Kitchen Renovation Part 4: Cutting the Hole

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[This is the 4th part of a kitchen renovation series. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, or keep going if you only care about the story behind our new breakfast bar]

One of the biggest design changes of our new kitchen was the breakfast bar.

The breakfast bar hole, as seen from the kitchen.
Here is the hole as seen from the kitchen side. You can see where the old wall cabinets used to be, and the old cassette tape cabinet I’ve used as a spice cabinet for many years. The red solo cups were being used for painting.

Our house is a typical 1950s dwelling, with a closed off layout. I really like the modern trend toward an open floor plan, and we decided to open up the house by adding a breakfast bar between the kitchen and living room. The bar stools will be on the living room side, helping to combine the two rooms and providing additional eating space. The eating space is actually pretty important, since we only have a small dining nook in our kitchen.

We determined that the wall was not a structural wall, which made our planning much easier. We wanted to reinforce the wall anyway, just in case we were wrong, and used this site to plan our actions.

[UNRELATED KITTEN UPDATE 3/19/2019, 5PM: I took the kittens (read about getting kittens here)  to the vet and they are NEGATIVE for nasty kitty viruses, like leukemia and aids! Yay! They do have an upper respiratory infection, so they came home with antibiotics. They also have coccidia, a type of parasite that isn’t treated with normal dewormer. Conveniently, the treatment is antibiotics, so there’s just one medicine for the little babes! The vet also gave us an immune boosting supplement (lysine), which they don’t seem to mind taking. Bella is a little underweight, but we are free feeding the little things as much kitten food as they want, and they’ve been going to town on it, which is great. The vet said we can introduce them to our adult kitties as soon as the URI clears up (no more than a week, probably). Expect a blog post soon!!!]

Planning Our Work Day

The very first step was to remove the wall cabinets on the wall with the hole. They were in the way of us cutting, and they needed to be taken down anyway. We then measured and drew lines to indicate where the new cabinets would  go, so that we didn’t cut an area that wasn’t supposed to be cut. Measuring is VERY IMPORTANT. Measure twice (or more), cut once.

The next step we as to punch a nice hole in the wall and explore what is back there. We had a couple of electrical outlets in the area, and needed to investigate if we would need to move any wires before we began. We also needed to see if there was any plumbing or other surprises behind the wall.

Once we explored the area, we would move the electrical wires as needed, and install a couple of additional outlets on the living room side. We expected the breakfast bar to be an ideal place for charging laptops and phones, as well as a standing desk for banking and paperwork, so we wanted plenty of outlets. Once all that was done, we would cut away the plaster and install a frame for the window, made from 2x4s. This would provide structural reinforcement. Then we planned to leave it alone until after the countertops were installed, and put in some nice trim work and finishing touches.

The Best Laid Plans…

All that sounded great, and it’s the process I would encourage you to use if you’re cutting a hole in a non-load-bearing wall in your house.

But it was not to be in our house.

Our first step, as I said, was to explore the area by punching a hole in the wall so we could see what was between the studs.  We had to do this carefully, in case there was any electrical wires in the way. We did turn off the breakers that seemed likely to control  the area, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Matt first drilled a hole through the wall in a likely spot. We have plaster walls, they are a pain to cut holes in. He was having a lot of trouble…and then, before he reached the space between the wall, his drill poked out the other side.

Because there was no space between the wall.

“But where were the studs?” you say.

Good question.

Apparently, our interior walls don’t have studs.

That’s right. They are made of 4 sheets of wall material, pressed together. The two outer layers are your standard plaster, and the two inner layers are an early drywall-like material. This is a variation of rock lath plaster, and it sucks. Why does it suck? BECAUSE THERE ARE NO STUDS.

But wait, you ask. Doesn’t plaster have metal lathe? And what about electrical outlets? How do you put in electrical boxes if there are no studs to attach the boxes to?

These are great questions.

About Plaster

Plaster was a very common building material back-in-the-day, before they came up with drywall. Originally, they used lime as the main material, but that was super difficult to work with and took up to a year to fully dry to the point that it could be painted or wallpapered. On the bright side, it was insanely durable and could be applied directly to pretty much any material, including the outer brick walls of a home.  By about 1900 however, most plasterers had switched over to gypsum (a type of rock).

Gypsum plaster was easier to work with and dried within minutes. However, it wasn’t as water resistant as lime plaster, so it required “furring boards” or strips of wood between the outer wall and plaster layer, in order to prevent any moisture from getting in. Plasterers began using lath, a screen-like material made out of wood or metal, that helped give the plaster something to adhere to that wasn’t the outer wall of the house. This is what most people think of when they envision a plaster wall.

