Total Ceiling Replacement – How To Make A Crappy Ceiling More Appealing

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total ceiling replacement

Got a ceiling that makes you cringe every time you look up? Tired of tumbling tiles, drooping drywall, sagging ceilings and other alliterative abominations? We can show you a relatively fast way to make your ceiling flat and smooth again – without a lot of dirty demo. Your total ceiling replacement will cost you two inches of ceiling height, but you’ll gain the awe and admiration of all who enter the room.

This fix will work regardless of the spacing of the existing ceiling joists, the most common being 16” and 24” on center. You’ll definitely want a helper or two or three, especially when you get to the drywall installation portion of the festivities. The project requires only moderate DIY skills, at least until you get to the drywall finishing. Even if you have to pay someone to do that, you’ll save a nice chunk of change by doing all the grunt work yourself.

Ceiling Replacement Ingredients

2X4’s, preferably long enough to span the entire room. Measure the room perpendicular to the existing joists; this is the length you’ll need. You’ll need enough to put one every 16”, and don’t forget about the first one! Take the measurement of the wall you’ll be installing perpendicular to, in inches. Divide by 16, round up if it’s not a whole number, and add one; this is how many sleepers you should need. You also need enough to cut a bunch of blocks roughly a foot long to fit between the nailers at the ends. You may also want a couple of extras to make a T brace or two to hold the drywall up temporarily.

Sheets of ½” drywall, enough for the entire ceiling. Again, if you can get a sheet long enough to span the entire length, your finish work will be a LOT easier. You’ll also need drywall screws, 1-1/4” long with coarse thread. If you’re doing the finishing, you’ll also need drywall tape and compound.

A box or two of 4” structural screws. Quantity needed will vary by size of the room. You’ll be using two screws through the new nailers into each old joist it crosses, plus enough for the filler pieces. Screws with a star head will be much easier to work with than Phillips head screws. DON’T cheap out and try to do this with drywall screws; your new ceiling is going to be heavy, and will be much more attractive if it isn’t lying in a twisted heap on the floor.


Tape measure
Drill driver or impact driver
Circular saw or hand saw for cutting 2X4’s
Utility knife
Drywall finishing tools, if you’ll be doing the finishing
Drywall jab saw or cut out tool, if you have ceiling boxes
Chalk line
Step ladder

Why Do A Total Ceiling Replacement?

Our current project is part of an ongoing renovation of an old farmhouse. A few decades ago, the entire house got a new roof, built using 2X4 trusses. The trusses were spaced 24” on center (OC), which isn’t unusual. The technique they used to finish the ceiling, however, was very unusual. Not to mention low-budget, shoddy and generally half-assed (a technical construction term). All the ceilings on the second floor were put together using drywall scraps. And not just any drywall scraps; they used 3/8” drywall scraps, fully guaranteed to sag when used to span a 24” gap.

total ceiling replacement
A little mud, a little tape, it’ll be beautiful!

The ceiling in our project room, which measures approximately 12’ X 17’, was composed of 53 pieces, all nailed more or less into place. Whoever got stuck with the job of finishing that mess probably took one look, said “Oh hell no!,” and bought a bunch of cheap acoustic ceiling tiles to disguise the mess. In keeping with the top-notch construction techniques being employed, the tiles were stapled onto the drywall scraps. Needless to say, gravity worked its magic over the decades. Some of the tiles loosened and fell off, and most of the drywall scraps were sagging, some pretty drastically. The room was in desperate need of a total ceiling replacement.

The ceiling height in the room is eight feet. To maintain the full height would have required pulling down the entire ceiling. That wouldn’t have been too tough – half of it was ready to fall off anyhow. Unfortunately, the attic above has a combination of fiberglass and cellulose insulation. If we’d pulled down the ceiling, we would have lost a lot of it, and had a big dusty mess to clean up. We figured we’d never miss the two inches.

total ceiling replacement
The tiles came off quickly. The staples tool a bit longer.
total ceiling replacement
Could be worse…could be 53 drywall scraps and insulation.

Deciding to just add new nailers and drywall saved us a fair bit of time, along with the hassle of disposing of a big heap of drywall scraps and insulation. I scraped off the remaining tiles, and pulled out the seven billion staples left behind. If you have any tiles, gridwork for a suspended ceiling, falling chunks of drywall, etc., make them go away.

