How to Install Recessed Can Lighting Fixtures

Brighten a dark hallway, accent a focal point, or light the kitchen with recessed can lighting. We'll show you how to install recessed lighting in a weekend or less.

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Recessed light fixtures are one of the most popular and versatile types of lighting today. They are available in a variety of styles and sizes, including recessed wall lights and LED recessed lighting. As the name implies, recessed lighting fits into a cavity cut into the ceiling of the room, with the face of the fixture flush with the ceiling and the bulb mounted inside. Recessed lighting can be used for general room lighting, to illuminate a path such as a hallway, as task lighting in the kitchen, or for directional lighting to accent a focal point in a room.

Recessed lighting consists of a housing (commonly called a can) mounted in the ceiling cavity. A number of different types of cans are available depending on whether they will be installed in new or existing construction. Adjustable metal arms on each side of the housing get nailed or screwed to the ceiling joists to hold the can in place. A box mounted on the side of the housing contains the connections for wiring the fixture. A flexible metal conduit carries the wires between the box and light socket.

The final component of a fixture is the recessed lighting trim cover (also known as a baffle), which clips to the housing and fits over the opening. It serves to hide the rough edge of the hole and provide a finished look. Baffles come in various finishes as well as specialty applications, such as accent spotlights or adjustable light covers that swivel in any direction.

Editor's Tip: It is possible to complete this DIY project if you feel comfortable doing light electrical work. However, we recommend hiring an electrician if you encounter any loose or exposed electrical wires. And as with all projects that involve electricity, turn off the power at the circuit breaker before beginning this project or touching any wires.

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Before You Begin: Map the Lights

With a standard flood bulb, a recessed light illuminates an area about as wide as the ceiling is high. Make a scale drawing of your room and map a grid of lights that are spaced fairly consistently.

If your ceiling is 8 feet high, a typical recessed light shines on a floor area with a diameter of 8 feet (a radius of 4 feet). To light the room, install a grid of lights spaced no more than 8 feet apart. Perimeter lights should be no more than 4 feet from the walls. Lights placed closer together—perhaps 6-7 feet apart and only 2-3 feet from the walls—more fully light the room.

If you have a 10-foot ceiling, lights can be 7-10 feet apart and as much as 5 feet from the wall.

Before You Begin: Check for Slope

Before you begin, make sure you know what type of lights to buy. If the ceiling slopes, buy special canisters you can adjust so the light can point straight down. If the vertical space above the ceiling is less than 8 inches, buy a low-clearance fixture. Some are small enough to fit into a space only 4 inches high. Compact low-voltage halogen can lights are expensive, but they present new style options and produce an intense light.

What You Need

  • Drill
  • Spade bit or fishing drill bit
  • Stud finder
  • Ladder
  • Drywall saw
  • Level
  • Hammer
  • Fish tape
  • Screwdriver
  • Strippers
  • Long-nose pliers
  • Lineman's pliers
  • Recessed canister lights
  • Cable
  • Switch box and clamps
  • Wire nuts
  • Electrician's tape

Step 1: Find the Joists

Plan the locations for the lights and draw lines marking the center of each. Use a stud finder or a bent wire to see whether a joist is in the way. You can move the light several inches to avoid a joist—the inconsistency isn't noticeable.

Editor's Tip: If the ceiling joists are not covered with drywall or plaster, install a new-work can light. Adjust the light to accommodate the thickness of the drywall to be put up later. Slide the mounting bars out and hammer each tab into a joist. Slide the light on the bars to position it precisely.

Step 2: Mark and Cut Hole

Center the hole in the cardboard template over your location mark. Holding the template in place, mark your cut line. Cut the hole with a drywall saw. Wear safety glasses because drywall dust stings terribly if it gets in the eyes. Cut precisely—the canister trim leaves little room for error.

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Step 3: Drill for Cable

Drill holes for the cable as far up the joist as possible so drywall nails cannot reach the cable.

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Step 4: Run Cable

Run cable up from the power source to the switch box, then run cable to each fixture hole. Allow at least 16 inches of cable to hang down from each hole.

Safety Tip: Always turn power off at the circuit breaker for the light you're working on before touching any wires. Flip the switch on and off to confirm the power is out.

Step 5: Strip and Slide Cable

Strip about 6 inches of sheathing from the cable. Remove the cover from the fixture junction box and twist off a knockout for each cable. Slide the cable in and clamp the cable.

Step 6: Connect Ground Wires

Connect the grounds. Splice white wires with white leads and black wires with black leads. Fold the wires into the junction box and replace the cover.

Step 7: Engage Clips

Many canisters have sockets that attach to the trim with two spring clips. Slip one clip into the notch provided and rock the socket so the clip engages.

Step 8: Add Trim

If the trim has two spring hooks, squeeze and guide their ends into the slots provided, then push up the trim until it snaps into place. Twist an eyeball trim to face in the desired direction.

Editor's Tip: There are several types of trim to choose from, so find the one that best meets your needs. Baffle trim (white or black) diffuses the light, while reflector trim increases the brightness of a bulb. With open trim, the flood bulb protrudes slightly downward. For above a tub or shower, choose a watertight lens. An eyeball (or fish-eye) trim rotates to point where you want it; a wallwasher highlights the texture of a brick or stone wall.

Bonus: How to Install Can Lights in a New House

In new construction or a remodeling project where the ceiling has been removed, the housings for the recessed lighting fixtures are attached to the joists from below and the wiring connections made before the ceiling is installed.

Once the housings are in place and the electrical connections have been made, the drywall ceiling is installed over the housings, and a rotary saw is used to cut out the openings. This is much faster method and has less chance of making mistakes than trying to mark and cut the holes in the drywall before the ceiling is installed. Once the drywall has been finished, and the ceiling painted, the baffle is installed to complete the unit.

Helpful Remodeling Tips

Bonus: How to Install a Canister with a Spring Hook

To mount trim that attaches with coil springs, hold the trim in place against the ceiling. Insert a pencil tip into the looped end of each spring and guide it up into the hole in the side of the canister.

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