An Introduction To Metal Wall Studs - Part 1
(This will be the first in a series of blog posts on this subject, though there will be gaps between postings when I need to talk about other things.)
In the coming decades many of us will need to learn is how to expand the living space we have. Either through economic contraction which forces us to take a room mate to share the expenses or a change in our extended family situation where someone has to share living space, the skill and knowledge on how to add to, or modify the existing space will be useful and in some cases profitable. Knowing how to make a spare bedroom out of a basement, convert a unused garage to a workshop or insulate a seldom used closet into a new pantry, will help you survive in the Long Descent.
One big plus is we are at the time period between access to manufactured resources and the start of the salvage age. You can get new material for a project from nearby stores, or if you live near one of the building supply recycling place, like the Habitat for Humanities stores here in St Louis, finding the stuff to do these conversions is easy.
Let's take a look at one resource you may not have used before, Metal Stud Framing.
Wood versus Metal:
If you have done any basic home construction, you are familiar with using wood to frame a wall or space. Its a type of framing that has literally been used for centuries.
Open a wall in a home built in the 1700s by colonial Americans and you'll recognize the same basic way of building as you would in a home built in currently dated Iraq by US Naval personnel. Modern industrial saw mills and access to standardized material sizes have allowed a conformity to construction now those colonial Americans would be amazed at. With that conformity though has come a decrease in real quality and longevity. Its not without cause that the tract houses of suburban Western World are poor shadows of those sturdy colonial farm houses.
(By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gregory N. Juday - WikiCommons / By Global Entertainment Productions GmbH & Co. Movie KG, from the movie "The Patriot")
One of the advantages that YOU will have, building it yourself is the ability to "build up". Housing codes are often the least acceptable level of durability. Construction companies don't want to spend the time or money to make a home last for centuries, and most consumers aren't willing to pay the price for that amount of quality either. Green Wizards though, who are building things to last can take the time to do it right.
Wood studs have been standardized and in almost all cases, the typical wall is built using something called a "Two by Four" (aka the 2x4"). This is the measurement of the width and height of the board. The length varies but is also standardized in typical 8, 10, 12, 16 and 20 foot sizes. That 2x4" is a bit of a lie. While you can get a board that is a true 2 inches by 4 inches, construction wood is actually 1 1/2" by 3 1/2". I suspect that early saw mills decided that they would charge the customer for the 3/8" width cut of the saw blade, along with the wood stud they got too. The slightly smaller size is fine, since everyone uses the same size wood studs.
This has the added advantage that you can replace damaged construction and know that it will match the older work.
Metal studs use roughly the same sizing, though they are slightly less thick and slightly more wider, 1 1/4" and 3 5/8ths. Not sure why, lol. You can also get them in two smaller sizes, 1 1/2" by 1 5/8" and 1 1/4" by 2 1/2". No matter the size, they come in two material thicknesses, 20 gauge and 25 gauge. While you would think that 25 is thicker, due to one of those quirks of history, gauge size is opposite. 20 gauge is thicker and used in structural positions or places that you need a bit more strength, like where you will be hanging cabinets. The thinner material is easy to get, especially for home or projects at the local big box hardware stores. To get the heavier stuff you'll often have to go to a professional drywall supply company. Lengths are common sizes of 8, 10, 12 and sometimes 20 foot.
Metal studs also come in a "channel" and a "stud". The channel is C shaped and typically used on the horizonal, like for floor or ceiling dimensions. The stud is also C shaped but has a flange on the sides. Its designed to fit inside of the channels. It also typically has precut holes in it, which is great for running electrical or plumping through. You will want some of the plastic grommets if you are going to do this though. The metal is sharp and can cut the material going through the holes, or can cut YOU. Wear gloves when working with it.
You can see the flange in the first picture, and the grommet in the third. Notice the bare cut out closest to the camera. The cut outs are placed at a common location on the stud, so you want to align them if you are running wiring or pipe. In this case, that wall will get an electrical outlet later.
We will discuss how to frame walls in a later post.
