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How to Make Sure Your Home's Ceiling is Strong Enough for New Architectural Finishes

ceiling beamsArchitectural finishes are among the most elegant and subtle improvements you can make to your home. Polyurethane or hollow wood moldings add shape, style, and texture to a room without taking away from the main living-area focus. The most beautiful architectural finishes usually mount directly in the upper corners and to the ceiling itself. Of course, this means you will be mounting your finishes directly to the ceiling in order to install them into place.

Before you get started, it's important to know whether your ceiling is strong enough to support architectural finishes. Even though polyurethane and hollow wood are very lightweight, they still weigh a reasonable amount, particularly in large pieces. Most ceilings can support these finishes but you don't want to be surprised if your home's ceiling is too weak and at risk of giving way. So today, we're here to walk you through the practical steps of testing your ceiling's strength to ensure it is strong enough for new architectural finishes.

The Two Ways to Mount Heavy Objects From the Ceiling

With most types of ceiling, there are two ways that you can potentially mount something drilled directly into the ceiling. The first is to use a special kind of anchor that distributes weight for items hanging directly from the ceiling board. The second is to find the support beams and drill through the ceiling to anchor to the support beams beyond.

- Toggle Anchors

Toggle anchors or butterfly anchors are the most reliable way to attach something to a drywall ceiling and some forms of plaster ceiling. These require a slightly larger hole, an inch or less across, where clamped-down wings are pushed through. When the wings are through, they expand on springs to create 'arms' that spread out and distribute the weight of whatever will be mounted over a larger portion of the ceiling panel. They have been used successfully for chandeliers, potted plants, and ceiling-mounted curtain rods and they can potentially work for your architectural finishes. If your ceiling panels are strong enough and your finishes are not too heavy.

- Secured to Ceiling Beams

The second securing method is both more reliable and more challenging. The safest way to hang something heavy or distributed from the ceiling is to attach to the beams behind the drywall ceiling surface. You will need to find the beams with a stud-finder and can only place anchor points where the beams are located. In some cases, it is possible to build new supporting cross-beams to specifically match your finish-mounting needs.

If you can, it's best to rely entirely on securing your architectural finishes to spots in the ceiling supported by solid beams. But if that's not an option, then you'll want to test the ceiling strength itself.

Is Your Ceiling Strong Enough for Toggle Anchors?

If you can't rely entirely on ceiling beams, the next step is to test the integrity and hold-strength of your home's ceiling. There is no standard rating for ceiling support capabilities and no 'one best way' to do this test. In fact, there is enough variation between ceiling construction between homes that each homeowner will need to perform their own practical battery of tests and make a sound judgment on their own.

Fortunately, we understand ceilings and can help you perform the right tests to determine if your ceiling can support the finishes you have in mind.

- Drywall or Plaster?

First, determine if your ceiling is drywall or plaster. Drywall is a type of paper-sealed gypsum board that is nailed and screwed into place. It is reasonably durable and easy to modify. Plaster ceilings, on the other hand, is installed by smoothing layers of plaster and unfortunately, plaster is much more dangerous to modify. Especially a plaster ceiling. If you have a drywall ceiling with a smooth or popcorn finish, then there's a better chance you can safely mount your finishes by anchoring through the ceiling.

Plaster is more likely to crumble and to crack when drilled and when weight is put on it. But it is possible that your plaster ceiling can support trim with care and expert installation.

- The Integrity Touch Test

The next thing you want to determine is if your ceiling is in good condition. Old or existing water damage, for example, can cause ceilings to take on a spongey, weakened state that wouldn't be obvious from the ground but could hinder your ability to mount architectural finishes. If the ceiling has been previously damaged, it's also possible that micro-cracks or cracks that don't show through to the surface may have weakened your ceiling.

Step up onto a ladder and gently press up onto the ceiling in each place you intend to hang an anchor for your architectural finish. If the ceiling "gives" as you press, this is a problem.

However, if the ceiling stays firm as you push up with reasonable force, then it is likely still integrous and strong enough to allow for mounting trim.

- Testing the Ceiling Thickness

Finally, you'll want to know how thick your ceiling is. Ceilings come in 1/2" and 5/8", with 5/8" being the stronger option. If you can confirm that you have 5/8", then there is a much higher likelihood that your ceiling can support your architectural finishes. This is the strongest standard type of drywall ceiling and has been rated for up to 50 distributed pounds for ceiling fans and light fixtures. If you have 1/2", you'll need to be more careful.

How do you tell? Your best bet is to dig up the blueprints for your house, if possible. Your next best bet is to check out the hole drilled for any existing light fixtures and carefully measure the drywall width at the box. If you do this, be careful not to mistake folded paper for an extra fraction of an inch. Otherwise, it's best to assume you have 1/2" when there's no way to be sure without cutting a new hole and sanding back the paper to measure.

The Weight of Your Architectural Fixtures

Next, you'll want to determine what the distributed weight of your architectural fixtures will be. This is how much approximate weight will be hanging from each ceiling anchor. As long as your ceiling anchors are evenly spaced, this calculation can be a simple matter of division.

- Weight of Each Piece

Start with the total weight of each architectural finish. Finishes like trim and molding tend to come in sections that will fit close enough together to look continuous, but it's the weight of a single piece that matters most to your current calculation. The product specs should tell you the weight but if you're not sure, there's an at-home method to tell as well.

