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Drop Ceiling Installation: Selection, Tools, and Tips

Here are 5 tips help you install a drop ceiling in your home that aren’t on the instruction manual.

A tiled basement drop ceiling.

Drop ceiling tiles are a popular choice for basements, offices and other spaces. Also known as suspended ceilings, drop ceilings require careful layout and an ability to work efficiently overhead. So it pays to be careful with the details and spend a little time doing your homework before getting started.

You can install a drop ceiling yourself with a little effort and know how. And while a manufacturer’s instructions are the best place to start, there are a few tools and tips “not shown” in the instructions that will make the project go smoother.

5 Tips for Easier Drop Ceiling Installation

1. Decide on Look and Budget

Deciding which drop ceiling is right for you depends on lots of factors. Start with the look you want and work back to the budget you can afford. There are numerous varieties—from a basic metal grid and drop-in panels to richly colored coffered looks that defy preconceived notions about how this ceiling treatment should look.

When thinking about the actual price, it’s important to consider that unlike, say, drywall—much cheaper to buy, much harder to finish—a suspended ceiling requires no additional work once it is installed.

2. Choose Between a Suspended vs. Surface Mounted Ceiling

While the strictest definition of a suspended ceiling is a ceiling that hangs a few inches below the existing ceiling or framing by wires and is supported by a metal grid, there are other choices like surface-mounted ceilings installed with clips that screw directly to the framing above. The installation tools and techniques are nearly identical, however.

When deciding between suspended and surface-mounted products, know that surface-mounted products usually take up less valuable headroom, something often lacking in old houses. However, they may restrict access to mechanicals that run the joist space.

3. Gather Your Tools

You’ll need:

  • Measuring tape.
  • Chalk line. (blue or another light color for interior use)
  • Cordless drill-driver or impact driver.
  • Laser level. It’s really handy for the long level layout lines usually required for suspended ceilings. (Spirit levels work for small spaces but little inaccuracies and human error add up incrementally and make it difficult to level an entire room accurately.)
  • Stud finder. A scratch awl is a great one.
  • Aviator (tin) snips and side-cutters (electrician’s pliers). Snips cut the angle and “tees”; side-cutters bend the wire. Some companies make a hanger system that is easier than bending wire and works just like the plunger that closes a bathroom sink drain.
  • Ladders. A step ladder will work, but a rolling scaffold—which can be used for all kinds of other projects—is better.

4. Remove Studs Using Your Stud Finder

With your stud finder:

  1. Remove a device box cover plate, investigate which side of it is nailed to the stud with the awl, and you’ve found the stud.
  2. Plumb up to the ceiling location and confirm you’ve actually located the stud by pounding the awl’s point into the wall with a hammer. If it stops and is hard to pull out, you’re in a stud. If you can wiggle it through the drywall, you missed it.
  3. Holes above the planned drop ceiling line are hidden so try a few locations if need be.

5. Double-Check Measurements and Layout

There’s a little math that the instructions will walk you through before installation. It pays to double-check that you’ve got your measurements and layout right because the whole job depends on this initial work.

The two most critical elements are that:

  1. You’ve divided the room according to their formula, with the goal being that panels on the ends will be the same sizes as each other (it’s the same idea with tile, but how you arrive at the final layout is different)
  2. Your grid is square. There’s some wiggle room but not much. If the grid isn’t square, the panels won’t drop in.

Add patience to the equation too. Unless you’re used to dragging ladders all over the place and working over your head all day, those muscles don’t get a lot of daily use. Go slowly. Work methodically, and watch as your ceiling is transformed.