How to Replace a Load-Bearing Wall With a Support Beam

Interior of kitchen & living room at home
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images
Overview
  • Working Time: 40 hrs
  • Total Time: 120 hrs
  • Skill Level: Advanced
  • Estimated Cost: $300 to $700

Interior walls create privacy, define spaces, and sometimes bear the weight of the level above. These interior walls have defined floor plans for centuries, but starting in the 1950s, when the open floor plan style became popular, many of these walls segmenting the house fell into disfavor. New construction began to favor the "great room" look in which kitchen, dining, and living spaces were blended together into open-concept spaces. Today, a great many owners with older homes now find themselves wanting to remove some of those walls to create the modern open floor plan look.

Opening up rooms by removing walls is one of the most coveted home improvement projects, one that returns instant value to the homeowner. Larger, unsegmented spaces modernize older homes and nearly always result in greater home resale value, and in many ways, this can be a better project than building a full-fledged room addition. With constructed additions, the towering cost is often not realized in resale value, but when you open up a room by doing the work yourself, you often find that resale value far exceeds the total cost of materials.

Non-Load Bearing Walls vs. Load Bearing Walls

First, you must determine if the wall is load-bearing or not. As long as the wall you intend to remove is not load-bearing, you can take it down with little thought toward structural support of the ceiling above. But for load-bearing walls, it's an entirely different story. If the wall is load-bearing, you will need to carry the weight of the level above by other means, such as constructing a beam or buying a special laminated beam.

It is important to remember, though, that while the beam carries the load of the ceiling above, all that load is then transferred at the ends to vertical post structures, created by a paired construction of king studs and jack studs. Thus, the floor below those jack studs needs to also be strong enough to the task of carrying the entire load of the removed wall. Normally, this is not a problem, since the original load-bearing wall likely was built over an underlying beam or foundation structure below the floor. But in rare instances, it may be necessary to add some form of additional support under the bottoms of the jack studs. At the very least, the jack studs should be positioned directly over floor joists to support the weight. When planning a wall removal, it is always best to consult a builder or structural engineer for advice on the size of beams and the size and location of jack studs or posts.

Plan on spending a full week on a project of this complexity. It is likely you'll need at least five full 8-hour days of labor when you include the wall and ceiling repair, as well as the final cleanup.

Codes, Regulations, and Safety Issues

If you live in a condominium, you may need to secure permission from the association board before you begin the work. And no matter where you live, it is nearly guaranteed that you will need a building permit to replace your wall with a support beam. Verify if you need a building permit by calling your local permit office or checking online.

Is your support beam sufficiently sized for the opening? Consult span tables or, better yet, hire a structural engineer to determine the proper dimensions of the beam you'll be adding. A beam that is undersized for the load it carries can be a very serious problem.

Remember that plumbing or electrical services likely run through the wall. Shut off the electrical circuit breakers controlling any circuits running through the wall, and use a voltage detector to verify that the power has been shut off. Electrical wires running through the wall will need to be addressed. Most likely there will have at least a couple of outlets and a light switch or two that you'll need to relocate. In many cases, it's a matter of moving existing wiring to a different portion of the wall or to a new wall. If you feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable with electrical work, hire an electrician. If plumbing pipes run through the wall, shut off the water at the source before begging work. Here, too, a professional plumber may be needed to reroute or remove plumbing pipes running through the wall you want to remove.

Note on Materials

Replacing a load-bearing wall with a support beam requires surprisingly few materials. This project is more about labor than materials. Especially critical is the beam you use. One way to construct a beam is to sandwich two 2x8 boards around a layer 1/2-inch plywood. Wood glue is applied to all surfaces and the boards are tightly nailed together. Or, laminated beams are available on special order at your local lumber yard. It is very important, though, that the beam itself, as well as the jack-stud posts on which the beam rests, are strong enough to hold the load of the ceiling above. Your local building inspections office or a structural engineer, can verify the proper beam and post size needed to support the load.

You will need also lumber sufficient to create two king posts and four jack posts. To carry a beam 3 1/2 inches wide, this means purchasing a total of six 2x4 studs.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Miter saw or circular saw
  • Framing hammer
  • Tape measure
  • Laser measurer
  • Adjustable steel columns
  • Sledgehammer
  • Eye protection
  • Hearing protection
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Pry bar
  • Carpenter's pencil
  • Speed Square
  • 6-foot ladder
  • Car jack (optional)

Materials

  • Load-bearing support beam
  • 2x 4 dimensional lumber
  • 3 1/2-inch 16d galvanized nails or utility screws
  • 16-gauge galvanized metal hurricane straps
  • Sheet plastic and/or ZipWall dust barrier

Instructions

  1. Create a Support System

    When you remove a load-bearing wall, you need to create a temporary support to bear the weight of the ceiling before removing the wall, which will remain until the beam is fully in place. There are two ways to accomplish this:

    • Adjustable steel columns (also called lally columns or jack posts) are the quickest and most effective way to add supports. Lay a strip of 2x4s on the floor, run another doubled-up strip across the ceiling, held in place with nails or screws, then jack a pair of steel columns into place between the two horizontal strips.
    • Instead of steel columns, you can use 2x4 studs cut to length. Essentially, you are framing a second temporary wall to hold the ceiling while you remove the wall and install a beam. This method is cheaper than renting or buying steel posts, but it is more difficult because you cannot incrementally raise or lower heights as you would with the jack posts. 

