clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Ceilings Anthony Tieuli

Ceilings have the potential to make or break a room, and it’s smart to include ceiling design features in any remodel or new build. The vast space above your head provides an opportunity to shape the contours of the room or make them fade into the background. Sound-deadening materials, flush-mounted light fixtures, circulating fans, reflective lighting, wood paneling, coving, tiles (tin or acoustic), exposed beams, vaulted architectural details, and dead-flat paint are all possible ceiling treatments depending on the layout and structure of your home. Here are a few ideas to consider.

Removing an Old Ceiling… Or Not

Taking down an old ceiling is a messy, difficult job that shouldn’t be considered lightly. If you do go ahead with the demolition, you’ll enjoy some significant benefits. You might be removing an old plaster ceiling that has perpetual problems with sagging and cracking. With the ceiling removed, you’ll have access to open joist bays that enable you to completely redo the electrical runs to the switches on the wall. This also enables the installation of new can lights and ceiling fans, exactly where you want them.

If an original plaster ceiling is desirable to keep from a restoration or historical point of view, there are steps to take to repair the unsightly sagging and cracking that occurs with age. For the moderate DIYer, this can be the least expensive, non-disruptive option.

One interesting alternative to installing a new sheetrock ceiling is to cover the old ceiling with decorative tiles. Although many of these tiles resemble the pressed tin ceilings of old, today they’re made from lightweight plastic, and are simply glued in place.

Options for a New Drywall Ceiling

If you’re opting for a new drywall ceiling, you’ll need to decide what level of finish you’re aiming for. Taking a wall or ceiling to the smoothest level possible is normally accomplished by skilled contractors. Level 5, the best quality finish that is achievable using drywall, requires a final skim coat of joint compound on the entire surface in addition to multiple steps of patching, sanding and taping, which is generally out of the budget for most home renovations.

A Level 3 is the common preparation for textured or popcorn ceilings, while Level 4 is the widest adopted finish for American homes, resulting in clean lines with minimal variance in flatness on the seams.

Popcorn ceilings are a very common texturing element that the modern DIYer wants to remove. They often reflect a dated look to the home, are covered in dust and were a popular method of finishing ceilings in the 1990s. The method of creating the “popcorn” texture also makes it a relatively straightforward job to remove if it hasn’t been painted. The material is sprayed on joint compound and, if it hasn’t been painted since it was applied, means that it can be dissolved with water, scraped with a broad putty knife, then finished to a Level 4 or 5 and coated with a complimentary color of paint. If the popcorn has been painted, you’ll need specialized sanding tools to remove the texture.

It’s important to realize that if you just want to paint the popcorn, you’ll need to use a sprayer to properly prime and paint the ceiling because a paint roller filled with wet liquid will dissolve the underlying joint compound and make a mess of the project. And once it’s been painted, you’re committed to the underlying texture in the long run.

Give High Ceilings the Drop

So-called “drop” ceilings are a system of lightweight metal rails suspended by wire from a higher ceiling, which are then fitted with tiles of some sort. Popular in commercial office spaces to easily hide mechanical things like ductwork and wiring runs, the network of uniformly sized grid squares found in a drop ceiling enables architects or home improvement gurus to install sound deadening acoustic tiles, pre-fabricated light fixtures, air conditioning vents, and much more in a way that hide the messy mechanical connections and components needed to power a space. While not common in residential homes, if you have higher-than-normal ceilings for a remodel project, it’s worth considering the installation of drops to alter the space and save on the expense of fishing wires and ducting through floors and walls.

Achieve Simple Elegance with a Tray Ceiling

Another option for a room with a high ceiling is to install a tray ceiling. These ceilings are easy to spot: Instead of having the room’s walls meet the ceiling at a right angle, there’s a broad, 45°chamfer (also faced with drywall) that creates a subtler transition between surfaces. A skilled drywall contractor can create this detail in new construction or as a retrofit. Or he might need to call in a carpenter who will install framing to support a narrow band of angled drywall.

Beadboard for Porch Ceilings

Beadboard is a classic element of Craftsman and Victorian style, instantly recognized by its parallel presentation of curved edges and shadow lines. In addition to being a popular treatment for porch ceilings, beadboard is often used for wainscots in different rooms. Beadboard is available in 4x8 sheets, with different spacings between beads.

Alternately, you can buy tongue-and-groove boards that include a beaded edge detail. The boards are available as solid lumber (typically pine or fir), and in synthetic lumber form. A beadboard porch ceiling is best installed during new construction, when the beadboard can go down directly over porch rafters. To retrofit a beadboard ceiling, you have two choices: 1) Install beadboard against the bottom edges of rafters, hiding the rafters from view; 2) Cut beadboard to fit between rafters, and cover the seam between rafter and beadboard with quarter-round molding.

Beams Can Be Beautiful

Exposed beams are a classic element of traditional antique construction, dramatically impacting the ambiance of a room. This ceiling treatment is worth considering if you have sufficient ceiling height to accommodate the added depth of ceiling beams, and if you’re aiming for an antique theme. Faux beams need to look structural, even though they’re not. Most Ready-made faux beams have a U-shaped profile; they can be made from wood or plastic, with different surface treatments (rough-hewn, weathered, etc.) available. A skilled trim carpenter can also fabricate a faux beam treatment on site, using ¾”-thick solid lumber. With either option, it’s important to do a careful installation that eliminate telltale gaps (between beam and drywall, for example) that indicate fakery.

Pull Out All the Stops for a Coffered Ceiling

While exposed ceiling beams evoke rustic construction, a coffered ceiling makes a dramatic statement about craftsmanship and quality. This ultimate exercise in finish carpentry can have many variations, but there are some common elements. There will be a symmetrical grid of beams dividing the ceiling into square or rectangular sections. And these sections will often be detailed with mitered molding. The ceiling treatment can be painted, but it’s often stained and/or varnished. A coffered ceiling is a tour de force –a great challenge to create, and an impressive detail that should be reserved for the most special of rooms.

At the end of the day, repairs or modifications to ceilings are some of the most challenging and potentially expensive tasks that a homeowner can add to a remodel project. Choices and decisions that will have long-term ramifications for the vibe and feel of the space abound.

Careful consideration and mockups with a designer are always smart moves before pulling out the hammer and prybar and creating a difficult project to finish, and despite the cost and hassle, giving your ceilings the attention they deserve can dramatically alter your home and give it the “wow” factor of a slick remodel.