Fitting a suspended ceiling

High ceilings—particularly those in small or confined spaces—often make a room look dark and unfriendly. One easy solution is to fit a new false—or suspended—ceiling below the existing one. This not only makes the whole room look better, it also allows you to cover up an old, untidy ceiling with a brand new, lightweight structure.

Suspended ceiling kits

The traditional method of building a suspended ceiling is to erect timber joists across the room and to line the underside of them with plasterboard. This is a time consuming job and the heavy timbers often impose an almost unbearable strain on the existing ceiling and/or roofing joists.

A much easier method—especially for the do-it-yourselfer—is to use a proprietary kit. These are available from most large hardware stores and provide all the components necessary to construct a suspended ceiling. They are easy to erect and use lightweight materials which can span any reasonable distance without strain. But their major advantage is that a whole range of panels can be fitted to them, to give the ceiling an entirely new look.

Ceiling kits consist of a number of basic parts. A grid or frame of lightweight aluminium is erected to support the ceiling panels. This is made up of angled pieces fixed around the outside of the room which provide support for both the main runners and cross bearers.

A huge variety of ceiling finishes are available. The panels—which are fitted on top of the aluminium grid— are manufactured in a range of basic sizes—usually 610mm square or 610 X 1220mm. They can be clear, translucent, or opaque.

Clear panels: Generally these are made from 2mm thick rigid plastic, although 2.5mm panels are available for heavy-duty use. Some are virtually smooth, others—such as the ‘cracked ice’ variety—are heavily textured. The panels are self-coloured, but when used with different coloured fluorescent lights mounted above they can create an illuminated, ‘patchwork’ ceiling.

Translucent panels: These come in the same variety of textures and colours as clear panels and are also widely used in the installation of illuminated ceilings. Opaque panels: These are available in a number of types. Some—designed purely for decorative effect—come in different colours and various textured finishes. Others—known as acoustic panels—can be used to cut down noise from above. They are made in a variety of sound-deadening materials up to 16mm thick and are plain, textured or sometimes coloured. Some opaque tiles are specially designed to aid heat insulation; ask at the place where you buy the kit if you want panels for this purpose.

Planning the work

Before you start work, check carefully that the room is suitable for the installation of a suspended ceiling. Most building regulations insist on minimum ceiling heights in many rooms—your local authority will be able to give you guidance on this. For example in the UK, living rooms, bedrooms and all but small kitchens must generally have a ceiling height of at least 2.3m.

In determining the height of your new ceiling, bear in mind that it should be at least 50mm below the existing surface for a decorated or acoustic ceiling, and 100mm below for an illuminated ceiling. Remember, too, that these are the minimum distances: a more satisfactory and safer finish will be achieved with a greater gap between the old ceiling and the new suspended one.

Before ordering the materials, draw up an accurate, scale plan of your ceiling on a large sheet of graph paper. Divide up the paper into squares, with each square representing one ceiling panel of your chosen size. Then transfer the dimensions of the room on to the plan, including any unusual angles or features such as a chimney breast.

You may be lucky enough to discover that the ceiling can be covered by an exact number of whole panels, but it is far more likely that you will have to cut them to fit around the outside.

To avoid having the cut panels all along one side—so giving an untidy, lopsided finish—try to find the centre of the room and mark this on the plan. Do this by measuring carefully across the room between both opposite walls. If the room is an awkward shape, stretch two lengths of string across the room and adjust their positions until they meet exactly at the centre point. The position of each panel can then be planned from this point so that the cut ones are distributed evenly around the outside of the whole room.

At this stage you should also plan how the ceiling is to be lit. For illuminated ceilings, strip lighting can be supplied in a number of different lengths to fit your particular room—allow about 15 watts per square metre of panel when you order. If you plan to fit opaque, plain, or textured panels, you may choose instead to install the type of downlighters that are completely recessed). And as an alternative to a totally illuminated ceiling you could introduce just a few, illuminated panels.

Before fixing any lights, check that the old ceiling is sound and that plaster and paintwork are stable. Small cracks and splits must be filled and the surface carefully and methodically sanded down. Flaking paintwork should be rubbed down thoroughly with a piece of sandpaper mounted on a block and the whole ceiling coated with stabilizing solution.

If you intend to install an illuminated ceiling—particularly with light coloured panels—give the whole ceiling a coat of brilliant white emulsion paint to aid reflection.

Light fixings

If you are installing an illuminated ceiling, your first task is to fix the strip lighting to the old ceiling. Down-lighters should be fixed once the framework of the new ceiling is fitted. In Canada, check that you may do your own wiring.

Ensure that the fluorescent tubes are fixed parallel with the proposed positions of the main runners or cross tees on the framework and are spaced an equal distance apart for even light distribution. If the gap between the old and new ceiling is less than 100mm, the tubes should be placed directly above where the struts will go to avoid damage to the panels from overheating; if the gap is greater, they can be fitted directly above the panels.