One extremely useful characteristic of using metal studs is their flexibility when you make a mistake. You literally can disassemble what you just built. Wooden studs are typically nailed and taking them apart is a big headache and will most likely cause damage if you try. With metal studs though, you label everything carefully, then get out the screw gun and unscrew it. I've had to do this several times. Also, unlike wooden studs, metal stud construction is forgiving of a little bit of error in length. Cutting a wooden stud 1/8th inch short and you have to cut another one. Cut a metal stud short a small distance and you can still use it.
Another point in their favor, most steel is recycled now. Many manufacturers claim they use 100% recycled steel in their products, which lowers the impact using these has on the environment. While wood construction material is farmed, not harvested from old growth forests, it is almost always dumped directly into the landfill. Looking forward to the Future when our children's children get many of their resources from deconstructed buildings, the metal studs in them can be cleaned up, the screws removed and reused in new construction.
What Tools Will You Need?:
One of the things that make metal studs convenient for the do it yourself Green Wizard, is you can literally put these up with hand tools and a few regular power tools. Here's a list:
1) A good sharp set of Metal Snips and a pair of regular Pliers: Even the heavier 20 gauge studs will cut with a pair of hand snips. Get a straight cut one. When cutting these to length you will cut each side up to the main width, then taking it in hand, wiggle it back and forth until it naturally separates. This will leave a small burr though. In some cases you'll want to trim that off, so you may need to add an 1/8th or so to your measurements.
The pliers can be a regular cheap set, you will be using them to bend the metal back into shape after you cut it. The cuts will bend the metal, but it easy to bend back.
2) Tape measure: Get one with a magnetic tip is very helpful, but not essential.
3) Framing or Carpenter's square: You'll be drawing lines on the metal studs to cut them. You'll need to cut from both sides, so making sure your line is square is helpful. Don't worry though if you're a bit out of square, you can trim it after your cut it.
4) Carpenter's Level and a Laser: You can do most of the construction with a 24" bubble level but a construction laser is really helpful for squaring the top and bottom channels or working across doorways and window openings. You'll want a tripod too, but you can often get one of those at a thrift store. Almost all laser levels have the common photograph screw hole on the bottom to mate to a tripod.
5) Drill and Screw Gun (with bits): You can get away with just a rechargeable drill and swap out the bits but having a second screwgun, even one of the $30 household ones is very helpful. I pilot holed my screw points on the studs because I found that even self tapping screws sometimes messed up when I screwed them in. The screw tip would penetrate the exterior channel but would spin out on the interior stud, which would misshape the hole. Piloting first helps a lot.
Piloting for those that don't know, is drilling a smaller diameter hole where you are going to do a larger one first (or screw into). For this work, I was drilling a 3/32" pilot. You should have a set of common drill bits, and perhaps a couple of extra in the pilot size, along with a set of bits for the screws. The bits to drive the screws I used were Phillips head. One bonus, most boxes of screws include a fresh bit. (more on fasteners in a minute...).
6) Fasteners: While they do make screws specific for metal studs, I use what are called "lath screws". These are screws with a wider and flatter head, and are typically used to secure metal lath for the instillation of plaster to a wall. They come in "self tapping" and "sharp point". The self tapping have a miniature drill tip on their end and can make their own hole through metal. The do though tend to spin out more than the sharp pointed screws. You'll want to get a box of each, #8s in 1/2" length is fine. You are going to use a lot of screws, lol.
For attaching the upper channels to the ceiling or bottom channels to wood floors, you will need decking screws and washers
In addition, if you are installing your project on concrete or stone, you will need
7) Hammer Drill, Pilot Drill and Nut Driver bits: Putting holes in concrete is a pain in the ass. And the back and the knees, depending on how old the concrete is. Concrete gets harder as it gets older and the stuff I was working on was poured in the 1950s. Luckily they make drills for this kind of job. They have a mechanism that taps hard on the bit as it spins (hence the "hammer" part of the name). You don't have to spend serious money on one, even the ones under a hundred dollars will do the job but don't go cheap.
