Ceiling Tile Installation

How to Install Ceiling Tiles Without Breaking Them

In Construction by Giovanni ValleLeave a Comment

The ceiling in a room is sometimes referred to as the fifth (and often forgotten) wall.  More than just a plain surface overhead, ceilings can be adapted to particular purposes or aesthetics by installing ceiling tiles.  While installing ceiling tiles is certainly a project that most do-it-yourselfers are capable of handling, care must be taken when installing ceiling tiles so as not to break or damage them.

Drop-in ceiling tiles, especially those made from mineral fiber or gypsum, are stiff and rigid and therefore require careful handling. They must be carefully maneuvered into the plenum space above the support grid, then rotated so that the edges are aligned with the beams, and then gently lowered.

Although the installation of ceiling tiles cannot be accurately described as being easy, it does not need to be difficult or frustrating either.  Half the battle is learning what pitfalls to avoid.  Armed with a bit of knowledge, some elbow grease, and some care, you can avoid damaging or breaking any ceiling tiles during the installation process.

Do-It-Yourself Tips for Installing Ceiling Tiles without Breaking Them

Even for those experienced in working with various types of ceiling tiles, accidental damage or breakage to tiles can occur in preparation for, or during, installation.  Most instances are the result of mishandling ceiling tiles or using excessive force when installing them. For instance, when trying to get them nested properly into the support grid beams and cross-members, many ceiling tiles are damaged.

Damaged or broken tiles will not only leave you in a pinch if you did not account for them by ordering spare tiles, but they will also cost you additional money and make your project more expensive.  In the worst-case scenario, it can even delay the completion of your installation for the length of time it takes to get replacement ceiling tiles.  

When it comes to working with ceiling tiles, an ounce of prevention (and knowledge) is worth a pound of cure.  Following are common problems or circumstances that can result in damaged or broken ceiling tiles, as well as some tips on how to avoid these scenarios:

Properly Handling and Storing Ceiling Tiles

Improper handling of certain types of ceiling tiles can result in damage or breakage before they are even installed.  Materials such as mineral fiber and gypsum are popular because of their great acoustical properties and their lightweight construction.  They are also typically the lowest cost option when it comes to drop ceiling tiles.  However, they are also the most fragile and are easily damaged or broken.

Particularly in the case of 2-foot by 4-foot ceiling tiles, grabbing or holding a tile by its edge, especially the shorter one, can cause the tile to flex and possibly crack or break under its weight.  Regardless of material, ceiling tiles, especially rectangular-shaped ones, should be held with both hands in such a way as to support the tile evenly so that that bowing and flexing is minimized.

The same principle applies to how ceiling tiles are stored away or staged awaiting installation.  Whenever possible, ceiling tiles should be stored in their original boxes in an upright position.  (Source:  Ceilume)  Avoid leaning tiles against a wall or storing them at an angle, as this may place pressure on them, causing them to bend or flex.

Likewise, they should not be positioned such that their weight is not evenly distributed and supported.  The thinner the tile or the lighter and less rigid the material, the greater the level of care that should be exercised when handling and storing ceiling tiles.

Installing Drop Ceiling Tiles

The majority of damage or breakage of drop ceiling tiles occurs during installation.  This is primarily due to the suspended grid system which requires precision and patience as far as manipulating tiles into the plenum space, and then positioning them within the grid system.  

  • A drop ceiling support matrix usually requires at least three to four inches of clearance above the grid for ceiling tiles to be tilted and slid in during installation.  
  • The greater the amount of space, the easier it is to install drop-in ceiling tiles.
  • The support grid beams and cross members must be installed such that each edge of the ceiling tile fits squarely and precisely on the corresponding flange.  
  • If these interconnecting pieces are not properly aligned, tiles will not fit in their designated spaces because the beams and cross-members are too tight, and this can result in tiles with damaged corners or excessive bowing or flexing that can cause cracks or breaks.
  • Alternatively, if the beams and cross-members are too loose, the tiles may be unstable and possibly fall through the grid because their edges are not resting properly on flanges.
  • The entire grid system itself must be straight and level so that the tiles nest uniformly with each other.

Installing drop ceiling tiles is a frustrating dance of angling a ceiling tile between support grid beams, manipulating it in the limited air space between the support grid and the ceiling structure, and then lowering it into position so that all four edges are resting on the support beam flanges.  

