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Drywall Nail Pops

In the downstairs half-bath, I have a curious thing happening. I hope I can describe it well enough. On one section of wall, bits of the wall/paint are coming off--to reveal the nails beneath. The wall is only coming away in these little circles above the nails. It's happened twice now, but I can see two more sections where it might happen.

Any clue what's going on? This wall has not been wet or hit by anything. I don't understand why this paint is suddenly popping off.


It sounds like you have "nail pops" in your drywall. This is a very common problem when drywall is installed with nails, but it can also happen with screws.

Nails hold simply by the friction between them and the wood. So over time the nails can back out, and, if the nail is holding drywall in place it will push away the little plug of drywall joint compound used to fill the dimple. If the circle of paint/plaster that is raised up is about the size of a silver dollar, then it must be a nail underneath. If the circle is smaller than a dime, or if it is sort of cone-shaped, it might be a screw underneath.

Either way, the fastener must be driven back in a little tighter, and the hole filled with patching compound or joint compound, and then primed and painted. That actually is a lot of hassle for a few nail pops, and I don't blame you if you delay the entire process until a future time when you repaint the room. And the nails could pop again in a few years.

To tackle this problem, peel away the loose paint and joint compound and look for a Phillips screw head buried in plaster. If it's a screw, drive it in a little tighter by hand. If it's a nail, use a nail set and a hammer to drive it about 1/8 inch deeper. Push on the wall to see if it flexes. The drywall could have separated from the studs. If so, you should drive in some 1-1/4" or 1-5/8" drywall screws, above and below the nail pop, to better secure the drywall.

Then fill the holes with a "setting" type of drywall patching material. That means it will be in powder form, to be mixed with water to a creamy consistency. I use 20 minute setting-type drywall joint compound, which I buy in large bags because I am frequently doing drywall work. But you might be best served with a small package of drywall patching compound. The setting types harden quicker and shrink much less than the "pre-mixed" joint or patching compounds. But there is the added effort of mixing.

You may have to apply a second (or even a third) coating of compound. Use a 3" wide putty knife (at least)... I prefer a 6-inch taping knife, even for small repairs. After the drywall mud has hardened, you can sand the patch smooth.

To finish the patch, you really need to apply primer before painting. You can certainly use a latex primer for this, and you can also use PVA drywall primer, which is probably the least expensive paint product available. I recommend that every homeowner have at least a quart of good quality latex primer, such as Zinsser's Bulls Eye 1-2-3 or Kilz Total One. If you do a lot of work around the house, buy a gallon. Both of these products seem to have a good shelf life.

And of course, ALL home owners keep their old partial cans of paint around for touching up patches...right? And they label the cans so the next home owner knows which cans belong to which room, right? If the room is painted in a light color, you may be able to leave the patch primed but not painted, and the next time you paint the room everything will be back to normal.

Why Does This Happen?

So what exactly causes these nail pops? Possibly the seasonal changes in humidity, which causes the wood to expand and contract slightly. But since nails hold by friction, they can lose their grip when something vibrates or shakes the house framing. Over time a house will experience "racking" or flexing of the structure, primarily by wind but also by seismic activity such as the shaking caused by large trucks on nearby roads. This flexing will cause nails to loosen slightly. Another source of vibration is loud music. I have personally accomplished this. When I was a college student I lived in my parent's house, in a basement bedroom that had been recently remodeled. I listened to some pretty loud music. After a few years I noticed that there were many nails popping out of the drywall. Since the walls were protected by the concrete basement foundation, I doubt that ordinary flexing caused those nail pops.

Generally, drywall that is installed with screws is far less prone to this problem than drywall that is nailed in place. Many drywallers glue AND screw their wallboard to the framing.

I hope this long-winded explanation helps you understand and fix the problem. If your drywall is fastened with nails, you will probably continue to experience these drywall pops until someday when the drywall is removed and new wallboard is installed with screws.


Bruce W. Maki, Editor.



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Copyright 2001

Compiled March 5, 2001