As your eyes are drawn to follow its curvaceous lines across a room, one must admit that a curved soffit is one of the most dramatic and eye-catching architectural features to be built.
Not to downplay the other wonderful features available to your screwgun’s repertoire but since the soffit is closer to eye level than other features, it is easy to see how it can upstage other curved structures on the same job site.
And since your eyes have an optimal line of sight to critique the curves in a soffit, it is important that one frames the curves to a high level of quality that meets aesthetic and workmanship standards. Flat spots, lumps and divots are always a problem when caught by the trained viewer. To the untrained eye, one can be sure that sloppy soffits will appear crude and cheap, even though the viewer may not know for sure.
Imagine the distress when an architect/designer has to decide what to do with less-than-presentable curves. Should they make you tear it all out and hope for better results the second or third time around? Or should they just swallow it and assume this is the limit of a worker’s skill and expertise?
SOFFITS AS ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES
The most common curved soffit would be the type that curves in the plan view only. This type is built just like a little curved wall hanging from the structure above. As they curl, swirl and dance amongst each other up in the air, these soffits can be amazingly attractive. From this beginning, architects add curves in the vertical or elevation view.
To add further interest, many soffits are drawn with dissimilar top and bottom curves, giving the possibility of resembling the Northern Lights or inverted conical shapes. Of course, this leads to many types of elaborate, interesting and even sometimes convoluted designs.
To further intensify their design, architects sometimes even use curved studs along with the curved top and bottom plate. This huge design step introduces the need to cover the framing with metal lath and plaster, since gyp board just won’t bend and stretch in both directions at the same time in the same place.
To any of these curved soffit designs, one can add penetrations for a “peek-a-boo” effect. Stair-stepping the design and adding recesses also helps add interest to a view.
Another very common use of curved soffits is to create a light cove from which lighting effects can be deployed. This helps accent the different layers, curves and colorings of the ceiling and soffits. While the design possibilities for soffits are virtually limitless, there are a few rules and tricks for their construction, which apply across the board, wavy though it may be.
As drywall installers read this, I know their minds may immediately be barraged with all the challenges created when the simple curved soffit begins to curve in more than one plane. It takes some pretty creative and sometimes just purely pragmatic piecing of gyp board panels to cover some of these undulating curves. Some may groan at the prospect or in retrospect of a past job, while other installers will smile at the challenge to prove their framing finesse. But you will be hard-pressed to find a more proud and fulfilled craftsman on any job site than the reigning “Soffit Master.”
THE CONCERN FOR ALL HANGING SOFFITS
The primary concern for all hanging soffits is that the soffit framing is securely anchored to support the weight of the framing, wall covering (usually gypsum board), taping mud, texture, any electrical in the soffit, etc. One doesn’t want to be lying in bed wondering if that soffit that was just built is going to fall on customers. To achieve this, workers need to be sure of an anchor to the structure above, whether tying to concrete, steel or bar joists. From this secure anchor, one can extend down to the side of the studs in the wall with either all-thread or wires. When fastened to the side of the stud, the workers are using the shear strength of the fasteners rather than the pull-out values in the metal studs. If workers don’t have the expertise or input from an engineer on the structural requirements, it’s always easier to overbuild than to apologize if it falls.
THE WONDER OF CURVABLE TRACK
Framing products which can be easily shaped by hand and rigidly secured are a great way to be sure that curves can be framed and finished with no hiccups. These products come to the job site straight and can be easily curved to frame any curved shape they’ll draw up. There is a new feature called a “hammer-lock tab” that one can simply strike with a hammer to instantly and rigidly secure the curve. Then it’s ready to install.
It takes a lot of force to bend gyp board around curved framing so it’s important to use a brand of flexible track which can be rigidly secured, so when one begins wrapping the drywall around the curve it doesn’t have a chance to distort or flatten the shape of the framing. Why take a chance on undoing all the work?
Hand-curvable tracks that can be secured come in a full range of sizes from 2½ to 10 inches wide and in thicknesses from 25 gauge to 16 gauge. Hand curvable securable angles are also available for all those details of soffits where framing components come perpendicularly together at the curving edge.
There is even a new hand curvable wood plate available if framing a wood structure. It comes in both 2x4 and 2x6 dimensions in treated and untreated versions. One can use wood saws and air nailers with it, just as one would with normal lumber. And just like the metal products, it is easy to secure it in the desired curve with a nail or staple.
Another amazing timesaver is to use one of the new flexible arch products in an innovative way. While it was originally designed to frame archways in rough openings for doors and windows, one can just lay it on its side and have an instant curved light cove or “cloud.” No more cutting and framing all those little vertical studs. Just curve it to the desired curve, hammer-lock it and it’s ready to install on the end of some kickers and cover with gyp board.
