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How To Frame a Ceiling For Drywall

One of the most common do-it-yourself projects is installing drywall. Home repair enthusiasts enjoy installing and finishing drywall because it is a great place to learn new skills.

Source: jlconline.com

Installing drywall is considered by many DIYers to be an intermediate project, requiring a combination of skills. Installing drywall on a ceiling requires special considerations, due to its location and use.

Today we will discuss the process of installing drywall on a ceiling, and hopefully provide a couple of tips the professionals use to make the project relatively simple and effective.

How Long Does it Take to Install Drywall On a Ceiling

The time required to install drywall on a ceiling will be affected by a few factors. Below is a list of the most important:

  • Location
  • Size Of the Drywall
  • Condition Of the Surface
  • Tools and assistance available
  • Skill level

Location

The location of the drywall installation will greatly affect the time and effort required. Often, getting the drywall to the location where it is to be installed is half the battle. For example, joints should always be minimized in a typical drywall installation.

Obviously, the smaller the drywall panel, the more joints the project will have. Therefore, professionals will always use the largest panel possible in a ceiling drywall project.

This process is simple when the area to be drywalled is open and easily accessible, as is common in new construction. Professionals will always use special drywall made just for ceilings, which usually means the drywall will be large, awkward, and sometimes heavy.

This often becomes a problem, because although second-story rooms are often large and airy, such as a vaulted bonus room, the staircase leading to them often are not. This is especially challenging in staircases with multiple landings, as many are only 36” wide. Considering that drywall is normally 48” wide, the problem becomes how to get the material to its intended location.

This problem is solved by the pros in one of three ways. The most common is to use three or four people to twist, gently bend, and manipulate the panel through the staircase. The preferred method, however, involves a crane. This technique is most common in new construction when the structure is empty.

Special attachments are used on a crane arm, and the drywall is literally passed through an open window. This method has the best chance of success, especially when moving large quantities of drywall. If all else fails, the pros will simply use smaller drywall and deal with the additional joints during finishing.

Size Of the Drywall

As already mentioned, the size of the drywall will impact how long it takes to install it. Consider that drywall usually comes in ½” x 48” x 96” sheets. This is very convenient for an 8′ interior wall, but probably not for the obvious reason. Although it may appear that 96” drywall would be perfect for a 96” wall, the drywall panels are actually installed perpendicular to the wall studs, not parallel.

One reason for this is strength. Most materials will gain strength when one is laid atop the other, such as drywall over wall studs. By crossing the studs at a 90-degree angle to the drywall, the strength is exponentially increased. The same applies when framing a ceiling for drywall.

Condition Of the Surface

The physical condition of the surface is extremely important when framing a ceiling for drywall. This is because the roof framing in modern construction is normally done with trusses. This is in contrast to “stick” framing, which describes the older methods used before trusses were available. However, regardless of the techniques used, the same concerns will apply when installing drywall.

Assuming there are no special considerations such as a tray ceiling detail, the ceiling should be as flat and free of defects as possible. This especially applies to larger, open rooms where the ceilings are longer than 12’. This is because generally speaking, the largest sheet available is 12’ long. Rooms longer than 12’ will require a butt joint to another sheet, which is where most drywall defects are located.

Uneven trusses and ceiling joists are the primary culprits of rough-looking drywall, because the tolerances required in rough framing are fairly wide. For example, it is not uncommon for the bottom chord of a truss (the part the drywall attaches to) to be out of plane with another truss only 24” away. Therefore, it is usually recommended to install ceiling strapping before attempting a ceiling drywall installation. 

Tools and Assistance Available

Drywall is a material that is often difficult for one person to handle. Drywall is typically at least 8’ long and 4’ wide, but only ½” thick. This makes the drywall panels very brittle. Since the panels must be surface installed, the panels tend to flex under their own weight and break. For this reason, additional help and tools are usually employed.

A special tool, called a drywall lift is a great idea, especially when working alone. This tool includes a cable and wheel, which lifts the panel to the ceiling and holds it there while the fasteners are driven in. This lift can also be tilted about 80 degrees, which allows it to be used on walls as well.

Professionals, however, rarely use a lift, and prefer to just muscle the panels into place for speed. In fact, many drywall installers can install the panels over their heads while standing on 48” stilts! For most homeowners looking to try a ceiling drywall installation, the lift will be the best option. These lifts can be purchased or rented from any tool rental store.

Skill Level

Fortunately, installing drywall is as much about patience as it is skill. The nature of drywall installation means it is a relatively safe DIY project, as often the worst result is just a poor-looking job. Drywall does not usually require the use of saws, or even corded power tools for that matter. Drywall can be installed completely using nothing but hand tools, however, the process will be slow.

The skills required for drywall installation tend to focus on finishing. This is because there are several levels of finish quality recognized by the industry, and each is characterized by how smooth the finish is. Therefore, drywall finishing can be tedious, depending on the desired result.

