Installing A Suspended Ceiling

Suspended ceilings have two main features: a metal grid that provides a structure and lightweight panels that slip into the grid. The installation, which sometimes can be difficult depending on what the ceiling is suspended from, requires only common household tools. You’ll install the grid first, starting with the wall angles, which fasten to walls. Then come the runners (or main tees), which hang by wires from the ceiling and run perpendicular to the joists. Then come the cross-tees, which are installed between and perpendicular to the runners. Whichever way you install the runners, leave at least 4 inches of space above the framework (or 6 inches if you’re installing lighting) to provide room to place the panels.

The loose ceiling panels sit on the flanges of the installed grid. They remove easily for access to ductwork, plumbing, or electrical circuits. The secret to a successful installation is to measure, measure, measure, and then level. It’s not hard, but unless you want a room with a sloping ceiling and a diagonal grid, make sure you do both. Start by measuring the room. The ceiling will likely require some partial panels. For a balanced look, put in two equally sized partial panels, one on each side of the room. (See “Balancing the Ceiling,” below.)

As you begin the actual installation, you’ll be stringing lots of layout lines. Use mason’s line because it won’t sag as regular string will. Make sure the lines are level and double-check the grid with a 4-foot level as you build it. Correcting problems is easy, usually just a matter of tightening a screw.

MATERIALS: Nails, wall angles, hanger screws, hanger wire, cross-tees, runners, suspended ceiling tiles, common nails, lights, translucent plastic panel, wire nuts, electrician’s tape

TOOLS: Hammer, tape measure, chalk line and mason’s string, line level, tin snips or hacksaw, screwdriver, 4-foot level, utility knife, straightedge, pliers

HANDY HANGERS - The right hanger can make a job a lot easier. The simplest hangers are merely eye hooks, but the best are both easy to install and easy to adjust. One company makes a flattened bolt that you drive in with a socket that fits in your drill. Another company makes hanger wires with eyelets on one end: You run a drywall screw through the eyelet to attach the hanger and drive the screw in or out to level the grid. Check out the other options too, such as line clamps, which simplify attaching leveling lines to the grid.

Balancing the ceiling - To balance the ceiling make the border tiles (next to the wall) the same size on opposite sides of the room. This example uses 2x2-foot tiles in a 11x14-foot room. First divide the width of the room by the width of the tiles. (1 1/2=5 1/2 tiles.) Divide the fraction by two to determine the size of the border tiles. (11/2=5 1/2 tiles.) The border tiles would be 1/4 tile wide, (6 inches) which would appear out of proportion to the other tiles. Add 1/2 tile to the size of the border tile, making it 3/4 of a tile. Doing this means you use one less full tile. (4 full tiles and two border tiles of 18 inches each.) Repeat the process for the length of the room, if necessary.

FINDING CEILING JOISTS - Some ceilings make it difficult to locate ceiling joists with a stud finder. If you have access, simply peek into the attic to see which direction the ceiling joists go and how far apart they are. If you don’t have access you’ll have to measure from below. Joist spacing is usually either 16 inches or 24 inches; once you determine the direction, measure from the end wall either 16 inches or 24 inches and drive a nail through the ceiling. If it doesn’t hit a joist, move in either direction in '/2-inch increments until you hit it, mark the joist position, and continue to measure across the ceiling.

Having A Suspended Ceiling

To put in a level ceiling you first need to draw a level line around the room marking where you will install the wall angles. The surest solution is to rent a tripod laser and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Generally you put it in the center of the room and level the legs. When you turn on the laser, it spins, tracing a level line around the room. Hang the wall angle along the lines.

If you’d rather not spend the rental money, count on spending more time doing layout. Start by driving a nail at one end of the wall to mark the height of the suspended ceiling. Tie mason’s line to the nail—mason’s line won’t sag like regular chalk lines do—and rub it with a piece of chalk. Hang a line level on the line and stretch the line to the far end of the wall. Raise or lower the line until it’s level and snap a line on the wall. Repeat on the remaining walls.

Order 10 percent extra for trimming and replacement acclimate for at least 24 hours (up to 72 hours for a basement).

1 LAY OUT THE BOTTOM OF THE WALL ANGLE 4 INCHES BELOW THE JOISTS, or 6 inches if the ceiling will have a light in it. Nail or screw the wall angle along the line. Cut the wall angle as necessary with tin snips or a hacksaw. Cut the inside corners and miter the outside ones.

2 SNAP A LINE ALONG THE JOISTS TO SHOW THE LOCATIONS OF THE HANGERS for the wires that support the runners. Screw the hangers into the joists at 4-foot intervals along the chalk line.

