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How to Finish, Frame, And Insulate a Basement

With special framing and insulating techniques, your basement can be as comfortable as any other room in your home. Find out more about insulating basement walls and framing basement walls here.

FH04MAY_FRABMT_01-5 insulating basement wallsFamily Handyman
Turn your unfinished basement into beautiful, functional living space. Framing basement walls and ceilings is the core of any basement finishing project. Learn how to insulate and frame the walls and ceilings, build soffits, frame partition walls and frame around obstructions.

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Steps to Finishing a Basement: Planning and getting started

Your basement can be more than a utility and storage area. With some forethought and good techniques, you can make it as warm, comfortable and inviting as any other room in the house. But, make no mistake about it: Finishing a basement is a big job. In this article, we’ll focus on the framing and some unique problems, such as:

  1. Finishing against cool masonry walls without creating moisture problems.
  2. Framing around obstructions like posts, heating ducts and pipes.
  3. Keeping access to valves and cleanouts.
  4. Framing and finishing a wall that’s half masonry and half wood frame. You only need basic carpentry skills for framing and one special tool—a hammer drill for concrete fasteners.

Get started by making a scale drawing of your plans to submit to your local building inspections department. Your plan should include wall dimensions, window and door sizes, and each room’s purpose (e.g., family, bedroom, etc.) along with any special features like fireplaces. Some rooms may require large windows, called “egress” windows, for fire safety. Ask your building inspector if you need them. Also measure the future finished ceiling height and low-hanging pipes or ducts that’ll lower headroom. Sketch the details of the exterior wall construction you intend to use as we show in this article. If you’re uncertain about the best use of space, hire an architect to help with the design. The permit itself will outline at what stages inspections are required. If you choose to do your own electrical work, draw up and submit that plan as well. With your plan and permit in hand, clear everything out of the basement and you’re ready to go. Walk around the basement with caulk and cans of spray foam and plug every gap you can find between framing and masonry and around pipes or wires that penetrate the rim joist or exterior walls. This is your last chance to seal air leaks from the inside, this is how you’ll insulate a finished wall.

If you have a wet or damp basement, it’s one of the steps to finishing a basement you need to solve before you get started. To tell if walls are damp from exterior water or just condensation from humid interior air, tape a 2-ft. square sheet of plastic to the masonry. If moisture collects on the front of the plastic, you have condensation. The method we show for finishing will take care of that problem. If moisture collects on the backside after a few days, then water is wicking through the foundation wall from outside. The basement should be treated the same as if it were leaky. If you have regular seepage or water puddling after storms (even once every few years), you have to fix it permanently before finishing. Remedies for damp or wet basements can be as simple as rerouting downspouts, regrading slopes away from foundation walls, or applying water-resistant paints to interior surfaces. As a last resort, hire a pro to install perimeter drains and a sump pump. The bottom line is that it’s senseless to spend time and money finishing a basement if leaks or moisture will ruin your work or cause mold to grow.

Check out these affordable ways to dry up your wet basement for good:

Insulating basement walls and framing

Insulating basement walls and framingFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 1. Insulating Basement Walls

Start the job by gluing 3/4-in. extruded polystyrene foam insulation to fit against the rim joists and foundation walls . Extruded polystyrene foam can be yellow, pink or blue depending on the manufacturer for insulating basement walls. Avoid “expanded” foam insulation (the type that has little white beads pressed together) when insulating basement walls because it isn’t as durable and has a lower R-value. Make cuts by snapping chalk lines to mark and then score it with a utility knife as deep as the blade will penetrate. Then snap the sheet just like you cut drywall. Carefully cut around obstructions and fill spaces with small chunks of foam wherever it’s needed, working for tight fits. Spread a 1/4-in. bead of adhesive on masonry walls and press the sheets into place.

Finishing a Basement - Caulk GapsFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 2. Caulk Gaps

Then caulk seams and gaps between the framing and foam along the rim joists with more foam to seal against air infiltration and leaks. You’ll add fiberglass later for a higher R-value. The foam greatly reduces heat transfer through the masonry and framing, and it eliminates the need for a plastic moisture barrier later. Be sure to use adhesive formulated for use with foam (about $3 per tube) when insulating basement walls. Conventional construction adhesive won’t work for insulating basement walls.