Also you won't be able to just buy a masonry drill bit and put it in your regular drill, no matter what the sales clerk says. You will want the ones which are labeled "percussion". Smallest size I found for that are 3/16th bits, which are good for pilot holing 1/4" concrete screws. Yes, you'll need special screws, which are in the 40 cent each range. The ones I used for this job were 1 1/4" long. Get the ones with a hex head, not the screw head, and which use a socket drive. Also buy extra, you'll damage a few when you screw them in and have to throw that one aways.
Buy washers as well to put under the head of the screw. The washer helps to distribute the pressure and hold the channel down better. Buy several drill bits, they will get dull and sometimes even break. Easier to have an extra than to have to stop and go to the store.
9) Misc Stuff: Also have on hand several fine tipped black markers, a few pencils and a can of Air. You'll use that last one to blow out the holes in the concrete. Safety glasses as well.
Material, How Much?
For small projects its pretty easy. Measure the distances of all your supports, then double the length. Then divide that by 8 feet. Round this number up to the next whole number. In this case it was 3.8, so I bought 4 full eight foot channels. For your studs, measure the height of your tallest vertical piece, then multiply it by the number of places you are putting them. Divide by eight. In this case, I only needed one stud (more on this is a bit).
First Project - Leveling Out A Space For A Pantry:
Ok let's dive right in.
While its ok to start with a project like a new office or bedroom, with walls and windows and doors, its good to start with a project that if you make a few mistakes or it doesn't come out completely right its still going to be a usable thing. Along with major changes to the basement, I wanted to utilize some of the underused areas down there. That includes the area under the stairs, which as you can see has turned into catch all storage of mostly garden and household cast offs.
Stairs are an area that often gets overlooked, but with a little planning can be put to good use.
In this case, I'm dealing with two problems to using this space. The first is that the stairs are set too close to the outside wall at the bottom. We're going to address that with a one step riser, that will add some space and make getting around the corner easier. The second is that there is a serious slope in the floor towards the drain in the center of the basement. That is where metal studs come in.
Uneven flooring is a major problem in old homes, basements and garages. They just didn't plan for some spaces to be used as much as we do now. In this case, the slope provides a bit of space in the event that the sewer pipe backs up into the house. We've had this happen once or twice in the thirty years she's owned it, but never more than a few inches, which made a pool of a few feet in diameter. Tree roots are the usual culprit. We've removed the one tree that is nearest the lateral sewer pipe out to the street, so I don't expect any more back up in the future, though we still are doing twice yearly professional cleaning of the pipe.
You could make a platform with wood but it would be several inches tall and with wood comes the chance of mold, should the sewer back up enough to get to the wood. Even pressure treated wood, which you want to use anytime you place wood on concrete, will get moist if exposed to water. With metal studs we have a medium that is water proof and given the way the channels can interlock, will save us height. This basement has a very low ceiling, so every inch counts.
Along with modification to the stairs, I want to create space for a set of shelves and tot storage as well as put our 7 cubic foot freezer under there. By placing our pantry at the bottom of the stairs, its in easy reach if we are cooking upstairs or putting groceries away. Right now, the freezer is over near the electrical circuit breaker panel across the basement, the only place we have a three prong outlet. The electrical in the house still uses two conductor, separate wiring without a ground. Redoing and replacing the whole house electrical, as well as a upgrade from 100 amp service to 150 amp service, so that I can install a workshop in the basement later, is planned but will have to be done in several phases.
About those stairs. I didn't want the space under the riser to be accessible to my pets. The cats especially would love to hide under them. Not only would they get dusty but in the event of an emergency, like a fire, I might see them there. So I enclosed the space. Now the thing about stairs, the open backed kind like these, is that they aren't really wide enough for where you put your feet. Try the ones you have and you'll notice, your toes will extend past the back of the stair. So I added a 2x4" board at the back of each of those stairs, then screwed in pieces of plywood to the vertical. (Note: I haven't put the facing piece on the floor section yet, but will.) To re-enforce the corner, I have additional pieces of 2x8" boards. You can't make an odd stair that isn't the same height as the others. First, its against building codes and second, your mind won't realize the difference until you step on it. Too short or high and you'll trip and maybe fall.
