Cutting an opening for a new closet. Old House Remodeling:

Cutting A Rough Opening For A
Doorway In An Interior Wall

In This Article:

The cuts are laid out, holes are drilled at the corners, and a reciprocating saw is used to cut the wallboard/plaster/lath. Problems arise. Illustration of making a plunge cut.

Related Articles:
Skill Level: 3-4 (Intermediate +) Time Taken: 2 Hours

By , Editor



If there is one drawback of old houses it is the lack of closet space. The exact reasons for this are unclear. I've heard that people didn't have much stuff back in the late 1800's and early 1900's, that three sets of clothing was adequate for most folks.

I've also heard that in earlier times, the early to mid 1800's, real estate taxes were often assessed on the number of rooms in a house. And they counted closets as rooms. This created a powerful incentive to leave out closets and employ furniture like the armoire. I suppose that architects and home designers fell into a habit of omitting any special small rooms for storage.

Times have changed. The old house that I live in originally had a whopping total of three closets, one below the main staircase, one above it, and another that used part of the unfinished attic.

But the biggest bedroom, the one we remodeled a few years ago, has no closet. Since we had to rearrange the framing in the adjacent bedroom, we decided to create three new closets all in a row: one for the smaller bedroom, one in the hallway, and one for the big bedroom.

But that meant we needed to cut a doorway between the big bedroom and the new closet.

This is the corner of the bedroom behind the row of three closets.

We could put the closet door almost anywhere along that back wall, but we also want to maintain enough clear space along the wall for a small sofa.

Having a couch in a bedroom is kinda cool. For example, you have a place to sit while changing clothes. But most importantly, the dogs have a nice comfy place to sleep.

This is the back of the same wall. As you can see, we have been doing some remodeling work. We removed the plaster and the lath a few months earlier.

This old house is not like most newer 2-story houses, because on the second floor there are some sloping ceilings. On certain walls the double top plates are rather low, only 6'-5" above the floor, and the rafters begin there.

Luckily, this is just enough for a door, if you don't mind cutting 3" off the bottom. I wouldn't do that for a bedroom door, but for a closet door, I would.

Laying Out The Cuts:

The most important step in cutting a new doorway is laying out the cuts.

Hopefully these two pictures will do a decent job of explaining where we cut the wall. (It was impossible to get all of this in one photo because there is a stud-wall two feet away from this old wall, and it obscured the image)


We will need to cut the nails that connect the stud to the top plate.



One stud will need to be cut.

The standard practice in residential construction is to make the rough opening 2 inches wider than the door width. Since we are installing an 18 inch door, we made the rough opening about 20 inches wide.

I marked the edges of the rough opening on the top plate above the opening. Then I drilled a hole at the upper corners of the opening.

Of course, the hole broke through the other side of the wall.


Cutting plaster and lath with a reciprocating saw. Using a reciprocating saw, we carefully cut along the stud on the left-hand side of the opening.


The blade poked through the other side and made some dust. It is possible to use a shop vac and suck up most of the sawdust, if a second person is available.


We cut all the way down, through the baseboard, right to the floor, being VERY careful not to gouge the floor.

That's one cut done.

But the right-hand edge of the opening was not going to be against an existing stud. I had planned on putting a new stud at the edge of the doorway, but as we cut through the wall I realized a potential problem:

When old lath is cut near the ends, there is only one nail holding each piece to the wall, and the short pieces of lath will swivel and turn with the moving blade. All this movement can damage the wallboard or plaster that is covering the lath.

To prevent the lath from moving, I applied a bead of construction adhesive to the back of the new stud before installing it.


I placed the stud against the wall and tapped it into position with a hammer.


The top of the stud. New stud for door rough opening.


Fastening stud with deck screws. I drove a couple of 3" deck screws into the end of the stud to secure it to the top plate.

I wouldn't even think about using nails for a connection like this. All that hammering will probably crack the veneer plaster and wallboard on the other side

I pre-drilled these holes to guide the screws better. This also reduces the chance of splitting the wood.