Houses built a little bit later (typically after 1930) used rock lath plaster. This was much cheaper because no wood or metal was required. Instead, the plaster was placed over a board of compressed gypsum that was covered in paper (it looks a LOT like drywall…).

As a note, plaster is “better” than drywall in that it is more sound proof and more durable. However, it is more expensive and a PAIN to work with. A DIYer can easily put up drywall…not so with plaster. Plastering a wall is a skilled art (seriously, YouTube it if you don’t believe me), so you can’t really do it yourself. You can patch a wall with drywall joint compound though, or even a chunk of drywall, and once everything is painted you won’t be able to tell the difference.

Now, none of what I just said mentioned had anything to do with our walls not having studs. In fact, our exterior walls do have studs, and plaster was typically applied over studs. However, TECHNICALLY, they didn’t have to use studs in the interior walls, since there weren’t concerns about moisture or insulation. So sometimes they didn’t.

Sigh.

Electrical Outlets When There Aren’t Studs

Getting back to our specific project, we wanted to add some electrical outlets near our breakfast bar. Additionally, there was an electrical outlet in the way of the hole we were cutting that needed to get moved. But how to electrical outlets work in a wall without studs?

Well, they were just floating in the wall, being held up by plaster.

Basically, the builders used metal lath in areas with electrical wire. Metal lathe is much thinner than rock lath (think a screen of metal versus a board), and allowed space for a small box or an electrical wire. Then they plastered everything together, to hold up the outlet. The wire was super insulated and this is theoretically safe, but it’s certainly not fun if you want to change anything. In order to remove or add a wire, you would need to cut a channel into the plaster, add/remove your wire, then re-plaster (or drywall) over the channel.

We didn’t want to do that.

I mean, that would SUCK.

Part 1: Electrical

After staring at this is pain-in-the-butt wall for awhile and thinking through our options (with the invaluable assistance of Matt’s dad), we decided that it wasn’t worth it to run the extra electrical outlets. Our kitchen actually has a lot of outlets, and even though it would’ve been nice to add more for phone chargers and lights, it wasn’t worth the disastrous mess of cutting channels in plaster.

Did I mention that plaster is extremely durable? It’s so durable, that we needed a diamond blade to even cut the hole we wanted. Actually, we wore down and destroyed TWO diamond blades cutting the hole. I don’t want to know how many we would’ve needed to cut the channels for the wires.

However, in order to put in a breakfast bar, we HAD to take out one of the outlets. It was smack in the middle of the desire opening.

We played around with our circuit breakers for a bit, and figured out that the outlet in question was in the middle of a circuit of other kitchen outlets. From the exploration we done in the wall, it LOOKED like the wire ran directly up toward the attic. We were hopeful that we might be able to remove the connection from the circuit from the attic, without damaging the wall.

We turned off the relevant breakers, and Matt went up into our (extremely cramped and crappy attic). THANKFULLY, our hypothesis was correct – the wire ran right upstairs where it ran over and down to the other kitchen attics. The breakfast bar was possible!

It’s pretty easy to remove a section of wire. You just turn off the power, cut the wire where you want it, splice the ends together with wire nuts, and stick them in a junction box. It looked kinda like this:

Cutting the Hole for the Breakfast Bar

Our headaches weren’t over yet. Like I said, we needed a diamond blade to cut

Breakfast opening seen from living room.
Here is the hole as seen from the living room. It looks goofy without any furniture or breakfast bar counter, but even at this stage, it added a lot of light.

the hole in the plaster, and it was a heck of a lot of not fun. We essentially cut out a rectangle in the wall with a diamond-blade tiger saw, and then had the joy of lifting and hauling a huge piece of plaster out of our house.

Did I mention that plaster is a six gazillion times more heavy than drywall?

In fact, I should mention that we did this the first weekend in January, and the chunk of plaster is STILL sitting on our back patio (it’s mid-March…) because it’s gonna be such a pain to get it loaded up and taken to the dump.

There’s not a whole lot to say about the hole. It was a pain. Cutting the plaster was hard.

Oh yeah, and the dust got EVERYWHERE. We covered everything with sheets and had moved all the living room furniture into the bedrooms (except the couch, we had covered), and I ran the Shop Vac and held it under the saw to get as much dust as possible.

And yet, dust still coated EVERYTHING.

Plaster dust is awful. You think drywall dust is bad? Plaster dust is worse.

Temporary Finishing

When we were done cutting, we cleaned up the edges with a hand saw as best we could. Because the plaster is so difficult to cut though, the lines were still wavy and uneven. We could’ve spent more time fixing those OR we could commit to some pain-in-the-butt trim work later. Since trim isn’t dusty and doesn’t ruin saw blades, we chose to cover the unevenness with trim. (and I don’t regret it!)