    In either case, it's critical that you provide horizontal supports at the ceiling and the floor for the posts to rest against, or else the posts may punch through the ceiling. Use a stud finder to locate ceiling joists, thereby ensuring that the posts will be squarely under the joists.

  2. Demolish the Existing Wall

    To control construction dust, you can staple sheet plastic right to the wood. For a better dust-control solution, you can purchase an item called a ZipWall that telescopes up and presses the plastic against the ceiling.

    Demolish the wall by gently hitting the drywall between studs with a sledgehammer. Light swings of the hammer will punch clean holes in the drywall. A line of these holes will allow you to pry back the remaining drywall from the studs. Or, you can cut the drywall into segments with a reciprocating saw, though this method creates a considerable amount of dust. Make sure to wear hearing protection and eye protection when cutting with any power saw.

    Caution

    Take care if electrical wires or plumbing pipes are present in the wall. This is the point where you might need to call in an electrician to disconnect circuits or a plumber to reroute plumbing pipes.

    After removing the drywall, cut out the studs. Stud removal is made easier by cutting the studs in half in the middle, then prying away the cut ends. Be vigilant about removing the remaining protruding nails from the ceiling and floor plates.

    The horizontal ceiling and floor plates now need to be removed. This is best done by severing the ends of the plates with a reciprocating saw, then carefully prying the plates away from the ceiling and floor with a pry bar.

    Tip

    If there is a framed basement under the wall you are removing, remember that the ends of the beam will rest on jack studs that bear directly on the floor, and thus must support a considerable amount of weight. Make sure that those jack studs will rest directly over an underlying floor beam or floor joists If not, it may be necessary to reinforce the space below the floor to support the considerable amount of weight that will be carried by the ends of the beam.

    Removing Interior Wall - Cut and Remove Studs
    Lee Wallender
  3. Install the King Studs

    Your assembly will be composed of four main elements:

    • Two king studs, one at each end
    • Four jack studs, two at each end
    • One support beam
    • Peripherals, such as metal angles to tie beam in place, nails, and screws

    The king stud represents the backing board for the ends of your beam. As with all other materials here, it has to be rock solid because it serves as the anchoring surface for the jack studs.

    You might already have an existing stud in place that can serve as the king stud after demolishing the wall. However, because the king stud is such an important element, you may want to add greater strength to the assembly by nailing on a second king stud. This will produce a stronger, more stable assembly, at the cost of a slightly narrower opening.

    Measure and cut a full-length stud to run from the floor to ceiling, and position it in place between the floor and ceiling plates. Use a level to make sure the stud is plumb, then nail it into place.

    Setting King Stud
    Lee Wallender
  4. Attach a Temporary Beam Ledger

    Temporary support ledgers will need to be attached to the king studs, to hold the beam in position while jacks studs are installed. These ledgers will hold the beam less than an inch below the final contact point along the ceiling.

    Measure the depth of your beam and then add an extra half-inch. For example, if the beam is 7 inches deep, the support ledger should be set down 7 1/2 inches on the kind studs. This will give room to move the beam into place.

    Create the ledgers with short 2x4s or 2x6s cut to the width of your king post, then nail them into place against the inside face of the king studs. Nail holes do not matter since they are eventually covered up.

    Measure For Beam Pocket
    Lee Wallender
  5. Cut the Support Beam

    Measure the inner distance between the two king stud. Square out cutting lines on all four sides of the beam with a carpenter's pencil and Speed Square.

    You can cut your beam on an ordinary power miter saw. If the beam is too thick to be cut with the saw blade, cut as far as you can and then flip the beam over and cut from the other direction.

    The support beam can even be cut with a power circular saw or manual hand saw if you do not have a power miter saw. Whatever saw you use, take care to make the cut perpendicular to the face of the beam.

    Cut Glulam Beam With Miter Saw
    Lee Wallender
  6. Use a Ladder to Position the Support Beam

    As with any home remodeling project, it is always better to have two people work on a project that requires heavy lifting. When heavy items are higher than your head, you have much less stability than if they were located below shoulder level. In addition, lifting heavy items high is a major cause of back injuries. This might be a good time to call in a favor from a friend or even to hire a laborer for a day.

    If you are doing this work by yourself, one trick is to rest the beam on the top of a stepladder while you hold the other end. Then tilt the beam down on your end until the free end reaches the height of your beam ledge. Finally, swivel the beam into place on the beam ledger.

