Recessed Kitchen Lighting Design & Installation

Our kitchen had the typical big center hanging light and a few recessed lights above the sink. I'd never really noticed, but the smarter one of us and my sister "the architect" mentioned a while ago, that we needed more lighting in the kitchen. After replacing the knob and tube in our 100 year old house, adding recessed kitchen lights seemed like a nice idea. After all, we had nothing aesthetic to show off from our knob and tube wiring investment.

Existing kitchen lighting (well I don't have a real before photo, but the new can lights are off, so this is what it was like). (Note: click photos to enlarge them)

Kitchen Lighting Design Research
I did some poking around the web and found that all lighting plans for kitchens should include the following "layers" of lighting. Layering the lighting creates appealing contrast of light, and creates a functional kitchen space.

Here are the generally recommended layers:
1. Task lighting: Used over sinks, stoves, and counter tops
2. General or ambient lighting: To brighten up the entire area
3. Display lighting: To light spaces like glass front cabinets
4. Decorative lighting: Wall sconces, and other lighting design elements

Our kitchen fell sort by every measure. Overall it was very dim, and had only one main light source which was a glaring, but attractive light fixture over our kitchen island/table (and 2 smaller recessed lights over the sink).

Our grand plan for later, is to add under counter lighting to achieve better task lighting, display lighting and decorative lighting are down on the list for now. We really wanted more ambient light to brighten up the kitchen. So we decided to install 4 recessed can lights.

Locating recessed lights in a kitchen

In order to locate the best placement of recessed lights, I first drew a quick sketch of our kitchen with all of it's dimensions.

I work with drawing programs at work, so It was quick for me to redraw my kitchen layout on the computer from my sketch. I included ceiling joists (tan stripes) that I had located with a stud finder to see where can could indeed go. They can't go where joist are. My to-scale drawing allowed me to play with placements that were fitting with the room walls and cabinets and existing hanging light. On the web, I found what appeares to be a general rule, that recessed lights should be positioned directly above the counter front edge. That seemed to close to the upper cabinets for me and thus I moved my lights more towards the center.

I transferred the measurements I had decided on, to the kitchen ceiling. I thought I'd mock up what 2 of the 4 lights might look like. I had 2 freestanding can lights that I taped to the ceiling to check the general plan. I specifically wanted to see if by moving the cans too far out from the counter edge, if I'd get shadows on the counters as we worked there. Seemed to be okay, so the plan was finalized.

Calling in the Experts
A quick phone call to my favorite electricians in Dover New Hampshire, (J & M Electrical) and the plan was set in motion. I was lucky enough to have the day off on installation day and they were kind enough to let me take a few pictures while they worked.

What follows is not intended as a step by step guide to install recessed lighting. Instead, it is an overview to show you generally what's involved. I'm fairly handy, and I briefly thought about giving this project a go myself, but after seeing the electricians work, and some of the challenges they faced, I knew I'd made the right decision by bringing in the experts.

If there's one thing you want to have done right, it's electrical work, both for your safety and for your house's. These guys know every trick of the trade, and unforeseen challenges that would have had me Googling for hours/days, they were able to come up with smart alternative solutions quickly and with confidence. Thanks guys, and J & M Electrical for yet another excellent job.

Here the guys are working from my "X-marks the spot" locations for the recessed lights, and marking around a template they cut, representing the hole needed to fit the recessed cans. My marks were mostly on target, but they really dialed them in for perfection. Also my well thought out plan (above) had one major error, my stud finder was finding strapping and not floor joists, which actually ran perpendicular to what I had thought. But, by dumb luck, the plan still worked and somehow I had missed the joist anyway, but not by much.

After feeling around with a wire from the center hole to determine if there was indeed enough clearance from joists, they traced the final hole locations and began cutting into the drywall.

As is typical of older homes, the drywall cutout revealed an older plaster ceiling above it.

Here they are cutting though the plaster ceiling and lath with a jab saw.

Next up is using fish tape to magically navigate 100 years of various remodeling projects, squirrel nests, lath, crumbling plaster and God only knows what else. You learn after watching these guys, that this is clearly an art form, that requires, a keen ear, hands of a surgeon, luck, prayer and many years of practice and patience.

Often two workers work together, fishing their tapes towards the others in hopes of snaring something and then gradually pulling, in hopes that the hooked ends will catch, forming a connection to then pull electrical wire with.

What really happens (from my observation) is that one guy is certain his tape is in the perfect location (perhaps he's in the basement) while the other guy is certain his tape is in the perfect location (perhaps he's upstairs). They can't see each other, so they yell things as politely as they can to one another, like "you need to go much further left!" What I believe they are actually both thinking is something much more like, "you are a complete moron! Where the hell is your tape, why can't you hook my perfectly positioned tape, I wish I could clone myself!" Ah, but it's good fun to be a bystander as temperatures rise.

After successful fishing, electrical wire is pulled and staged for final measuring and cutting.

After the wires are trimmed to size, the remodeling recessed can is wired up.

It's quite big, and the reason for this is a good one. The metal shield has a large diameter, which keeps the heat of the bulb from being too close to insulation that may be around a can in an existing home. I had originally requested 5" recessed cans, but it seems remodeling cans only come in the 6" size for the good reason mentioned above.

With a little convincing, the can fits snugly in it's hole, and then is held in place by clips and screws in the housing sides which clamp down on the ceiling from above.

After the can is in place, you have a choice of a variety of baffles/trims. The baffle is inserted into the can and is what you see inside the can from below. The trim is the ring part that is flush with the ceiling. I believe the baffle and trim are always one piece, as they were with ours. Baffle and trim options include various colors, shapes, sizes, textures, and finishes. Some, called eyeballs are adjustable/aimable. We opted for simple white baffles that had a "stepped" or ridge interior. My sister "the architect" suggest that these would reduce glare inside the can.

A final check for fit and finish, and this can is done.

While the work continues upstairs, this guy has been in the basement running new lines to power the cans and is also running new lines to the new 3-gang switch box in the kitchen wall from below (more fishing fun, with his partner upstairs!)

Fishing and pulling wires to the newly cut 3-gang box, which will replace the single 3-way existing switch.

New dimmer switches have been installed and the final screw is turned to complete the work. The front lights are controlled by the switch closest to the window, the middle switch controls the existing hanging light, while the left most switch controls the lights at the back of the kitchen.

Again here's the before, we'll what it was like before, ignore the new can lights that are off.

And here's the after. I have the recessed lights on full blast for contrast with the before shot, but the setting just lower than this is more appealing. Our next project will be to add under counter task lighting, which I plan on installing...

Here's the view looking up, which I think is quite a appealing in it's neat and formal design. Now if we just took all the junk off the fridge and minimize the counter clutter...

J & M Electrical, Dover, NH - Highly Recommended

My Standard Disclaimer: This is what I did. This does not mean this is the best way, the right way, to building code, or even safe for your needs. So you are on your own with your project. I make no promises about the information presented here. I'm just a do-it-yourselfer, not a professional at all, sharing my story. So if something goes wrong with your project, you are on your own. Good luck, and have fun!

All content and photos, copyright 2009, Dover Projects.
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  1. Well I poked a few more holes in the ceiling today to investigate some of the wall structure. Next BIG project... knocking down a load bearing wall between the kitchen and the mudroom... and remodeling some of the kitchen!

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