Here is the plan.
That third picture shows the finished platform, to give you an idea of what I'm shooting for. Notice there is a dogleg inset where the freezer is going to be located. The inside width of the stairs is about 36". The steps have come slightly loose and there is a small gap between them and the stair case stringers. I've been able to remove that space on the side where I can access it. I'll remove the other side when I tear out the plywood wall behind the stairs when I build the workshop.
This inside size makes it ideal for one of the commercial metal shelf units you can buy. The one I bought is pictured. It is 36" wide, 16" deep and stands 72" tall. They never have enough shelves so I'm going to use a cheat. I will not put the pieces shown on the bottom of the unit. Instead I will bolt it to the riser with brackets. This will give me an extra set of shelves. I'll also be able to scavenge a single long piece from the top shelf rear. To increase the space, I am going to use these 3 long lengths, as side pieces at the middle height, giving me one additional shelf that is 36"x36".
I will size the tote storage for several plastic totes which I already have. They are nice because they aren't as wide as too many now. Means that fully loaded they aren't as heavy. Useful if I have to take them with me when I bug out in an emergency.
Now that we have a plan, let's get to work.
Building This Thing.
Just a quick note, I didn't think to take pictures of this project until I had go quite a bit further into building it. These first few steps will have material and structure in the pictures that you won't in your project. Ignore what doesn't apply.
Step One - Identify Your Starting Point and Securing It To The Floor:
The first step is to identify the highest point of the floor. Everything else will key off of that. Take the level and check the floor. If you haven't used a bubble level before, this video is a good start "How to Read a Level". In this case, the corner nearest the stairs and to the right is the highest. And its opposite, near the drain and away from the post support is the lowest.
Cut a section of channel as long as you need for the piece that will sit on the concrete floor. This will go from an inch or so from the stair addition, to just up against the concrete base of the support post. Why not up against the plywood. Well its a bit difficult when you use the hammer drill to be right up against a wall.
Drill a 3/8" hole a couple of inches from the end of the channel. I typically pilot hole these first with a 3/16" hole, then re-drill with the bigger bit. I put the channel on a scrap piece of 2x4" to help prevent the hole from deforming, and to protect the bit. If you drill directly on the concrete, it will dull the bit quickly. Once you have the first hole drilled, position the channel where you want it to go, then get out the hammer drill.
Make sure the hammer drill is set on percussion. Most have a switch to change from percussion to regular drilling and back. With percussion you will hear a rapid and distinctive "thump, thump, thump" as it operates. This additional hammering helps to cut through the concrete. Put the drill bit tip in the hole and start drilling. Put constant pressure downward and let the drill do the work. If you are straining, you're doing it wrong BUT sometimes you will hit a particularly hard section. If it doesn't break through after a couple of minutes, then stop and reposition an inch away with another hole.
Depending on the age of your concrete this may be an easy job or hard. If you have never used a hammer drill, get a scrap brick and drill a few practice holes. Practice using the socket bit to drive a few screws into the holes you drill as well.
Note, my concrete floor seemed to be 4-5" thick. In a few cases I have actually punched through the slab and into the fill below. If you feel the drill suddenly start to feel easier, stop. Back out with the drill running, and then blow the hole out with the can of air. Take the plastic tip of the can, and push it into the hole to see how deep it is. Try for a depth about 3/4 to 1" longer than the length of the concrete screws you are using. Once you have the first hole drilled, grab a drill bit from your set, one slightly smaller than your screw (in this case the screw is 1/4" in diameter). Put the drill bit through the metal channel and into the hole you just drilled. This acts as a register pin.
Ok take at a look at how the channel sits on the floor. On a sloping floor you'll see one end isn't down, in this case, it was the side towards the drain. Cut both sides of the channel at the point where you start to see a gap. Leave the longer side of the channel, the one on the floor uncut. Bend the piece a bit, until it sits flush. Take a look further down, does it now sit flush to the floor all the length of the channel? If not, do the same further down. With this project, I only needed one cut.
