Disclosure: this post may contain affiliate links, which means I may make a commission if you decide to make a purchase through one of my links, at no cost to you.
Confession: for the last week, I haven’t really picked up a tool of any kind. I know. It’s making my eye twitch just reading that sentence. My excuses: lots of design work (which I’m quite happy about), a series of friends’ birthdays making me leave the house on the weekends, and some warm-weather hammocking with a cute guy (dating takes up a crapload of time… why didn’t I remember that?). But, I’ve realized that a week is about my limit. Somewhere around seven days is how long I can go before I get the urge to smash something with a hammer or hear the whir of a blade in the house. It could possibly qualify me for some kind of My Strange Addiction television appearance if it weren’t so boring, but I’ll happily let the folks who eat cat food and date their cars take the spotlight instead.
(Actually, I haven’t seen but a few clips of one of the shows before looking up the TLC site to nab a few links. I know reality TV is staged, but still… holy crap, folks. I had no idea of the examples that were out there!)
But since tools are on the brain today (twss), I wanted to backtrack a second and do a recap of that new cordless screwdriver I promised I’d share more about a couple of weeks ago. On the scale of things-I’d-go-gaga over, a small thing like the Hammerhead cordless screwdriver seems hardly enough to mention at first glance. But once I used it to install my new DIY light fixture in the breakfast nook area, it made such a difference in my lack of f-bombs that I knew a few details about its features might honestly help your next DIY.
Note: this is not a sponsored post, as I got it as a Christmas gift (thanks to my buddy Ken!). And you don’t have to buy this tool to install a light fixture. But like anything I review on this blog, I’m both sharing my honest opinions and excited to pass along some info, as well as some general tips about how to install a ceiling light (there might be some affiliate links, which if purchased through me earn me a small amount of income that helps to support this blog). The pics below are from different light installations, taken the more I realized that this tool was making things easier for me. The other new light fixtures I’ve been installing will be revealed soon!
How I Install Light Fixtures (Now) – Without Cursing or Throwing Tools*
*Honestly, this lack of swearing statement is not entirely true. I swear frequently, but there’s a big difference for me between normal casual-conversation-swearing and rage-swearing, which I’ve definitely participated in when a project just isn’t going my way (or if I drop something really heavy on my foot).
Anyway, I’ve never really enjoyed installing light fixtures. It’s not that installing them is all that complex; you just need to turn the power off, connect a few wires, and turn the power back on. After you’ve done them once or twice, you might even foolishly forget how frustrated you get installing them (like I do). It’s just that holding something that’s somewhat cumbersome over my head, while I’m on a ladder, and I have to do things like be on the phone with someone ahead of time just in case I fall off said ladder and need someone conscious to dial 911 (sure, it sounds like overkill, but you have ONE nightmare of exactly that scenario after your dog trips you on the stairs…) and well, it’s just kind of a pain in the ass.
But what I really dislike the most about installing overhead lights is that I always feel like I’m missing two extra hands and forget to bring all my tools up the ladder with me (“Where’d I put my wire stripper… and crap, the wire nuts were just here!”). So, what basically caused me to go all heart-eye-emoji on this tool is that it combines a bunch of the stuff I need in a single tool, and the install process was miles and miles improved with this handy little gadget (even better than my normal multi-function wire stripper/cutter). I went from snarling and swearing at this light to over the moon excited about the new one, and part of that was definitely due to my lack of desire to throw it across the room before I could even see it in place.
- The light you want to install; I’ve picked out a few at the bottom of the post if you are looking for a few ideas!
- A tall ladder (size varies, but tall enough to save yourself some extra arm exhaustion if you can rest it on the top of the ladder vs. having to hold it during the entire install)
- Wire nuts (these usually come with a storebought light fixture or kit along with the rest of the light hardware, so you usually don’t need to really worry about size, but it’s just worth noting that they do have different sizes and are color-coded to distinguish these)
- Hammerhead cordless screwdriver
Step 1: Turn the power off!
