Sagging ceiling beam (me up, Scotty)

SkillLevel3

Check out the antenna! He must be rich!

A few decades ago the car phone was invented and the car phone antenna held by a magnet to the hood quickly became a status symbol. Not everyone could afford these expensive new phones–but many people wanted to give the impression they could. Some smart entrepreneurs took advantage of the situation and invented the Car Phoney, which was a dummy antenna with a wire that lead nowhere. For a few bucks you could slap an antenna on the hood and draw envious glances from the Joneses.

A decade or so before that it was all the rage to have exposed ceiling beams in the living room. The beams were typically dark-colored against a white ceiling. Real ceiling beams rested on top of the outer walls and held up the rafters of the second floor when there weren’t dividing walls to support the weight.

Fake ceiling beams

Again, many people wanted the look–even though the house didn’t need the support. So builders built these long beam-shaped boxes and attached them to the ceiling so that it looked like you had big rugged beams. The key phrase here is “attached them to the ceiling,” which means they were suspended from the ceiling rather than holding it up.

My parents’ living room ceiling had a pair of these pseudo-beams. They (the beams, not my parents) were clad in that rough sawn wood that was popular back in the 70s.

Picture what is going on. You’ve got two heavy beams, whose ends are not supported, hanging from a bunch of heavy rafters. Take a wild guess what is going to happen.

It did.

Old heavy things sag. That is just the way it is. For confirmation we need look no farther than my ever-loving wife, “Maggie” (not her real name), of 40-ish years. By that I mean of course that the bed and couch and stuffed chairs we got when we were first married have all started sagging over time. Age and gravity conspire to bring everything down–like the ceiling beams in my parents’ old house.

Fortunately only one end of the beams separated from the ceiling joists they were nailed to. There was a 2″ gap between the ends of the beams and the ceiling.

Landscape timber and a hydraulic jack pushing the ceiling beam back up.
Landscape timber and a hydraulic jack pushing the ceiling beam back up.

I put a landscape timber between a hydraulic jack and a wood plate at the end of the beam and started pumping. The ceiling creaked and groaned as it went up but it didn’t crack. After propping that beam up with another landscape timber I jacked up the other beam.

My first attempt to fix the problem was to go in the attic above the ceiling and mount some large angle brackets to the end joist (or so I thought) and some framing around the fireplace. When I released the jack, the beams sank right back down. Apparently the joist I needed to support was the next one over and there was nothing to attach the angle bracket to on that one. Strike one.

For the second try I bought some sturdy-looking metal bookshelf brackets. After jacking up the beams again I drilled some holes into the brick of the fireplace and screwed the brackets into the brick. This time when I released the jacks, the beams … wait for it … sank down again. The very attractive rough sawn boards cladding the pseudo beam weren’t attached to anything solid and the shelf brackets pushed up the middle of the board when the weight of the ceiling pushed the pseudo beam down. Strike two.

I clearly needed a support as wide as the pseudo beam (unlike the narrow shelf bracket) so that it could distribute the weight evenly. The local Big Box store had some pre-cut pieces of oak called “plinth blocks.” They are used to join two large pieces of molding without miter joints.

Rosette clamped to plinth block for marking and drilling
Rosette clamped to plinth block for marking and drilling

For my third (and as it turned out final) attempt I bought a couple of plinth blocks I could screw to the brick wall that would hold up the beams.  Since I didn’t want the screws to show, I also bought a pair of rosettes to cover them. Before drilling, I positioned the rosette on the block and marked three holes it would cover up. I used flat-head screws and countersunk the holes so that the rosette would fit tight to the block.

Three screw holes drilled and drilling a nail hole at an angle to hang the rosette
Three screw holes drilled and drilling a nail hole at an angle to hang the rosette

To hide the fastener that would hold the rosette to the plinth block I drilled a hole for a small finish nail from the back of the block and halfway into the rosette. This would allow the rosette to hang on the (invisible) nail after the block was screwed to the wall.

After jacking up the beams yet again, I marked the holes for each plinth block on the brick and used a masonry bit to drill holes in the brick for the plastic screw anchors.

Inserting plastic anchors in the brick for the screws
Inserting plastic anchors in the brick for the screws

With the nail pushed through the back of the block so that the point stuck out about 1/2″ I screwed the block to the wall.

Block mounted to brick wall. Notice the nail point sticking out under the top screw.
Block mounted to brick wall. Notice the nail point sticking out under the top screw.

Mounting the rosette was simply a matter of aligning the nail hole on its back with the point sticking out of the block. I considered using some double-sided tape to hold the rosette to the block or to keep it centered but it wasn’t needed in this case.

I might or might not admit to holding my breath as I released the jack to lower the beam onto the block to see if it would hold. But it did. And I exhaled.

Finished plinth block and rosette supporting the ceiling beam
Finished plinth block and rosette supporting the ceiling beam

Some dark stain on the new wood made it all blend together with the other wood in the room. The blocks are both functional and aesthetic. The Joneses are going to have a hard time keeping up. But it won’t be nearly as hard as the time I accidentally called my ever-loving wife “Saggie.” Trust me, you need more than a hydraulic jack to get up from the floor after a slip like that.

 

 

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