Homes built before 1950 typically have lath and plaster walls, while post-1950 homes often have drywall as the main wall material. However, there are several other interior wall materials you may come across in an older home. These include Beaver Board and Masonite, which are both made from wood chips. Your home may alternatively have solid wood boards on the interior walls, similar to the paneling used for exterior walls. Finally, your home may have sheets of wood veneer paneling as an interior wall surface.
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How Can You Tell What Your Walls are Made Of?
In order to discover what the wall material is in your home, it’s important to look in the right places. Our guide on how to tell if your walls are plaster or drywall contains several tips. The top methods for identifying all types of walls are:
- Remove a switchplate and look at the edges of the hole where the electrical box is installed. The edges can reveal a cross-section of the wall material.
- Go into an attic or other unfinished space to get a look at the wall material from the back.
- Locate records showing when your home was built.
Most local municipalities have records of home construction dates stretching back for decades. In many cases, this information is even online for free. By dialing in a date range for your home, you’ll narrow down what materials your home was built with. Older homes are much more likely to have plaster and lath walls instead of drywall, for instance.
What Were Walls Made of in the Early 1900s?
Most homes built from the early 1900s until the mid-1940s were constructed with lath and plaster interior walls. In this system, strips of wood (called laths) are nailed so that they span the distance between wall studs. The laths are then covered with several layers of wet plaster made from gypsum. This results in a hard, smooth surface.
- Lath and plaster is the most common wall material for homes built in the early 1900s.
- Sometimes, compressed wood and drywall sheets were used in homes at this time.
- Wooden boards are a common wall covering in pre-World War II homes.
Although gypsum plasters were the most common wall material, there are others. Beaver board, which is made of compressed wood fibers, was invented in 1903 and was used as a wall covering in some buildings. Additionally, solid wood boards were often used as wall coverings indoors. Most often, this is seen as vertical boards, although horizontal boards (known as shiplap) were sometimes used in early construction.
What Were Walls Made of in the 1950s?
Beginning in the 1950s, home builders shifted from lath and plaster to drywall as the wall material of choice. Drywall is less expensive, easier to install, and more fire-resistant than traditional lath and plaster. So, if your home was built in the 1950s or later, there’s a good chance the walls are made from drywall.
- Drywall became the most common wall material beginning in the 1950s.
- Drywall became more popular partially because it is fire-resistant.
- Wood paneling and boards can still be found in 1950s homes, but drywall is more common.
At the same time, drywall took the place of lath and plaster walls, it also became more popular than walls made of wood. This change was mostly made with safety in mind since the gypsum used for drywall is naturally fire-resistant. Although Masonite, wood paneling, and wood veneer were still used during this era, they are not as common as drywall.
6 Common Wall Types in Old Houses
If you’ve recently moved into an older home and aren’t sure what the walls are made of, it’s time to find out. It’s important to know the differences because even hanging pictures on plaster vs. drywall is different based on what your walls are made of. Below is the guide to the different wall types and how to identify them.
Lath and Plaster
Lath and plaster walls are the most common type of walls found in older homes. A lath and plaster wall consists of several coats of plaster spread over wood or metal lath. The laths themselves are hidden under a layer of plaster when you are viewing the finished wall, so it can be difficult to determine if you have drywall or plaster at first. The best ways to identify if your walls are lath and plaster are:
- Plaster is very hard—if you can’t push a pushpin in by hand, it’s probably plaster. If the pushpin goes in easily, your walls are probably drywall.
- The presence of long, thin cracks in the wall surface indicate it is made of the original plaster.
- If you have unfinished walls in your attic, the appearance of wood lath with hardened plaster oozing through indicates plaster walls.
In some older homes, repairs and renovations by previous owners may lead to a mix of materials. Many times, plaster walls are partially replaced with drywall during renovations. So, your home may have both plaster and drywall. Just remember to use specialized anchors for plaster walls so you can hang decor.