Measuring And Layout For Your Total Ceiling Replacement

To support the new ceiling, you’ll be adding 2X4” sleepers, laid on the flat side. The sleepers will be installed perpendicular to the existing joists, and spaced at 16” OC. Locate and mark the position of the existing ceiling joists, using a stud finder or the old finish-nail-through-the-drywall technique. Snap a line lengthwise along the center of each joist, as this is what you’ll be screwing the sleepers into.

total ceiling replacement
Hold the tape 1-3/4″ out from the end wall, and mark every 16″.

To measure and mark where the sleepers will go, start at one end of the room, and measure out along the wall that runs parallel to the existing joists. Have a helper hold the tape 1-3/4” away from the end wall, and make a mark every 16”, on the wall about 2” down from the ceiling. If you don’t want to mark on the wall, use a piece of painter’s tape. Make your marks every 16” for the entire length of the wall, then put an “X” next to each mark, on the side towards the wall you’re measuring from. Now repeat the process on the opposite wall, making sure to start at the same end. When the sleepers are installed, holding them to the “X” side of the line will provide a 16” OC layout for your drywall.

total ceiling replacement
Put an X by each mark, toward your starting point. The 2X4’s will be centered every 16″.

Ideally, you want to use a single 2X4 for each sleeper. This adds some strength to the setup, helps to take out any minor dips in the old joists, and keeps the sleepers straight from end to end. You can generally get 2X4’s in lengths up to 20’, so unless you live in a magnificent mansion, which is unlikely if you’re reading this, you should be able to find stock long enough to cover your span. If you do have to use multiple 2X4’s, snap a line across the ceiling to keep them straight from end to end, and stagger the joints.

Screw ‘Em Up!

Once your layout is complete, it’s time to spin some screws! Once your sleepers are cut to length, the easiest method is to grab a helper and get them all tacked into place with a nail or screw near the end of each board. Make sure you have them all positioned on the “X” side of your marks. Double check to make sure your sleepers are all 16” OC all the way across the room, before you finish screwing them off.

total ceiling replacement
Tack all the sleepers in with a nail or screw near each end.

Once they’re all tacked up, go back with your drill driver and put two 4” structural screws through the face of each sleeper into each of the old joists, making sure they anchor solidly into the joist. If the screw continues spinning when it’s all the way in, back it out and try again – you missed the joist. If you have (or can borrow) an impact driver, this portion of the total ceiling replacement process will be a LOT easier.

total ceiling replacement
An impact driver will make the job go MUCH faster.
total ceiling replacement
Use two screws into each old joist. Snug ’em up good.

If your drill driver is struggling, you may have to pre-drill for each screw. HomeFixated Tip: If you don’t have good tools, invite a friend who does, and start a wish list for Christmas. Once all the sleepers are screwed in nice and snug, cut blocks to go between the ends of all of them. Most of them should be pretty similar in size, and they don’t have to fit perfectly.

total ceiling replacement
Cut spacer blocks to fill in between the sleepers.
total ceiling replacement
This concludes the sleeper portion of your total ceiling replacement!

Lighten Up…Er, Down

Many ceilings have some sort of fixture dangling from them – lights or ceiling fans, for example. To ward off boredom, our project room had two lights and a ceiling fan. Assuming you’d like to continue using said electrical fixtures, a little device box modification or relocation will be necessary. Note: Before doing ANY work on the wiring, make sure the power is off. Double check this: it’s no fun getting jolted off a 6’ ladder, and being known forever after as “Sparky”!

total ceiling replacement
With the power OFF, cut back the old ceiling to access the box.

To make it easier to work on the boxes, cut away enough of the old ceiling to make it easy to access each box. Ceiling boxes can be attached in several ways – screwed to the side or bottom of a joist, or suspended from a bracket spanning two joists, for example. With the exception of an “old work” box, which may be supported only by three little flip-out wings, all boxes need to be attached to some sort of structure. This is especially true if you have a ceiling fan or a large, heavy fixture like a chandelier or industrial disco ball.

total ceiling replacement
Add bracing where needed to lower the box by 2″.

