How to Install an Electrical Box in an Existing Wall

Placing outlet box into wall

Lee Wallender

Project Overview
  • Total Time: 15 - 30 mins
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $5 to $10

Adding an electrical box to your existing wall for a switch or outlet is easy when you have the right materials and know a few tricks. And you don't have to remove any drywall. The walls can stay in place.

The key is to purchase an electrical box called a remodel box or an old-work box (rather than a new-work or new-construction box).

  • New-Work Box: A new-work electrical box has nails on it or another fastening method that allows the box to be attached to the side of a stud. If you want to use a new-work box, the drywall should not yet have been installed. Drywall is hung after the box is fastened.
  • Old-Work Box: Often called a remodel box, this item allows you to cut a hole in your wall's drywall and slip the box in. Drywall removal is not required. This box attaches to the drywall itself via wings that pull inward. You will be using this type of inexpensive plastic box that costs just a few dollars per unit.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Jab saw
  • Pencil

Materials

  • Old-work or remodel electrical box
  • Drill with auger bit

Instructions

  1. Tape Old-Work Box to Wall Backwards

    Many of these old-work boxes from home centers and other big home improvement stores do not come with paper templates. Either you make your template, transfer measurements to the wall with a ruler, or use the box itself as a template.

    Because these boxes taper from smaller to larger, you cannot use the back sides as templates. Fortunately, you can use the face as a template, since the face is flat.

    Tape the box to the wall with painter's tape, face-first. Apply tape to the top and bottom. It's not necessary to tape the sides. If you have an assistant, there's no need to tape the box. Just have the assistant hold the box firmly against the wall as you draw the outline.

    Tape Box to Wall

    Lee Wallender

  2. Mark the Box's Horizontal Lines First

    Because of the uneven outlines of most old-work electrical boxes, it's not easy to simply draw four pencil lines around them. You'll need to draw lines where you can find them and then fill in the missing parts.

    • First, mark horizontal lines where the tabs meet the box. The tabs are the flat pieces that press against the wall from the front, creating tension in conjunction with those back wings.
    • Use a mechanical pencil or well-sharpened regular (not carpenter's) pencil, because you need a sharp, precise line.
    • You need to get these lines right, or the box will not stay in place; it will fall back into the wall.
    Mark Horizontal Lines

    Lee Wallender

  3. Mark Outlet Box's Vertical Lines

    With the horizontal lines marked, draw two straight vertical lines down the sides of the old-work box. While you should try to be precise, these are less critical because there are no tabs on the sides.

    Mark Vertical Lines

    Lee Wallender

  4. Connect Lines for Box Cutout

    Remove the box from the wall. With your straight edge, connect horizontal and vertical lines to make a complete outline. 

    Connect Box Lines

    Lee Wallender

  5. Make Precise Box Cutout With Jab Saw

    Before you make your cut-out, drill a hole in the center of the outline with a 1/2-inch auger bit. Now, use your manual jab saw to cut the outline. Be extremely precise about this, preserving your line as you cut with the saw rather than cutting right on the line. 

    If you have an assistant, let the assistant hold a shop vacuum nozzle under the saw as you cut. This does not completely rid your area of drywall dust but it does significantly help cut down on it.

    Cut Out Box Lines

    Lee Wallender

  6. Grab Cutout Before It Falls

    Before you finish your last cut, poke a finger into that 1/2-inch hole and hold onto the cut-out so that it does not drop into the wall. It makes for a cleaner, neater job if you can retrieve it.

    If you forgot to make the hole earlier, you can try to grab the side of the cutout with the teeth of the jab saw.

    Grab Cutout

    Lee Wallender

  7. File Sides of Cutout to Widen

    While a perfect cut-out is ideal, it's always better to have a hole that is too small than too large. If the hole is too small, use your jab saw to file down edges until the box fits carefully. Do not try to cut away slivers of drywall. Instead, just use the saw as a kind of sanding tool to slough off gypsum to widen the hole.

    File Sides of Cutout

    Lee Wallender