Finishing a Basement - Cut Top and Bottom PlatesFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 3.  Cut Top and Bottom Plates

Snap chalk lines 4 in. away from the insulation on the exterior walls. Then cut 2×4 bottom and top plates and lay out stud locations every 16 in. on each plate as you’re insulating basement walls.

Finishing a Basement - Anchor the Bottom PlateFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 4.  Anchor the Bottom Plate

Squeeze a 1/4-in. bead of construction adhesive to bottom plates and position them. Then pre-drill with a hammer drill and anchor them with concrete screws.

Finishing a Basement - Install BlockingFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 5.  Install Blocking

Nail 2×4 blocking about every 3 ft. into the first floor joist to support the top plate. Toe-screw them to the rim joist through the foam to continuing insulating basement walls.

Finishing a Basement - Install the Top PlateFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 6. Install the Top Plate

Plumb from the edge of the bottom plate to the blocking with a straight 2×4 and level. Snap a chalk line and screw the top plate to the blocking with 3-in. screws.

Finishing a Basement - Install the StudsFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 7.  Install the Studs

Measure between the plates at each layout mark and cut each stud to length. Then toenail the studs into place at the top and bottom with two 8d (2-3/8 in.) nails in one side and a third centered on the other side.

Finishing a Basement - Half-Wall StudsFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 8.  Half-Wall Studs

When you’re framing half walls, make all of the studs the same length and cut them so the wallis slightly taller than the masonry. The wall may be uneven because of floor inconsistencies, but you can always sight along the top plate and then shim it until it’s flat before installing the finished top cap. Then lay out the stud locations on the plate and nail the studs in place with 16d nails.

Finishing a Basement - Install the Knee WallFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 9. Install the Knee Wall

Tip the knee walls up and fasten them to the floor. Then fasten blocks through the foam into the masonry at every third stud with 3-in. concrete screws. Plumb and screw the studs to the blocking for a solid wall. Be sure to sight along its entire length to make sure it’s straight.

Building soffits

Most basements have ductwork and plumbing mounted at the ceiling along an existing wall. Boxing in those pipes and ducts and then drywalling the assembly is the best way to conceal them. The whole structure is called a soffit.

Finishing a Basement - Install 2x4sFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 1. Install 2x4s

Begin by measuring to the floor to find the lowest pipe or duct in the room; that’ll define how low the soffit must be. Mark a point 2 in. lower on the wall to allow space for the framing and drywall  and nail on a 2×4 nailing strip using the chalk line to position the bottom of the strip. Then snap another line on the bottom of the joists with a 2-1/2 in. clearance. Then snap another line on the bottom of the joists with a 2-1/2 in. clearance.

Finishing a Basement - Build Soffit FrontFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 2. Build Soffit Front

To build a soffit front rip 1/2-in. plywood strips to the depth of the soffit and screw 2x2s even with both edges with 1-5/8 in. screws. It’s easiest to preassemble the 8-ft. long soffit side sections and screw them to the bottom of the floor joists. If soffits end at walls, build the walls first.

Finishing a Basement - Fasten Soffit AssemblyFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 3. Fasten Soffit Assembly

Snap a chalk line on the floor joists 2-1/2 in. away from the nearest obstruction and parallel to the wall. Position the assembly along the chalk line and fasten it to the bottom of the floor joists with 3-in. screws.

Finishing a Basement - Install LookoutsFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 4. Install Lookouts

String a line even with the inside edge of the plywood and use it to determine exact lookout lengths. Nail them in place every 16 in.

Framing partition walls

Partition walls are any walls that aren’t against exterior foundation walls or walls that support floors above. Lay out partition walls by snapping chalk lines to mark both sides of the bottom plates. That keeps you from building walls on the wrong side of single lines!

Also, in a basement, the top and bottom plates are often different lengths. That’s because top plates may project past foundation walls and be longer or run into soffits and be shorter. (See both cases in the photo with step 3.) When you line up the plates to mark stud locations, be sure to account for differences (Photo with step 2).

