How to Install a Load-Bearing Beam

Replace a load-bearing wall with a microlam beam to create a bigger room.

Open up cramped rooms by replacing a wall with a load-bearing beam. Create an open kitchen/dining area, a larger living room or a huge master bedroom using basic framing techniques and standard materials.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

TIME

Multi-day

COMPLEXITY

Moderate

COST

$100 - $500

Project overview

The best way to make small or cramped rooms larger is to remove a wall between adjoining rooms. You'll not only create a larger, more useful floor area but also give your home a feeling of spaciousness. You'll wind up with an area that seems absolutely huge compared with the sum of the individual rooms. With this project, you can create a cavernous master bedroom from two moderately sized ones, join a kitchen and a dining room to make them feel larger (our project) or create a “great room” by joining the dining and living areas. The framing materials for a typical 12- ft. opening are relatively inexpensive. The bigger expenses will come after you complete the framing, when you restore the trim and redecorate.

In this story, we'll show you how to remove nearly any wall and tell you how to add a structural beam if it's needed. It may be scary to think about tearing walls out of your house, but don't be intimidated. You can do it if you've done any basic carpentry work like framing in a wall or building a shed or deck. In fact, removing the wall and replacing it with a beam will only take a half day or less.

We'll show you how to build a temporary support wall to hold up the floor above while you tear out the old wall (Photos 1 – 7). Then we'll show you how to create the beam supports at each end (Photos 6, 7 and 11). Finally, we'll demonstrate a foolproof method for installing the beam itself (Photos 8 – 10). You'll need a helper for about an hour to help hoist the new beam into place (Photo 9), but you can do all the other work solo. Round up basic carpentry tools, including a cat's paw (nail puller) and a flat bar, a sledgehammer, a circular saw and a reciprocating saw. Be sure to pick up a couple of 8-in. coarse-tooth bimetal blades for the reciprocating saw to cut through framing and nails during demolition of the old wall (Photos 6 and 7).

In the last step, we'll also show how you can get a wide-open look (without weakening the house) by hiding a large, strong beam inside the ceiling, rather than placing it underneath. It's a little more work because you'll need to cut out more of the ceiling and build a second temporary wall, but the basic idea is the same.

CAUTION

If there's an attic above the bearing wall you want to remove and the roof is framed with trusses, you can't bury a beam in the ceiling and will have to leave it exposed.

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Sizing up the situation

The first step is to determine whether the wall you're tearing out is a “bearing” wall or a simple “partition” wall. A bearing wall carries weight from floors and/or roof above, while a partition wall merely separates two rooms. When you remove a bearing wall, you have to add a beam to carry the weight the wall supported (see Figure A, with accompanying details, in Additional Information, below). A partition wall can simply be torn out with no worries about temporary support walls or beams, but you'll still have to go through the same repair work afterward as you would with a bearing wall.

To tell if a wall is bearing, first check the joist direction with a stud finder. A bearing wall almost always has ceiling or floor framing (joists; Photo 3) running perpendicular to it. If you're unsure, ask a building contractor or your local building inspector for advice. If it's a bearing wall, the inspector may help size the beam or recommend that you have a structural engineer or architect size it. The inspector will check the size, issue a permit and check your work when you're finished framing (before you start any drywall or finish work). Sometimes a full-service lumberyard will size the beam and sell it to you. In rare cases, you may be required to enlarge existing footings beneath the support columns as well to handle the additional load. That can get costly!

Know what's in the wall. In most cases, electrical boxes and switches can be moved or rerouted relatively easily. But plumbing pipes and heat ducts inside the wall are cause for concern. If that's the case, contact a plumber and/or heating contractor to find out exactly what's involved in eliminating or moving pipes or ductwork before you start tearing out drywall. Apply for an electrical permit if you have to move electrical boxes or cables.

Buying Materials

Any lumberyard will be able to furnish the beam and other materials. Our 12-ft.-long beam was made from doubled 11-7/8-in.-wide x 1-3/4-in.-thick “LVLs” (laminated veneer lumber), a very common, strong type of beam that looks exactly like thick plywood boards.

The beam system we show will work for nearly any opening up to 12 ft. wide. But your beam could be made from other materials ranging from simple doubled 2x12s for shorter spans to more exotic beams consisting of glued and compressed stranded wood fibers or laminated 2x4s. Don't worry—our techniques will work for whatever style beam your situation calls for.

For constructing the temporary support wall, buy three 2x4s the length of the wall for the plates and enough 2x4 studs to space them every 2 ft. (Photo 4). Also pick up a couple of shim packs and a 1-lb. box each of 8d and 16d nails.