Step onto a bathroom scale to measure your own weight. Then hold the architectural finish and step back onto the scale. The difference is the weight of the piece.

- Distributed Weight By Anchor

Take the weight of each individual piece and divide that by the number of anchors you intend to use. For 1/2" ceiling drywall, you'll want to space these anchors to reduce the weight to less than 5 pounds per anchor. For 5/8", you might be safe to go as high as 20 pounds per anchor. But it is always better to anchor to beams behind the drywall instead of unsupported ceiling drywall whenever possible.

If you are relying on ceiling beams, don't hang more than about 30-50 pounds per mounting point on the beams, as they are usually only 2x4s or 2x6s.

Mounting with Toggle Anchors

If you have determined that your ceiling made of drywall, is in good shape, and can likely support your architectural finish with distributed weight; then it should be safe to use toggle anchors as your installation method. Or to alternate mounting in ceiling beams with spaced toggle anchors for extra support.

To do this, you'll need to understand the toggle anchor. The toggle anchor, toggle bolt, or butterfly anchor as it is sometimes called, will need a hole that is slightly larger than a normal drywall mounting screw hold to provide room for the folded wings to fit through. Of course, first you'll need to mark your mounting points and buy your toggle bolts so you know where and how large to drill the holes.

- Mark Your Mounting Points

Carefully, using the dimensions and measured intended placement of your architectural finishes, mark where you will place the mounting holes. Start with any ceiling-beam-available locations and then space evenly out from there. About every 16 inches is recommended.

- Drill Your Pilot Holes

Holding your trim in place, drill small pilot holes all the way through the finish and ceiling in the locations where you will be securing to ceiling beams. Then drill holes that are 1/16" inch larger than your folded toggle anchors through both the finish and the ceiling.

- Install Using Toggle Anchors

Fold your toggle anchors tightly and fit them carefully through the holes. When they are pressed all the way in, the wings will pull free from the drywall and spring to extension. The wings will settle directly against the drywall, distributing any weight being supported by the anchors.

Mounting to Your Ceiling Beams

Mounting your architectural finishes through a ceiling beam is actually much simpler than using a toggle bolt, because you can use a perfectly normal long screw, like a standard deck screw, rather than a special bolt. The most important thing about mounting to your ceiling beams is that, unlike mounting to the drywall, you need to be absolutely precise about placement.

- Mark Your Mounting Points

Start by carefully aligning your architectural finish where you want it, then ensure you know exactly where the beam is. Trace the beam ahead of time for easy re-location or keep your stud-finder handy if you want to re-confirm that you have the right spot. Then mark where your screw will go lightly with pencil on the finishing piece.

- Drill Your Pilot Holes

Drill your pilot hole with a long bit up through the finish piece, the drywall, and at least an inch into the ceiling beam. The pilot hole should be one size smaller than your final screw.

- Drive the Screw to Install

Use a long deck screw and drive it home up through the finish and ceiling until you feel it drive deep into the ceiling beam. Now you have anchored your architectural finish.

Adding a New Ceiling Support Strut

Let's say you want to hand an architectural finish on the ceiling and there aren't enough ceiling boards to support your project. This is more likely out in the middle, but if you have heavy finishes around the edge, it can be a problem here as well. If the attic is immediately above the room where you are working, you have one relatively easy option: To install a support strut. All you need is access, a cut 2x4, and deck screws to do this interesting and quick fix.

You can install as many struts as you can reach and they will significantly improve your ceiling's ability to support architectural finishes, light fixtures, and other hanging decor.

- Drill and Mark a Locator Hole

The first step is to mark where you want your strut to be so you can find it in the attic. Drill a small hole and thread a wire with a brightly colored end through the hole. Then locate this wire from the attic so you know where to install the new strut.

- Measure and Cut Your Strut

Find the two ceiling beams that frame where you want the new strut and measure the distance between. Then cut a 2x4 to that exact length.

- Install the New Support Strut

Set the length of 2x4 between the existing ceiling beams. If they are also 2x4s, lay the new beam flat. If they are 2x6s, then lay it up on edge for the best weight distribution. Use three deck screws on each side, driven in through the outer sides of the supporting beams into the ends of the new struts. Now you have a new ceiling beam to hang things from.

Is Your Ceiling Strong Enough for the Architectural Finishes?

Installing new architectural finishes is a wonderful home improvement project, but your ceiling does need to be up to the task. Hopefully, your ceiling and ceiling beams passed with flying colors. But if you ran into some trouble with ceiling integrity, plaster ceilings, or not enough beams then there are solutions. You may still be able to install your finishes.  Worthington Millwork provides lightweight polyurethane beams that truly help with any weight issues you might have when it comes to installing beams.  They are so light, a toddler could hold an 8' section!  If you would like to know more, check out our polyurethane beams here.

Here at Worthington Millworks, we are dedicated to helping homeowners and business owners refinish in style. If you have a damaged ceiling, you may need to consider fixing the existing damage before adding improvements. If you have a plaster ceiling, you may need professional installation rather than good old DIY. For a consultation on the ceiling requirements for architectural finishes and how to make sure your ceiling is ready, contact us today! Our architectural finish experts will be happy to guide you through the process and help you find the path to the beautiful moldings and trim you've been envisioning.