How to Cover a Ceiling

This story shows how to cover a ceiling with drywall panels.

Covering a Ceiling

You start at the top when you're installing drywall panels. You always install the ceiling before the walls.

Professional drywall crews make the process look easy. Two or more workers grab a panel that's leaning against the wall, and in a single motion they flip it horizontal, step onto short platforms, and press the panel against the joists. A split second later, they're supporting the panel with their heads, freeing their hands to drive screws. It's a smoothly choreographed routine they've performed thousands of times.

But you can get great results on your own ceiling even if you and your helper are both novices. To relieve the strain of holding the heavy panels overhead, make some deadman braces or rent a drywall lift. Whichever route you select, helpers take a lot of the strain out of the project.

Checklist

Time
Two to three hours for a flat ceiling in a 10X12-foot room

Tools
Deadman braces or drywall lift, hammer or screw gun, tape measure, drywall T-square, chalk line, utility knife

Skills
Measuring and cutting drywall, driving fasteners

Materials
Drywall panels, adhesive, nails or screws

Step 1

For maximum strength and sag resistance, run ceiling panels perpendicular to the joists whenever possible. Cut the first panel to length, and mark light pencil lines across the panel to indicate the centerline of each joist. Partially start a few drywall nails near the center of the panel so you'll be able to attach it quickly after hoisting it into position. We darkened the pencil lines to make them visible in the photo, but you'll make the lines on your panels very lightly.

Step 2

If you apply adhesive to the joists, stop about 6 inches from the wall and 6 inches from the edge of the drywall. The first panel goes into a corner. Deadman braces help hold the ceiling panel until you can drive the fasteners.

Step 3

Recruit a helper or two to assist you in lifting and positioning the drywall. Rest a deadman against a wall at the corner where you'll start installation. The top of the cross arm should be about 2 inches below the bottom of the joists. Lift one end of the panel onto the top of the cross arm, and kick the bottom of the brace toward the wall to hold the panel firmly. But don't overdo the pressure or you'll risk cracking the panel. Walk toward your helper as you both raise the opposite end of the panel.

Step 4

Support the panel by yourself for a moment while your helper grabs the other deadman brace. Positioning the brace about 2 feet from the end of the panel, the helper then lifts the panel against the joist. The helper lightly kicks the bottom of the post, moving it toward vertical to support the panel against the joists.

Step 5

Check the panel to see if you need to fine-tune the fit. The long tapered edge should lightly touch the wall, and the end in the corner should be about 1/4 inch from the wall. You need the clearance at the end of the panel because you'll start fastening at its middle. As you work toward the wall, you'll remove the sag in the sheet, and the gap will close. If you started with a tight fit at the corner, you would stress and bow the panel. To move the panel, both you and your helper get up on ladders. Support the panel with your head and one hand while your other hand releases the deadman. Move the panel, then replace the braces. Move the first brace several feet from the end wall to better support the panel.

Step 6

Move your ladder to the middle of the panel, and drive the nails you started earlier to secure the panel. Be sure you push the panel tightly against the joist before you drive the fastener. Nail or screw the panel to the joists. Work from the center toward one end, then the other. You don't need to nail all the way to the edges of the panel near the wall because installing panels on the wall helps support the ceiling. If the framing lumber is not completely dry, consider using the floating technique.

Step 7

Follow the same lift-and-brace techniques to install the next panel in the row. But this time, begin the fastening at the butt seam and work toward the free end of the panel. Don't worry about getting an absolutely tight fit between the ends of the panels. If the gap is 1/8 inch or less, you'll simply apply tape and joint compound over it. You'll need to fill gaps of 1/4 inch or more before taping.

Step 8

Staggering the butt joints in the ceiling makes the ceiling stronger. Offset the butt joints by 2 feet or more whenever possible. You can often use the remainder from the first row of ceiling panels to start the second row. Another method is to start the second row at the opposite end of the room.

Use Clips with Trusses

If your ceiling consists of a truss system, place inexpensive drywall clips on the panel before you lift it in place. Screw or nail the clips to the wall studs. The clips are made for both 1/2- and 5/8-inch thick drywall and virtually eliminate the cracking that can occur at the wall/ceiling joint because of seasonal truss uplift. Put the first screw in the truss joist 12 inches from the wall.

If you want to skip the clips, create a floating joint by screwing into the truss joist no closer than 18 inches to the wall. In this case, the wall panels alone support the joint at the ceiling.

You can also use drywall clips to eliminate the expense of additional framing lumber at T-joints in nonstructural interior walls.

Create a Straight Ceiling Joint

Peaked ceilings and the joint between a sloped ceiling and wall are serious problem areas. The framing lumber may have bows or twists, so it's virtually impossible to achieve a perfectly straight joint line. In addition, the lumber will shrink and move as it dries, creating even further problems.

If you're faced with these problems, attach a heavy-gauge metal strip to the joists. One product, X-Crack, creates a joint line that stays straight despite the fact that the framing isn't straight now or even if it moves later.

The screwing pattern shown in the drawing creates a floating joint that permits the framing and drywall to move independently to avoid problems. Note that the last screw in the drywall field attaches it to a joist 8-12 inches from the metal. The next screw attaches the drywall to the metal but does not go into the joist.

You can bend the metal by hand to match the angle required in a number of applications: vaulted ceiling to wall, tepee ceilings, and many other off-angle applications.

Covering a Cracked or Wavy Ceiling

Cracked plaster ceilings are very common, and some homeowners don't consider them a defect. Instead, they see the cracks as character lines that are part of the charm of owning an older home. Other people, however, find the cracks bothersome and unsightly. If you're part of the second group and your ceiling is reasonably flat, consider covering it with a layer of drywall.

Another approach involves removing the old ceiling and attaching fresh drywall directly to the joists. Removing a plaster ceiling is not particularly difficult, but it is messy and labor-intensive. However, it may be a good choice if you want to add insulation between the joists.

If the ceiling sags or is wavy, you may have structural issues such as a broken joist. In that case, you'll have to get into the attic for an inspection or tear away part of the ceiling to diagnose the problem. If you have any doubts about the soundness of the framing, contact a structural engineer.

Resilient steel channels or furring strips allow you to create a flat plane that ensures your new ceiling will be free of waves and dips. You can also utilize a steel framework to make a flat attachment grid for new drywall.

Adding a layer of 3/8-inch drywall is an excellent way to restore a cracked or discolored plaster ceiling. Poke nails through the old ceiling until you locate all the joists (work carefully, there may be pipes or wires present), then snap lines along their length. Apply construction adhesive to the back of the sheet. Use about half a tube of adhesive per sheet, applying it in S-shape beads about 1 foot apart. Fasten with 2-1/2-inch drywall screws into the joists.


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