Does your dark, tiny kitchen have you feeling a bit claustrophobic? Trying to keep track of other household members, but having trouble due to a pesky, inconveniently placed wall? Fear not! With a bit of planning, a bit of dust (okay, maybe more than a bit), and a day’s work, you can tear down that wall – or just remove a big chunk of it, if you prefer.
Ripping out a wall, or even part of it, can be a little intimidating. In many cases, though, it’s really not that big a deal. If you’re looking to expand your horizons, the first thing you need to do is figure out whether or not the wall in question is load bearing. There are a few ways to do this, depending on where the wall is located. If it’s a first-floor wall and you have a basement or crawl space, go down and take a look. Usually the floor joists will be perpendicular to any load-bearing walls. Sometimes there will be posts under them, too. If you have access to the top of the wall from the attic, that’s another way to tell; if the ceiling joists are resting on the wall, it’s load bearing; if they’re parallel, it’s likely not. This article from WikiHow gives more details. The bottom line here is that removing any wall has a worst-case scenario of collapsing your house and potentially killing anyone in it. If you have any doubt and/or lack the expertise to take on a project like this, bring in experienced, professional help.
If you’re still game, the next step in removing any wall is to see what lurks within it. The usual culprits include wiring, HVAC ducts, and plumbing components. Wiring is generally the easiest of these to deal with; if you can re-route the wiring through an adjacent stud bay, or bring it into the wall somewhere else, it’s often a fairly easy fix. HVAC ductwork or major plumbing components (waste pipes, for example) are a whole different story. Unless you have the expertise to do some major re-working of these systems, or are willing to hire a contractor to deal with them, you may want to re-size your opening, or find another wall to play with. If the wall isn’t load bearing, and you’ve made sure there’s nothing important in it, easy peasy—just rip it out, no header required!
You’ve Got To Carry That Weight
Assuming your wall is load bearing, and you’ve determined there’s nothing inside it that you can’t deal with, your next move is to figure out how big your opening will be. This will determine how beefy your header should be. Basically what you’ll be doing is removing studs, and replacing them with a header beam, supported by jack studs at each end. The correct size will vary with your circumstances. How long a span will be supported and how much weight it will be carrying are the two most critical factors. The longer the span, the more critical it is to size your header properly; an undersized support structure could be disastrous. Your local lumberyard or building supply center may be able to help you properly size your header; they did for me. In many locations, you’ll need a permit to do an alteration like this, and your building inspector will have to approve the size header required. He or she may also require you to consult a structural engineer or architect to determine the size.
Headers come in various flavors. The most common type consists of dimensional lumber such as a pair of 2X12’s, sandwiched around a piece of ½” plywood and nailed to each other. For longer spans, a steel flitch plate might be required instead of the plywood. This adds a lot more strength—and weight—to the header. It also increases the lead time, as it will likely have to be special-ordered in advance. Other choices include Glulam laminated beams and LVL (laminated veneer lumber) beams, which is what I used. They’re stronger than regular dimensional lumber, and are available in different dimensions and lengths. The beams I used were 10’ long, 12” high and 1-¾” thick. This is handy, because when they’re doubled up, they total 3-½”—the same as the width of the studs they’ll fit between.
One other consideration: if you’re spanning a fairly long distance, the posts under the ends of the header are transferring a lot of weight down to whatever is beneath. This is known as a point load, and it’s something you need to account for. Normally there will be a beam or some type of support under the wall you’re working on, but you may have to add a lally column (an adjustable steel support) under that area to carry the weight into the foundation. We were fortunate, because there was a triple 2X12” beam under the wall, with a lally column within two feet of our mid-wall support. This is another area that consulting an engineer or other professional can be warranted if you don’t have the expertise yourself.
Let’s Install A Header!
So you know what size your opening will be, your exploratory surgery came across no serious obstacles, and your header materials are standing patiently by. It’s almost time to make a hole in the wall. If you don’t want dust all through the house, tape some plastic over any doors leading to adjacent rooms, and if there are any large items of furniture that can’t be moved, cover ‘em up with tarps or plastic. Our project house will be getting all new flooring, but if you have finish flooring in place, protect that with a heavy canvas drop cloth, or at least tape down some red rosin paper. Mark off the outline of your opening on the wall, and get out the implements of destruction.
