m-m-more m-m-mud please!

Taking Down Your Kitchen Soffits! Part 2: Patching

In Part 1 of our saga, we attacked kitchen soffits. Quite literally.

Problem is, once you’re done, you’ve got holes where your walls used to be. Well, if you’re lucky… if you’re unlucky, you’ve got plaster and lath underneath and need to get rid of it so you can start with a clean slate. As a reminder from last time, once we finished demo, here’s what our kitchen looked like:

A giant hole. Lovely!

Step 1: Measuring For Drywall

If you’re patching where soffits used to be, it’s important to measure the thickness of the existing walls/ceiling, whatever they happen to be made of. For us, we had 1/2″ drywall on the back wall and side gaps and 1/2″ drywall on top of plaster on the ceiling. Fortunately the plaster on the ceiling was still in good condition. This meant we could put drywall directly on top of it, so we could match the ceiling thickness exactly.

To measure the gaps, I thought about order of operations and decided I wanted to patch the ceiling first, then the side gaps, then the back wall. This allowed me to calculate the dimensions of each of the pieces. For example: because the ceiling piece would go up first, I knew this piece would equal the length and width of the hole itself. The sides, however, would be the same width as the hole but I’d have to subtract a little over .5″ to account for the ceiling drywall thickness. Lastly, the back wall piece would be about .5″ shorter and 1″ narrower than the measured space.

drywall pre-chop

After calculating the piece sizes, it occurred to me that the wall was way longer than 8′, the standard length of the drywall you buy at the store. This would need to go up in two pieces on both the ceiling and the back wall.

To install drywall properly, it must be screwed into studs/joists at both ends. I measured the distance to a stud somewhere near the middle of the wall and chose to put my split right in the center of it. If properly centered, there’s plenty of room to screw both pieces to the same stud. In measuring for the ceiling, I chose a joist in a different place, since it’s good practice to stagger intersections between drywall pieces. (It makes them less noticeable!)

With measurements in hand, it was time to cut!

Step 2: Cutting Drywall

This was in some ways both easier and harder than I’d expected. I’ll show you what I mean.

ready to patch up a soffit!

(This is drywall for another purpose, but the principles stay the same!)

The general process for cutting drywall is:

  1. Create your layout with a drywall square ($11, 4′ long, completely necessary) and pencil
  2. Use a sharp utility knife and straightedge (like your nifty drywall square!) to score along your first cut line. You want this to be somewhat deep, so make a couple passes. **Important: you’ll be snapping along the whole length of the board – plan your layouts accordingly!**
  3. Flip over the board. Act like a ninja and karate chop along the score line!
  4. Cheer when it yields to your will!
  5. Flip it back over and use your utility knife to cut the remaining paper.

Easy peasy!

Right. Good. So now you’re all ready to start hanging! Or… are you?

Step 3: Adjusting

This is that “harder than expected” bit. The thing with drywall is that it doesn’t always cut cleanly. And the holes you’re filling? Those aren’t always clean breaks, or even straight for that matter. So, expect to do some adjusting with your utility knife (and/or a file/rasp) as pieces don’t fit.

Don’t stress if you’ve got a 1/4″ gap or so, you can probably get away with even larger, but it’s harder to fill in. The closer you can get to a perfect fit, the easier your life will be in the next few steps.

Step 4: Hang those pieces!

It’s exciting to see this happening:

After several weeks (yes… inertia is a bear) of a gaping hole, it’s just artwork to see it patched up!

This step, though, was probably the most frustrating for me. Starting with the ceiling wasn’t the best place for a newbie like me. Screw-driving upside down stinks. Screw-driving upside down while holding something awkward is even stinkier. And screw-driving where it matters a whole lot juuuuuuust how far in the screw head sinks while upside down and holding something awkward is DOWNRIGHT DIABOLICAL.

Many foul words were said. By me.

So… I guess my tip is to practice before you invert.

With drywall, you don’t want the drywall screw head to stick out (then you’ll get lovely screw head bumps on your otherwise smooth wall) and you also don’t want to drive it in too deep, tearing the paper (the paper is actually an important structural part of the drywall – if there’s a hole in it, the integrity of the drywall AND its connection to the wall is compromised). If you mess up, you have to try again a couple inches away.

You can imagine how this can get frustrating.

But! Once you’ve hung your drywall, you get to move on to…

Step 5: Mudding

It’s just as fun as it sounds! (Maybe?) Grab yourself a giant tub of this stuff, or something like it. I liked the consistency of the lightweight joint compound. I started out using the kind that goes on pink and dries white, but the gloopiness made it hard for me to spread, so I changed it up after the tub ran out – which was faster than I’d anticipated.

