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September 2021
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Remodeling Tales – How Many Ceilings?

Some of you are remodeling, renovating, or thinking about it. Some of you get disheartened when you open a wall, remove trim or discover that window will not open, because the (PO aka previous owner whom we all take on faith was an idiot)  needed to get rid of a 1/4lb. of 16 penny nails by driving them into the window and frame.

Be of good cheer, it is not that bad. Worse things have happened. Having spent almost 40 years  remodeling and building things, I have run across weird things.

Case in Point, How many Ceilings?

Years ago back in Minnesota, one of my compatriots in the remodeling game was Doug the Painter. Doug had the most unusual luck in finding clients. Doug only painted. He would call us for anything else.
There was a loose confederation of us. Kenny the chain smoking, marathon running electrician, Gary ‘Sewer Juice’ the drain specialist, Larry, the clumsy roofer,(who managed to fall off a roof at least once every season) and so on.

Doug calls me and says that he needs a quick ceiling done in a kitchen. Fine, I say. I arrive at the house armed with my bucket of tools and a tape measure. Upscale, large, expensive. 10′ high ceilings, plaster columns, crown moldings, and marble floors.  Doug takes me aside and asks me to not to laugh, as the missus is frazzled already as the cabinet installer has the dining room full of cabinets that can’t be installed because of the ceiling.

He introduces me to the client, and as we are walking toward the kitchen assures her that I am the guy to solve her problems, make the installer happy and let Doug paint.

My first view of the kitchen through the doorway is of cartons of high end appliances, tarps, and muttering installers. I make it into the kitchen and look up. I start laughing.

The entire ceiling is covered with straw, barnyard straw, giving it that sort of hoe down ambiance, totally out of character with the rest of the house. But Wait! The best part which reduced me to snot running, gasping, laughter was the complete farm scene that had been glued upside down on the ceiling. That’s right, farm house, chicken coop, barn, barnyard animals, cows, pigs, chickens, pickup truck and tractors. We are talking a Green Acres diorama on this ceiling.  Like 60 animals hanging upside down on this ceiling. (this was not an uncommon ceiling treatment in minnesota in the 70’s. popcorn ceilings were just coming online)

Doug shoots me a look, and says “It Needs To Be Fixed”, and escorts the crumbling client from the room.

I finally stop laughing and look at the problem. Room is around 12×16 feet. Ceiling is just under 7′. I am thinking that I need to scrape the farm and straw off the ceiling, probably install some furring strips and hang and tape a ceiling. With speed set, three days tops.

But wait! Remember the cabinet installer? He needs 7’2” clear because of the 6” toe kicks on the cabinets which were custom built, the two wall mounted ovens, and the 48” range hood for the Vulcan Commercial 8 burner stove.

Okay I am thinking, since the rest of the house has 10′ ceilings, this room does too. Probably ran a false ceiling out of 2×4 or 6’s and attached their drywall. I get out my trusty keyhole saw and about a foot in from the corner begin to cut a small hole to confirm my thought. Saw goes in about an inch and gets stuck. I cut a 4×4 hole and see another ceiling. Ceiling#2 is those old 12” square interlocking ceiling tiles with all those little holes.   I cut my 4×4 hole to about a foot square, and take my utility knife and cut through the tile to discover the tile is on its own set of furring strips every 12” glued to another ceiling.

I scrape the tile out of the way and grab my keyhole saw and make another cut. Saw goes in about an inch and then stops. There is another ceiling! At this point, I am about 7′ 2” up. I am thinking that I can peel the straw ceiling, furring strips, the hole tile, it’s furring strips, and skim coat that ceiling. But the ceiling is beginning to vibrate as I cut. This tells me that something is suspended by something and not firmly attached to something. If it is bouncing this close to the corner I will never be able to hang drywall and sleep at night.

Enough of this crap I am thinking. I drag out my sawsall and start cutting through ceiling #3. I get about 4” and the sawsall sounds like it is hitting metal and the ceiling is starting to really vibrate. I stop to think about this for a moment. Did I hit a piece of metallic conduit? Is there a water or gas line? What the hell is up there?

Doug comes back and wants to know how much its gonna cost and how fast can I do it. I don’t know I tell him, and invite him to examine my excavation so far. Oh Shit! he says. Well open it up and lets see.

I grab my drywall hammer and begin to axe a hole through ceiling #3. The ceiling is booming telling us that it is hollow somewhere up there. I get enough of the drywall out of the way to discover that ceiling#4 is commercial 2×4′ ceiling tiles on a grid system. They screwed the drywall to the grids. Okay I am thinking, the grid is suspended from the original ceiling, and we are almost home free.

I enlarge the first hole to around 2′ square, cut through the ceiling tile and furring strips of ceiling#2, through ceiling #3, and make the hole large enough to get a hole through ceiling#4, to see what is up there. Sure enough, this ceiling is on wires, but the wires are only about 10” deep, screwed into a textured ceiling.  So I am only about 8′ or so up to the top of the wires in the next ceiling. In this ceiling are drop in light fixtures and what turned out to be exhaust fans.

Looking up to ceiling#5 are electric boxes and holes for what must have been the lights, vents and fans that were mounted in that ceiling. I am up to my shoulders in ceilings. Doug, the installer and I are laughing again, when the client comes back into the kitchen.

The installer suddenly found something interesting in the driveway, and I am trying to stop laughing, with my head and shoulders buried in this ceiling. I have to give Doug major props for being able to explain to the client that there is a small setback with the ceilings, without exploding.

Meanwhile I continued my exploration of the ceilings. I cut Ceiling#1 open to about 3′ square, cut the rest open as well, and began to open ceiling#6. This ceiling is plaster and drywall lath.(which went out of style sometime in the 50-60’s) It is mounted on a 2×6” frame that they built around the walls and attached braces to the original ceiling, #7. Yep, the ceiling in the kitchen was 10′ like the rest of the house.

Since it was Friday, I told Doug to let me know what he wanted to do as we were gonna have to rip out all those ceilings to be able have something that we could work with.

Monday morning rolled around and I got to the house around 10. Doug took me aside and explained that he met with the clients husband Friday evening and showed him the ‘ceiling situation’. When the husband got through laughing, which caused the client to run from the room, they determined that it needed to be done right.

So what started as what I thought was going to be a simple 3 day job suddenly expanded into a major project. (For those of you that are laughing, hang on. For those of you recoiling in horror, relax.) This is now a time and materials deal, where remodeling budgets get tossed out the window, and the clients begin looking for the card given to them by the gypsies looking to buy their first born.

Since I am the guy that gets shit done, which is why guys like Doug call me, I swung into action. The first order of business was to order a 40 yard roll off dumpster, and to have Doug tell the clients that they would be parking on the street for a few days.

Next I called Mr. French and Mr. Manson. You bring them in, mark the target and get the hell out of the way. Literally.

These guys look like  jack pine savages who should have been born a century ago. French and Manson are two people who were born with the ‘Demo’ Gene. In their hands, sledge hammers and crowbars are surgical instruments for excising tumors from your house.

Case in point. 14 hours to reduce 6 ceilings into 40 yards of trash without breaking windows, cutting power, water or lights all of which were live.

We framed in a new ceiling with 2×6’s at the correct height, waited a week for the client, the HVAC, and electricians clean up the mess left over from the previous ceilings, to make changes to the plan now that they had a new ceiling to work with, and get ready for drywall.

It only took three days to hang and tape the new ceiling.

So when you think it is dark in your project, trust me, it is darker somewhere else.