With a black marker, make an x a couple of inches on either side of the cut. This is where you will drill to put more anchors. Also mark the end of the channel too. You want anchors 12-16" apart, except where there is a cut, so measure from the first hole you drilled to the x. In this case it was about 33", I put another x at the mid point between the two. Same with the second section, making a total of 6 anchors to be used. Take the channel off the drill bit pin, and drill holes like you did for the first hole.
Put the channel back on the floor and line the first hole up. Remove the hammer drill bit, and insert the socket driver. Turn the hammer drill to drill. Take a concrete anchor screw and a washer and screw the anchor into the hole. Use short pulses of the trigger. Hold on tight, the drill will want to spin in your hands when it meets resistance. Drill it down until it is securely tight to the floor but make sure it is lined up with where you want it. You can tell when the anchor is tight by seeing the channel's side pull in slightly. You can also give the washer a spin. If it does, you'll need to tighten it more.
The screw may tighten up too much and stop not flush. If this happens, put the drill in reverse and back the screw out a little, then drive it back in. You can only do this though once or twice until the threads on the screw wear off. If the screw spins without tightening down, reverse it and remove the screw. Throw it away and get a fresh one.
With the first anchor secure, drill the other holes. I drill the two holds on either side of the channel cut first. As you drill each hole, install an anchor screw. Doing this will keep the holes lined up.
You should end up with the channel secured and flush with the floor.
Step Two - Fabricating the First Truss:
Once the bottom channel is secure, cut another piece the same length. This will form the top part of the metal truss you are making. When the height difference is small, like in this case, the two lengths are nearly the same. If the height difference is larger, you may find that the upper channel is shorter. The side of the triangle you are making is shorter than the hypotonus naturally. At the high side of the project, interlace the two channels like this [ ] (only horizontally). The upper channel's sides should go on the outside of the lower channel's sides.
Get out the 3/32" pilot drill bit, and drill a hole through the sides of the overlapping channels at the high end. Press the top channel down onto the lower channel as you do this. You want the two to be flush together, which will give you the least amount of height. Using the screw gun, screw a lath screw into the hole. I'd use a sharp point screw for this. If you have access to the other side of the truss, which I didn't, you can put a second screw in. Most of the time, you can get away with a screw on only one side in some of your pieces. Two sides are better though.
Go to the other end of the truss. Put your level on top of the upper channel, and raise it until the bubble indicates the channel is level to the room (not to the floor). Now measure the distance between the upper channel and the lower at the end of the two. It just needs to be a rough measurement.
Get out the metal snips and pliers. Cut a piece from the stud about 1/4" longer than your measurement, by cutting the two sides and flange, then wiggling the metal piece back and forth until it separates. If it is hard to move, use the pliers for leverage. Once cut, notice the slight burr on the cut metal. Use the snips and carefully trim about 1/8" off, removing the burr.
Next, put the cut stud piece into the two channels at the end. With the level still on the upper channel, move the cut stud piece left (towards the short end) until you see the upper channel is exactly level. You want the piece to be about 6" from the end. If it is too long, and the channel is level but the stud piece is less than 6" from the end, remove it and take another 1/4" off of it. Replace it into the two channels and move it until the upper channel is level. Repeat this if needed.
Once it is in the right location, pilot drill and screw the lower channel to the stud piece. Lower channel only! This provides you with the right height to cut and install the other stud supports. You can move the stud piece left or right as needed so it is against the top channel well. You want them about 12-16" apart but if you expect more weight to be placed on the platform, make them closer. These pieces carry the load.
You want to put stud supports up to the point that the two channels overlap 2/3rds of their side width. You can just screw channels together in distances less than 2/3rds. Once you have all of the stud supports screwed to the bottom channel, and the top one in place, double check the level one more time. Then screw the top channel to each of the studs.
Step Three - Fabricate the Rest of the Trusses:
Now that you have experience making a truss you want to make the rest of them for this project.
