Prep the pull string and wiring
Before we go to back up to the attic, we have to properly prepare our pull string and bundle of cables. So, first prep the pull string by tying one end to the small chain. The chain primarily serves to weight the string, so it will easily drop into the wall. Without the chain, the line will curl up and not drop very far into the wall. Even if you use some other kind of pull string besides weed-eater line, like electrician’s jet line, it’s still a good idea to have the chain attached. It has other uses as well, as we shall see.
With the pull string / chain assembled we can ready our speaker wire, and any other wire that might be dropped at the equipment location – coaxial and telephone for satellite, wiring for second zones, etc.
If your situation allows, measure, spool off, and cut each cable the entire length it needs to be to reach from points A to B. Allow extra length for any obstacles in the attic you might have to go around. Don’t forget to allow for the length that will be inside the walls at both ends, and also include the amount of slack you want coming out of the wall at each location – especially at the equipment rack. After that, I typically add another few feet, for any “oops” factor. Until someone invents a wire stretcher, better too long than too short.
One of the tricks to a successful wire pull is proper preparation of the bundle of cables and securing them all to the pull string. If you don’t do this correctly you’re asking for trouble in some – if not most – situations. If the bundle hangs up on something while you’re pulling it through the attic, you’ll have to give the pull string a sharp tug to break it free. You don’t want the pull string to break loose and leave all the cables behind – voice of experience here. Or, find out later than some of the individual wires broke free and were left behind. Thus, properly secure the pull string to the bundle of wires is very important.
In addition, you want to make sure the wire bundle will pull easily through the attic. To that end, what you don’t
want is to line up all the cables to a big, blunt end like this:
Bundling the wires together in such a manner is asking for them to trip up on everything in sight. Instead, what you want to do is stagger
them, so that the bundle has a nice, smooth taper. This will help it easily glide over any possible obstructions.
We can further facilitate a tapered bundle by doing a little prep to each wire, since each has a blunt end. So, take your side cutters and cut the end of each wire at a hard angle, like this:
With speaker cable, separate the two conductors, cut one shorter, then angle-cut both leads, like so:
Please note, the picture is for illustration purposes only. This is not
the speaker cable you should be pulling through attics! What you should be using is CL-2 or –3 rated speaker wire (which I didn’t have on hand for these pictures – it’s all in my attic
). CL-rated wire will typically have a white outer jacket, with red and black insulated conductors inside.
With all the wire ends angle-cut, we can secure them to the pull string. Tie the other
end of the pull string (not the end where the chain is!) around one of the larger cables to be pulled – we’ll use an RG-6 coaxial for our illustration – and secure it with (red) tape, like so:
What does this do for us? Well, if our bundle does
hang on something, when we pull harder on the string the knot will tighten around the cable, gripping it harder. (For added security you might give the tail of the pull string a few more wraps of tape, but I generally have not found that to be necessary.) If we merely tape the pull string paralleled to the RG-6 without tying it off, there’s a good chance the tape alone will not be able to hold it if the going gets rough. Again – voice of experience here! You can try it yourself an see how easily the pull string will break lose if it’s not tied to the coaxial.
Also note, I recommend “flagging” the end of all tape wraps by folding the end over onto itself. This will make it easy to unwrap the tape once you’re finished.
With our pull string secure to the wire, we can add each cable to our bundle in a staggered formation, like so (note flagged tape ends!):
If you’re wondering why we’re only securing the pull string to a single cable, not the entire bundle, it’s because the knot won’t grip a lumpy, uneven bundle of wires as well as it will a single one. Plus if one cable gets separated from the bundle, the knot is compromised. So, basically, the pull string pulls the single cable; the other wires in the bundle are merely “along for the ride,” as it were.
After all cables are staggered and secured to the RG-6, spiral-wrap electrical tape down towards the end of the bundle, and over the pull string:
So now we have a nice, tapered bundle that should easily glide over cross braces and other obstructions.
Once you’re in the attic and dropping the wire bundle down into the wall, it will be difficult to know when you’ve let enough in. We can make a special provision now that will help us later.
First, decide how much wire you want to come out of the wall. Again, it doesn’t hurt to be generous here, making sure you will have enough slack for in-rack routing, and maybe some extra in case you want to re-arrange things at some point in the future. Then add to that figure the distance that will be inside the wall. At that total figure, wrap a loop of tape around the wire bundle to serve as a marker. So if you need ten feet between the wall and the equipment, and you have eight-foot ceilings, you’ll want to mark the bundle at 18 ft. (You will only need this marker at the equipment location, which is where you’ll be dropping in first. At the speaker locations, you will drop in whatever slack is left.)
