracts, as it impacts time, cost and the final result.

Level 3 - Basic Finish

A level 3 finish involves installing plasterboard and ensuring all joints and interior angles are taped and filled. No sanding is required, so the surface will still show signs of joints and fixing points under certain light conditions. This basic level of finish is suitable only for areas where appearance is not critical, such as attics, basements or garages.

Level 4 - Standard Finish

Level 4 provides a standard level of finish for most domestic construction. All joints and interior angles are taped and filled, then lightly sanded to provide a smooth surface with minimal joint visibility. This level of finish is suitable for most living spaces where lighting conditions are normal.

Level 5 - High-quality Finish

Level 5 finish provides the highest quality, seamless result. Multiple coats of joint compound are applied and sanded between coats. The entire surface is then skim coated before sanding with fine-grade sandpaper. This level of finish is recommended for critical lighting areas like feature walls, hallways, living rooms and ceilings. The smooth, seamless surface also provides the best base for paint finishes.

Specifying the level of plasterboard finish for your building project helps manage expectations and ensures the desired level of quality is achieved. For the best results, determine the level of finish required for each area before construction starts.

Why the Level of Finish Matters for Your Project

When it comes to construction projects, the level of finish for plasterboard really matters. As a project builder, specifying the level of finish in contracts is crucial to managing expectations and ensuring a quality result.

There are three levels of plasterboard finish to choose from: Level 3, Level 4 and Level 5, with Level 5 being the highest standard. Each level has specific requirements for things like jointing compound application, sanding, and painting preparation. If the level of finish isn’t clearly defined, you could end up with a final result that doesn’t meet the client’s needs or expectations.

For residential builds, Level 4 is typically the minimum, providing a finish suitable for most panting or wallpapering. Level 5, also known as ‘feature finish’, requires much more intensive jointing and sanding to achieve an ultra-smooth surface perfect for gloss or semi-gloss paints. For commercial projects, the level of finish may depend on the final use of the space. An office or retail area would require Level 5, while a warehouse may only need Level 3.

By determining the level of plasterboard finish at the start of the project and including it in contracts and specifications, you'll avoid confusion, rework and potential disputes down the track. Your clients and contractors will have a clear understanding of the standard required, and you'll end up with a quality finish that meets expectations. Defining the level of finish is a simple step that can save time, money and headaches for any building project.

Specifying the Right Level of Finish for Each Area

When determining the level of finish for the plasterboard in your project, you’ll need to consider the purpose and function of each area. The level of finish directly impacts the final appearance and quality of the wall surface, so choose wisely.

Level 3 - Basic Finish

Provides a basic smooth surface with visible joints and fastener heads that are filled and sanded. Minor imperfections are acceptable at this level.

Level 4 - Standard Finish

Level 4 is suitable for most living areas and workspaces where a higher quality surface is desired. Joints, angles and fastener heads are hidden with two coats of joint compound and light sanding between coats. The final surface is smooth and seamless with no visual imperfections. This level of finish is ideal for areas like hallways, bedrooms and offices.

Level 5 - Premium Finish

Demanding areas like feature walls, living rooms or commercial spaces call for a Level 5 finish. Three separate coats of joint compound are applied, with sanding in between, to create a glass-smooth surface. All joints, angles and fasteners are concealed, and the wall surface appears as a continuous plane. Minor imperfections are repaired to achieve a flawless finish.

Choosing and clearly specifying the right level of finish for your project will ensure you get the results you expect. Take the time to determine how each area will be used and the overall quality of finish you desire. Your walls will thank you for it! And your clients or customers will surely appreciate the attention to detail.

Achieving the Desired Level of Finish: Frame Tolerances

To achieve the desired level of finish for your plasterboard, the frame construction needs to meet specific tolerances. If the frame is not built accurately, the plasterboard cannot be fixed and finished to the required standard.

Frame Alignment

For Levels 4 and 5, frames must be aligned vertically and horizontally to within 3mm over 1.8m. This means the studs and plates must be accurately spaced and secured to avoid waves or ripples in the plasterboard surface. At Level 3, a tolerance of 5mm over 1.8m is allowed.