The exposed edges of the rock lath also continued to leak dust, so Matt decided a few days later to seal the edges with drywall joint compound. This made the exposed edges smooth and non-dusty, which actually made the trim a little easier to put on (I’ll post about that later!).

Recommendations for You

You probably will have studs in your wall, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be dealing with drywall, so hopefully your process of installing a breakfast bar or other cutout will be easier than ours. However, here are some general tips to follow:

  1. Measure, then measure again. Make sure you know the dimension of your new cabinets, and EXACTLY where you want the hole to be. Once you cut it, it’ll be pretty hard to change!
  2. Handle electrical and plumbing first. Before cutting a giant hole, make a small hole so you can look into the wall. Move any wires or pipes, using appropriate electrical or plumbing methods. Both electrical and plumbing are pretty easy, but make sure you either know what you are doing, or have somebody who does oversee you. Some basic techniques can be learned from community colleges or even the internet…but be super careful, because doing it wrong could literally kill you.
  3. Build a structural frame (unless you can’t). We didn’t put in a frame for our breakfast bar because there was no studs to anchor a frame to, and we had determined the wall wasn’t structural. However, if at all possible, you should build a frame. If the wall IS structural, you will need to either consult a structural engineer or do some math to figure out what you need to do to provide enough structural support to hold up the wall. Don’t overlook this, because if a wall loses structure things can slowly collapse. Literally.
  4. Vacuum as you go. We did this, and we still had a mess, but I can’t even imagine how much worse it would’ve been if we had waited until we were done to turn on the Shop Vac.

Toxicity Concerns

As someone who was formally in the health field and became interested in homesteading after investigating health issues with modern food products (i.e. vegetable oil), I am ALWAYS concerned about health with any sort of project. Here is a summary of the toxicity concerns with plaster and drywall.

Plaster

Plaster is fairly non-toxic. There’s even a case study of somebody who, as a suicide attempt, ate so much plaster that it caused a gastric obstruction requiring surgery…but caused no other ill effects.

Unless it has asbestos in it, of course.

In the pervasive stupidity of humanity, asbestos was used commonly in building materials (plaster and drywall compound) until 1978. It wasn’t always used (in fact, several sources say it was fairly uncommon in plaster), and it’s impossible to tell if it was unless you send samples out for testing. Thankfully, chysotile asbestos was the type used, which (though toxic) is much, much less toxic than the amosite that was used in insulation (DONT TOUCH OLD PIPE OR ELECTRICAL INSULATION!)

However, asbestos is only an issue if it is inhaled. As a precaution, it is a good idea to wear a dust mask when doing any sort of demolition construction and to contain the dust as much as possible. Also, take heart in the fact that the people typically affected by asbestos poisoning are people who work in the construction industry and are exposed to it on a regular basis.

Drywall

Old drywall has the same asbestos issue as plaster, though as with plaster it’s not a common issue. The silica in drywall dust can be irritating to the lungs, but again, wearing a dust mask and controlling the dust should solve this problems.

However, modern drywall can have much bigger problems.

Much of the drywall imported to the United States in the 2000s was made in China, and has been found to emit toxic gases that cause problems to inhabitants of the house. This is worse than asbestos, in my opinion, because there’s nothing you can do about it except replace it. Asbestos only causes issues when you destroy stuff and inhale the dust. These gases are emitted from intact drywall. The toxic materials also cause corrosion of copper pipes and wires.

When buying drywall, look for drywall that is made in America. If the country of origin isn’t listed, you can call the company and ask.

Many drywall joint compounds also contain VOCs and other toxic ingredients, including biocides. Your best bet is to use unmixed joint compound (that you have to mix with water yourself) such as EZ Sand 20, instead of pre-mixed drywall mud or spackle. We keep a small container of spackle on hand to fill tiny nail holes if needed, but for any larger patch job, we use EZ Sand 20.

Drywall is also coated with biocides to prevent mold growth. The biocides aren’t very effective and can be toxic when inhaled. If you are concerned or have health issues, you can buy Greenguard-Certified drywall that doesn’t have any of these issues.

Conclusion

Despite our stud-less walls, the plaster dust, and the expensive-and-now-ruined diamond blades, we are THRILLED with the breakfast bar. The hole really opens up the house and provides much more natural light, allowing eastern light to shine through the kitchen into the living room, and western light to shine through the living room into the kitchen. It also makes the living area a more cohesive space. Since we cook so often (pretty much every meal), this really makes an impact on the “homeyness” of the house. The breakfast bar is also SUPER nice as a computer work station, a place to set a cookbook while we are cooking, and a nice counter for spreading out ingredients during a complex dinner. If you’re considering giving your home a more open layout…I highly recommend it (as long as your are cognizant of possible structural walls that you shouldn’t mess with yourself!).

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