    Use Ladder To Position Beam
    Lee Wallender
  7. Use a Laser Measurer to Check Joist Movement

    As you work, keep track of ceiling movement using a laser measurer to periodically check the distance between the ceiling above and the floor. Write this distance on one of the joists and occasionally check it to make sure that you are not losing any distance. This way, you will know if the ceiling above is slowly sagging.

    Use Laser Measurer To Check Joist Movement
    Lee Wallender
  8. Create Side Cleats for the Support Beam

    With the beam resting on the beam ledgers, attach a pair of 2x4 side cleats to the king studs at both ends of the beam. Nail or screw these cleats into place so that they box in the beam. This effectively creates channels on both sides of the beam, ensuring that you'll be able to lift the beam upward without fear that it will slip off the ledgers.

    Side Channels For Beam
    Lee Wallender
  9. Lift the Beam into Place

    The next step is to lift the beam into place so it rests firmly against the ceiling. This can be done by having a helper lift at each end of the beam. Another method is to position a temporary post in the center of your beam and use a car jack to raise the beam and lightly press it up. Lightly is the key, since it is possible to damage your home by applying a car jack with too much force.

    When the beam is firmly against the ceiling and positioned straight and level, block under each end of the beam to keep it in position.

    Using Jack To Hold Beam in Place
    Lee Wallender
  10. Fit the First Jack Stud

    Now it is time to install the jack studs. Two jack studs together will form a sturdy post at each end of the beam to support the weight once carried by the removed wall. Measure and cut the first jack studs so they will fit very tightly on either side—hammering these studs into place should actually slightly lift the ends of the beam. The first jack studs should be cut about 1/2 inch longer than the vertical distance between the beam and the floor.

    Rest the lower end of the first jack stud in place against the king stud, then swing the top of the first jack stud towards the king stud until it begins to rub against the beam. Ideally, the top of the jack stud should begin rubbing against the beam when it is still 3 to 4 inches out from the king stud.

    Tight Fit For First Jack Stud
    Lee Wallender
  11. Set the First Jack Stud

    Hammer the first jack stud in place, using a short piece of 2x4 as a hammering block. Make sure the jack stud fits tightly against the king stud and is flush along the edges, then secure it to the king stud with a few screws and nails.

    Setting First Jack Stud
    Lee Wallender
  12. Set the Second Jack Stud

    Measure the second jack stud to size, about 1/4 inch longer than the beam-to-floor distance. As you did with the first jack stud, cut the second jack a little long so that it has to be hammered into place.

    Set Second Jack Stud
    Lee Wallender
  13. Raise the Jack Stud (if Necessary)

    If you find that you've cut the second jack stud too short, you can use a pry bar levered with your foot to raise it. It is important that the top of the jack stud is flush against the beam. Use screws or nails to anchor both layers of jack studs to the king studs. You can now remove the temporary ledgers and cleats.

    Raise Jack Stud With Lever
    Lee Wallender
  14. Tie in the Support Beam

    Tie in the support beam to the jack and king studs and to the ceiling joists. Along the top, toe-nail the beam to each ceiling joists. At the ends, use metal hurricane straps to connect the beam to the jack studs.

    You can now remove the temporary support wall. Watch the support beam, jack-stud posts, and floor for signs of stress as the beam begins to carry the full load of the ceiling above.

    Tie In the Beam
    Lee Wallender
  15. Remove Debris

    Post-demolition, you will have a large pile of drywall, lumber, nails, and other construction debris, which can be disposed of in a roll-off dumpster, or hauled qway by laborers with a truck.

  16. Repair and Finish the Surfaces

    With the support beam fully supported, now you can finish around the posts and beams and do whatever patching work is required along the ceiling and floor. Most of this work involves cutting and attaching pieces of drywall, then taping, mudding, and sanding the joints. You likely will also have repair work to do along the ceiling and floor where the top and bottom wall plates were removed. Replace or repair all trimwork.

    Preparing For Drywall Patch
    welcomia / Getty Images

When to Call a Professional

Removing a wall is not complicated work, but it involves considerable lifting of heavy materials. And eliminating a load-bearing wall that supports the floor above is no matter to take lightly since these walls, unlike simple non-load-bearing partition walls, are part of the structural framework of your home. This is a project that should be attempted only by expert-level DIYers, and if you don't meet that definition, you might want to hire a contractor to do the work.

Hiring a contractor means that you get multiple workers attacking your job, saving considerable time. The contractor will have immediate access to a support beam from a supply house, or they can build one from scratch with complete assurance that it will be structurally strong enough to bear the load.

In other words, if any part of this project makes you feel uncomfortable, you should hire a contractor. And if you begin the work yourself but find that it becomes unexpectedly complicated—or if structural sagging or shifting begins to occur—it's time to call in a pro.