Here’s another helpful tip: If you’re dealing with several wires, and your bundle is more than about 15-20 ft. long, you will have a problem. All those wires are going to end up getting tangled up into a big rat’s nest. They will end up having all kinds of loops (from being wrapped up on a spool) and knots, especially towards the tail end, that can easily hang up once you’re in the attic.
The way to avoid this problem is to wrap a loop of tape around the bundle at ~10 foot intervals, from one end to the other. This will keep your bundle organized and under control. If you have a complicated wire pull with wiring going different locations in the attic (as it typically the case) you can “split off” groups of wires into separately taped “sub-bundles.”
If you do this (and you should),
you will need some means to differentiate the “this is all we need” marker – a different color of tape, or perhaps two wraps instead of a single one.
I know all this measuring to length, staggered taping, and bundling takes some time to set up, but trust me, it’ll make things a breeze once you get in the attic. Who wants to spend any more time up there than they have to?
Let’s pull some wire!
Okay, on to the attic with the work light, pre-cut and prepped wire bundle, drill outfitted with the auger bit, and of course your extension cord and three-way tap. I like to take a couple of scrap 1” x12” boards to lie across the joists, so I have something to kneel on. Trust me, attic work is a lot easier not having to straddle those skinny joists on your knees.
We used a flashlight before for our “find the coat hanger” expedition, and you can certainly use one for this part, too. But when the real work begins but I prefer a work light that I can clamp to a rafter overhead. This gives a well-lit work area, and you don’t have to worry about juggling a flashlight while drilling your holes, which really takes two hands. You have to drag an extension cord and electric drill up there anyway - might as well bring along a three-way tap and good light, too.
Start first with the equipment location. When you find your coat hanger, pull back the insulation and look for the horizontal 2” x 4” top plate next to it. As we mentioned earlier, drilling through the top plate will put you inside the wall. Drill your 3/4” hole into the center of the top plate, directly perpendicular to your coat hanger wire (see “x marks the spot” picture above). In some cases you’ll be drilling through a double-stacked 2” x 4” top plate, so you’ll be glad you’re using an auger bit instead of a paddle bit.
Afterwards you should see daylight through the hole; that’s from the hole in the wall you cut downstairs. If so, all is well! (If you had to move your hole over from where you had originally planned to drill to avoid an obstruction, or if you had to drill through the top plate at an angle, you may not be able to see light.)
Okay, you’re ready to drop in the wire. It helps to have someone down in the room to pull it out of the wall, especially at the equipment location where the bundle is large.
Drop the pull string down the hole and get your helper to pull it out of the wall. Then you can feed the wires in until you come to your “this is all we need” marker. With the marker just at the entrance of the hole in the top plate, you now have enough wire in place. (NOTE: Depending on how much wiring your system requires, it might not all fit down the 3/4” hole. If that’s the case drill another hole or two in the top plate and split your bundle between them.)
If you don’t have a helper, you can go back downstairs and pull the wire in yourself, once you have the tapered end fed into the hole. But if you’re doing it this way, you should relocate your “this is all we need” marker so that it is “enough” when it appears at the hole in the wall. A simple re-adjustment.
Once the equipment rack bundle is pulled in, on to the rear speaker locations, drill and drop.
Back downstairs, route the wiring through the old work boxes and install them into the wall with the Phillips screw driver, as discussed previously. You can dress out the speaker locations simply by using a blank cover with a hole drilled in the center to run the wires through. Some people like to use covers with banana connectors, but I prefer to take the wire directly out of the wall, for an uninterrupted path between the speaker and receiver.
The reason I‘m not big on banana plug wall plates is that each one adds four additional termination points per location
, all potential places for a problem.
For instance, most banana plugs and binding posts use set screws or a similar clamping method. The problem is that over time, the stranded speaker wire crushes down and the connection is no longer tight. Anyone who’s ever cranked down their banana plugs as tight as they could, only to find a year or two later they can get another full turn out of the screw knows what I’m talking about! Using an uninterrupted wire from receiver to speaker is simpler, cheaper and more reliable. Win, win, win. You can always push excess slack back into the wall. (Of course, using wall-mounted binding posts does allow you to transition from in-wall CL-2 or -3 to “pretty” speaker wire, if the wire ends up being visible – I’ll admit that CL stuff is pretty ugly.)