These flexible arches come in widths from 2½ to 11½ inches so most of your curved light coves and clouds have now been reduced to a minor task. Imagine how quickly and easily it is to frame a cloud, or “peanut” as I’ve heard one carpenter call them, when the worker can just curve the proper height arch to the desired curve, hammer-lock it, run some joists across from side to side within and hang it from the ceiling.
USE THE RIGHT TYPE OF GYP BOARD AND ACCESSORIES
As most soffits are covered with gyp board, be sure to use of one of the new 1/4-inch “high-flex” wallboards for curves. These aren’t your grandfather’s old 1/4-inch gyp board. They actually bend much better without breaking. Each brand has a chart that tells how far they’ll bend in which direction and at what point to begin wetting it to achieve a tighter radius. Just use two layers and be sure to stagger the joints to get a smoother curve. These tighter radii also need more studs to be sure the gyp board is well supported so it can bend.
Also on these tighter radii, one may have trouble getting the joints to lay flat when screwing it to the thin edge of a stud. One can get the joint to screw down more smoothly by turning a stud flat to the joint and screwing into the wider surface area. There are even products to put behind the butt joints to help actually recess the joints when the worker doesn’t have the advantage of the recessed factory edges at the joint.
There are always new patterns of curvable drywall trims and beads coming out to enhance the beauty of drywall art. One can easily add bullnoses and reveals to curves. If one is careful to apply these artfully, they can sure help the taper complete the effect with equal finesse. The installation of curved wood trim on soffits may not be in the contract but if it is, be sure to become familiar with the bendable faux wood trims that are available. Just be sure to order any curved crown type trims ahead of time, as they will have to make it to the site to approximate the specific radius. Most of the other trims don’t need as much lead time, as they can be bent on site to fit the curves.
Full-scale templates are available for a nominal fee to help layout some of those more impossible and difficult curves such as ellipses, groin vaults and supersized radii, i.e. 400 feet.
THE PRACTICAL SIDE OF SOFFITS
Soffits are important not just because they’re beautiful but they also accomplish many utilitarian goals. Not only do they show creativity in an otherwise boring ceiling but they can also cover up an unsightly or overly mechanically endowed ceiling full of ductwork, plumbing and electrical hardware.
Soffits are especially effective for dividing floor spaces without actually dividing them at the floor level. When folks see a soffit around an area it is like a unifying border around the activities occurring within its bounds. One of the most important functions for soffits and clouds, besides providing beauty and design, is when strategically placed, they can also be great acoustical buffers.
SOFFITS ARE HERE TO STAY
Let’s be honest, most of the economic news lately may try to cast a gloomy shadow on future job possibilities. But soffits are clearly here to stay as an important architectural design element. If one can install them with confidence and competence, you’ll be ahead of the game. Always make it a point to be informed on all the new time-saving products so you won’t be clueless on how to bid and build the next outrageous design that you know is just around the corner.
With today’s labor-saving framing devices, all it takes is a little bit of focus and natural skill as a framer to keep architects and designers smiling as they gaze up at your latest levitating masterpieces. W&C
Sidebar: THE OPPORTUNTIES OF FLEXIBLE TRACKSHe may not be sitting in your room but who can ignore the 800-pound recession gorilla whispering little nothings in your ear. What should one do to ensure the worker is still standing as a contractor when the dust settles?
As you’ve probably noticed, curved walls, soffits and ceilings are becoming much more popular in architecture. As such, the ability to build curves efficiently and economically is likely to be a contributor to the future.
Flexible tracks and arches have made it so much easier to frame what used to seem impossible, that you should now throw your company’s hat into the ring if you haven’t already. As you familiarize yourself with the new products and methods, you can promote yourself and earn the reputation for being that contractor of whom it is said, “They do most of that type work in town.” Why exclude yourself from the bidding consideration by not being “up on” curves?
The hand shapeable tracks are now available in all widths from 2½ up to 10 inches, and in 25, 20, 18 and 16 gauge. That means when the designer throws a curve, one can either grab some off a supplier’s shelf, or at worst, less popular sizes can be shipped immediately and delivered in a few days. No more need to special order a specific shape or radius and wait weeks for it to arrive.
On these more dramatic-looking jobs, contractors should be able to charge a premium, because now it’s not just doing commodity labor. Ever wonder who frames all those “theme-park” style restaurants and weird jobs that look like Hobbit houses? Usually a well-paid, job secured crew. Granted, not every town looks like Orlando but being able to build that curved soffit over the curved reception could very well be the keystone to getting a significant contract.
When you build these curves, take some photos for your company’s portfolio.