Things you’ll need:

  • (Lightweight) Joint compound (AKA mud)
  • Tape knives of various sizes: I used a 6″ plastic tape knife and a 14″ flexible metal one, didn’t find I needed anything else
  • Drywall tape (NOT the self-adhesive mesh kind!)
  • (optional) Mud pan, so you don’t have to lug the giant tub of joint compound up your ladder

m-m-more m-m-mud please!

What I’ve done at this point is:

  1. Over one 2-3′ section of a joint, apply a thin base layer of joint compound with a small tape knife. In the red mud pan I’ve got here, you can see my 6″ knife sticking out.
  2. Stick a section of drywall tape as long as the section you’ve mudded directly on top of the joint between sheets of drywall.
  3. Apply more mud (not a ton, but you want to cover the tape) on top of the tape and smooth it all out with your knife.

You can see in the photo above that I was a little stingy with the compound. That’s what having a small tub of mud will do to your psyche… But it turned out fine, so I guess there’s some leeway here. You just don’t want it too thick, because you’ll have to sand it all down later. Remember, the goal here is to build up smooth, imperceptible seams between abutting drywall pieces!

I didn’t get photos of the next couple of steps because I’m terrible at remembering to take photos when I’m in the zone (and my hands are covered in mud) but they’re pretty similar to the process described above. No need to sand in between steps – you’ll spend plenty of time sanding later…

Wait until the first layer of mud dries COMPLETELY. After it’s dry, apply a second layer of mud on top of each of the seams (with the smaller knife) and feather it out a bit further than before (I used the 14″ tape knife for this). And, surprise, the final step is to wait for everything to dry and repeat that process all over again.

You can see in the image above how far out I feathered the seams. Don’t be afraid to really spread it out. Smooth and seamless is the name of the game! I should have feathered the ceiling more, but it is really not fun mudding inverted. And it looks fine now that it’s painted, so… yay shortcuts!

But What About the Inside Corners?

Ah yes, I very conveniently have zero photos of this process. Well, the inside corners worked exactly the same way that the butt joints did, with one difference. The drywall tape has this handy crease running down the middle, and that lets you fold it 90 degrees and seat it into a pre-mudded inside corner just like you would a butt joint.

I did some furious googling and found articles and videos of folks talking about how to handle mudding inside corners. I even bought a special inside corner tool for smoothing out the mud. But guys? It’s really no harder to do than regular butt joints. Instead of smoothing out both sides of the joint at once, you’re smoothing out one side on each different plane. And don’t worry too much about little ridges that form along the inside corner. It’s super easy to knock those down later with a sanding sponge.

Step 6: Sanding

You’re almost there!! Sanding is the last step of this process. I waited until the rest of the kitchen projects were done, because I heard this was an incredibly messy process and I didn’t want to have to clean up more than once. I stand by this decision.

Things you need for success here:

  • Some way of covering everything in the room. I taped plastic sheeting over the oven/sink/fridge/microwave and also over all the outlets in the room. And also the doorways! This dust is nasty, folks!
  • A respirator. Not optional.
  • A Shop-vac with hand sanding attachment and drywall dust filter bag. I hesitate to call these items “required” but I would strongly advise against sanding a whole room without them.
  • Sanding screens, in medium and fine.
  • As mentioned above, a sanding sponge is helpful for inside corners and also any other areas tough to sand well with the sanding screens
  • A bright portable LED work light, like this one, for illuminating ridges that are hard to see when you’re up close

Sanding drywall isn’t hard, it’s just tiring and time-consuming. Your goal sanding is to create a surface that, when painted, appears to be one continuous piece of material. Use your hands to help you figure out when you’ve done enough: run your fingers over a section. If it feels bumpy, you’ve got more sanding to do.

Start with the medium grit screen and go over all of the places that need some smoothing: bumps, ridges, choppy feathering… it all needs to go. Go back over every square inch of your whole mud job with the fine screen to give everything a consistent finish. In areas where I just couldn’t get it smooth enough, the flexible sanding sponge was very helpful.

One thing to watch out for here is being too aggressive. Bust through to the tape? Guess what: You need to go back over it with joint compound. You don’t want to be priming/painting directly over frayed drywall tape!

Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “done” here. Looking at other places in my house now (done by “professionals”) I can definitely tell where the seams are between drywall panels. I hadn’t noticed them before I developed my drywall ninja skills, and it’s doubtful anyone other than yourself will notice slight imperfections. Take the time to do it right, and you’ll be rewarded when you finally paint over it.

Sneak peek:

That little shadowy patch is where your paint + primer doesn’t exactly live up to expectations. A second coat did the trick, though 🙂

Whew, this was a long post. Lots of work, but DANG IT FEELS GOOD TO BE SOFFIT-LESS!!!

Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer. I’m no pro by any means, but I’m thrilled with my results – dare I say it looks better than a lot of other places in the house…

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