At the equipment location, I typically don’t opt for a cover at all, since it’s hidden behind the rack anyway. However, a bulk-wire wall plate is cheap enough, so there’s no good reason not to use one.
The tiny holes in the ceiling where the coat hangers poked through are nothing to worry about - too small to see without really looking for it. But if you’re really detailed, you might want to dab a little spackling in it. Clean off the excess with a wet rag.
Bringing wire straight out of the wall to the speakers
If you want to drop the wiring at the speaker locations straight out of the wall through a small hole, using no old work boxes, that can be a challenge. It’s pretty tough to work through a tiny hole in the wall. But if you know a few tricks of the trade, it’s actually pretty easy.
First, your hole in the top plate needs to be dead-on directly above the hole in the wall where you want the speaker wire (if you drilled into it directly perpendicular to the coat hanger wire, then it already is). All you need to do then is measure the distance between the hole in the wall and the ceiling, and in the attic, drop the pull string so that the end of the weighting chain is an inch or two below the hole in the wall.
Back in the room, stick your telescoping antenna magnet into the hole in the wall. It will snag the chain, and you can pull it out of the hole.
If you thought you wouldn’t need this little gizmo, or the chain tied to the pull string didn’t need to be ferrous – now you know better!
Special considerations for crawl spaces
If you’re dealing with crawl spaces or under-house wiring, the procedure for getting wiring inside the wall will be a bit different, since the wiring will be coming in from the bottom plate, not the top plate.
First, as discussed above, you will locate the studs with the stud finder, to make sure your desired location is between them. Then cut a hole in the wall for an old-work box. Once the hole is cut, we will need to drill through the bottom plate. Since we obviously can’t stick a drill motor into a hole the size of an electrical outlet box, it will be necessary to use a long 18” drill bit; something in the 1/4-3/8" range will work fine.
Once you drill through the bottom plate, drop something through the hole to help you locate it once you enter the crawl space, like the chain end of your pull string. Once you locate the hole, you may want to enlarge it with the 3/4" auger bit, especially if you’re routing a lot of wiring through it. Be sure and use safety glasses!
Depending on your flooring, for crawl spaces or under-house wiring there might not be an option for “check for obstructions below before cutting holes in the wall.” If you have a carpeted floor, you can pull the rug back and drill a small test-hole in the floor and stick the end of a coat hanger through it, as outlined above for attics. Obviously if you have some other kind of flooring, like hardwood or tile, this is out of the question. However, you may be able to figure out if your location is obstruction-free by careful measurement.
Wiring for wall-mounted speaker locations without cutting an old-work-box access hole will be fairly difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish with under-house or crawl spaces. The only thing that comes to mind would be to use a wiring tone generator and probe.
The tone generator would connect to a piece of speaker wire dropped inside the wall from the desired mounting location. It would need to be long enough to get all the way to the bottom of the wall, and it would be located in the crawl space with the probe. Once a hole was drilled into the bottom plate, you would drop the pull string and chain from the speaker location and fish it through the hole in the bottom plate with the telescoping magnet.
However, seeing as tone generator/probe kits cost upwards of $100, I expect that most “weekend warriors” will simply opt to cut an old-work-box access hole down at electrical outlet height and cover it with a blank. With the access hole in place you would drill through the base plate as described above.
Just for grins, here’s an bird's eye view of the equipment-location drop in our attic. It’s a cathedral ceiling family room with a staircase behind this wall, with the cables all dropping down to a converted wet bar beneath the stairs. What you’re looking at here is an unusual situation, a 2” x 8” beam sitting right on the top plate.
So I had to drill into it at an angle to hit the top plate underneath. Just goes to show, you never know what you’re going to encounter in an installation. Notice that it took three holes to get all my cabling in. Lots of coax – two satellite feeds, high-speed internet, TV and FM antennas, not to mention telephone and a line feed for audio from my computer. Note the correct CL-2 (white) speaker wires for the back surround channels, as well as the “enough” tape markers.
Now that you know how to retro in-wall wiring, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to put in all kinds of other wiring around the house – extra phone jacks and cable TV drops in the kid’s bedrooms, second-zone audio and video feeds to other rooms, etc. Maybe even dedicated electrical circuits.
Hmm, good idea - maybe I’ll do an article on that someday. Please address any questions or discussion to this thread. Experienced installers are encouraged to add their tips!