Finishing a Basement - Install Backer BoardsFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 1. Install Backer Boards

Mark both sides of partition walls with chalk lines, then center and nail 2×6 backer boards in walls that they join. The chalk lines keep you from building walls on the wrong side of single lines!

Finishing a Basement - Cut the PlatesFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 2. Cut the Plates

Mark door openings on the floor to avoid putting glue under doors. Frame partition walls as you did the outside walls, again installing blocking between joists wherever it’s needed. Add 2×6 backers on walls that meet partitions (as explained in step 1). They provide support and nailers for drywall. Before you tie the partition walls to exterior stud walls (non-masonry, without foam), staple 2-ft. wide strips of polyethylene over the 2×6 backers. That way you’ll be able to seal this type of outside wall with a continuous moisture barrier in cooler climate zones.

Finishing a Basement - Assemble the WallFamily Handyman

Steps to Finishing a Basement: 3. Assemble the Wall

Frame the door openings 2-1/2 in. higher and 2-1/2 in. wider than the door you’re installing. This “rough opening” allows adequate space for the door plus its frame. Use a regular stud plus a “trimmer” on each side of the door. If you have low headroom, you may need to cut your doors down or special-order shorter ones. Remember to allow overhead space for the door trim. Trim that’s either missing or ripped too narrow over doors with inadequate clearance will really detract from the appearance of the room.

TIP: Partially cut through the underside of the bottom plate at the edges of the door rough opening to make removal easier later on.


Framing around obstructions

Nearly every basement has something that will project past finished surfaces. That can include beams, posts, drain lines, water piping or surface mounted wires. It’s a simple matter to frame or fur out around projections and then drywall and finish them to blend in with surrounding surfaces. You’ll have to maintain access to other things like electrical junction boxes and plumbing shutoffs and clean outs. If you need future access to anything, just frame around it and cut out the opening when you drywall.

Basement Finishing - How to Frame Around ValvesFamily Handyman

Frame Around Valves

Frame around ceiling valves with 2x2s. If you need future access to anything, just frame around it and cut out the opening when you drywall. Then, after taping and painting, screw a “return air” grate over the opening to conceal it but still have access. Return air grates are available in various sizes for about $5 at home centers. Check the sizes of available grates and frame the accesses slightly smaller.

Basement Finishing: How to Frame Around Plumbing PipesFamily Handyman

Frame Around Plumbing Pipes

Frame around protruding plumbing with 2x6s nailed to adjoining studs. Frame clean outs for an access panel.

Basement Finishing - Install Furring BoardsFamily Handyman

Install Furring Boards

Sometimes furring down part of or the entire ceiling is the best way to bury surface-mounted pipes or wires. Use either 2x4s or 2x2s running perpendicular to the joists to add 1-1/2 in. of dead space so you can drywall over the top of everything (Photo 3). Be sure to run all the wiring and other things you might want before hanging the drywall.

If you have a lot of deep projections from the ceiling or you need a lot of access, consider installing a suspended ceiling rather than drywalling. The downside is that you’ll lose at least a few additional inches of ceiling height.

Finish round steel columns by framing around them with 2x4s. You can then face the framing with drywall or decorative wood as shown in the opening photo.

Plus, check out these wall framing tips for new construction.

Required Tools for this Project

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

  • Caulk gun
  • Chalk line
  • Circular saw
  • Drill bit set
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Dust mask
  • Hammer
  • Hammer drill
  • Hearing protection
  • Level
  • Safety glasses
  • Sawhorses
  • Speed square
  • Stepladder
  • Tape measure
  • Tool belt
  • Utility knife
A table saw will make ripping the plywood soffits easier.

Required Materials for this Insulating Basement Walls Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time to begin insulating basement walls. Here’s a list.

  • 1-5/8-in. screws
  • 1/2-in. plywood
  • 16d nails
  • 2-1/2 in. concrete screws
  • 2X2 lumber
  • 2x4 lumber
  • 3-in. screws
  • 8d nails
  • Construction adhesive
  • Extruded polystyrene insulation
  • Fiberglass insulation
  • Foam adhesive
  • Treated 2X4 lumber