How To Change Out Your Fluorescent Light Box

2-4 hours
Don't Box Yourself In!


Many of the kitchens built in the 1970s and '80s feature a drop-down fluorescent lighting system. These units, although bright, don't offer much in the way of décor. They often make a kitchen look small and sterile, and the fluorescent light itself does little to improve the look of your food. The good news is that there is an easy way to remove these units without an entire structural redo.

With a little cable lighting (which can be purchased inexpensively at places like IKEA), you can design your own lighting pattern that not only provides direct lighting for specific task areas within the kitchen but also has the effect of drawing the eyes upward, thereby enlarging the overall sense of space.

Project Steps

Safety Check! Before you begin, be sure the power to your kitchen light fixture is off. Don't just turn it off at the switch. As always, turn it off at the source-the circuit breaker or fuse box. Also, be sure to wear safety glasses during this project. Any time you work above your head, you run the risk of dust or other materials landing in your eyes. So take care, and be safe.

Step 1

Begin by removing the old plastic panels. You're probably never going to need them again, so you can discard them.

Step 2

Most lighting systems of this nature have a metal grid holding the panels in place. Take out this metal grid support and then remove the metal surround that borders the soffet as well. You can discard this as well.

Jane Tip: Many of these materials are recyclable. Check with your local refuse company.

Step 3

Remove the old fluorescent bulbs and put them aside or discard them. Then, use an electrical tester to check again to be sure that the POWER IS OFF.

Step 4

Remove the housing for the unit by unscrewing any screws holding the fixture in place. Be careful when removing the last two or three, as you don't want to misjudge the weight of the unit. Be sure you're on a sturdy ladder and can support the weight of the fixture prior to removing the fixture as a whole. Untwist the wiring to remove the unit completely. Observe how each wire is connected-like color with like color. At this point, all you should have remaining are the wires coming from the ceiling.

Step 5

Patch any noticeable holes with spackle and let dry. Once the spackle is dry, sand smooth all surfaces with a 220-grit sandpaper.

Note: You might find raw drywall here. It's common that this area may not have been completely finished by the original builder. To properly prep this area for paint, you may need to first apply a coat or two of drywall mud (sanding in between coats) to get a smooth finish. If the pre-existing surface has been textured, you're in for a trickier job; it may take several tries to get a good match.

Step 6

Determine what color you want your new ceiling recess to be. You can go dark for a dramatic effect or lighter for a more subtle look. A lot will depend on the overall size of your kitchen. Once you've chosen a color, prime the space and then paint two coats, with ample drying time in between. Remember, however, that this is a ceiling, so be sure to choose wisely when it comes to the sheen of your paint. A high-sheen paint (such as a semi-gloss) will reflect the light, giving your ceiling a heavy glare. But a totally flat paint can be tough to clean, so we typically opt for a satin finish.

Step 7

Shop! Go to your local home improvement or home décor store and select a cable lighting system that suits your taste. These are commonly found in home improvement centers such as Home Depot and Lowe's as well as a number of retailers such as IKEA and Lamps Plus. Save time by first shopping online to get an idea of what you're looking for.

Step 8

Remember high school geometry class when you were saying, "Why do I have to learn this? I'll never use it!" Well, you were wrong. Because now you determine the pattern you want for your cable lighting system. You could simply do two parallel strips and direct the lighting to your desired destinations, or you could do something a little more geometric, such as an X shape or a diamond shape. It's completely up to you.

Safety Check!: Be sure to read the lighting manufacturer's recommendations on maximum cable length for you lighting system. Also, be sure to check the maximum number of lights attached to a single transformer. There is a potential fire hazard if you exceed the recommended limits, so check carefully.

Step 9

Once you've determined the configuration, mark your cable contact points within the recess and begin stringing the cable using the wall hooks provided.

Step 10

Install the transformer of your unit according to the specifications of the package. Many old fluorescent units had wiring going directly into the fixture. Best practices these days dictate that you have an electrical enclosure to house the junction of your house wiring and the new fixture's wiring. A "pancake" or remodeling box will typically do the trick, depending on the level of support needed for your new fixture.

Once you've got the supporting box in place, with your house wiring fed through, you can simply match like colors with like. If necessary, use your wire strippers to expose a bit of the copper wire to assure a good connection. Then simply twist the ends together and cover them with a wire cap. Black wire to black (hot), white wire to white wire, and green or copper wire to green or copper (ground) wire. Wrap any exposed copper wiring with electrical tape.

Jane Tip: Although most of the cable lighting systems work the same way, always be sure to review the manufacturer's instructions for specific tips and precautions you'll want to be aware of when installing your unit.

Step 11

Once your transformer is firmly in place, attach it to the cables you strung in Step 9. Again, refer to the manufacturer's specifications for exact details based on the particular product you purchased.

Step 12

Determine where and what the individual lights will highlight and position them on the cables. Puncture the cable plastic sheathing by tightening the screws on the lighting fixtures themselves. Again, your particular product might have slight variations, so be sure to check the manufacturer's instructions. Position the lights to focus on specific areas of the kitchen.

Step 13

Turn the power on and test your lights. If they're working then jump for joy: you did it! If the lights don't go on, simply turn the power back off and troubleshoot by rechecking the wiring to the transformer.

Step 14

One great way to finish off your lighting recess is with decorative molding around the border. This will frame your new lighting accessory. Paint or stain the molding to your liking. If you stain, be sure to finish it off with a few coats of polyurethane to protect the wood.

That's all there is to it! Within a few hours you can give your kitchen a whole new look. You'll enjoy using it more often and you'll love the way it makes you feel when you do - because you did it! For more projects like these, check out our book, Be Jane's Guide to Home Empowerment - on sale now!