Drywall was invented in 1894 and originally patented as “Sackett Board,” so it is older than most people realize. Although drywall didn’t rise to popularity until the mid-1940s, it was still commercially available when lath and plaster was the norm for home building. To determine if your older home has drywall, follow these tips:
- Remove a switch plate or socket cover. Inspect the edges of the hole around the switch itself. A layer of white gypsum sandwiched between sheets of paper indicates drywall.
- Try the pushpin test—if you can push a pin in by hand, you probably have drywall.
- Absence of cracks—drywall does not form long cracks over time like plaster does.
Drywall is commonly used during renovations of older homes. It’s not uncommon to find drywall attached directly on top of lath and plaster, wood, or other wall coverings. So, the rear of interior walls may show the familiar signs of lath and plaster even though the actual wall covering is a layer of drywall.
Beaver Board is a sheet-like wall covering made from compressed wood fibers. It was invented in the early 1900s and similar products were used through the 1980s. The surface of Beaver Board is smooth, similar to drywall. However, there are key differences to look for. These are:
- Beaver Board is very thin, often only 3/16-inch (5 mm).
- Drywall is much thicker, usually 3/8–5/8-inch thick (10–16 mm).
- Beaver Board sounds “thin” or drumlike when you knock on it.
- The back side of Beaver Board is brown or orange and has a textured surface.
By far the best way to determine if you have Beaver Board walls is to find an unfinished part of your home, such as an attic, and look at the backside of a wall that shows bare studs. Orange-brown color with a dimpled or rough texture indicates Beaver Board.
Masonite is a common wall material in older homes. It is very similar to Beaver Board because it is also made of wood. Masonite is manufactured by compressing wood chips together and binding them with resin. It is typically produced in thin sheets, about 1/8-inch thick (3 mm). You can identify it through these methods:
- A very smooth wall surface that sounds hollow when you knock on it.
- The back side of Masonite sheets are typically brown.
- The texture of the back of a sheet of Masonite has a “woven” appearance, like cloth.
Masonite may not be used for every room in your house, but laminated Masonite was commonly used as a wall material in bathrooms. This is due to the fact that laminated Masonite is far more water-resistant than drywall. So, you may have Masonite only in your home’s bathrooms.
Older homes often used solid wood paneling. This is commonly true of colonial homes in North America, as well as farm homes built in regions where lumber is abundant. The main types of wood paneling you will encounter are:
- Wainscoting: a form of wood paneling that comes midway up the walls.
- Tongue and Groove Pine Paneling: typically made of boards that run vertically.
- Shiplap Paneling: made from boards that run horizontally.
In addition to antique homes, some homes built in the 1950s, 60s, and beyond use wood paneling. This is typically used in cabins or other custom homes where a natural look is desired. So, you might find wood paneling in an old home or a new residence.
Veneer paneling is a combination of Beaver Board and true wood paneling. Sheets of paneling with the look of wood boards rose to popularity in the 1950s and were commonly used in homebuilding through the 1980s. These products were made by gluing a thin veneer of wood over a layer of compressed wood fiber. The identifying features of veneer paneling are:
- Large sheets of wood that look like boards, but the grooves between boards are actually part of one continuous piece.
- The wall feels and sounds thin and hollow when you knock on it.
- Nails and screws easily pull out of the thin paneling.
If your wall looks like it’s made of solid wood but sounds very thin when you knock on it, it’s most likely wood veneer paneling. This paneling is also very thin, which you will notice the first time you attempt to drive a screw or nail into your wall.
What are the Different Types of Walls in Older Houses?
The most common wall material found in interior walls of older homes are:
- Lath and plaster
- Beaver Board
- Wood boards
- Wood veneer paneling
By removing switch plates to get a closer look at the wall, knocking on the walls to see how thin and hollow they sound, and getting a look at the back of the wall materials in unfinished spaces, you can determine exactly what your walls are made of.