Uncovering the Secret Room

When I was working on the Ethernet cable installation throughout the house, the two jacks downstairs were pretty straightforward and went quickly, but the jack upstairs was the one I wasn’t sure about. I needed to run the cable from the wall on the second floor all the way down through the first floor to the basement. I considered running it out to the exterior and taking it down to the basement along the outside of the house, but I didn’t really like the idea of making holes in the exterior wall — if I didn’t seal them properly, it’d let moisture in.

Then, while staring at the wall and contemplating the situation, I realized that there was a big triangular space behind that wall that was inaccessible from anywhere in the house, even the attic. Mark made the very good suggestion that I put a door into that wall, to both gain access to the space and also hopefully make running the cable much easier. There was no way to know exactly what was back there, of course, but we assumed it’d be attic-like space (a “floor” of exposed ceiling joists and insulation).

What's behind that wall?

Naomi said she had no problem with me cutting a big hole in the wall of our brand new house (what an amazing girl I’ve got) so I formulated a plan. I’d make the door big enough to fit sheets of 4×8 plywood to put down as a proper floor in there, yet small enough to be hidden by the entertainment center. I settled on a 24×51″ door, and went out and bought the 2×4’s, 2×6’s, and plywood I needed. With materials in hand, I came home, marked the studs, took a deep breath, and cut a rough hole. I kept it relatively small — just big enough to squeeze in there and get a better feel for what’s back there. As the drywall fell away, I gazed upon the secret room for the first time since the house was built 12 years ago.

I feel like Howard Carter, uncovering King Tut's tomb

Lo and behold, it already had a nice plywood floor and everything! I also discovered cigarette butts, presumably from the builders who first framed the house. Of course, being a relatively new house, it wasn’t quite as dramatic as if this was a space that hadn’t seen the light of day in 100 years, but it was still exciting.

With the hole opened, I squeezed in and beheld the back of the wall I was about to perform surgery on. Brutus really wanted to come in and join me, but sorry Brutus, you’ll have to watch from outside.

Brutus

Brutus really wants to come in here with me

Once I got back there, I realized that a phone cable was run through the floor right where I had planned to put the door, so I’d need to move it over a few inches. That’s not a big deal, other than the fact that the rough hole I cut now extends outside of where the door will be. Ah well, guess I’ll get to learn to patch drywall on this project too.

There’s also a power cable running right across the proposed door opening, but that’s no big deal either. I’d been planning on adding a light switch and a light anyway, so I can reroute the existing power cable around the door opening as long as I’m tying into it.

I'll have to reroute that power cable around the door

With a more formal plan in mind, it was time to go door shopping. Nobody makes 51″-high doors, so I’d need to buy a door that could be cut down. That means it’d need to be a solid wood door (rather than the cheaper hollow-core doors that are often used for interior doors). It would also need to have a panel layout that could be cut down without looking weird.

First I checked out the doors available at Home Depot and Lowes, but the only option they had that’d work was a solid wood slab door (no panels, just a flat wood door). That’d do the job, so I noted the price (about $80) and moved on. The other place to check out (again, recommended by Mark) was Tim & Al’s Windows And Doors. An unassuming place, just a big open building full of doors stacked against the walls. They apparently have a flat price of $70 for all interior doors, and when I told him what I wanted to do, he took me straight to a 24″ solid door with a nice, symmetrical pattern of panels that’d be perfect for cutting down. It was a pre-hung door, so I’d need to recreate the rabbet for the top of the door jamb after cutting it shorter, but that was doable, so I took it home.

A suitable candidate

I'll have to recreate that joint after cutting down the door

Mark came by and helped me cut the door and jamb and recreate the rabbets. The existing top section of the frame was actually nailed in really well, and we weren’t able to get it undone without damaging it. However, we were able to make a new top jamb from the discarded part of one of the side jambs, and the newly shortened door came together nicely.