3 TO LAY OUT A SQUARE GRID, first run mason's line from wall angle to wall angle along the path of the runner nearest the wall. Then stretch mason's line along the path of cross-tees nearest the wall. To square up, mark one line 3 feet from the intersection and the other 4 feet from the intersection. When the distance between these marks is 5 feet, the lines are square. Slide the lines as necessary to square them.

4 TO MAKE SURE THE GRID WILL BE LEVEL, measure up from the lines to the hanger wires, and bend them at the point where they will slip through the hanging holes in the runners. The exact distance varies from brand to brand, but it's equal to the distance from the bottom of the runner to the center of the hole.

5 CUT THE RUNNER TO SIZE. Make the cut so that when you place the runner on the wall angle, the hole into which the cross-tee fits is directly over the line marking the path of the cross-tee.

6 REST ONE END OF THE RUNNER ON THE WALL ANGLE, and slide the bent hanging wire through the hole. Snap sections of runner together as necessary to span the room, adding a hanger and wire to support the runner at any joints. If necessary, trim the last section of runner to fit.

7 NCE YOU’VE INSTALLED THE FIRST RUNNER, RUN LEVEL LINES MARKING THE PATHS OF THE OTHERS. Measure up, bend the hangers, and hang each runner as before. Check with a 4-foot level to make sure each runner is level. Make any necessary adjustments by turning the hanger in or out of the joist.

8 AFTER YOU’VE INSTALLED ALL THE RUNNERS, HANG THE CROSS-TEES. Start in the middle of the room, put in a few cross-tees, and then install some ceiling panels to square up the grid. Then install the rest of the cross-tees.

9 THE CROSS-TEES AROUND THE EDGE OF THE ROOM WILL PROBABLY NEED TO BE CUT TO FIT. Measure, cut, and install them one at a time. To keep the grid uniform, alternate sides: Put a tee on one side of the room, follow the line of tees to the other side of the room, and then install the next tee.

10 INSTALL ALL THE FULL-SIZE PANELS FIRST. Install all the ceiling panels except for those around the edge of the room, which will need to be cut to fit.

11 CUT THE TILES AROUND THE EDGE OF THE ROOM TO FIT. Place the tiles face up on a flat surface, run a utility knife along a straightedge repeatedly, and then snap the panel in two. Once you've trimmed the panels, put them in their openings. NOTE: If your tiles have a rabbeted (grooved) edge you will have to cut a similar rabbet into the edges of the border tiles with a utility knife so they will fit flush in the grid.

Lighting A Suspended Ceiling

THE RIGHT LIGHT - Ceiling grid fixtures like those shown here are the standard approach to lighting a suspended ceiling, but they’re not the only way. Fixtures called "troffers" fit into the grid and cover the light with a hinged door that can have dressy slats, translucent panels, or a combination of the two. Another option is to create a luminous ceiling with light fixtures running the width and breadth of the room and using translucent panels.

The best fixture to use in a luminous ceiling is a 4-foot long 40-watt rapid-start unit. To determine the number of lamps for the entire area, sketch out the dimensions of the ceiling. Plan for the lamps to lie in parallel lines between 18 inches and 24 inches apart. The narrower spacing provides more light but is more expensive. Allow about 8 inches between the ends of the lines and the wall.

1 MOST CEILING LIGHTS REQUIRE ASSEMBLY, WHICH CAN VARY SLIGHTLY FROM BRAND TO BRAND. Typically the fixture comes in several pieces: a reflector, which may (or may not] be part of the main housing; two bulb sockets per bulb; two end caps; and mounting brackets. Snap the sockets in place. Put the end caps on the housing and screw them in place.

2 TO WIRE THE LIGHT, FEED CABLE THROUGH THE OPENING IN THE TOP. Twist the light’s black wire around the black cable wire, then twist the white cable and light wires together. Twist a wire nut over both and wrap electrician's tape around each nut and its wires. Screw the ground wire to the green screw in the fixture.

3 FOR LONG RUNS OF FLUORESCENT LIGHTING, SAVE TIME BY CONNECTING THE FIXTURES END-TO-END with special locknuts and connectors available where you buy the fixtures. It’s more efficient to wire them in sequence than to have individual rows of lights connected to a single junction box.

4 FASTEN THE REFLECTOR TO THE END CAPS, IF NECESSARY. The mounting bracket varies from brand to brand, but the light shown here has a tee-bracket that attaches to each end cap. Attach the bracket ends to the fixture, lift the fixture into place, and attach the brackets to the ceiling grid. Install the bulbs in the fixture.

5 INSERT THE COVER. Slide a translucent plastic panel into place under the fixture. Angle the piece so you can position first one side and then the other on the grid. If the fit is tight, create flexibility by temporarily removing a ceiling panel next to the fixture.

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