If there are any wires in the wall, make sure you shut off the breaker. If you haven’t already done so, punch a few holes and see where any wires and other obstacles are located. A Sawzall will make a nice neat opening pretty quickly; if you’re trying to keep the dust down a bit, go slowly and have someone with a shop vac follow your cuts. Once you get the outline cut out, pull off the wall material and get it out of the room, so it’s out of the way. Now mark, cut and remove the wall covering from the other side of the wall, and haul it out. If there are wires in the wall that need to be re-routed, now’s the time to cut and re-route, after double checking that the power is off.
Unless you planned it that way, or you’re very lucky, the length of your header probably won’t fall nicely between two studs. We were able to use an existing stud at one end, but had to add one at the other. This is no big deal; just measure the distance between top and bottom plates, and cut a stud to fit. Plumb it up, measure the distance between the new stud and the next original stud that’s remaining in place, and cut blocks to fit between them. This adds stability and gives a good nailing surface.
Before you start cutting out studs, you need to build a temporary support wall to carry the load above until the header is in place. Normally you’ll do this a few feet back from the wall, and on both sides of it. We had part of the floor open upstairs, and saw that the joists from the front room overhung the wall by about 16”, so we were able to get by with one temporary wall, since both the front and rear joists rested on it. To build the temporary support wall, first measure the distance between the floor and ceiling. Next, take some 2X4’s or 2X6’s and use a couple for a top plate, one for a bottom plate, and a few for studs. Cut the studs about an inch long, so you can angle them into place, then tighten them up with a hammer until they’re good and snug. Don’t get too carried away, or you’ll damage your ceiling. After the studs are in place, toenail them at both ends to keep them from moving.
Now for the moment you’ve been waiting for: tear that sucker down! If you’re removing the entire height of the wall, the easiest way is to cut the stud in half in the center, then twist the top and bottom pieces out. You could also use a Sawzall and cut the ends flush with the top and bottom plates. If you’re only opening up part of the height of the wall, like we were, get a mark for the lower part of the opening, then level it across with a long piece of wood or your laser level, if you have one. Square up your marks, and cut through each stud, twisting it loose from the top plate. Take your Sawzall or multitool and cut off any protruding nails that remain.
Time To Meet The King Stud!
Depending on the type of header you’re installing, there are a couple of ways to get the header into position. They can be pretty heavy, so make it as easy on yourself as you can. If you’re using a “sandwich”-type header, you pretty much have to have it all assembled before putting it into place. With ours, though, it was just the two identical pieces, and there were only two of us to do the lifting, so we decided to put one piece up at a time. We measured the distance between top and bottom plates, subtracted out the height of the header (roughly 12”), and cut jack studs for each end that would fit snugly under the header and hold it up tight to the top plate. We didn’t attach the jack studs yet, but leaned them up against the king studs, angled out a bit at the bottom to make it easier to get the header in.
After lifting the header into place, we tapped the bottom of the jack studs over until they were flush against the king studs, and the header was pushed tight against the top plate. After making sure all the surfaces lined up properly, we nailed the jack studs into the king studs, and toenailed the header along its length into the top plate and into the king studs.
Next, we spread a bunch of construction adhesive on the installed LVL, then lifted the second LVL into place. We rested it on the edge of the jack stud, and tapped the top edge into place with a small sledge, alternating between top and bottom edges until it was fully seated. After clamping the boards together to make sure they were tight to one another, we nailed the crap out of it with the framing nailer, and added a bunch of 3” construction screws for good measure. To finish off the supports, we cut two more jack studs for each end, and tapped them snugly into position one at a time, nailing them to the previous stud, and toenailing each into the header.
At this point, the header is bearing the weight of whatever’s above it, so you can dismantle the temporary walls. We reconnected our newly-configured wiring, and to finish off the opening, cut a 2X4 top plate for the bottom of it. It was a bit of overkill, but I also added some beefy corner brackets, to make an even more secure connection between the studs and the header. Our roughly 3-1/2’X10’ opening was all roughed in, and the difference it made was amazing. It really opens up the space between the kitchen and dining room, and should make it MUCH easier for the kitchen dwellers to stay connected to whoever is in the next room – and to pass me the occasional beer.
Special thanks on this project go out to my Mom and to my sister and her husband, who gave up their weekend to come and “relax” at our farmhouse. My 84-year-old mother wanted to help set the header, but settled for repainting the bathroom. My sister and her husband worked like beasts all day, and we got the project finished by beer o’clock. It’s good to know people who will work for food!