Conventional fluorescent strip lights consist of a tray containing the choke, starter and terminal board, the lighting tube and two fixing clips. Secure the clips to the ceiling using wall plugs. Then slot the tray on to the clips and tighten them so that the whole fixing is held securely.

Wire up the lights to the mains supply before you fit the top cover and lighting tube. Unless the total wattage of the new lights exceeds 300 watts, the existing ceiling rose should provide a convenient source of power. Turn off the supply at the mains and disconnect the rose so that the cable is exposed. Then use a junction box to connect all of the lights to the supply. Fitting and connecting fluorescent lights is quite straight- forward and should not entail too much strenuous work.

Installing the support framework

Start by marking the proposed positions of the supporting angled pieces around the walls. Do this on each wall by fixing a chalked line at the desired height, at one end of the room. Stretch the line to the other end, then get an assistant with a spirit level to adjust it until it is horizontal. When it is, snap it against the wall to reproduce a clear fixing guide on the surface.

If you have no chalked line, use ordinary string and mark off the wall in pencil at 50mm intervals. But note that it is absolutely essential to do the job accurately, or the new ceiling will be unalterably out of alignment. Cut the angled pieces carefully to length with a hacksaw. Adjoining sections can overlap at the internal corners of the room, but where there are external corners—such as a chimney breast— the angled pieces should be mitred for a neat finish.

Drill fixing holes in the cut sections roughly 500mm apart and at each end. Lightly file off any burrs afterwards, especially those on the back of the angles which might prevent them lying flat against the wall. Use the prepared angles as templates to mark plug holes on the walls aligned with the fixing guides. Then drill, plug and screw the angles firmly in position.

After you have fixed each section, check that it lies flat against the wall. Slight distortions caused by an uneven wall surface can be evened out by releasing some of the screws until the angle piece straightens out, and then packing the gap with small pieces of wood. Once the ceiling has been fitted, the gap can be neatly filled and then finished off.

The next step is to fit the main runners which stretch across the longest span of the room. Cut these carefully to size, bearing in mind that each runner may have some indents designed to hold the cross tees and that these must coincide with the proposed positions of the cross tees on the original plan.

You may find that the main runners are too short to cover the span of the room, particularly if this is over 4m. In this case, you can extend them by slotting extension pieces in the ends and then cutting these to length.

If the main runners span more than 3m, they may tend to sag once the panels are fitted. To avoid this, you must arrange a central support between each runner and the ceiling. First drill a hole through the main runner just below the rounded bead on the vertical upstand. Then fix a screw into the ceiling directly above this point using a toggle plug suitable for use with plasterboard. Finally, cut a piece of stout wire to length and secure this between the runner and the screw, adjusting the latter until the wire takes the weight of the frame. Next, cut and fit the cross tees in place; if you have fixed the main runners correctly, they will simply slot into the indents provided. Once they are in position, use a try square to check that they are at right-angles to the main runners and are correctly supported on the wall angles at the edges of the room.

Fitting the panels

To fit the panels, you simply pass them up through the framework and then adjust them to rest on the lips of the main runners and cross tees. However, try to handle the panels with clean hands or with cloth pads as they are easily marked. Clips are supplied with many panels to prevent them rattling in draughty conditions, but these are worth fitting almost as a matter of course. Around the outside of the room you may have to cut the panels to size. This should be done in a warm atmosphere if possible.

Measure the size of the cut-out panels carefully and then trim them to size. Polystyrene lighting and acoustic panels should be scored heavily several times on the smooth face with a sharp handyman’s knife. They can then be carefully snapped in two. If this proves difficult try heating the blade slightly and try again; alternatively, use a fine-toothed saw. Cracked ice panels should be cut with a standard laminate cutting tool.

Panels with reinforced edges must be treated with care if they are to be trimmed to size. Cut each one 25mm oversize and then score a line marking the true size along the back face using sharp scissors. Try to cut no more than half way through the panel, then bend the waste edge upwards, at right-angles to the surface, and fit it carefully into place.

Once you have positioned all the panels, shake the framework gently to help them settle. They can then be washed using a soft brush or cloth and warm water. The aluminium grid should be cleaned using a mild abrasive cleaner on a damp cloth.

Recessed lights are fitted once the ceiling has been completed. Having carefully planned the position of each light, remove the relevant panel and cut a hole in the centre fractionally smaller than the external diameter of the light itself.

Now place long wooden battens across the tops of the main runners on each side of the light panel. Push the body of the light through the hole in the panel and adjust its fixing prongs so that these rest securely on the battens. You can then assemble the rest of the light and link it up with the mains supply at a convenient ceiling rose.

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