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Installing a Suspended Ceiling

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A suspended ceiling is a popular choice when it comes to finishing a basement, since it is easy to remove the panels for access to plumbing and wiring. Installing one is fairly straight forward, once you understand how everything goes together.

Wall angle: An “L” shaped piece of aluminum which comes in 12 foot lengths. This gets attached to the walls around the room . It supports the ends of the main tees and cross tees as well as the ceiling panels.

suspended ceiling wall angle
Wall angle

Main Tee: This is the most important part of the system. The main tees come in lengths of 10 feet and are suspended by wire from the ceiling joists. The main tees support the cross tees and the ceiling panels.

Cross Tee: Exactly as the name implies, cross tees intersects with the main tees. Available in 2 foot or 4 foot lengths.

suspended ceiling tees
Cross tee intersecting with a main tee. The tabs of the cross tees snap into the slots of the main tee. The main tee also has holes along the top edge for the hanger wire. (Note: This particular ceiling grid was installed by a previous owner and is way too close to the joists).

Ceiling Panel: The ceiling panels sit in the grid created by tees and wall angles. There are two sizes (24 inch by 24 inch OR 24 inch x 48 inch) and a wide selection of styles to choose from. If you need to do a lot of cutting, a random, non-directional pattern will likely result in less waste.

Other materials: You will also need wire to hang the grid, nails or screws for attaching the angle to the wall and for , sharp utility knife for cutting the panels, framing square, tape measure, level, string, etc.

Tools:

  • For cutting the angles and tees, you will need aviation snips and possibly a file to take care of any rough edges from your cuts. This is the most common way to make the cuts, but there are other options. More details later.
  • A sharp utility knife and plenty of blades for cutting the ceiling panels. It is surprising how quickly mineral fiber panels can dull your knife blades. If you are using PVC you don’t want a dull knife that will slip when you are making your cuts.
  • Gloves to protect yourself from sharp edges when cutting the angles and tees.
  • Safety glasses.
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Getting started

The first step is to put up the wall angles around the room. There should be roughly 3 inches clearance from the lowest obstruction. Locate this point and use a level to mark the line around the room. A laser level is ideal for this purpose, so if you want to buy one, you now have your excuse.

If the floor boards above are level, there is another option. Simply measure three inches below the lowest obstruction from the floor board. Then all you need is a tape measure to make your marks around the room. You will use the same measurement for installing the main tees. For greater accuracy, you can cut a piece of wood to act as a measuring stick. Again, this only works if your floor boards are reasonably level, since the resulting ceiling will be parallel with them.

measuring
Measuring for wall angle Make sure you keep the tape vertical, not on an angle as in this picture.

Installing the Wall angle

I attached the wall angle with screws.  I had already boxed in all the major obstructions such as the duct work and main support beam with other materials.

The outside corners are mitered.

suspended ceiling outside corner
Miter joint at the outside corner

Rather than miter the inside corners, I chose to simply butt the angles up to each other. Not only was it faster and cleaner than cutting 45 degree angles, it also reduced the probability of measuring errors.

suspended ceiling inside corner
Simple butt joint at the inside corner.

A better way to do miter joints is to only cut a miter on one piece and overlap the other piece.

Making the cuts

While aviation snips are the most common tool for cutting the wall angle and the tees there are other options:

  • angle grinder with a cut off wheel. This would require a steady hand and can go wrong in a hurry if you don’t work safely (i.e. clamp the piece you are cutting instead of holding it one hand while using the tool with the other).
  • Miter box and saw with a metal cutting blade.
  • Power miter saw with a metal cutting blade

Regular abrasive wheels don’t typically work well with aluminum because of aluminum’s low melting point. However, because this is thin material, heat build-up may not be as much an issue.

When using any kind of saw, some masking tape over the cut line will help prevent the paint from chipping. You may also want to use a block of wood as a backer to maintain the shape of the metal while you cut. If the metal does warp at all, it is easy to bend it back into shape with a pair of pliers. Again, it is a good idea to use tape to protect the painted surface when doing so.

Installing the Main Tees

I chose to use the main beam, which runs the entire length of the basement, as the reference point for installing the main tees. I calculated how far from that reference point to install the first main tee by determining how many panels we required for the width of the section and dividing so that the full size panels would be centered. The first main tee was installed parallel to the main beam.

I drove nails or screws in every other floor joist to wrap the wire around. Measuring from the floor boards as I had for the wall angles, I bent the wire at that point in order to suspend the main tee so it was even with the angles. The wire was fed through the nearest hole in the main tee and twisted around itself. Since I was using 2 foot by 4 foot panels, I installed the main tees 4 feet apart. To determine the position of the next main tee, I first installed a couple of cross tees to the main tee already in place, and attached a section of the next main tee. Now I could install the hanger wire in the proper location (an extra set of hands helps a lot here).

hanger wire for ceiling grid
Wrapping hanger wire around a screw.

When cutting the end of the tee that will rest on the wall angle, it is a good idea to cut the vertical portion of the tee on an angle for ease of installation.

Tee cut on an angle for ease of installation.

Installing the Cross Tees

The main tees have slots every foot to accept the cross tees. The cross tees simply snap in place. Make sure when two cross tees meet in the same slot that you install them on the correct side of each other or else they won’t line up (there is a correct way and a wrong way).

Installing the Panels

The full size panels are easiest to install. Where panels have to be cut, care has to be taken when measuring so that the cuts are made in the right places. It is very easy to reverse the measurements when you take measurements while looking up and then transfer the measurements looking down at the panel. A sharp utility knife is adequate for cutting the panels. I used a drywall circle cutter to start the cut-outs for the recessed lights. Remember when cutting the panel to allow a little extra room so the panel will easily drop in the grid during installation.

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Beyond the basic white ceiling tiles

The main complaint about suspended ceilings is that they have an institutional look about them.  But you don’t have to settle for the basic white tiles that you typically find in your local home building supply store (although their selection is improving). DecorativeCeilingTiles offers Drop/Suspended Ceiling Tiles (affiliate link) in over 200 designs including real and faux metal so your suspended ceiling can have a definite “wow” factor.

decorative ceiling tiles

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