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Strip the Drywall

Start the project by shutting off the circuit at the main panel. Remove the baseboards on both sides of the wall and any electrical cover plates. Then slice through the tape at inside corners at the ceiling, and at any adjoining walls. If there aren't corners nearby, make a vertical slit just beyond the wall (Photo 1). Next, tear off the drywall.

Take off one side first by driving a hammer claw through the drywall and simply pulling a chunk free. The first side will come off in small pieces. Loosen the drywall from the other side by rapping on the backside near the studs to free it from the screws. That way you can take off large pieces and minimize the cleanup.

Now remove any outlets or switches, and disconnect the wires. Then pull the wires through any holes in the framing and cap the ends with electrical connectors to ready them for rerouting (Photo 3).

CAUTION

Turn off electrical circuits in the wall.

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Build the temporary support wall

Cut a 1-ft.-wide “observation” slot in the ceiling drywall next to the wall, look for overlapping floor joists and note how far their ends lap over the wall (Photo 3). If the ends of the joists from one room overlap 2 in. or more, build one support wall, making it close enough to the bearing wall to support the joist ends.

If the joists are single continuous boards, one wall will work as well. But if the joists are spliced end to end or if some ends don't project far enough to be supported by the temporary wall, you'll need to build two support walls, one on each side of the bearing wall. If you need a second wall, build it at least 2 ft. away from the bearing wall to leave room to work and to slide the beam into place. The second wall can be mounted directly under the drywall; there's no need to cut another slot.

To assemble the support wall, cut three plates (2x4s) 1 in. short of the full length of the wall. Tack one plate to the underside of the joists parallel to the wall and another to the floor directly below it. Tack another plate to the underside of the ceiling plate. Then cut studs to fit snugly and tack them to the plates every 2 ft. with two 8d nails at each end. Light taps from a hammer should drive them into place. If it takes serious blows to drive the studs home, you're liable to lift the floor or crack drywall joints somewhere above. If you cut a stud a little short, just drive a shim beneath it.

Full Scope of the Work

As a contractor, I opened up quite a few rooms by ripping out walls and replacing them with beams as needed. Two things always amazed my customers: how quickly and easily the beam part went and then how extensive the rest of the job was. That work generally includes drywall patching, respraying textured ceilings, entirely repainting the new room and replacing sections of wood trim. Usually electrical outlets and switches need to be repositioned, which calls for rerouting cable and rewiring devices. If the wall contains plumbing pipes or heating vents, a plumber and a heating contractor have to be called in. And the finished flooring always has to be replaced. Be sure to consider all of these secondary expenses when calculating the cost of your project. Most of the materials for those items are fairly inexpensive if you do the work, but it's best to get bids ahead of time for whatever work you plan to hire out.

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Tear out the bearing wall

Tearing out the old wall studs is just a matter of smacking the bottom of the studs with a sledgehammer (Photo 5) and then wiggling them free of the top plate nails. Removing the end studs is a little tougher. Use a cat's paw to pull the nails that hold the studs to adjoining framing. Then cut through the nails between the ends of the studs and the top and bottom plates with a reciprocating saw, and pull the studs free. The top or bottom plates may carry past the beam location. If so, cut them flush with the end of your desired opening (Photo 6).

Then pry the bottom plate free of the floor with a flat bar and pry the top plate free of the tie plate. Leave the tie plate in place (unless you want your beam 1-1/2 in. higher), but cut off any leftover nail shanks from the wood.

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Prepare the beam pocket

If one end of the bearing wall is perpendicular to another wall, you'll probably have to remove a stud in the other wall (Figure A, in Additional Information and Photo 7). We'll show you how to convert this into a “beam pocket” to set the beam on later. Remove the existing blocking stud (or sometimes individual shorter blocks) by slightly prying apart the neighboring studs with a chisel or flat bar, and then cut through any nails in the gap with a reciprocating saw (Photo 7).

Be careful when cutting: There may be cables in the wall, especially 18 in. or less above the floor, so cut with just the tip of the blade there. Drive a 2-in. drywall screw partially into the stud near the middle, then cut through the blocking stud near the screw and pull out the halves. (It's easy—if you've found and cut through all the nails!) Now the beam pocket is ready for setting the beam.

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Stand the temporary beam cradles

Assemble two cradles out of pairs of 2x4s to temporarily support the beam (Photos 8 and 9). Make the supporting member about 1/4 in. less than the beam width so you can set the beam easily and shim it up tight to the plate on the ceiling (Photo 10).

