Printer Friendly

Wood beam ceiling: extraordinary, yet made from common materials; time-consuming, but simple to build.

Go ahead! walk the Jensons through your new kitchen, past your renovated bathroom and across your expanded deck - still, the thing they'll rave about most on their drive back to Denver will be that incredible wood ceiling in the family room. Rich, warm, ornate; it took a true craftsman to build that!

Well, they're at least partly right; this ceiling is memorable. But it didn't take a master woodworker to build it. You created the ceiling from ordinary oak boards, moldings and plywood. You didn't have to cut and fit a jillion 45-degree angles - the boards and moldings have square-cut ends. And while you had to work carefully, it really took more patience than woodworking skill.

Here's how the Jensons can build their own masterpiece ceiling.


We built our ceiling from oak; you could use birch (for a lighter, more contemporary look) or pine (painted to create a formal or country feel). This ceiling looks best in a family room, study, or other "stately" room. It will dominate the space, so consider including bookshelves, wain-scoting and wall paneling so the room doesn't seem top-heavy. You can alter this "beam and recessed panel" concept to create other ceiling designs by using different moldings, by building deeper or wider beams or by crafting different corner blocks. You can even eliminate the plywood panels and let the ceiling show between the beams.

Play and plan as you like, but we suggest you build a small 4 x 4-ft. mock-up to get a feel for how your finished ceiling will look and fit together.


Building this ceiling combines the furniture maker's fastidiousness with the persistence of the pyramid builder (well, not quite). There aren't a lot of tricky angle cuts, but all the joints must fit snug and tight Gaps or rough-cut ends look especially out of place on a refined project like this.

And while there are hundreds of individual pieces, you can avoid a lot of repetitious measuring and cutting by using a bump jig with a miter saw (Photo 4) for speedy, accurate mass production.

Two seasoned DIYers, with all the tools and materials on hand, completed the carpentry portion of this ceiling in two days. Staining and finishing added two more days. But keep in mind, it's a major project - one that will put the room out of commission for the duration of the project - so be realistic in your planning.

Our cost for the boards, moldings, plywood and fasteners used in this 13 x 13-ft room came to $1,330, or about $8 per square foot of ceiling covered. A painted version, using pine or birch materials, might cost 10 percent less, but bear in mind, any high-quality, knot- and defect-free wood is quite expensive these days.


The 1x4 and 1x3 oak boards, cove moldings and 2x4 pine boards (Fig. A) are all standard items at most large home centers. Make certain the oak 1x4s measure 3/4 x 3-1/2 in. and the 1x3s measure 3/4 x 2-1/2 in. Also check to make sure your pine 2x4s are 3-1/2 in. wide and straight. ff you can't find these exact materials, you'll need to have them special-ordered or cut to width at a full-service lumberyard.

We special-ordered "plain sawn," rather than ordinary "rotary cut" plywood, so the panels would look prettier - more like real boards. We cut the comer blocks (Photo 9) from 1-1/2 x 1-1/2 in. stair railing balusters.

A power miter box with a sharp blade is an absolute must Keep your fingers well away from the blade and don't let your attention wander while mass-producing parts. Otherwise, basic hand tools, along with a drill and portable circular saw, are all you'll need.



Chances are slim that your room is such a size that you'll use only full panels to cover the entire ceiling. You'll discover that - somewhere, somehow - you'll need to find a place for smaller, partial panels. Position these panels equally at the perimeter of the room - not just on one side - and let the full panels flow across the main part of the ceiling.

Sketch the room dimensions on graph paper, then play around with different layouts. Try positioning a panel, then a beam, at the center of each wall, then mark out the grid from there. Select the pattern that gives you the largest size perimeter panels.

Finally, mark out the gridwork on the ceiling for the 2x4 skeleton framework (Photo 1). Find the center points of two opposite walls, measure outward in both directions and mark the locations of the 2x4 beams. Connect these marks with chalk lines (Photo 2). The marks must be 29-1/2 in. from the center of each 2x4 to the center of the next 2x4 (or 26 in. between 2x4s).

Mark the center points of the other two walls, stretch a string between them and place a carpenter's square at the intersection of the string and one of the existing chalk lines. If the room isn't square (a common situation), adjust the string until it's square with the chalk lines, then use this as your new center line to mark off 2x4 beam locations. This way, your panels and cuts can be perfectly square (rather than a frustrating one or two degrees off). Snap pairs of intersecting chalk lines to finish the gridwork.



If you're going to add, remove or rearrange ceiling lights, now is the time to do it. (See "Recessed Lights," Nov./Dec. '91, p. 49, for good, basic information on adding or moving lights.)

