What Have You Done for your Ceilings Lately?

Look up. What do you see? Chances are you are reading this magazine in a building of some sort — your home, your office, in the bedroom, in the bathroom. What does the ceiling look like? Is it flat, white and boring? Or is it bold and vibrant with moldings and color, maybe heavy beams and texture? How about the remodeling projects you are designing and building for your clients? Have you ...

February 28, 2005



Inexpensive Ceiling Tips

Ceiling Materials and Suppliers

Look up. What do you see? Chances are you are reading this magazine in a building of some sort — your home, your office, in the bedroom, in the bathroom. What does the ceiling look like? Is it flat, white and boring? Or is it bold and vibrant with moldings and color, maybe heavy beams and texture?

How about the remodeling projects you are designing and building for your clients? Have you considered the ceilings in that wonderful, new multi-room addition that you plan to enter into next year's Best of the Best design competition?




In keeping with the traditional Craftsman style of this home, a unique combination of beam dimensions was used to create an unusual coffered ceiling.


An existing bedroom was redefined as the new front entry in this home, enhanced with beams, posts and corner braces that frame the ceiling in dramatic fashion.


Tin ceilings are a great fit for Victorians and older homes. They can be achieved with either authentic or reproduction panels.


This very elaborately produced ceiling design combines a dropped soffit with recessed lighting, hidden cove lighting and a painted ceiling mural of the sky with over 400 fiber optic “pin” lights in three different sizes.

Sometimes called the "fifth wall," the ceiling of a building or a home or a simple room is as important if not more so than the walls supporting it.

"The first thing I consider when designing a remodeling project is the ceiling," says Greg Conforti of Conforti and Associates, an architectural firm in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Ceilings can set the tone for the whole job. If a room is too large or too small to begin with, we can adjust the height of the ceiling, which affects the entire scale."

Ceilings — and the way they are constructed and treated — can bestow upon their inhabitants feelings of security, warmth, calmness and serenity. They also can deliberately be designed to impart a sense of coldness and authority or — in the case of some judicial, administrative and bank buildings — a feeling of intimidation.

At the very least, left alone and unconsidered, ceilings can become a detriment and detraction to an otherwise well-designed structure. For our purposes, let's discuss several different types of ceiling treatments that we might use in various remodeling projects, especially in newer homes without much interior detail.


Relocating from the Atlanta area to Colorado Springs many years ago was a shock to my sense of well being as an interior trim carpenter. I went from multi-layered stacks of built-up crown moldings with dentil blocking and egg-and-dart friezes to virtually nothing. Except in remodels of turn-of-the-century homes, we're talking no crown, no ceiling trim, just acres of unadorned drywall.

Moldings for the ceiling don't have to be expensive or elaborate. Even a simple 3-inch crown painted a contrasting color to the walls can add a great deal of interest. Add a clover molding to the ceiling 8 to 10 inches out from the crown, paint the clover molding, the crown and the ceiling area between the two moldings the same trim color, and you have the illusion of something more elaborate than it really is.

Ceiling medallions made of either plaster or polyurethane are a very inexpensive way to decorate a tired old ceiling, especially in a dining room, a library or even a master bedroom. Glue it up, paint it an attractive color, hang a light or a ceiling fan from the center, and you have a whole new exciting room.

Check out the medallions, appliqués and other great materials from Outwater Plastics Industries or Architectural Products by Outwater. Another source for moldings that your local lumber store probably doesn't carry is White River Hardwoods/Woodworks Inc.


Beams are another simple way to set your ceiling apart from the mundane. "Beams can break up the scale of the room to either emphasize or de-emphasize other aspects of the existing architecture," says Conforti.

Recycled, reclaimed and antique lumbers are great for that rustic old-world look. You can really make a statement by combining the beams with custom designed corbels or braces to support the beams where they meet the wall. Beams such as these can be load bearing and incorporated into the structure of the house, or they can be installed over the drywall for a purely aesthetic application.

Salvage and antique suppliers with international distribution, such as Vintage Beams and Timbers Inc. of North Carolina and Cox's Architectural Salvage in England, can supply you with everything from solid, ancient beams of oak and elm to Old English brackets with carved ends.

If a solid beam is too heavy for the intended location or there are other complications, there are several lightweight options. We have a small local shop, Staggs Custom Woods, that builds gorgeous two-, three- and four-sided box beams of every desired species. The edges are joined with a lock miter joint that virtually eliminates all seams, resulting in a hollow beam that appears solid. They can also "texture" the beams by hand, giving the appearance of an old, rustic piece of lumber.

Another option is a polyurethane product like those from Faux Beams by Barron Designs Inc. Light-weight and fire-retardant, these beams can easily be installed over existing smaller wood beams, plumbing pipes and electrical wires or conduits.

You say coffer, I say tray

I have heard the terms "coffered ceiling" and "tray ceiling" used interchangeably my whole career. Definition and usage depends on region. Let's define terms for this article.

According to the Hardwood Manufacturers' Association Web site, "coffer" comes from "the Old French word cofre for 'box' or 'chest.'" Simply put, one or more beams installed perpendicular to one or more other beams makes a simple grid of boxes. Trim each box with an appropriate size crown molding and you've got an outstanding ceiling treatment.

