How to Frame a Wall

by Alex Merrill

So, you want to build a wall?

Well, hopefully you want to build a little more than that, but every journey begins with a single step. Here are some basics to get you thinking about the right things in the right ways when it comes to framing a basic wall.

What you will need

There are two main ways to go when it comes to tools, and it pretty much all comes down to dolla dolla bills. If you’re like me, and tools of all shapes and sizes and functions fill up your wish list for your birthday, Christmas day, even Columbus day, then perhaps you might own power saws, compressor and nail guns. To be sure, these are the essential tools framers use, and with good reason(s): speed, fast-ness, and quick-ability. But, on the other hand, there were guys building whole houses with single hammers through the 70’s and even later. So it is possible to build sans power tools, especially if the scale of project is small enough.

Power Tool Basics

Circular Saw

Most guys I’ve worked with prefer the “worm drive” models, which have the motor in a different orientation, and produce more power while arguably allowing for a smoother cut. That said, the cheaper circular saw models still do cut wood. Also, try a handsaw if your arm muscles are feeling underwhelming.

Compressor

Framing nail guns operate between 120-150psi of air pressure, so it is a good idea to get a compressor that goes up to 150psi if possible. The size of tank is directly related to how frequently the noisy compressor will be running. While the noise can definitely be annoying, many small compressors these days are suited for continuous running. Also about noise, the cheaper compressors definitely seem to be the louder compressors; but hey, what can you expect.

Nail Gun

There are many different shapes and sizes of nail guns out there, and it can be an intimidating search if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Basic distinctions here are the bigger framing nail guns which drive bigger framing nails, and can accommodate several different types of nails for various framing applications. Smaller, “finish” nails are fired by smaller nail guns, namely 15ga, 16ga, 18ga, and 23ga or what is referred to as a “pin nailer”. Counterintuitively, the gauge numbers are counterintuitive. The schnozzberries don’t really taste like schnozzberries. The smaller the gauge number, the larger the nail. So 15ga nails are bigger than 16 gauge nails are bigger than 18ga. The pin nails are very tiny indeed. Of course, each type of nail and nail gun has its own purposes in various aspects of carpentry, from rough, bang-it-out framing to detailed finish trim. For framing a wall, try a framing gun.

Hand Tool Basics

A good framing hammer is one that is heavy enough to get the job done. A 22oz hammer has plenty of heft, and the waffled face of the hammer head also is a bonus for added “bite” when it contacts a nail or wood. A tape measure is a must; a chalkbox or chalkline invaluable; a 6′ level indispensible. A “speed square”, commonly by Swanson, is a handy tool for making sure your cut lines are good and square. 

Ok, enough about tools. Hopefully all you non-tool-nerds have either begun a conversion or have just skipped down to this part. Wait, scratch that, if you skipped down this part get your lazy ayz back up there and read about tools!

A couple basics about framing a wall

A simple wall is made up of a bottom plate, which lies flat on the ground, vertical studs which stand approximately the height of the wall, and usually 2 top plates, which cap the wall off and tie all the studs together. Another universal concept is layout. Layout is important primarily for any sheet goods that will cover the framing- usually plywood sheets on the outside or sheetrock on the inside. Now, stick with me here for some numbers. Most all sheet goods are produced exactly 4′ by 8′. Four feet, or 48 inches, is beautifully divisible by 12, 16, and 24 (as is 8 feet, or 96 inches). So, when you go to attach a sheet onto framing, you need the edge of that sheet to land or “break” evenly on a stud — hence the importance of layout. Most common is 16″ O.C. (On Center), meaning there is 16″ from the center of one stud to the next, and so on. Framing a wall according to layout sets you up for a wonderfully less annoying task when you go to hang your sheet materials – – you won’t have to custom cut each and every sheet to a random length.

There you have some basic concepts, but here are a few tricks to get going. Lay your top and bottom plates next to each other. If you are building a wall on a concrete slab or foundation walls, it’s important to always use Pressure Treated material for the bottom plate. If you’re building just on a wood deck surface, then regular framing lumber is acceptable. So, with your two plates lying beside each other, hook your tape measure on one end and pull it down the length of the plate. Lock the tape in place at the far end, so it is stays stretched out. Notice that each increment of 16″ is (probably, depending on your tape measure) marked in red, as opposed to the other black numbers. So the “reds” are 16″, 32″, 48″, 64″, and so on. Note too that 96″, or 8 feet, is also red. Now, it seems intuitive to make a mark at each of these red numbers in order to get your layout, and be done. Close! but not exactly. Keep in mind the thickness of your 2x material: 1 1/2″. We want our 16″ increments to land on the center of that 1 1/2″ side of your 2x. So, instead of marking on each red, mark instead at 3/4″ shy of each red number. That would put your marks at 15 1/4″, 31 1/4″, 47 1/4″ and so on. While this likely sounds trippy and confusing when you read it, when you are actually in front of your tape measure and your plates, it’s not so bad to simply find the red number, then look 3/4″ less than that and mark. Trust me until you’ve tried it out, because that simple step sets things up very nicely for when you sheet your wall.

Well done, that’s the basic layout.

Silly things like windows and doors and corners are where you’ll earn your stripes (if that’s a phrase still) in wall framing.  With your plates marked out, it’s time to cut some studs. ‘Stud’ simply refers to the vertical 2x4s or 2x6s that make up the main area of your wall. The top and bottom plates simply cap the ends of the studs to hold them all in place and tie them together. Structurally, it’s these vertical studs that bear the loads from up above as well, just like you’d think about a column carrying the weight of whatever’s above it. Figure out the height you want your wall to be, subtract 4 1/2″ (for three 2x plates), and begin laying out all the studs at their approximate locations. There are a couple ways to actually install the wall: you can nail it all together while flat on the groud, or you can nail studs into place vertically before capping them all together with the top place. The latter method is easier to grasp, in my view, so I’ll run through the first option. 

With your bottom plate and studs all turned on their edges, wiggle the first stud into position, so the outside of the stud is flush with the butt end of the bottom plate. nail straight through the bottom plate into the end grain of this stud. The rule for this kind of end nailing is nominal board width / 2. So for a 2x4 wall, board width being 4, two nails are customary. For 2x6 walls, go for three nails, evenly spaced. After that first sucker, slide the next stud so the near face of it lands on the 15 1/4″ mark you made. Before nailing, pull your tape off the outside face of that first stud, and see how the 16″ red mark lands smack in the middle of that second stud you’ve set in place (or at least it should). Nail it off, then rock and roll with the rest. At the far end of the wall, place the last stud flush with the butt end of the bottom plate, as with the first stud.  With the old bottom plate totally nailed, jump onto the ceiling (or just the other side of the future wall) and begin with the top plate. The top plate is oriented in such a way that it matches the layout of the bottom plate. The long and short is, once the plates are aligned with each other, the studs should be right on plumb (vertical), not slanted hither or thither. Once nailed off, throw the second top plate into position. The second top plate is used to tie one length of wall together with another. At a corner, one wall’s top plate stops at the incoming wall, while the other wall’s top plate runs past and provides a solid nailing connection. 

That primes the pump on framing a simple wall. There’s loads more to go over, from raising the wall section to plumbing and straightening it, installing sheathing to accounting for all the interesting features of partition walls, windows, etc. Alas, such explorations must wait for another time. Until then, frame away.

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