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Installing recessed lights and even ceiling-mounted lights means cutting into the ceiling drywall. Usually, if you are patient and take enough care with this project, the installation goes well: the ceiling light box and the hole match up perfectly. But sometimes things go awry. Holes are made too big, too small, or are placed in an entirely wrong position. What is the fix for situations like this?
What If the Hole in the Ceiling Is Too Small?
When you're installing a recessed light and you accidentally make the ceiling hole too small, but only slightly, the fix is simple but messy. Use a hand-held jab saw to patiently file away drywall until the recessed light fits into the hole. Sucking away the drywall dust with a shop vacuum as you file helps to reduce dust.
If the hole is more than slightly too small, draw a new circle around the hole and cut along that new circle. Be careful not to chip away the drywall.
What If the Hole in the Ceiling Is in the Wrong Place?
If you need to patch an entire hole, you can use the cut-out circle from the light's new position to patch the old hole.
- Using drywall screws, screw one-by-two supporter sticks inside of the hole, two sticks per hole.
- Peel off a layer of paper from the cut-out circle so that it will be slightly deeper than the surrounding drywall.
- Screw the cut-out circle onto the supporter sticks.
- Cover the hole patch with drywall compound.
What If the Hole in the Ceiling Is Too Large?
It is a more significant problem if the ceiling hole is too large for the recessed light. Old-work or remodel recessed lights depend on the drywall to hold them up; if the hole is too big, the light has nothing to hold onto. What should you do?
Many drywall problems can be fixed post-production with creative mudding and tape. But a ceiling hole doctored this way has edges that will immediately snap off upon use. Patching the hole with supporter sticks and a cut-out patch of drywall means that you cannot cut a new inner hole: The sticks and drywall screws will interfere with the cut.
One quick, inexpensive, and ingenious patch material is a cake separator made of hard polystyrene. Because of its 8-inch diameter, it is the perfect size for both 6-inch and 5-inch recessed lights. Its smooth, rounded face and edges look like actual trim. Because it is made of hard polystyrene, it will not bend or crack when stressed, yet it is soft enough to cut.
- Working Time: 20 minutes
- Total Time: 30 minutes
- Skill Level: Intermediate
- Materials Cost: $10 to $15
Tools and Supplies You Will Need
- 8-inch plastic cake separator
- Roto-Zip or equivalent tool
- Oscillating multi-tool or manual saw
- Recessed light paper template
- Painter's tape
- White caulk (optional)
- Safety glasses
- Hearing protection
If you cannot find a cake separator, then find any type of hard plastic that fulfills similar qualities:
Continue to 2 of 6 below.
- Strong enough to hold the light snug up against the ceiling drywall
- Soft enough to cut without damaging it
- Thin enough that the recessed light clips will snap down.
- Attractive and aesthetically in line with the rest of the light and its trim work, with smooth outer edges
- White-colored or able to take paint
02 of 06
Cut Off the Bottom Legs of the Separator Plate
Begin by cutting off all of the legs on the bottom of the cake separator plate. Use any tool that can cut plastic at a 0 to a 5-degree angle such as an oscillating multi-tool or even a manual saw held at a low angle.Continue to 3 of 6 below.
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Use a Template to Draw an Inner Circle for the Cut
All recessed lights should come with a paper template for drawing a circle on the ceiling prior to cutting.
Instead of drawing the circle on the ceiling, you will center the template on the separator plate and hold it down with a few strips of painter's tape.
With a sharpened carpenter's pencil, scribe a circle on the separator plate. Remove the template.Continue to 4 of 6 below.
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Cut Along the Line With the RotoZip
Continue to 5 of 6 below.
- Tape the separator plate down to a cutting surface with painter's tape. Use a scrap piece of drywall or soft wood, like pine. Do not use cardboard or paper, as this will catch on fire in the next step.
- Tape thoroughly on all four sides. Press down the masking tape so that no bubbles or folds remain.
- Set your RotoZip tool to its lowest setting. Put on your safety glasses and hearing protection. If you want, you can practice cutting some of the polystyrene in the center of the circle to get a feel for it before making your real cut.
- Cut on the line. If you leave too much of the line showing, the circle will be too small to fit around the recessed light. This material is difficult to sand down to size. If you cut beyond the line, the circle will be too loose and will not properly hold the light.
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Slowly Fit New Trim Over Light
If you have any melted plastic nibs, flake them off with your fingernail.
Work your new trim ring up and over the light. Your inner cut will not be a perfect circle, but that is to your benefit. This allows you to rotate the ring to get past some of those protruding sections on the light.Continue to 6 of 6 below.
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Fit Light and New Trim Into the Hole
Now test out your light by putting it in place. It should fit tight against the ceiling drywall with no gaps showing. The legs of the recessed light should extend over the new trim and onto the ceiling drywall.
If there are gaps, you can either decide to keep them (if small enough), cut a larger ring from new material, or give the gap a little swipe of caulk after the entire light and trim have been installed.