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How to Build a Pass-Through in a Wall

  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Well, older homes have charm and character. The thing they often lack is an open floor plan and that’s something that more and more modern families are wanting. Well, the good news is that you don’t have to stick with the layout offered in your older home.

    TOM: One way to create an open feel in a closed space is to build a pass-through How to Build a Pass-Through in a Wallbetween the rooms. Here to tell us how to do just that is This Old House general contractor Tom Silva.

    Welcome, Tom.

    TOM SILVA: Thank you. Nice to be here.

    TOM: So, we’re basically talking about ripping a hole in a wall. It sounds pretty difficult. But what do we need to keep in mind to make sure that we don’t maybe uncover any surprises?

    TOM SILVA: Mm-hmm. Well, I think the biggest thing you want to do is make sure that the second floor doesn’t end up on the first floor.

    LESLIE: Right.

    TOM: Yeah, that’s probably a good point.

    TOM SILVA: That would be cutting into a structural wall and you don’t want to do that.

    TOM: Yeah.

    TOM SILVA: So the first thing you need to do is find out if it’s a load-bearing wall.

    TOM: So what are some clues for that?

    TOM SILVA: The first thing I’d do is I’d go into the basement and I’d look at the way that the floor joists on the basement run. And if they run to the center of the building, then any wall that’s in the center of the building that runs perpendicular to those joists is a load bearing wall, in most cases.

    LESLIE: Now, what if you have a finished basement and you can’t see that?

    TOM SILVA: Well, then try to go to the attic. And get up into the attic and see the ceiling joists in the attic. In most cases, they’re going to run the same way. There’s a lot of options. If in doubt, get an engineer, alright?

    TOM: Good point.

    TOM SILVA: But once you’ve figured out that the joists are resting on a load-bearing wall, now you’ve got a whole different problem and a whole different issue. You can cut into that wall but you’ve got to know what you’re doing to cut into it.

    TOM: That probably goes beyond the scope of DIY at that point. But let’s say that it’s not load-bearing and you’re pretty much figuring it’s just a partition wall. You just want to open it up and get some more light in there. What’s the first thing you do? Kind of lay out your opening?

    TOM SILVA: Well, you can lay out the opening but again, you want to inspect for any pipes, you want to inspect for any ductwork, you want to inspect for any electrical work.

    TOM: Ah, good point.

    LESLIE: You can’t just go willy-nilly like people really want to do.

    TOM SILVA: Well, everybody – demolition is easy.

    TOM: That’s the fun part.

    TOM SILVA: The fun part. It’s quick and it’s very gratifying. You say, “Wow, I did that in 15 minutes.” But you’ve got to make sure you don’t cut a water line, a heat line or ductwork.

    And so, again, go to the basement, find if there’s anything going up and you’ll see it. If there’s an electrical wire there, get an electrician. If it’s a plumbing or a heating line, hot water, get a plumber involved. Get him on-call or standby, just in case.

    TOM: Now, here’s a question I have. Let’s say we’ve cleared that, we want to try to open this up. Is there a way to plan this so that you don’t actually open up more wall than what you’ll end up, in terms of the actually finished space? In other words, sometimes people tend to take out too much wall and they have to put wall back?

    TOM SILVA: Yeah, yeah. So I …

    TOM: So how do you avoid that work?

    TOM SILVA: Well, what I like to do is I actually figure out my finished dimension.

    TOM: OK.

    TOM SILVA: I figure that out and then I draw it on the wall exactly how I want it to go. And then I take a reciprocating saw and I take the saw and I lay it down. And what I mean by lay it down, the handle end of the saw will go really close to the wall so when I turn that saw around, just the tip of the blade goes through that wallboard. And I cut all the way across the top two sides and across the bottom and then I pull the piece out. Now I haven’t cut any of the structure.

    LESLIE: Mm-hmm. So you can see really what’s going on.

    TOM SILVA: Right. And I haven’t worried about hitting any wires or pipes because the blade hasn’t been in deep.

    TOM: Ah, good point.

    TOM SILVA: You know, you could go the old-fashioned way. When I was a kid, we used to do it with a saw. You’d do it with a keyhole saw and you’d cut your hole. You can actually feel a pipe, you can feel a wire.

    TOM: You hope.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah, well. I never did cut a wire with a keyhole. So I have cut it with a reciprocating saw and it’s not fun.

    So, once you’ve done that, you’ve peeled it out of the way, if you don’t have any pipes or wires in the way then you can cut away at the structure and get it reframed.

    TOM: And basically, when you reframe it, you’re really just trying to create an opening to attach the drywall to on the insides of that jamb, right?

    TOM SILVA: Right.

    TOM: There’s not so much of a structural issue, in terms of any load, at that point.

    TOM SILVA: Right. Now again, once I have my finished opening in the drywall, I then calculate the difference of the thickness of two two-bys. And if I need to put a small header up top, I calculate that. I then go down where each stud is, I put a level line on the wall and I take my saw and I then drive it into the wall, holding my saw as square and level as possible. Just cut the stud off, tap it and pull it out of the opening and then I can frame it down into the opening.

    TOM: So, basically, you plunge-cut right into the wall?

    TOM SILVA: Yep.

    TOM: And just deep enough so that when you actually rebuild it, it sits flush with the original opening.

    TOM SILVA: Exactly. And then all I have to do is tape over the crack where the saw blade went in.

    LESLIE: That’s really great. And I think it’s interesting because if you’re doing a pass-through, I mean it really gives you a lot of interesting opportunities, as far as use of this space.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah, it gives you the illusion that the space has just been brought into another dimension. You brought the other room into this room with – and still have places to put the kitchen table or the living-room couch and it’s great.

    But yeah, one thing I recommend whenever you’re cutting a drywall with a reciprocating saw or a SKILSAW or anything like that is always have a good vacuum close by the blade when cutting. Have someone hold it close but make sure that you have a good filter in the vacuum, also, because you don’t want to blow the dust right around the whole house.

    TOM: Yeah. Good advice. Boy, I tell you, it’s a great project. It really does open up the possibilities when you open up the wall. You could even have sort of a bar there where you can do like a kitchen sort of nook kind of thing.

    TOM SILVA: Sure.

    TOM: Yeah. Lot of design options.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah. Pass the drinks through. There you go.

    LESLIE: Right? And I mean really. I have a friend. Both of us live in like the exact same Dutch Colonial across the street from each other. And I love the charming sort of separate rooms and the spaces that it creates, because it’s cozy. And she just wants to blow every wall out of her space. So it’s interesting because you see the difference in families and their use of the space and what they want. It’s good to know that all options are out there.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah. Somebody likes the open floor plan and somebody likes it closed in a little bit.

    TOM: So the bottom line is that this is a project you can do but if it’s a load-bearing wall, that’s where you really need to get a pro to help.

    TOM SILVA: Well, you should get a pro to help, to always have an engineer involved to find out what size header you’re going to need. I’ve done plenty of them and you’ve probably done a few of them. It’s just something that you don’t want to tackle without some knowledge.

    TOM: Good advice. Tom Silva from TV’s This Old House, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit.

    TOM SILVA: Always a pleasure.

    LESLIE: Alright. Catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.

    TOM: And This Old House is brought to you on PBS by Lumber Liquidators. Hardwood floors for less.

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