Start with the truss that establishes your level on the direction to the right angle of your first one. For this project that is the truss in front of the plywood under the stairs, whose end butts up against the first truss. Remember you have to always start from a reference point that is level to the height you want to end at. By keying the end of your second truss, from the height of the first truss you insure that the two share a common level. Get the second truss assembled and then the third truss in a similar manner, and then four truss, parallel to the first can be keyed off the second and the third.
Filling out the center of the storage and shelf section, you do the long truss in the middle first, then the two shorter ones. This results in the entire section being level. You can go on and do the freezer section in a similar manner.
I should point out one thing, I screwed up doing the third stud piece on the outside length. (Fourth channel in the above paragraph) I should have placed it even with the center cross channel. To add to the stability, you should screw the various pieces at right angles to each other, with a screw at the top. You can just get the pilot bit in there if you are careful. then secure with a screw.
Once you are done, you should end up with something looking like this.
We're going to stop at this point. The shelving unit I bought won't arrive until December 7th. I'm going to cover the metal trusses with a 1/2" sheet of concrete board to make it look pretty. We'll go over how to cover, and how to install the shelving in two weeks.
ADDED: Pictures of the stair modifications
Since people asked, here are some pictures of the stairs and what changes I made to them.
As I mentioned I put in a one step high riser. Its only about 28" wide. I couldn't go the same 36" as the stairs, because to clear the window inside the room behind the wall to the left of the picture, I had to place it where it is. This shows the two types of wall covering over the metal studs I'm using. The bottom 36" is covered in a material commonly called "concrete board". It is a mix of concrete and fiberglass fibers, and is typically used in high moisture areas or under tile. Its water proof basically. Above that is water resistant drywall. I'm very focused on making sure the chance of mold is as small as it can be. While the stair mods are wood, its pressure treated wood. Its also built using decking screws and all parts of it are replaceable if needed. Basically I can have the basement flood to a depth of around two feet and instead of having to tear all the wall covering out, I can just let it dry.
BTW, that small indent in the wall, to the top right is the furnace chimney. I decided to put a good fire extinguisher and a rechargeable flashlight in that nook. I do have a outside entrance to the basement and its in the area the office is being installed. If for some reason there is a fire and I can't get out that way, or the fire is upstairs, having a fire extinguisher right there will be handy. I'll probably put a small nightlight there above it, so I can spot it in an emergency too.
Too further keep mold out, the walls all have a 1" or so air gap behind them, between them and the insulation glued to the walls. In the right picture, you can see the vent to that space. At each end of the walls, there is an opening like this. If need to I can put a fan in front of the vent and blow fresh air through the space. And for a fan you need electricity. Since that wall has several outlets in the room behind the wall, it was easy to install one on this side. I'm a big fan of lots of electrical outlets.
The left hand picture shows the chimney access. There was just a rusty piece of sheet metal covering it before which let in drafts and once a small bird. The two floor boards are removable as are all of them, so if I need to get inside and clean it, I can.
In these last two pictures you can see the extension I put on the two bottom steps. You need the extra space for your toes. The other picture shows how I removed a section of the original stair stringer right there at the bottom of the handrail. More than the limited space at the bottom of the stairs that bit of angled wood was a major trip hazard. To strengthen it, I have wood directly under the stringer, as well as three additional 2x" pieces of wood (2x4, 2x6 or 2x8" depending on the location) on the sides. That thing won't be going any where.
It's all gotten some sanding and will be painted eventually. I've got a floor mat down to minimize dust getting upstairs at the moment.
The question was asked about handrails. I have a copper pipe handrail at the moment, from the original construction I assume. Now in my old age, I've noticed I have a tendency to trip and sometimes fall, so yes, I'm going to mount a second handrail on the other side of the stairs, and a short on on the wall next to the riser and electrical outlet.
I hadn't planned to do this section this soon, but in a recent cold snap, the concrete wall at the base of the stairs was noticeably cold to the touch. While I've only gotten about a third of the walls insulated, we seen a rise in the temperature down there. It was a good point to do it anyway.