Getting Tiles into the Plenum space

For an inexperienced do-it-yourselfer, getting the ceiling tiles into the framework of the support grid can be the most difficult part of the installation.  The process of tilting a tile seemingly in every direction imaginable, then readjusting, re-angling, and finally, starting all over again when the tile refuses to lay evenly, can be a daunting task.  And depending on the overall size of the ceiling, it is a process that must be repeated numerous times, all the while balancing on a ladder or stepstool.

It is most often when tilting a tile into the space above the grid or trying to get the tile to nestle into its proper place in the grid that tiles can crack, chip, or break.  

Here are a few pointers for developing the right technique for maneuvering drop-in tiles through the grid opening and into the plenum space:

  • Determine how much clearance space between the support grid and the ceiling structure that you have to work with (there should be a minimum of four to six inches of plenum space) – the more space you have, the easier the task of sliding tiles into that gap.
  • Know your angle of attack – if you have limited clearance space to work with, then sliding the tile straight up will not be an option; you may need to resort to working the tile into the space lengthwise (remember that the widest access point of the grid space will be between diagonally-opposite corners).
  • Tilt the tile while sliding it upward through the grid opening.  It may be helpful to stand on your ladder so that the grid opening is above and to the front of you so that everything is in plain view while you work the tile.
  • Once the entire tile is fully into the air space above the grid and clear of all support beams, support the tile from underneath (your palms should be on the tile’s finished side, which will be exposed and facing down toward the room once installed).

Positioning the Tile and Dropping it into Place

Once the tile is through the ceiling grid and into the plenum space, the battle is more than half won.  The remaining task is to get the tile to sit properly on the grid’s beams and cross-members.  It is important that the ceiling tile lay flat and evenly, with no visible gaps between the edges of the tile and any of the beams and cross members.  

Not only are gaps unsightly, but since the tile is not supported on all sides evenly, it can lead to deformation of the tile’s shape, and possibly cause cracks or breaks.  

Follow these steps to ensure perfectly nestled ceiling tiles:

  • Rotate or pivot the tile so that it is aligned with the beams and cross members support grid.
  • Slowly lower the tile while making sure that all four edges are lined up with the flanges of the grid beams and members on which they will rest.
  • Allow the tile to settle into place and make sure that it is sitting flat and flush with the grid.  Confirm that there are no gaps between the tile and the grid.
  • If any of the edges or corners are not sitting flush with the support beam flange, gently lift that portion of the tile and let it down again.  The weight of the tile may seat it properly.  
  • Make sure that you do not forcefully push up on the tile or let it drop down too quickly, as this is how cracks or breakage can occur.

(Source:  DIY Network)

During the installation of individual tiles, you may find that beams and cross members of the grid itself were not properly and evenly spaced apart.  This will be evident if some ceiling tiles fit too loosely while others are too tight.  This may require slight adjustments of these grid components to allow for the proper installation of the tiles.

Trimming and Cutting Ceiling Tiles

When installing ceiling tiles in any room, it is a near certainty that some tiles will need to be cut or trimmed to fit the dimensions of a ceiling and provide full, even coverage.  This is another stage of ceiling tile installation during which breakage can occur.  More accurately stated, improper scoring and cutting techniques can result in rough cuts, inaccurate lines, and misshapen tiles.  Just like broken ones, mis-cut ceiling tiles cannot be used and will wind up on the waste pile.

The number of tiles that will need to be modified, along with the exact dimensions needed, will be known when the support grid is designed, laid out, and installed.  In the case of surface mount ceilings, the mapping process will determine the number of full-size and modified tiles that will be needed to complete the project.  Typically, the tiles along the border (where the ceiling meets walls) are ones that need to be cut down to proper size.

Here are a few tips for scoring and cutting ceiling tiles to produce straight and clean edges, without damaging or breaking the tiles:

  • For drop ceiling tiles made from mineral fiber and similar materials, be sure to use a proper type of blade that is in good, sharp condition (a dull blade will not only tear up the material, but it is also far more dangerous because more force must be used to cut).  
  • The knife-edge should penetrate the finished surface (e.g., the visible side when the ceiling tile is installed on the ceiling) first, and the unfinished side last so that any rough or torn bits will be hidden from view.
  • For firmer ceiling tile materials such as PVC, plasticized composites, or wood, a hacksaw or table saw will produce the clean cuts you need.  Again, the finished (visible) side should be cut first, as this will be the cleaner edge.
  • For metal and thin, rigid tiles, a pair of tin snips or sharp scissors should do the trick just fine.