By this definition, an existing ceiling can easily be transformed into a coffered ceiling when remodeling, especially in an older home with ceilings higher than 8 feet. Traditionally, coffered ceilings in homes have been found in libraries, studies and living rooms. In recent years though, we are seeing more kitchens, master bedrooms and even master baths fitted with grids of understated beams.

Coffered ceilings don't always have to be heavy, dark-stained hardwoods. Next time you design a country kitchen, consider using a grid of 4×6-inch or 6×6-inch beams with bead board panels on the ceiling. Paint the beams and panels a soft, creamy trim color for a bright, homey feel.

"Tray" — or even "trey"— ceilings, on the other hand, typically are recessed, and you really have to plan the design correctly for this type of treatment. "It follows the roofline at the wall intersection, then angles from the wall in one to several steps," according to the Hardwood Manufacturers Association.

One or more vertical steps, sometimes combined with an angled rise, can provide a very dramatic effect. Add decorative moldings at the base of each step, and for a romantic feel, you can also install recessed or rope lighting behind a piece of crown molding.

Tin ceilings

Some remodelers restore Victorians and other older style homes where tin panels are an appropriate choice for a ceiling treatment. Kitchens and dining rooms are great areas to use a tin-type ceiling, either over the entire ceiling or set into a raised center area. You can find many styles of authentic tin panels at places like Brian Greer's Tin Ceilings and Chelsea Decorative Metal Company.

An innovative alternative comes from the Armstrong Company in the form of Tin Look decorative ceiling tiles in six patterns. The tiles install directly to the existing ceiling surface without the need for suspended grids or furring strips. Made from mineral fiberboard with a vinyl coating, the Tin Look ceiling tiles are washable, fire retardant and mildew, humidity and impact resistant.

Armstrong also makes tongue-and-groove wood-type panels in pre-finished paint and wood stains. Like the Tin Look tiles, the panels have hidden seams and are easily installed without a grid.


One last suggestion, albeit an expensive one: With the advent of fiber-optic lighting, you can now bring the night sky into your home.

Over a year ago, our company added almost 2,000 square feet to a beautiful, contemporary home. The project included a 20×30-foot great room, and the homeowner commissioned a local artist to paint a ceiling mural of the sky. We placed more than 400 fiber-optic "pin" lights in three different sizes throughout the ceiling. A wall-mounted control panel runs the whole production, including the recessed cove lighting.

The pin lights can blink and twinkle at various intensities and speeds, providing the owners with a dramatic backdrop for their elaborate dinner parties.


Inexpensive Ceiling Tips

  • For rooms with low ceilings, you can use a couple of tricks. Paint the ceiling a cold tone like a light blue or a light green (celadon is a good color for this). Or simply paint the ceiling and walls the same color. The continuity of color tricks the eye into perceiving that the walls are taller than they really are because there is no beginning or end.

    If the ceiling seems inappropriately tall for the room size, paint the ceiling a warm tone of yellow or red to pull it down.
  • Though wallpaper has been less favored than faux painting for the last 10 years or so, it has never really gone away. Check out the ceilings of some of the newer hotels in Las Vegas, such as The Venetian and The Aladdin. You can set a subliminal atmosphere with a subtle background paper — soft color, maybe a light texture, something that isn't noticed as much as perceived.

    A variation on standard wallpaper is an English wall covering called anaglyptic. Much thicker than most wallpaper, it is a heavy embossed paper that applies to ceilings using a heavy-duty paste. Once it dries, the paper can be painted with latex/emulsion paint.
  • Have you seen walls upholstered with fabric and batting for a puffy look? Ceilings can be done the same way. The fabric can either be pulled tight over a batting of cotton or foam or left loose for a billowing effect.

Billowing can also be accomplished by partially covering the ceiling with a width of fabric that is hemmed on the edges and laid over a series of rods suspended from the ceiling. Be aware that the fabric is apt to move a bit with a passing breeze — not a bad thing, though, for a kinetic impact.

One more variation on the fabric theme is the use of a rug of some kind, like an oriental or Native American rug. Drape it over two or three suspended, decorative rods and you have made a very powerful statement that will definitely be noticed.

These suggestions might fall more readily into the category of interior decorating, but it doesn't hurt a remodeler to be the source of creative ideas.

Ceiling Materials and Suppliers

Armstrong Company; retailers, lumberyards and dealers; 

Architectural Products by Outwater; Wood Ridge, N.J., Phoenix; www.archpro.com

Brian Greer's Tin Ceilings; Petersburg, Canada; www.tinceiling.com

Chelsea Decorative Metal Company; Houston; www.thetinman.com

Cox's Architectural Salvage; Moreton in Marsh, England; www.coxsarchitectural.co.uk

Faux Beams by Barron Designs; Deer Park, N.Y.; www.fauxwoodbeams.com

Hardwood Manufacturers Association, www.hardwood.org

Outwater Plastics Industries; Wood Ridge, N.J., Phoenix; www.outwater.com

White River Hardwoods/Woodworks; Fayetteville, Ark.; www.mouldings.com

Vintage Beams and Timbers; Sylva, N.C.; www.vintagebeamsandtimbers.com

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