For reference, most residential and commercial buildings require a grade 3 finish to be considered adequate. Finishes are designated from grade 1 to grade 5, with grade 5 being the highest. To illustrate, a grade 3 finish may have small irregularities and blemishes, but none that are noticeable to the normal viewer. A grade 5 finish is the highest possible quality, meaning every visible blemish has been taped, filled, sanded, and coated several times to achieve the smoothest possible surface.

How Much Does Installing Drywall On a Ceiling Cost

Although prices will vary greatly depending on the region, on average drywall will cost between $2.50-$3.00 per square foot installed. For comparison, the drywall panels and associated accessories will cost around $0.50-$0.75 per square foot, and about $2.00- $2.50 per square foot for installation. Installing drywall will require several visits to the job, with three usually being the minimum. This includes at least one day for hanging, and two for finishing.

How to Get Started Installing Drywall On a Ceiling

Professional installers will use tools specially designed for installing drywall. These may include a drywall square, corded or cordless screw gun, rotary trimmer, drywall knives, and even stilts.

Step 1. Prepare the Surface

As described earlier, this is an extremely important step, as no amount of sanding or finishing can hide the poor hanging of the panels. This is the primary function of strapping or installing narrow boards perpendicularly across a floor or roof system. This allows the installer to flatten and even out any undulations in the ceiling by inserting shims, or other fillers as needed to completely flatten the surface.

Next, blocking (also referred to as “deadwood”) is often installed. Blocking refers to the way drywall is secured to the ceiling. Unless the room is precisely the same length as the layout of the ceiling, there will always be a “dead spot” between the last truss or joist and the wall. Since drywall must be attached very closely to its edge, these “dead spots” prevent the last panel from being attached, because there is nothing to attach to.

The solution is “dead-wood”, which is simply scraps of lumber cut to fit between the last truss and the wall and secured in place. This effectively provides the structural support for the additional screws or nails along the edge, preventing the drywall from sagging later.

Step 2. Laying Out the Area

To determine what is required when framing a ceiling for drywall, the easiest way is to determine which drywall will be used. As described earlier, drywall usually comes in ½” x 48” x 96” panels. This can often be ideal for smaller, one-room projects, but ceilings need special consideration. This is because drywall installed on a wall is subjected to gravity along its strongest side, due to its perpendicular relationship to the floor.

Ceiling drywall, however, is just the opposite with all of the gravitational force being applied to its weakest side. This is what causes sags in ceilings over time. To resolve this, manufacturers have produced several different forms of ceiling drywall panels. The first was to simply make the panels ⅝” thick, which provided additional strength to the panel. However, this additional thickness adds weight to an already heavy, awkward panel, making installation even more challenging.

Although not always allowed for garage ceilings under bedrooms, the alternative is lightweight drywall panels designed specifically for ceilings. These panels are less dense and are often ½” thick much like standard drywall. However, these panels usually have a stronger backing, which gives the panel more rigidity without the additional weight. This special backing is also said to improve the durability and fire resistance of the panels.

Step 3. Installing the Blocking 

To begin, the easiest way to measure the blocking is to decide how much and where it will be located. As mentioned, blocking will likely be required between the end trusses and the nearest wall.

However, blocking may be required in other places as well. For example, most manufacturers require drywall panels to be secured with an approved fastener every 8”-12” along its edge. In areas where plumbing pipes, ductwork, or any other obstacle must be avoided, installing fasteners that closely can be impossible. This is another location for blocking, which should be installed no more than 4” away from the obstacle.

Pro Tip. Professional installers will use whatever means necessary to make the blocking secure. This can include any number and type of mechanical fastener, joinery, or adhesives.

Step 4. Mounting the Panels To the Blocking

Drywall can be secured to the ceiling using drywall nails or drywall screws. Drywall nails are usually ring shanked, which resist removal. These nails are usually a less expensive option, as only a hammer is required to install them. This is however an uncomfortable, albeit, effective method.

For most DIYers, trying to hit the head of a small nail while swinging upside down is a challenge. For this reason, most homeowners and pros alike will opt for a corded or cordless screw gun. These tools use drywall screws, which require much less skill and physical effort to be successful. Drywall screws come in several versions, depending on whether the structure is built with metal components (mostly commercial), or wood (mostly residential) framing.

Can I Frame My Ceiling For Drywall Myself?

In most situations, absolutely. Framing a ceiling for drywall is really just basic carpentry, but planning the project carefully will make it much easier and satisfying. After some practice, identifying potential framing issues, such as the aforementioned ductwork and plumbing pipes, will become easier.

A smart move for first-time installers is to practice using scrap lumber and drywall. Learning the process and techniques of effective drywall installation will make a potentially difficult project much more enjoyable and satisfying.

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