50 Year old house light switch dilemma!!

Old 07-30-04, 08:15 AM
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Angry 50 Year old house light switch dilemma!!

Scenerio: 1/2" sheet rock wall, no "electrical box" that the light switch should have been installed into. The light switch was just screwed into the drywall and into 2 horizontal 2x4s spaced 2 1/2" apart.
Objective: To properly install an electrical box to house the light switch without having to rip out the wall of sheet rock.
Dilemma: Even though I can detach the wires from the wall switch, there isn't enough room between the 2 2x4s to put in a box. I was told that since it is an old home that I could put in a blue plastic box with "butterfly" tabs that will secure the box directly behind the sheet rock. How do I get the wires above the 2x4s without having to tear out the sheet rock? Or can I? There isn't enough room for me to be able to drill a hole through the top 2x4 to thread the wiring through without making a GOD AWEFUL hole in the wall.
Any suggestions will be appreciated!!! Gerald
Old 07-30-04, 08:35 AM
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Wow! When you find that in your house, it must give you pause. Who knows what else you're going to find. Probably some real attrocities. The odd thing about this is that somebody went to more effort to do it wrong than it would have been to do it right.

Take out the switch and remove one of the 2x4s. How you do that requires innovation. Chisel it out, saw it out, hammer it out, drill it out, or a combination of all of the above. Work slowly and gently to avoid any more damage than necessary.

I suggest you remove the 2x4 on the side from which the cable is coming. That will give you the greatest amount of slack in the cable.

The box with the butterfly tabs to which you refer is called an "old work" box. They are easy to install, if you don't make the hole in the drywall too big. If you mess up, you can repair the drywall easily. It's not rocket science.

I always tell people that drywall repair is a skill that everyone should acquire anyway. So why not just take a sledgehammer and put a big hole in the family room wall and repair it just for practice. Once you know how to invisibly repair drywall, home improvement projects won't seem so scary any more. It's like going off the high dive for the first time. I've seen many home projects in which more time and money was put into avoiding drywall damage than would have been necessary if the drywall was just ripped off first and repaired afterwards.
Old 07-30-04, 09:28 AM
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Before I would tear out those 2 x 4s I'd consider why they're there in the first place. I have an old home and just finished rewiring it by replacing all of the knob and tube wiring with new Romex, new plastic boxes, outlets switches...the whole 9 yards. The most valuable lesson I learned was to adapt to existing construction first, then worry about getting wire to the location second. In other words on't try to change the framing just for the sake of getting an electrical box in place. For example a plumber hired by the previous owners accidentally destroyed a top wall plate in my basement by running 3/4" copper out of the house to serve as a hot water heater pressure relief. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the wall ended up sagging in that spot causing all kinds of structural problems upstairs I had to fix with a lot of time, effort and money.

This is an extreme case, but the lesson is the same. If that drywall isn't attached in any other way besides those 2x4s in the center then you're going to weaken the wall, and you'll end up having to tear that section of wall out anyway to do some framing. They may be serving as fire blocking, or ad-hoc framing to tie plumbing to (who knows since you haven't described the area its in).

"old work" boxes can be really useful. In my case I couldn't use the "ears" or butterflies, because the lathe and plaster was too thick to get a firm grip. Therefore, I was forced to use a jig saw to open the hole the metal box left when I tore it out, reinforce the lathe and plaster where I could with some extra wood I had laying around, remove the ears, and use the framing to screw the box in with drywall screws. Not fancy, but secured to framing, and can easily be repaired witih some plaster later on. I did this using a template I cut out with plywood, and I ran the wire to the location FIRST - then secured the box with the wire hanging out of it.

How big is this area? Have you used a stud finder to trace where these 2x4s go? Where are the studs?

As for drilling how far away from the attic/basement, or other access point is this location? In other words is there a possibility of getting a flexible bit inside the wall to drill a 5/8" or 3/4" hole through at least one of these 2x4s? If it's within 36" away it can be done.

Finally, it may be simpler to just cut out a section of drywall to the center of the closest studs, and cut a piece to replace it once you're done. Dry wall and compound is cheap. A bucket of pre-mixed wall compound, some mesh tape, and a taping knife + 2 or 3 coats and some sanding and the wall will look good as new.
Old 07-30-04, 10:16 AM
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Smile I think my dilemma is resolved!!!

After intense investigations and blindly feeling inside of the wall, I found a hold drilled through the top 2x4 that the wires were pushed through into the small area. I cleaned up the original light switch hole and expanded it from 2 1/2" x 4" to 4" x 6"; exposing the location where the wires go through the 2x4. I cut an exact fitting piece for repair of hole when re-wiring job is done. I traced the "old house box" and cut the hole about 2" above the top horizontal 2x4. It was a nice tight fit. I then connected everything correctly, patched the 4x6 hole. I really don't have to worry about doing a "perfectly smooth" patch job as I am doing a Venetian Plaster wall treatment on the entire wall (actually my entire bedroom).
Thanks for all of your advice---I had really started to "wig out" with all of the "real attrocities" that I have only begun to experience. My father (who was NOT A CARPENDER NOR AN ELECTRICIAN, built this house from the ground up with the attitude of: "There are 2 ways to do things-- MY WAY AND THE WRONG WAY!!!!"
My next renovation project is ripping out 30 year old shag carpet and putting down Pergo flooring, tearing out a closet wall, retiling the ceiling, installing a "hugger" ceiling fan w/light, floor and ceiling moulding, etc... God only knows what I will find with each project!!!! Does anyone have any extra nerve pills or knows of a good "montra" to help me keep my sanity???!!!
I will keep posting my progression/predicaments/achievements and failures. Please keep in mind that I am neither a contractor nor an electrician but I do have the ambition and nerve to "just dive in and try to come back up for air when needed" and at least I do have enough common sense to ask for guidance when I don't know what to do.
Thanks Again, Gerald Lott

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