(Source:  SF Gate – Homeguides)

Removing Ceiling Tiles

The removal of ceiling tiles can be nearly as challenging as installing them, whether the ceiling type is of the dropped or surface mount variety.  Depending on the type of ceiling tile you are removing, damage or breakage of tiles can easily occur during the removal process, especially when dealing with flimsy tiles and drop ceiling support grids.  (Source:  DoItYourself.com)

Simply disposing of ceiling tiles after removing them is one thing, but re-using or re-installing them after removal (e.g., taking them down to clean or paint them) is where things get challenging, and extra care must be exercised to avoid breakage.

Removing Drop Ceiling Tiles

In theory, removing drop ceiling tiles from a support grid is simply the installation process done in reverse order.  However, certain conditions or circumstances can make removal of drop ceiling tiles more difficult than installing them, particularly when mineral fiber or gypsum tiles are involved.  

Removal requires patience and care to avoid damaging tiles, so here are a few tips to help you along the way:

  • Do not push upward too forcefully on the tile as it may catch or snag on a beam, cross-member, or hanging wire used to suspend the grid, resulting in breakage.
  • If the tile does not freely lift from the grid, try gently pushing up on all of the edges of the tile, working your way around its perimeter if necessary.  Once one edge has been loosened from the grid, the remainder of the tile should come free.
  • Once the tile is worked free and above the grid, lift and rotate the tile, then tilt the tile so that it can slide out of the grid (this task will be much easier if the plenum space is generous; otherwise, this process may require readjusting the angle of the tile so that it will fit through the grid opening).
  • You may find that getting the very first tile out of the support grid is the most difficult one and that subsequent tiles are easier to remove.  This is particularly true because, as more openings in the grid open up as tiles are removed, tiles that you are working on can be lifted, rotated, laid across beans and cross members, and lowered from the grid at a shallow angle.

A word of caution: Although one of the benefits of a drop ceiling is the ease with which tiles can be lifted to access the space above the support grid (e.g., to inspect water pipes or electrical wiring), repeated lifting of certain types of drop ceiling tiles can cause them to weaken and break.  

How to Repair or Salvage Damaged Ceiling Tiles

Accidents and mishaps during do-it-yourself projects are a common occurrence, and fortunately, minor damage to ceiling tiles can be easily repaired, and the results are hardly noticeable.  Small nicks, cuts, and holes can be patched by applying caulk (the same type commonly used around the house for weatherproofing or waterproofing) to the affected area.  Smooth the area out with a putty knife, and if necessary, paint the area to finish the repair.

If the damage to the tile is excessive, as in larger than an inch or so, or if a section of the tile has broken off, it may be salvageable for use as a border or perimeter tile (e.g., where the ceiling adjoins a wall).

(Source:  Family Handyman)

What are the Different Ceiling Options

Learning how to install ceiling tiles without breaking them requires an understanding of the material you are working with and what you are trying to accomplish.  A technique that works for installing a ceiling tile of one particular material, shape, or size, may not necessarily work for another.  Often, not fully appreciating the limits of the specific type of ceiling tile you are working with can lead to breakage.

There are two general categories for ceiling tiles, which correlate to the method by which they are installed: 

  • Drop ceiling (also known as suspended ceiling) tiles – This type of ceiling tile is very commonly found in commercial buildings, schools, and retail structures.  You know those 2-foot by 4-foot white ceiling tiles with holes or perforations punched in them?  Those are examples of typical drop ceiling tiles.  With a growing number of stylish colors and textures that are becoming available, drop ceilings are becoming increasingly popular in residential applications.
  • Surface mount (also known as direct apply, nail up, or glue-up) tiles – As the name suggests, this type of ceiling tile can be applied or installed directly on existing ceiling substrate, even the old-school popcorn type surfacing that can still be found in many homes.  Surface mount ceiling tiles are typically mounted with nails, special bonding compounds (glues), or adhesive strips.

(Source:  Armstrong Ceilings – Project Ideas and Installation:  Ceiling Types)

These are the primary differences between drop-in and surface mount ceiling tiles:

  • Drop-in ceiling tiles are supported along their four edges and must, therefore, be fairly thick, rigid, and stiff to avoid sagging in the middle; in other words, they are inflexible by design.
  • Surface mount ceiling tiles can be much thinner and made from more flexible materials because they are attached to the ceiling by gluing or nailing them to the ceiling substrate.
  • Drop-in ceiling tiles tend to be larger (rectangular is the most common shape – 2-foot by 4-foot) than surface mount tiles (most common shape is square – 2 foot by 2 foot).

