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Building a Wall

Behind most finished residential walls lies a rather simple construction. Vertical members, called studs, butt at the top and bottom against horizontal members, called plates. Although it looks straightforward, building a wall takes thoughtful planning. When you cover the framing with sheets of drywall or paneling, the seams between sheets must fall in the center of studs. There must be a nailing surface for the sheets at all the corners. And, all framing members must be aligned along a flat plane.

If the floor and ceiling are nearly level, it’s rather easy to preassemble a stud wall on the floor and then raise it into position. If the floor and ceiling are uneven, or if you’re building the wall in tight quarters, it’s best to build the wall in place, custom-cutting each stud to fit and toenailing it to the top and bottom plates. Whichever approach you choose, make sure you have a way to attach your wall to the ceiling. If the wall runs perpendicular to the ceiling joists, simply fasten the wall’s top plate with two 16-penny nails at every joist. If it runs parallel to the joists, you will have to install cross braces, so you can nail the top plate into solid material.

1. Mark the wall location. Begin by deciding exactly where the wall will go. Use a framing square and a chalk line to mark its location on the floor. For long walls, check for square using the 3-4-5 method. Using a level and a straight 2x4 that is as high as your ceiling, mark the wall location on the ceiling, joists, or cross bracing. These marks will help you position the wall before you plumb it. Make sure there is adequate framing in the ceiling to which you can nail the top plate.

2. Cut and mark the plates. Using your floor layout as a guide, mark and cut 2x4s for the top and bottom plates (usually the same length). Place them on edge beside each other and mark for the studs. The first stud will be at the end of the wall. The remaining studs should be 16 (or 24) inches on center, meaning that from the edge of the wall to the center of each stud will be a multiple of 16 (or 24). Make a mark every 16 inches; then with a combination or speed square draw lines 3/4 inch on each side of your first marks. Draw an X in the middle of the marks to show where to nail the studs.

3. Provide nailers, cut studs. If your new wall runs parallel to the ceiling joists, cut pieces of 2x material to fit tightly between the ceiling joists and install them every 2 feet or so. Measure for your studs and cut them to length.

4. Assemble the wall. Working on a flat surface, lay the studs on edge between the top and bottom plates. It helps to have something solid, such as a wall, to hold the framing against while you assemble and nail the wall. For speed, nail one plate at a time to the studs. Drive two 16-penny nails through the plate and into the ends of each stud. Because hammer blows tend to knock studs out of alignment, continually double-check your work while nailing. Keep the edges of the studs flush with the plate edges. If any of the studs are twisted or bowed, replace them.

5. Raise the frame. Framework can be cumbersome, so have a helper on hand. Position the bottom plate about where it needs to go and tip the wall into position. If the wall fits so tightly against the ceiling that you have to hammer it into place, protect the framing with a scrap of 2x4 as you pound. Tap both ends of the frame until it is roughly plumb in both directions.

6. Snug the frame with shims. If the wall is a bit short in places, drive shims between the bottom plate and the floor or between the top plate and the ceiling joists. Have your helper steady the framework while you drive the pieces in place. Drive shims in from both sides, thin edge to thin edge, to keep the plate from tilting.

7. Fasten frame to wall and floor. Once the frame is snug, recheck that the wall is plumb in both directions. Check both ends of wall and every other stud. Fasten the top to the ceiling by driving in a 16-penny nail through the plate and into each joist. Fasten the bottom plate to the floor. Use 16-penny nails if the floor is wood; use masonry nails or a power hammer if the floor is concrete.

Getting the Stud Length Correct - Few things are more frustrating than building a stud wall only to find that your measurements were off and the wall is 1/4 inch too tall. When that happens, the only thing you can do is take the wall down, pull off one plate, remove the nails, cut all the studs, and nail it back together again. To measure for stud length, nail together two scraps of 2x4 to represent the top and bottom plates. Set this double 2x4 on the floor, measure up to the joist, and subtract 1/4 inch for shimming. Take measurements every few feet.

Building a Wall in Place

1. Install top and bottom plates. If building a wall on the floor and raising it into position are not practical in your situation, begin by cutting the top and bottom plates, and marking them for studs. Transfer the marks to the faces of the plates, making sure the marks are clear so you can see them easily to align the studs while toenailing. Nail the top plate to the joists. Use a level and a straight board to mark the location of the bottom plate or use a chalk line case as a plumb bob. Mark the floor in two places and make an X to indicate on which side of the mark the plate should be positioned. Use masonry nails or a power hammer to fasten the bottom plate to the floor.

2. Cut and install the studs. With top and bottom plates installed, measure the required length of each stud individually. Add 1/16 inch for a snug fit and cut. Tap each stud into place. If you really have to whack it to get it into place, it is too long. Don’t risk splitting the stud; take it down and trim it a little.

3. Toenail the studs. To secure the studs, drive 8-penny nails at an angle through the side of studs and into the plate; this is called toenailing. Tap the nail once or twice while holding it parallel to the floor or ceiling. When the nail tip bites into the wood, change the angle to 45 degrees. Drive four to six nails into each joint, two on each side, with an optional one at the front and back. The first nail may move the stud, but the second nail, driven from the other side, will move it back. If you have difficulty toenailing, drill pilot holes for the nails, using a 3/32-inch bit. Or, place a 14 1/2-inch board between studs to serve as a temporary nailing brace.

4. Frame at corners. When framing corners, make sure there is a nailing surface for every piece of drywall or paneling that will be installed. This means adding nonstructural nailers. In Situation 1, right, the extra stud is turned sideways to offer a nailing surface and strengthen the corner. Drive 16-penny nails first through end stud #1 and into the extra stud, then through end stud #2 and into the extra stud and end stud #1. In Situation 2, right, several foot-long 2x4 scraps (usually three in a standard 8-foot wall) serve as spacers between two full-length studs placed at the end of one wall. Tie the wall sections together with 16-penny nails. Situation 3, right, shows two intersecting walls. Nail three studs together and to the plates, then attach to the adjoining wall.

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