Can Do

My parents asked me to replace three recessed lights, aka cans. Typically, a hole in the ceiling is a puncture in the home’s thermal shell, allowing air and heat to escape. With older recessed light fixtures there’s no way to close this hole. The new cans are shielded on top, enabling a homeowner to air-seal and insulate over them without creating a fire hazard.

I started by removing the bulbs and the trim kits – the parts you see from below. I also switched off the electrical circuits, of course. Then it was up to the attic where I would pull out the fixtures using a headlamp for light. To avoid crashing through the drywall ceiling I had to stand on adjacent joists and kneel over the existing fiberglass insulation. I cat’s-pawed out the four electrical staples holding the fixtures in place, then ripped the metal spikes from the joists.


The old can, surrounded (but not covered) by attic insulation. Access is tricky.

Limited access made it tricky to install the new cans. They came with a metal spike and a nail at each of the four corners. I positioned a can, jammed each spike between the joist and the ceiling drywall, and pounded in each nail, all the while kneeling atop the joists and keeping the headlamp trained on my work. Two of the three existing ceiling holes were tight against a joist, which forced me to take apart the sliding mechanism in order to mount the cans directly above the holes.


Old can removed; new can awaiting installation.

Electricals were pretty straightforward. The old cans used wire nuts and the new cans used clip-in connections, so I didn’t even need a wire tool. It was simply a matter of re-threading the feed cable and matching like wires – black to black, white to white, ground to ground.

On the other hand, installing the new trim kits was a real bear. They’re poorly designed with an awkward spring-loaded connection to the fixtures and the vaguest instructions I’ve ever read. It took me half an hour to realize I could adjust the depth of the socket inside the fixture by removing one screw completely (no instruction mentioned this) and tightening another to make room for the trim kit. As the most visible part of the installation, the trim needs to look right, and I wish it screwed into the fixture or otherwise attached in a more foolproof way.

Oh well. The lights work. And now the house is better insulated. De nada, Mom and Dad.


New can installed with a new trim kit.

No Noise is Good Noise

A couple months ago, Jas hired me to help him soundproof his kitchen ceiling. We completed the first half over three partial days, working around each other’s availability. Recently I returned for one more day at Jas’s house and we made quick work of the second half.

Jas made a material run before I arrived, so we had all the necessary Advantech and drywall on hand. I resumed the familiar sequence: measure, cut, install. I planned out the pieces to ensure we staggered our joints (so a drywall seam never lined up with an Advantech seam) and left as few scraps as possible.

Advantech spans over the central beam.

Advantech spans over the central beam.

The central support beam posed a challenge. Floor joists landing on this beam did not quite line up with one another, so I cut the Advantech pieces narrow enough to just slide through the choke point. (We filled in the resulting triangular voids with skinny Advantech scraps, then cut the drywall to cover them.) Compounding our installation problem, the piece nearest the exterior wall needed to sneak its way over the convexity of that wall – it’s a log cabin, after all. In light of these difficulties, Jas and I dry-fit every single piece (and re-cut if necessary) before gluing and screwing to the ceiling.

Jas had a brilliant brainstorm to speed up the Advantech installation. Not only did we drill pilot holes for the 1½” screws, we also drilled the screws themselves partway into the wood before raising the piece to the ceiling. One hand on the drill and one hand to steady the piece… way easier than one hand holding the screw, trying to pin the piece against the ceiling with an elbow or neck. We also used our T-prop in lieu of a third pair of hands to keep the longest pieces from sagging.

Drilling the last few drywall screws.

Drilling the last few drywall screws.

The white drywall has brightened the kitchen and dining room considerably, and we can use trim to hide the rough edges if Jas wants. More importantly, he can clang pots without disturbing anyone upstairs. Our two layers of material and soundproofing glue really do wonders to absorb the noise.

Hooked on a Ceiling

Early in the week, a new insulating crew came to spray-foam Bob’s dormer roof, now that it had solid new sheathing. They did the job cleanly and allowed us to proceed to our next step: installing ceiling boards.

First we had to stain them. Hans and I took care of all the remaining tongue-and-groove boards with a painting pad and the same white pickling stain we used in the living room. We let them dry in the sun, then stashed them under the barn until go time.

In the barn, Hans whitewashes a ceiling board.

In the barn, Hans whitewashes a ceiling board.

The ceiling boards were 14 feet long uncut, and we tried to use as much of that length as possible. We came mighty close thanks to the rafters’ 2-foot spacing. (The master bedroom plus stairwell is 18 feet wide, but we needed to break on a rafter.) At the same time, Hans tried to mix up the joint locations, using the scraps from shorter cuts as starters for subsequent rows. It was necessary to line up the adjacent tongues at each joint so the next row would span properly.

Essential tools were a hammer to tap each board into the previous tongue, a chisel to use as a lever on stubborn boards, and a finish nail gun to secure the work to the rafters. I also used a jigsaw to cut out circular holes for the can lighting fixtures.

Hans uses a fine tool to cut a recess for the last row of ceiling boards.

Hans uses a fine tool to cut a recess for the last row of ceiling boards.

The last row is always the hardest. We had to close the gap with an angular ridge beam and a bunch of steel joist hangers, and the gap was a non-uniform width thanks to the sag of the ridge beam. I measured the width at each end and ripped the boards freehand (the table saw’s guide does no good when your width varies) to achieve the right taper. Then Mark hollowed out the back of the boards to accommodate all our obstacles without revealing anything from below. Finally, we picked our nail locations carefully to avoid all the joist hangers. We came mighty close to running out of ceiling boards (in part because I made some mistakes and ruined a couple) but we did finish the job.

The ceiling’s completion allowed Mark to fill the gap between the bathroom and the hall. He sliced some more salvaged barnboards to match the ceiling angle and installed them vertically atop the bathroom door header. Lookin’ sharp!

Mark admires his handiwork: a closed-up bathroom wall under a completed ceiling.

Mark admires his handiwork: a closed-up bathroom wall under a completed ceiling.