Sand lightly.

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About 35 years ago, when I was a brand-new homeowner with big plans, one task that puzzled and infuriated me was drywall finishing. As I gutted the walls of my old house, replacing the plaster with nice, flat sheets of wallboard, getting everything ready for painting seemed to take forever.

What I was doing: Too much of everything. Too much filler, applied in layers that were much too thick and that took a long time to dry, followed by sanding marathons — and for all that effort, it still didn’t turn out as nice as I wanted.

As years went by, I gradually became more patient and more shrewd. Why smear a huge amount of filler onto a wall, hoping against hope that it will stay put and not succumb to gravity, when several thin passes do a much better job and dry in a fraction of the time?

Well, I’m back at it. I have two drywall projects on the go right now, one large room and a smaller one in the bathroom. The bathroom project is nearly finished now, but for some reason the idea of sanding made me nervous and I had started to procrastinate. It was probably the fear of finding some unauthorized lump in a hard-to sand spot, or a missed hollow area requiring another coat (and more drying time).

I went in there anyway, with my step stool and a sheet of 150 grit sandpaper — but rather than just flailing away, I ran my hand over the wall and felt what was there. It came as a pleasant surprise to find that the area was already mostly flat. Working with a very light touch, I feathered edges and removed a shallow bump or two, stopping frequently to re-check the area I was working on. It took next to no time, and at the end of the session all that was required was a tiny bit more drywall mud to finish a seam and fill one last hollow. The wall will be ready to prime and paint tomorrow afternoon.

The secret is to get appropriate feedback on what you’re doing. If you run ahead without monitoring the situation, rushing to get something done, there is a very real danger of making things worse rather than better. Strategic pauses keep you on track and improve the finished product, with less work overall and definitely less rework. Work smart and mindfully, because there’s no virtue in making things any harder than they have to be.

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