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This post has been revised and updated (March 3, 2021) based on suggestions and criticisms by Bill Johnson. You can read Mr. Johnson’s complete comment as well as my response in the comments below.
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.
This page contains images of the ceiling I installed in my first house, and the existing ceiling that the previous owner had installed in our current house.
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.
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.
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, screws for attaching the angle to the wall, a sharp utility knife for cutting the panels, framing square, tape measure, level, string, etc.
- For cutting the angles and tees, you will need tin snips and possibly a file to take care of any rough edges from your cuts.
- 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.
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.
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. Molding is installed on walls with screws every 16 inches or less and screwed into the wall, not into the studs. If the molding is screwed into the studs the molding will bend up on the bottom making it wavy.
The outside corners are mitered. I made the rookie mistake of mitering both pieces of molding. The correct method is to only cut one miter and overlap the pieces.
My friend had installed a suspended ceiling before, so I took his suggestion. and simply butted the inside corners. The reasoning was the it faster and cleaner than cutting 45 degree angles.
The correct way to do inside miter joints is to only cut a miter on one piece and overlap the other piece.
Miter cuts separate the pros from the amateurs.
Making the cuts
Tin snips are the proper tool for the job. I used aviation snips which probably explains why my cuts are not very clean. Tin snips and aviation snips are not the same tool.
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. I installed the first main tee parallel to the main beam.
I drove nails or screws in every other floor joist to wrap the wire around. I should have used lag screws. There are eye lag screws for suspended ceilings. Install the lag screws as high as possible on the wood joist. You will need a specialty socket bit for driving these lags.
I took a measurement from the floor boards to the wall angle and bent the wire at that measurement. Measuring this way assumes that the floor boards are level. Again, a laser level would be the tool of choice here. Otherwise, just pull a string line under the main from molding to molding using clamps with rubber ends to hold the line tight, adjust the main’s high and lower to the line all the way down the main.
Install main tees 4 feet apart.
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.
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 which will be apparent).
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.
Beyond the basic white ceiling tiles
The main complaint about suspended ceilings is that they have an institutional look about them.
You don’t have to settle for the basic white tiles that you can buy off the shelf at your local building center. On his podcast, Ace on the House, Adam Carolla has talked about spray painting a suspended ceiling flat black, so it “disappears.” (You can find satin black ceiling grids). And there are many other options that are available by special order from your building center or other online sources such as DecorativeCeilingTiles.net (not an affiliate link) so you can have a ceiling that matches the character of your home.