Take the time to check the frame with a level and measuring tape before fixing any plasterboard. Any misalignment will telegraph through and be almost impossible to hide, even with multiple coats of compound. It’s best to get it right from the start.

Stud Spacing

The spacing of studs also impacts the level of finish. For the highest quality Level 5, studs should be spaced at 450mm centres. At Level 4, you can space studs slightly wider at 600mm. For a basic Level 3, studs can be up to 600mm apart.

Wider stud spacing means less support for the plasterboard, requiring more coats of compound and effort to achieve a smooth finish. It also increases the risk of the plasterboard sagging or becoming wavy over time.

Timber strength and seasoning

M10 treated pine is pretty much the standard for builders these days, but let's be honest, most of what's out there, even though graded, is - for lack of a better term - dog shit. If you're actually interested in achieving higher quality finishes, M12 graded timber should be your baseline. Even better, go for 90x35mm framing over the typical 70x35mm. Yes, it's more expensive, but when you consider the time spent wrestling with those twisty noodle studs that are bent, cupped, and twisted, then fixing and planing them after framing your walls, you're probably better off starting with better quality materials.

But hey, who thinks about the sunk costs and the time it takes to make good out of shitty products? Isn't it just fantastic to waste your time trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear? It's not like you have an endless supply of time to throw away, right?

Top Tips for Project Builders on Defining Levels of Finish

As a project builder, clearly defining the level of finish for plasterboard is essential to the success of your job. Here are some top tips to keep in mind:

Choose the level early

Determine the level of finish—3, 4 or 5—required before starting the frame construction. Each level has specific tolerances for frame alignment, plasterboard fixing, and finishing. Choosing early helps ensure the proper steps are taken.

Communicate with all parties

Make sure everyone involved, from architects and designers to plasterers and painters, understands the level of finish specified. This avoids confusion, errors, and rework that can reduce profits and damage reputations.

Fix the contract - speak less bullshit!

Specify the finish level in the contract to remove any ambiguity. This ensures that achieving the specified finish becomes a contractual obligation for both you and your subcontractors. It also provides legal protection in case of issues with improperly finished plasterboard. Alternatively, you could act like many Teflon-coated Building Managers who vaguely say "as per our display home" when clients question the plasterboard finish.

Instead of residing in this 'grey zone' – think of it as a more painful version of the twilight zone – consider that builders might be somewhat sadomasochistic. They seem to prefer contributing to their own pain by skimping on precision and clear paperwork, opting instead to spend more time giving lip service to customers. After all, it's not like your customers haven't heard your brand of bullshit before, right?

Inspect thoroughly

Closely inspect the work to ensure it meets the standards for the specified level of finish. Level 5, for example, requires plasterboard joints to be concealed and sanded, with no visual defects. Scrutinise the work to identify any flaws early so they can be rectified.

Provide guidance + Inspect their output

Before assigning work to your plasterers and painters, have a conversation with them. Ensure they can meet your expectations and won't just pocket extra cash for higher finish levels, only to deliver the "same as always" standard. Another effective strategy is to actually pay for the desired finish. You might be surprised at how compensating people fairly for their output and skill can significantly improve the level of care they put into their work.

Give builders, plasterers and painters clear instructions for achieving the necessary level of finish. Explain the required tolerances, techniques, number of coats, sanding, and any other details needed to meet the standard. Inspect their output while they are doing it. Hang around like a bad smell so they know that you are going to crawl up their ass if they cut corners.

Defining and delivering the appropriate level of plasterboard finish is vital to a successful building project. Follow these tips to ensure you get it right the first time.


It's critical you specify the level of plasterboard finish in your contracts and make sure everyone is on the same page. If you don't, you could end up with a shoddy result that requires expensive re-working or leaves your clients less than impressed.

Take the time to determine whether you need a level 3, 4 or 5 finish before you start framing. It will save you headaches down the road and ensure a high-quality result that meets the needs of the space.

Specifying plasterboard levels of finish is a small thing that makes a big difference.