I know many folks who will simply turn the light switch off and go about their business replacing a light fixture. But my advice to DIY installers will never change: even if you turn the light switch off, you need to go to the breaker and turn the power to the lights off there, too. The fact is, you just want to make sure that the power in any of your exposed wires are totally dead before risking a nasty shock. And you won’t/can’t always know that the previous installer did the job correctly. In older homes, you may even find several pairs of wires sticking out of the ceiling box, and not all of them might belong to the same circuit breaker or fixture. Thus, my advice: it’s better to turn off power via the circuit breaker and then do some testing on the spot with a circuit tester to make sure none of the wires are “hot,” aka live and volting. The easiest way to do this is to turn the light on, then stop turning breakers on/off when the light goes off. Labeling the circuit breaker properly might help too, but I keep forgetting to do that between projects (all the existing labels are pure guesswork, it seems).
Step 2: Remove the bulbs, old fixture, and test the wires
Remove all the bulbs from the old light fixture. You mainly want to do this so that they don’t break if you drop something, and reusing bulbs is far cheaper than stepping on a broken one and needing stitches.
Find the nut or screws securing the old fixture to the ceiling. If it’s a boob light (the worst), unscrew at the finial and then remove the glass bowl, then unscrew the base to find the crossbar and wires underneath (shown below is a gumball light with a similar base that the bowl fits into). If it’s a chandelier or a semi-flushmount ceiling light, you’ll find a canopy (a cover piece) close to the ceiling and attached with screws, and the wires will be directly underneath.
Either way, unscrew everything until you see exposed wires. Next, you’ll want to detach the wires coming out of the ceiling from the wires going into the old light fixture, but use a voltage tester on the exposed wires first to make certain that the power is off before touching them with your hands. Conveniently, the Hammerhead cordless screwdriver has a circuit tester built right in, saving yourself the hassle of remembering a separate tool. All you’ve gotta do is press the live-wire detection button. Both a buzzer and a red light will come on if the wire is hot. The photo below was staged because I turn the power to the light off well in advance of testing for hot, but the red light comes on if so! Additional tools eliminated: 1.
Once detached, this lightens the load and will allow you to put the old light fixture aside. Then, you can unscrew the old crossbar (as long as the new light fixture comes with a new one, which it usually does).
Step 3: Identify ground, neutral, and hot wires
Once you’ve got the old fixture off, you should pretty much be left with a ceiling box and only three, color-coded wires: ground (green or bare copper), neutral (white), and hot (black). These will (usually) coordinate with the same wires in the new light fixture as well (older homes might not have exactly this, but in my tutorials, I go with what I can take pictures of, and this is what it looks like in my house!).
Step 4: Install new crossbar
Use the new crossbar that comes with your lighting kit and attach it to the ceiling box with the screws provided.
Step 5: Snip and strip wires (where applicable)
With the initial work out of the way, now is the time to assemble the light fixture and prepare it for installation. The order of assembly will vary from fixture to fixture, especially if you took it apart like I did to create your own (take pictures if you do this so that you know how to put it back together). The wires coming out of the ceiling box should already be stripped away enough, but you might need to make adjustments to the new light fixture. In my case, I had to snip off a few inches of cord to shorten the total length that the fixture would hang from the ceiling. Do this from the end that already has exposed wires (the end that goes into the ceiling), not the end that connects to the light bulb housing — it seems obvious, but you know… just in case someone really needed that info. Considering how short I am, cutting enough wire so that I didn’t hit my head into the fixture was actually quite a lot of extra length of cord! I suppose if you suspended the fixture from a tall staircase or something, it would make sense, but in most cases, you’ll need to shorten it. Cut it with pretty much whatever you like (I often use a utility knife), just be careful not to damage the insulation of the wires themselves once you cut away the cord sheathing.
You will also need to re-expose the wires and strip away about a half inch or so (enough length for both wires to twist around each other when connecting) from each insulated wire in order to connect each to the ceiling wires. The Hammerhead tool I used had both a wire bender (which I didn’t use) and a wire stripper included (which I did use).