Near the bottom I just drove some deck screws into the adjacent piece of blocking.


There was one stud to lop off, and it was kinda tricky. I had to cut this stud at exactly the altitude of the bottom of the sub-floor.

The red arrow points to the saw blade.

Update 2011: Another good tool to use here would be a Fein Multimaster or any other oscillating type of saw. Bosch and Dremel now sell these tools.

Cutting old stud to make new door opening.


A View From Below:

I held the reciprocating saw blade up against the underside of the floor. Of course this means flexing the blade, so a long (12") blade is necessary.

I have the blade installed upside down. I use my Sawzall like this most of the time.


I put a metal-cutting blade in the saw and cut the nails at the top of the stud. Cutting nails at top of wall stud.


Anatomy Of A Plunge Cut:

To give the glue some time to dry, I waited until the next day to cut the right-hand side.

Making a plunge cut with a reciprocating saw. I made a plunge cut on the right hand side. For this I must have the wood-cutting blade installed upside down.

I began by cutting at a very low angle to the wall, almost parallel to the surface. I used a slow speed while the blade started cutting.

The worst part of cutting like this is the tendency of the blade to stab into something, such as the top plate above my opening. Stabbing the blade into a piece of wood can make the blade bend badly, or break the blade completely.

Stabbing into drywall is more forgiving, so once the blade had penetrated the piece of lath I could push it through the wallboard.


A different view.

The red arrow points to the reciprocating saw blade, forced into a bend so it will ride parallel to the new stud.

These longer blades can usually be flexed quite a lot, but too much flexing can permanently bend the blade and eventually make it break.


Once the blade had poked through, I could use the Sawzall in a more normal position.

Here I'm using the new stud as a cutting guide. Getting a perfectly straight cut is not as easy as it looks.


I cut all the way to the floor.

Later on, when the new door casing is installed, I will need to prune back the baseboard.


I did the top cut.


Another view.


When the last cut was done, I pushed and pulled on the section of wall to remove it. While it was loose, it seemed to be stuck.


So I dismantled it from the back side.

Now, guys... I know how you operate. You would rather just step back and give the cut-out a big 'ol kick.

But don't. It is so easy to damage some nearby wall surface, it's not worth it. Remove the piece of wall carefully, take it outdoors, and THEN kick it.

I vacuumed up the plaster dust. Don't walk on this stuff or you'll make it stick to the floor... and then you'll need to scrub the floor to get it clean.


But there is still a small problem: the old subfloor does not run all the way through the studs.

Old houses with balloon framing are often like this. They built the walls, then the second floor joists, and then installed the subfloor. So when you look between the studs you typically find large gaps in the subfloor

One problem with this method of construction is that a fire in a first-floor wall  can quickly shoot up to the second floor wall. Even in 1907 they were supposed to install fire blocking, just pieces of 2x4, between the studs to slow down the spread of flames.

Door rough opening for a new closet. The opening as seen from the big bedroom.

This doorway is narrow. We will be installing an 18-inch door here. We would prefer a 24 inch door, but we aren't willing to give up that much wall space.


But What About Normal Houses?

I created a quick graphic to show the framing methods that would be used in a normal newer house with "platform" framing. This covers virtually every house built since 1945 or so, and lots of earlier houses.

The new studs are shown in color, the studs from the existing pattern are in black and white.

Note that the new studs rest on top of the bottom plate. The standard technique is to frame in the door opening and then cut out the bottom plate afterwards.

The standard practice is to make the rough opening  two inches wider than the door width, and 82 inches tall (for a standard 80" tall door). But if the finished floor is going to be extra-thick (more than 3/4"), a taller rough opening might be needed.




Tools Used:

  • Cordless Drill/Driver
  • Cordless Impact Driver
  • Reciprocating Saw
  • Caulk Gun

Materials Used:

  • Lumber, 2x4x8'
  • 3" Deck Screws
  • Construction Adhesive

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Written February 2, 2005