The full title here really should be “Taking Down Your Kitchen Soffits When You Live in a Crazy Old House.”
Those of you lovely readers who live in 100+ year old houses know what I’m talking about. Unless your home has somehow avoided a sketchy remodel (or two, or five) somewhere in its history, you NEVER KNOW what you’re going to find when you open up a wall. *Foreshadowing!*
This is what our kitchen looked like before we moved in:
And this here is the plan to give it a little facelift. Definitely no soffits, at least not on the sink/oven wall. Baby steps!
Speaking of baby steps, I began the de-soffit-ization one day by cutting an iPhone-sized hole in the soffit with my jab saw.
This little guy is absolutely indispensable. If you’ve never done drywall work before (like me!), it’s just magical. You punch it through the drywall (I just use my fist to bang on it a few times) and then it all cuts away like butter. Well, maybe closer to bread than butter… Very tough, powdery bread. But for me, realizing that I could actually just cut through drywall wherever I wanted to was a total game-changer. Patching the drywall back up, however, is a tale for a another time! And, I dare say, even more empowering.
So, I cut a dainty little hole:
…And stuck my phone inside to take a photo in each direction:
I considered this a huge success, for two reasons: one, I conquered my fear of “eeeew it’s creepy and weird inside the walls” and two, aside from the can light & associated electrical we already knew was up there, there weren’t any gas or water lines running through it! AKA no expensive modifications needed to rip the soffit down! And, we had finished walls behind it, to boot. What luck! *Foreshadowing*
My approach to soffit destromination was, in hindsight, a bit soft. After this initial dose of confidence, I decided to cut A REALLY BIG HOLE so we could see inside EVEN BETTER!
HOLD UP. I cut ALL THE WAY to the framing wood on the top, bottom, left, and right. Ooooh-wee! I continued this for a few sections before getting a bit tired. All that careful sawing is indeed mighty tiring. I decided to wait for husband reinforcement, but not before snapping a little better photo of the electrical…. situation inside the soffit:
Cobwebs aside, WHAT A MESS. I count four different types of electrical cables here, not to mention the, uh, creative joining method we see. We’ll come back to that later. But also, bummer, looks like some cables popped out through the wall and then went back inside. This meant we’d have to do some rewiring to keep everything intact and rip open the wall to run the wire through.
Demo: Phase 1
When husband returned, I picked up the saw again and neatly continued my inefficient-but-pretty demolition. He, however, grabbed a hammer and within five minutes (I wish I were exaggerating) the poor soffit looked like this:
We also took out the dumb can light, as you can see in the photo above. It should go without saying that whenever you’re working with electrical wiring, be absolutely sure that the power to those circuits is OFF!
One of the most helpful things we did when we moved in was create a comprehensive list of every outlet/electrical fixture (anything hardwired) in the house and which circuit it’s on. (
I’ll do a post on this soon.) Here’s a post about that! As mentioned earlier, we live in an old house, which means lots of original knob and tube. And several renovations later, there are spidery circuits that make very little sense. So, in this example, I believe we had to shut off 3-4 different circuits to safely work with the can light above. This list plus a non-contact voltage tester, like the one we have, are absolutely indispensable here.
Demo, Phase 2
We lived with the kitchen like that for… 2 weeks? Yeah, yuck. But it was about to get worse.
One night, we got inspired and decided to rip down the soffit. The whole thing. Bones and all. This meant taking down the cabinet on the right and emptying all our cups, bowls, and plates onto the dining room table… where some of them still are, 3 months later… Sigh.
Again, I took the cautious, slow approach to demo, and husband took the more brute force approach:
I let him do most of this. I’m just too slow… But! At this point we’re both pretty psyched because LOOK AT HOW MUCH BIGGER THE KITCHEN LOOKS!!!! This gave us the needed boost of energy for…
Demo: Phase 3
After the (literal) dust cleared and we could evaluate the wall and ceiling under where the soffit had been, we realized we had a problem.
The wall behind the soffit was plaster & lath, and it was thicker overall than the drywall installed beneath it. There was no way to save the plaster on the wall – it was all coming down. On the ceiling, however, they just drywalled right on TOP of the plaster & lath, so that has made dealing with lighting fixtures just a joy up there.
This was demo I could do:
Yes, those are Uggs. Facepalm. I’m hacking away at the plaster with the spiky side of the hammer. The goal here was to get rid of the plaster so we could take down the lath by prying it off, and hopefully taking the nails with it. It worked OK, still plenty of nails unspoken for. Tedious job going after them one at a time, but all worth it!
By the end, it looked like this:
But we’d exposed a diabolical wiring issue. See if you can tell what’s wrong with this picture:
To be fair, both the live knob and tube supply wire and the crazy, uhm, junction you see above were covered amply in electrical tape… Totally safe. Upon further inspection, the crazy wishbone wiring was only ground to ground – no other wires connected. Curious. The worst case scenario we could envision is that this wire was being used to ground an appliance upstairs, but we couldn’t really figure out a good way to investigate. Seemed pretty sketchy to us.
The weirdest part was that we couldn’t figure out where this wire came through into the (unfinished) basement. Given how much time we’d spent down there deciphering the wiring tangle, we had a pretty good idea of the locations of all the wires heading into the kitchen. This one? Total mystery.
We set up an experiment. I stayed in the kitchen and tugged on the wire, gently at first, and husband went downstairs to see if anything overhead got jostled. Gentleness yielded to violent yanks as no wires downstairs appeared to move at all, and – wouldn’t you know it – the whole darn thing just pulled out, without resistance.
It wasn’t connected to anything.
I’d love to give the electrician who made this mess the benefit of the doubt, but he’s making it REALLY HARD TO DO.
BUT! That did solve our problem! We could cap off the return with no worries of disrupting any circuits.
In part 2 of our soffit saga, I’ll show you the patching process. (And the hardest part isn’t what you’d probably expect!)
Have you ever opened your walls to find something horrifying?