You may need to try this a couple of times to get it right, so you may want to start with just a little bit to get the technique figured out before stripping away too much. But all you have to really do is thread the wire through the side of the Hammerhead screwdriver that looks like a wire stripper, push down to clamp the wire at a slight angle, and pull to strip off the insulation. The goal is to cut off the insulation, but not the wire. There are graduated slots within the wire stripper that vary according to the size of the wire you’re stripping, but it just takes some practice to get it right. Try wiggling the stripper while clamping down if it’s not budging (Michael Scott, eat your heart out).
Because the copper inside the wires tends to fray easily, threading the wire through this little channel in the tool to the other side of the wire stripper once I’d stripped a little bit was kind of annoying, but for the most part, it worked great. And I was much happier not to have to need (read: remember to carry with me) a separate tool for this. Additional tools eliminated: 2.
Step 6: Connect ground wire
Now that your light fixture is assembled, climb the ladder once more and get ready to install. For safety reasons, first connect the ground wire by wrapping the wire that’s coming out of the ceiling around the ground screw (usually green) that’s attached to the crossbar. Then connect the ends of the wire that’s coming out of the ceiling to the ground wire from the light fixture together with a wire nut.
Whoops! Sorry folks. I seem to have deleted this photo in the editing process. I’ll update this post with one when I do the new light fixture install over the weekend!
Step 7: Connect remaining wires
Just like with the ground wire, connect the neutral and hot wires using wire nuts (white to white, black to black). I usually twist the copper ends together first, then use the wire nut to twist them together even more.
Step 8: Screw canopy into crossbar
Again, my little Hammerhead came in useful in this step. It was far easier to maneuver a small, motorized screwdriver and line up the screws through the decorative canopy to the crossbar beneath with one hand while supporting the fixture with the other. Holder-of-the-things is very much a useful assistant, but if you don’t have one available, tools that do half the job for you are incredibly valuable!
Step 9: Turn the power back on
With everything now installed, screw in the light bulb and turn the circuit breaker back on. The light fixture should now light up, and you’re all set!
And that’s how you create a pleasant before and after… with far less snarling and glaring from yours truly:
For more about the light fixture created above, see this post.
Don’t want to DIY? Try out these light fixtures:
Great light hanging tutorial post Sarah. I have been afflicted with tool addiction for many years and am a firm believer in the right tool for the job = better job completion success. ;) It is quite challenging at times getting Willie G. to pose / or even sit still long enough for a photo w/o being in sports mode and may take a few liver-snap > awesome photo. I wear a small leather waist apron belt and carry in my shirt pocket a small lighted circuit tester that has a clip on it for your shirt pocket but do like the hammerhead because of it’s value-added features and will be gifting one to son and
will be gifting one and adding one to my arsenal.
In these 2 sentences –
Do this from the end that already has exposed wires (the end that goes into the “ceiling” …. and ….
I suppose if you suspended the “ceiling” from a tall staircase or something, it would make sense, but in most cases, you’ll need to shorten it.
I think you mean fixture here instead of “ceiling” ? I was laughing trying to figure out how you would suspend the ceiling from a tall staircase :)
Ha! You’re absolutely right! I seem to have at least one or two typos in any given post, so thanks for catching that one!
Hahaha! What is it about changing light fixtures that just brings out every curse word known to man? It always seems like such a simple switch (such an easy way to update a room and space, they say!) then something inevitably becomes daunting.
Here’s a tip for spackling trim. Feel free to steal my photos and/or idea for any future blog.
I find it helpful to add a few drops of water to thin the spackle so it sucks up into the syringe easier. These 100 ml syringes are available on eBay for $1.59 each. The spackle stay soft in the syringe for a long time if you cap it. I run a bead along a joint then tool with my finger and throw the excess back in the tub. I then tool it with a 6″ scale and finish it off with a damp cloth. Wayyyyyyy better than caulk. Cleaner too.
That’s definitely a new one for me; I’ll have to try it!
The cordless tool simply looks awesome :)
Great article. Very insightful. This has just widen my knowledge.