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Basement Finishing Info

I'm looking for a beginners guide that will walk me step by step through the process of finishing my basement. The books I've seen in stores do not provide the level of detail I need. I need something that tells me how to do this project from the beginning. What is the first step, etc.


I could devote an entire web site to finishing basements. There is lots to talk about, but then, much of the discussion isn't any different from regular above-grade construction methods.

I've seen lots of quick-and-dirty approaches to finishing basements, such as gluing 1x3 furring strips to the walls, installing foam insulation between the strips, and tacking paneling on that. But I think that method is far from adequate.

The only way I approach basement finishing is to treat it like a normal house that happens to have an exterior wall of concrete. I build regular 2x4 walls and tip them into place. The exception is that I use treated 2x4's for the sole plate (the bottom plate) because any wood in contact with concrete has a high risk of rotting.

But before I install the wood framed walls I make sure that any moisture problems are fixed. What I have done in the past (as is mentioned in this letter about building a closet in a basement) is acid-wash the walls with muriatic acid and water (50/50 mix), rinse, dry, and apply a premium basement paint. Glidden makes a good oil-based basement paint that has a lot of Portland cement in it. I have glued sheets of polyethylene plastic to the walls to deter moisture from wicking through the concrete.  I have used 3M Super 77 spray adhesive, which is pretty expensive but is one of the few adhesives that sticks to polyethylene plastic.

After the walls are framed, I approach wiring as usual. Plumbing is pretty normal except that some concrete cutting may need to be done to get the drains below the floor. Don't let this scare you, I just use a 7" diamond blade on a circular saw, which cuts about 2/3 of the way through a 4" slab. I've always been able to bust up the cut-out by whacking it with a sledge hammer. A cold chisel helps too. Wear eye protection!

Once the utilities are done, I insulate as usual with fiberglass, and install a wallboard material. On my first house I used 3/8" T1-11 rough-sawn plywood, with the 4" groove spacing. It's expensive but durable. But Moisture Resistant drywall (the green stuff, used for bathrooms) works well, can tolerate some minor flooding and is finished just like ordinary drywall.  An even better wallboard is Dens Armor Plus, which has fiberglass mats on both surfaces instead of paper.  This new drywall material was introduced to solve the problems of mold growing on cellulose (paper) wallboard surfaces.

You can use carpeting on the floor, but there is a good chance you'll have a mildew problem just from lack of air circulation. Sheet vinyl might be better. An oil-based concrete paint with some throw rugs works well. Just keep the rugs away from the corners where the mildew lurks.

For the ceiling, many people choose suspended (drop) ceiling tiles. I'll say that the 2x2' tiles look much better than the less expensive 2x4' tiles. For low ceilings there is now a tile that clips onto the track rather than laying on top. This means that you don't need to waste a lot of valuable headroom for the dead space above the tiles. Most ceiling tiles require perhaps 6 inches of space above the track to allow the tile to be manipulated into position. This is wasted space, space that is normally in short supply in basements. Home Depot is selling some sort of newfangled tiles that clip in place from below, but I haven't even stopped to look at them.

There is also this (alleged) radon issue. Radon is one of the inert gases, found way over on the right column of the Periodic Table Of The Elements. Being inert, radon doesn't chemically react with anything, but it's radioactive. Some people claim that radon might cause thousands of cases of lung cancer every year. Or maybe it's just hysteria. Radon seeps out of the soil (in some areas) and gets whisked away by the winds. They say that radon can build up in basements. I'm of the mind that good ventilation can solve all such problems. Panasonic Whisper Lite fans are made to be left running continuously and are very quiet. Anyway, there are radon test kits/device available. It's nothing to be alarmed about, just something to be aware of.

The moisture control problems are the biggest concern. Any short cuts that you take here are probably going to come back to haunt you, either as humid basement air, mildew/odor problems, paint peeling, rotting wood, or water damage to items stored in the basement. There is no reason why a reasonably modern house with a poured concrete or cinder block basement can't have living conditions equal to that upstairs. I spent most of my teenage years living in the basement of my parent's home. It worked fine. Or maybe that explains some peculiar behaviors...


Bruce W. Maki, Editor.




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Copyright 2002-2004

Compiled January 22, 2002
Revised December 28, 2004