Cutting the new joint in the door jamb

The completed door. How cute

Once I had a final door jamb size to work with, I was able to cut out a bigger portion of the drywall for easier access, and then start cutting the framing for the door. I made two new king studs (studs which run all the way to from the bottom of the wall to the top, and in this case needed an angle cut on the top to match the slanted roof), and the two jack studs that sit inside the king studs, at the height of the door.

Cutting out more of the rough opening in the drywall

Cutting the king studs, jack studs, and header

Since this isn’t a load-bearing wall, I didn’t need to build a standard header out of two upright 2×6’s and plywood — I could make a simpler one from two lengths of 2×4 laying on their sides.

When framing a door, it’s important for the jack studs and header to be as plumb and level as possible, so I took care to get that right.

Door frame built

With the door frame built, I decided to patch the drywall before moving forward with hanging the door. Some time spent researching the subject online, and then another trip to Home Depot for drywall-patching materials.

Patching the drywall

Cutting out the patches was the easy part. The tricky part is applying the joint compound (I think I’m giving myself away as a newbie here; it seems people in the business call it ‘mud’) and making the transition seamless. This is a long process, usually involving two to three layers of compound, and each layer takes 24 hours to dry. Here goes.

First layer of joint compound applied. Now we play the waiting game

It looked OK, but certainly needed more work. I tried again with the second coat.

Second coat of joint compound applied

Better, but still just OK. I had a really hard time getting a smooth finish — each stroke I’d take to smooth out one area would leave ridges in another. This clearly takes practice. I decided to set it aside and wait for Mark to return from his vacation — he’s got a lot more drywall-patching experience.

The wall was at least intact enough that I was able to go ahead and hang the door. I only got a few minutes into it before I ran into a small problem with my design though. Since this door will be behind an entertainment center, I had initially planned for it to open into the “secret room”, so that we wouldn’t have to pull the entertainment center out very far in order to get in there. But when I test-fitted the door in the opening, I quickly discovered a problem with that design.

Test-fitting the door, I discover an unanticipated problem with having it open inward

I had forgotten to factor in the angled ceiling on the other side of the door. Hung this way, it wouldn’t be able to open more than a few inches. Ah well, fortunately, I was able to simply turn the door around and continue with the hanging process.

This is another tricky endeavour — a properly functioning door is actually a finely balanced mechanism, and it’s important to get each side of the door jamb plumb, level, and square, or else the door would have issues such as sticking, or not latching smoothly, or not sitting flush against the jamb when closed, or having a “low spot” in its swing that it tries to return to. I took my time, made extensive use of my various levels and squares, and ended up with a door that operates perfectly. Huzzah!

The door is hung!

And the door opens smoothly

With the door hung, it was time to reroute the power cable that had originally run directly across the opening. As long as I was messing with the wiring, I decided to add an additional outlet in the living room, as well as an outlet inside the secret room (who knows for what, doesn’t hurt to have it), and a light with a light switch as well. This is more familiar territory, and other than having to deal with the stiff 12-gauge wire that this circuit used, it was smooth sailing. I’m so used to working on older houses with antiquated wiring, and it was a pleasant change of pace to actually have modern, up-to-code wiring, with grounds in every junction box, correct wire colors, etc.

Next I reroute the power cables around the door, adding a few outlets and a light at the same time

The wiring is complete, and the secret room is almost done!

Wiring completed, extra outlets and switched light added

All that’s left is to finish patching the drywall, install the casing (a.k.a. trim) around the door, and paint the door and casing. I can’t do the first two until Mark returns (I need his experience for the drywall, and his miter saw for the casing), so I’m calling this project “practically done” and packing up my tools.

Time to decide what to do with this new space. Sure, we could store our Christmas ornaments in it, but it’s such a cool little room now. Maybe we’ll let Gavin use it as his little hideaway (we purposely installed a doorknob that doesn’t lock). Or I’ll deck it out as my private little reading room. Opportunities abound!