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Set the beam

Cut the two beam members (LVLs) 1/2 in. short of the overall length and cut notches at the top to fit beneath the top plates in perpendicular walls (Photo 9). (Small notches in this spot won't weaken the beam.) You'll need help to slip the beam members into place (Photo 9). Then drive shims beneath both beam members until they're tight against the underside of the tie plate (Photo 10). With sagging ceilings, you may have to further shorten the 2x4 supports to get the beam to fit in. Once they're up, tack the beam members together to keep them aligned.

Now carefully measure and cut two 2x4 “trimmers” (permanent beam support studs; Figure A, in Additional Information) for both ends of the beam. Tip the bottom into place and then drive them beneath the beam. They should fit snugly, but it shouldn't take a lot of force to drive them home. If they're too tight, trim a bit from the end. If they're too loose, cut longer ones (it's not acceptable to shim trimmers to make up the difference). Toenail or face-nail each one into place with at least six evenly spaced 16d nails.

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Add floor blocking and remove the temporary wall

You may have to add blocking directly below each pair of trimmers (Photo 13 and Figure A; see Additional Information). Beams need solid support all the way down to another beam or the house foundation. Drive nails through the floor directly in front of the trimmers and then go beneath the floor and look for the nail shanks to determine the exact trimmer location.

Use solid lumber the same thickness as the floor joists to fill the space between the subfloor and the framing below. Use at least two blocks to support the width of each pair of trimmers above (Photo 12). If the blocking falls over a bearing wall, add two additional studs directly under the blocking (Figure A; see Additional Information).

Lock the beams tightly together with rows of 16d nails driven about every foot along the beam (Photo 13). Then toenail the assembly to the underside of the tie plate to keep it straight and to the framing at both ends. Finally, remove the support wall and call for a framing inspection.

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Alternative: Hide the load-bearing beam in the ceiling

If you don't like seeing a beam under the ceiling, it's often possible to cut a slot in the joists and put the beam up into the ceiling (see Fig. B). But before you start, determine how deep the ceiling joists are and then talk to the building inspector or a structural engineer about what size beam you'll need to carry the load. You may need to add additional LVLs, or even use steel beams instead of wood. It's very important to get this right, because if you don't the ceiling will sag, along with everything above it.

After you've settled on a beam size, build temporary walls on both sides of the bearing wall. Cut an opening in the ceiling and walls on either side of the beam location that gives you room to hammer in joist hangers. A 4-ft. wide opening (total) will give you room to work and allow you to patch the opening with a sheet of drywall. Begin the temporary wall by screwing a 2x4 to the ceiling about 3 ft. from the bearing wall. Then lay a second 2x4 on the floor (no need to screw it) and toenail a stud directly under each ceiling joist. The studs must fit snugly between the 2x4 plates, so drive shims under any that fit loosely. When the temporary walls are complete, you can tear out the bearing wall.

Cut a section out of the ceiling joists that's about 1/4 in. wider than the overall width of the beam. If there's a floor above the joists and you don't have a reciprocating saw, cut the joists as far as you can with a circular saw and finish the cut with a jigsaw or handsaw. In cases where there are obstructions above the joists, you may have to cut out sections of the top plates so you can get the beam into place.

Finally, install the beam between the joists. LVLs are heavy, so install them one at a time. Fasten the joists to the beam with joist hangers. If the joists are also acting as collar ties, add new collar ties above them or consult an engineer (see Fig. C). Then cover the opening with drywall.

Figure B: Overview of Bearing Wall Removal

If there's a bearing wall above the wall you want to remove, you'll need a second pair of shoring walls directly above the first pair. Otherwise, the upper bearing wall will be supported only by the flooring when you cut sections out of the joists below.

Before you install a load bearing beam, make sure you understand the structure. Figure B: Bearing wall removal
Figure C: Collar Ties

Ceiling joists don't just hold up your ceiling; they also prevent the rafters from pushing exterior walls outward. So if there's an attic, rather than living space, above the bearing wall you want to remove, you'll have to nail 2x4 collar ties to the rafters before you cut the ceiling joists.

You may need to add collar ties if you install a load bearing beam in the attic joists. Figure C: Collar ties
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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Hammer
  • Tape measure
  • Circular saw
  • Stud finder
  • Cat's paw
  • Chalk line
  • Level
  • Dust mask
  • Jigsaw
  • Voltage tester
  • Pry bar
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Safety glasses
  • Sledgehammer
  • Sledgehammer
  • Speed square

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • 2 x 4s for walls and header material
  • Engineered beams (LVL or Gluelam)
  • 8d framing nails
  • 16d framing nails
  • Construction adhesive
  • Joist hangers
  • Joist hanger nails