Most boxes are adjacent to a joist, and if this is the case, you should be able to add a spacer beneath the joist, or sister on a piece of 2X6 to the side of the old joist to provide a surface low enough to attach to. If the box can’t be moved, you should be able to find an extension ring to fit the existing box. Most home centers carry 1-1/2” deep boxes, but if you need a deeper ring you’ll likely have to check with an electrical supply house.

All this assumes there is a bit of play in the wiring entering and leaving the box. Normally, there is a bit of slack, and you can often create some by carefully removing the wire staples closest to the box. The wiring should be re-stapled when you finish working your electrical magic. If you use box extenders, you might need to splice short pigtails onto the house wiring, to make your connections easier to accomplish. If all this makes you a little nervous, call a qualified electrician; you don’t want your house burning down right after it gets its shiny new ceiling.

total ceiling replacement
Boxes lowered, last sleepers in…let’s hang some drywall!

Bring On The Drywall – And No Scraps, Dammit!

Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for – kissing the old ugly ceiling good-bye! (Tongue optional). To keep the finishing time to a minimum, use the longest sheets of ½” drywall that will fit your span. Our room was just under 12’ x 17’, so by using 12’ sheets and cutting a few inches off the ends, we were able to avoid having any butt joints.

Drywall is heavy and awkward to work with, so this is another segment of the total ceiling replacement process you’ll want at least a couple of helpers for. If you have a really large area to do, or weak friends, you may want to rent a drywall lift. Most tool rental places have them, and a half-day rental will set you back way less than a series of chiropractic visits. Alternatively, you can make a simple temporary T brace out of a couple of 2X4’s.

total ceiling replacement
T braces keep the drywall up while you get some screws in.

Cut your sporty new drywall to length if necessary, and boost the first piece into position, starting at the same end of the room you began laying out your measurements. Run the sheets parallel to your sleepers. The long edge of the first piece should break right around the center of the fourth sleeper. Screw it up nice and snug, making sure you use the recommended number of drywall screws (codes vary by locality, ask a sales rep where you purchase the drywall). For ½” drywall, you’ll want to use 1-1/4” coarse thread screws.

total ceiling replacement
The edge of the drywall runs right down the center of the sleeper.

The screws should dimple the surface of the drywall, but not break totally through the paper face. This can be done using your drill driver, but you need to take it slowly. If you have a friend with a drywall screw gun, borrow it if you can. You may also consider renting one; it shouldn’t cost more than a few dollars, and it will save you a LOT of time. If you have electrical boxes to cut around, you can get a drywall jab saw pretty cheaply, or invite that buddy with a cut out tool!

total ceiling replacement
Use a drywall saw or cut out tool to trim around ceiling boxes.

After your first sheet is up, repeat the process until your new ceiling is all up. Now step back and say “Damn – I do good work!”, or other self-congratulatory words to that effect. Of course, the ceiling still has to be taped and finished. If you have the skills to do that yourself, more power to ya – I definitely do not. Now that the ceiling is all up, I’ll be subbing out the finishing portion. Since the new ceiling is made up of 4 & ¼ sheets of drywall, as opposed to the previous 53, I’m hoping the finisher will say “Oh hell yes!” If you need to locate someone to do the finish work on your total ceiling replacement, check your local home center; often they’ll have a bulletin board, or let contractors leave business cards around the help desk. Once everything is finished and painted, looking up will give you thrills, rather than chills.

total ceiling replacement
Oh hell yes!
ceiling replacement
Slight improvement, dontcha think?!
Photo of author

About Phil

Phil’s path to the pinnacle of success as HomeFixated’s Senior Writer was long and twisted. At various stages of his life, he worked as a framing carpenter, attended motorcycle mechanics school, served as an Army MP, did a hot and itchy stint installing insulation in Phoenix, owned and operated a small contracting firm doing residential renovations, and worked as an employee of a major airline (Motto: We’re not happy ‘til YOU’RE not happy). He is currently semi-retired, but continues to take on little projects, such as the total renovation of an old farmhouse. Yes, he is a slow learner. Future projects include a teardown restoration of his 1965 BMW motorcycle, and designing and building a kick-ass playhouse for his grandsons. Phil loves spending time outdoors, hanging out with family and friends, cool tools, and a cold IPA when beer o'clock rolls around.

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