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In the good old days of ancient Rome, shallow wall recesses with scalloped arches were used to display classical urns or statues. Pleasing and practical, these architectural accents have been around ever since, from the reliquaries of Europe's grand Gothic churches to the wood-framed walls of America's Victorian houses. Today you can capture the same timeless charm by buying a preformed niche of dense foam from an online retailer and building it into a barren wall. To see how, follow along as senior technical editor Mark Powers creates a hole for the insert and mounts it in place using adhesive caulk. Then all you have to do is salvage a nice urn.

Shown: Nashville wall niche, about $191;


Illustration by Gregory Nemec

Project timeline:

  • Day 1: Choose your spot, trace the template, and cut open the wall.
  • Day 2: Install the blocking and glue the niche in place.
  • Day 3: Caulk the perimeter and paint the niche.

Step 1: Trace the Niche

Photo by Laura Moss

The niche has a lip around the perimeter that will rest against the wall bordering the cutout, while the convex back will nest inside the hole. To create an opening that doesn't swallow the entire niche, you'll need to make a cardboard template that represents the recessed portion only. Set the niche on a piece of cardboard like a turtle on its back, and cut down a pencil to span the distance from the underside of the lip to the cardboard. Keeping the pencil vertical and tight against the recess, run it along the outline of the niche beneath the lip, as shown, to trace your template.

Step 2: Cut Out the Template

Photo by Laura Moss

Using utility scissors, cut the outline of the niche from the cardboard.

Step 3: Choose the Location

Photo by Laura Moss

For the easiest install, choose a nonload-bearing wall, and mark the location of the studs using a stud finder. Position the template on the wall, ideally between studs, and secure it with painter's tape. Visually, you want the bottom of the niche parallel with the floor (not necessarily level), so use a measuring tape to create equal distances between the corners and the floor. Using a pencil, trace the outline of the template on the wall.

Step 4: Prep the Area

Photo by Laura Moss

Whether your wall is drywall or plaster—or, like ours, drywall installed over damaged plaster—hang plastic sheeting around the area to minimize dust while cutting. You can use painter's tape or a pole system, such as ZipWall, whose telescoping poles hold up the plastic to enclose an area. Then cut a window around the niche and tape down the edges of your work window.

Step 5: Cut the Hole

Photo by Laura Moss

If your wall is drywall over plaster, follow all three steps to cut through both materials. For drywall only, use steps 5 and 6. For plaster, skip to 7.

Score the Drywall

Using a utility knife, pierce the drywall along the outline. Repeat several times until the knife slides through the drywall's thickness freely on all sides.

Step 6: Remove the Drywall

Photo by Laura Moss

Wedge a small pry bar into the cut, and pull the cutout toward you.

Step 7: Cut the Lath and Plaster

Photo by Laura Moss

Using a drill/driver fitted with a 1/8-inch drill bit, make a vertical series of holes toward each side of the outline to locate the horizontal gaps between strips of wood lath. Use a straightedge to draw cut lines between holes where the bit punched through. Then, with a reciprocating saw, make horizontal relief cuts within the niche outline, but keep them shallow to avoid damaging any wires and such. This approach will allow the material to come out in clean sections and also prevent saw vibrations from causing plaster to crumble or crack beyond the outline. Now cut all the way through the perimeter of the outline, and remove the lath and plaster.

Tip: Align the saw blade parallel with the wall, anchor the shoe, turn on the saw, and then dip the blade into the cut line. This should prevent the tip from bouncing off the wall.

Step 8: Cut Out the Stud

Photo by Laura Moss

If a stud is located within the opening, use the reciprocating saw to slice it at the top and bottom, even with the opening, as shown. Then slip the blade behind the stud and cut any nails holding the stud in place so that you can remove it. Whether your studs run on the flat, as with some older homes, or on edge, measure the depth of the opening to ensure the niche will fit fully into the wall.

Step 9: Size the Blocking

Photo by Laura Moss

Measure the hidden space between the edge of the opening and the nearest covered stud, on all sides. You'll need to screw blocking to the nearest studs so that it sits flush with the edges of the opening and provides a surface for adhering the niche. Cut the 2x4 blocking pieces to size using a circular saw.

Step 10: Position the Blocking

Photo by Laura Moss

Tip the blocking into the ope ning and use a hammer to tap it into place. The horizontal blocking should sit flush with the edges of the opening at the top and bottom, tight between vertical studs.

Tip: Cut the blocking pieces slightly longer than necessary (leave just your pencil line when cutting) to ensure a tight fit. This will keep them from slipping behind the wall.

Step 11: Secure the Blocking

Photo by Laura Moss

Using a drill/driver and 3-inch screws, secure each end of the blocking by screwing through the block and into the nearby studs at an angle.

Step 12: Install Additional Padding

Photo by Laura Moss

For a secure installation, at least one side should also have blocking flush with the opening. If one stud is close to the edge of the opening, rip a 2x4 to size, and pad out the stud, as shown. If the stud sits deeper, double up 2x4s to make up the space and bring the blocking flush with the edge of the opening. Secure the blocking with glue and a couple of screws.

Step 13: Apply Caulk to the Inside of the Opening

Photo by Laura Moss

Apply caulk to the inside of the opening. Using a caulk gun, apply a bead of adhesive caulk to the blocking that lines the opening, as shown.

Step 14: Apply Caulk to the Niche

Photo by Laura Moss

Apply caulk to the back of the niche along points where it will meet the blocking. Apply additional beads of caulk to the back of the niche's lip, which will rest against the face of the wall bordering the opening.

Step 15: Set the Niche in Place

Photo by Laura Moss

Tip the niche into place, as shown. If the niche does not fit securely in the opening, cut and install shims on the sides or bottom of the opening to hold the niche in place and keep it parallel with the floor.

Step 16: Caulk the Perimeter

Photo by Laura Moss

Run a bead of adhesive white caulk around the perimeter of the niche to bridge the seam between niche and wall. Use the tip of your wet finger to smooth the caulk bead and seal the joint.