(Source:  LoveToKnow – Home Improvement)

As far as how they are made, ceiling tiles are made from a variety of different materials, including:

  • Mineral fiber – This is a very common material used primarily for drop-in tiles, particularly those where the plenum space (the area above the support grid and below the ceiling structure) must be accessed regularly.
  • Gypsum – Another material commonly used with drop ceilings, gypsum tiles have a laminated finished surface that can be wiped down. They are often used in high-traffic areas such as restaurant kitchens, parking garages, public restrooms, locker rooms, and similar type spaces.
  • Wet-formed fiber – Drop ceiling tiles made from this material have excellent sound absorption qualities and are therefore found in offices, schools, and similar settings.
  • PVC – Because of its plasticized nature, PVC is ideal for moist or high-humidity conditions because it can be easily cleaned.  PVC is used for both drop-in and glue up tiles.
  • Wood – Wood fiber tiles are advantageous due to their low cost and low maintenance but offer little benefit by way of sound suppression.
  • Fiberglass – This is another common material for drop-in ceiling tiles and are ideal for open environments where sound control is desired.
  • MDF – This wood composite material offers the warmth and elegance of wood finishing, without the warping that natural wood tiles can experience when exposed to moisture.
  • Metallic – Available in both drop-in and surface mount styles, metal tiles create an old-world elegance, often with embossed designs—tin and faux tin (aluminum) are the most common metal options.

(Source:  Menards)

Are Ceiling Tiles Fragile?

Not all ceiling tiles are created equally, and as a result, some are more fragile than others.  While certain ceiling tiles, whether due to their shape, thickness, or materials from which they are made, are practically indestructible, many others must be handled and installed with levels of care ranging from some to a whole lot.  

In general, drop ceiling tiles are far more fragile and susceptible to breakage than surface mount ceiling tiles.  The main reasons for this are:

  • Drop ceiling tiles tend to be larger
  • Drop ceiling tiles are made of lighter and stiffer materials than surface mount ceiling tiles
  • Surface mount ceiling tiles are glued or nailed to the existing ceiling substrate, whereas drop ceiling tiles must be maneuvered into the air space above the support grid, and then nestled into a specific grid area

Here are a few factors that determine a ceiling tile’s strength and durability:

  • Material – Many ceiling tiles are fabricated from materials that are lightweight and not particularly dense or rigid.  Materials such as mineral fiber, gypsum, fiberglass, and composites, are relatively inexpensive and have qualities (e.g., acoustical) that are highly suitable for ceiling tiles.  However, tiles made from these materials tend to be very rigid and stiff and need to be handled with care.

For instance, mineral fiber and gypsum are most commonly used in the manufacture of drop ceiling tiles, and these materials are rather chalky and crumbly in terms of consistency. They can easily snap under light to moderate pressure.  Certain tiles made from fiberglass and ceramic materials are brittle and can also break if forced into tight spaces or if mishandled.

(Source:  Buildings.com)

  • Thickness – On average, drop ceiling tiles are roughly half an inch thick, with the overwhelming majority being between 5/8” to 3/4” in thickness.  When combined with a standard size of 2’ by 4’, this can make for an awkward and delicate piece of material to work with, especially when manipulating it through an opening in a grid system and getting it to nest properly.  (Source:  Grainger – Drop Ceiling Tiles)
  • Dimensions – Drop ceiling tiles are supported along four edges while seated on the support grid, which is quite stable, but the real challenge is putting them there.  Typical drop ceiling tiles are twice as long as they are wide (2’ by 4’).  At a thickness of around half an inch, these dimensions make them rather flimsy when they are not properly supported.

The main takeaway here is that because of their construction and the method by which they are installed, drop-in ceiling tiles are far more likely than surface mount ceiling tiles to break during installation, so they deserve more attention.

Final Thoughts

Aside from being relatively affordable, the installation of ceiling tiles is a manageable weekend home improvement project that does not require extensive experience or skill.  Together with a little care and some know-how, a patient approach will ensure that ceiling tiles are perfectly installed without a hitch, with no broken or damaged tiles on the waste pile.

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