By Bernard Gladstone
Published: March 17, 1983

WHEN a ceiling is in such poor condition that it is practically beyond repair — badly cracked and peeling in large sections or bulging and falling in places — then one of the most permanent and attractive ways for the do-it-yourselfer to solve the problem is to install ceiling tile or a suspended ceiling.

Either of these methods eliminates the need for hours of tedious patching, scraping, sanding, patching, painting or papering — now or later. Such ceilings can also provide extra fire protection and serve to quiet noise (many tiles and panels have sound-absorbing qualities). In addition, there are various decorative patterns and finishes.

None of today’s ceiling tiles or panels contain asbestos, so they are completely safe. Most are made of wood fiber or mineral fiber. The wood-fiber types are generally less expensive, but they are combustible. Tiles and panels of mineral fiber are noncombustible and meet fire-safety standards where a noncombustible ceiling is required.

Ceiling tiles usually come in 12-inch squares and in 48-inch long planks of 5 to 8 inches in width. They range in price from about 45 cents a square foot for wood-fiber tiles to as much as $1.35 a square foot for the more decorative mineral-fiber materials.

Tiles can be put up in one of three ways: by cementing them up over the existing ceiling with a mastic adhesive, by stapling them up or by using a special metal-track-and-clip system introduced about two years ago by Armstrong World Industries Inc.

Cementing the tiles — applying adhesive to each corner and in the center — is only practical if the existing ceiling is reasonably sound and fairly level, conditions that are seldom prevalent in an old ceiling. Also, many manufacturers recommend using staples to hold the tiles till the adhesive sets, but this won’t work if you try to staple into plaster.

Because of these limitations, tiles are seldom cemented onto old ceilings anymore. Instead, wood furring strips (strips of 1-inch-by-2-inch wood) are first nailed across the ceiling joists above the plaster. The tiles are then stapled to these strips. The furring strips can be shimmed out to create a relatively level surface where the ceiling dips or bulges slightly. Staples can be driven through the tongue edges of the tiles so that they will not show (the next tile’s lip covers this tongue).

The trouble with furring strips is that they are difficult to install straight. Even when they are straight, it is sometimes hard to line them up correctly so that tile edges will be in proper position for stapling. Also, after they are up for a time they sometimes warp, which can cause the new ceiling to bulge or buckle.

To solve these problems, Armstrong introduced its patented Easy-Up metal ceiling track. Consisting of four-foot-long metal tracks used instead of furring strips, this system eliminates stapling or cementing the tiles. Metal clips snap onto the track anywhere along its length and then over the tiles’ tongue edge. The next tile neatly covers the clip as it overlaps it. Easy-Up comes in kits, priced at $7 to $8 and containing clips and track for a 20- to 25-square-foot area.

The Easy-Up system also eliminates the difficulties of accurately lining up furring strips: the metal tracks do not have to be spaced as precisely. And, of course, they cannot warp. Only two nails are needed to hold each track up, so much less nailing is required. The clips also make it possible to remove and replace tiles easily whenever repairs are necessary.

Suspended ceilings can only be installed where there is enough headroom to permit lowering the ceiling by at least three inches, the minimum clearance required for slipping the large ceiling panels into place on top of an aluminum grid. (Five or six inches of clearance will be required, however, if you want to install recessed lighting fixtures that rest on this same grid.)

The first installation step is to fasten special angle strips along the walls to support the ceiling panels. These angle strips must be carefully installed (usually by nailing them up), using a level and ruler, because they will determine the height and levelness of the finished ceiling.

The rest of the grid is hung from heavy wires tied to screw eyes driven into the overhead joists. These wires are looped through holes in the long metal runners that form the longitudinal members of the grid. Twisting each wire secures it to the runner and provides a way to level the grid. You can shorten the wires to level the runners by crimping or twisting the wire a few extra times.

Shorter pieces of a similar type of track, called cross tees, are then installed between the runners at the proper intervals to form the grid. These cross tees have metal tabs that lock into slots in the runners to hold them firmly. Both the cross tees and the runners have flanges along the bottom to hold the panels in place.

The panels are usually 2 feet by 4 feet and are installed by sliding them up through grid’s openings and dropping them into place. The panels can be easily lifted out when necessary for replacement or to repair wiring or plumbing in the old ceiling above.

Since the metal parts needed to form the suspended grid are usually sold as separate components, the best way to compute the number needed is to measure the room accurately. Then take the dimensions to a dealer, who can then figure out the number of runners, cross tees and other parts needed.

Prices vary, but you can generally plan on the grid components’ costing about 25 cents a square foot. The ceiling panels will cost anywhere from 40 cents to $1.30 a square foot, depending on style and type.

Illustrations: Photo of how to fix ceiling

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