We recommend you stain and finish your wood before putting it up for two reasons. First, ifs messy and strenuous to stain overhead once the ceiling is

up. Second, with all the nooks and crannies, it's tough to get a uniform color once the celing is assembled.

We used a cherry stain, covered by a clear water-based finish. Stain and finish some test pieces before tackling your entire pile of oak, so you're certain you get the color and sheen you desire.


Probe with a 16d nail to determine the location and direction of the ceiling's structural framework; the floor joists or ceiling cross-ties above normally run perpendicular to an exterior wall, and are positioned every 16 or 24 in. Install full-length 2x4s perpendicular to this underlying framework (Photo 3). Use 4-in. drywall screws (or longer if your ceiling is plaster) to firmly snug the 2x4s to the ceiling framework along the chalk lines. This ceiling is heavy - don't skimp on screws!

Next install the shorter 2x4s in between to complete the gridwork. Except for those near the perimeter, these should be 26 in. long. (Use a bump jig as we show in Photo 4 to quickly mass-produce these.) Use 2-in. drywall screws, driven in at an angle, to secure them to the long 2x4s, taking care to keep them exactly on the chalk lines and their bottom surfaces exactly even with (or slightly higher than) the long 2x4s. Your meticulousness will pay off later.


Use 2-in. finish nails, staggered every 8 in., to secure the long 1x4 oak boards (Photo 5) perpendicular to the long pine 2x4s. This crisscrossing locks the framework together and helps create a gridwork of beams with a smooth, flat bottom surface. Next cut and secure the shorter oak 1x4s between the long ones. The short ones that surround full-sized panels should be very close to 26 in. long; those on the perimeter will need to be individually measured and cut. Keep the edges of the 1x4 oak boards aligned directly beneath those of the 2x4 framework above and keep the intersecting joints tightly butted.

Next install the 1x3 oak side pieces. Use a 1/4-in. thick spacer (Photo 6) as a guide to create a consistent overhang or "reveal" where the 1x3s extend below the 1x4 oak beam bottoms. Don't worry about any unevenness up near the ceiling; the cove molding will cover that. Cut the 1x3s long enough so they fit snugly when lightly tapped in place. Secure these with 2-in. finish nails staggered along the 2x4 framework (as shown in Fig. A). Don't try to nail into the sides of the 1x4 oak beam bottom - it's difficult to drive nails through two layers of oak, even if you predrill or use a power nailer.



Cut eight 2 x 2-ft. panels from each 4x8 sheet of oak plywood, using a straight-edge and circular saw (Photo 7). Cut the full sheet in half lengthwise first, then into smaller squares.

Apply an "X" of construction adhesive to the back of the panel (Photo 8) and temporarily hold it in place with finish nails wedged between the top of the oak beam and the drywall or plaster ceiling. The panels are slightly undersized. Install the four corner blocks (explained next) to hold each panel firmly in place before installing the next panel in the next grid.


The corner blocks are both decorative and functional. They contribute to the ornateness of the ceiling, cover small gaps where 1x3s meet, and eliminate the need for 45-degree cuts on the cove molding that runs between the beams.

To make the blocks, cut a 22-1/2 degree angle on one end of a 1-1/2 x 1-1/2 in. square baluster (Photo 9), then rotate the top of the baluster 90 degrees toward you and cut the second 22-1/2 degree angle to create a point (Photo 10). Adjust the miter box to "0" degrees (Photo 11) and cut the block to its finished 2-in. length. Eliminate loads of measuring and marking by using a cut-off line on the miter box fence as a guide.

You'll need lots of blocks - we used 160 of 'em - so gear up for mass production. Cut the points on both ends of 8 or 10 balusters first, then readjust your miter box angle and cut them all to length. This eliminates switching between angled and square cuts on every block. Never cut a block from a spindle shorter than 6 in. Use sandpaper to slightly round over the corner of the block that protrudes into the panel.

Don't use a nail gun here; securing the blocks requires angle nailing through two layers of oak - and there's not much room for fingers to safely hold on. Position a block (Photo 12), pushing that corner of the plywood firmly up against the ceiling, then drill two angled holes through the block and into the 1x3 material. Remove the block, apply 1/4-in. dots of wood glue to the back side and secure it with 4d finish nails driven through the predrilled holes. Sink the heads 1/8 in. below the surface with a nail set.

When all four blocks are in place, remove the finish nails that were temporarily holding the plywood panel in place.


Measure and cut the cove molding to fit between the corner blocks. Most pieces will be the same length (21-1/2 in.), so again, you can take advantage of your bump jig.

Test-fit each piece, then apply a thin bead of wood glue along the back of the molding (Photo 13). Reposition it tightly against the plywood panel and secure it to the 1x3 side piece with three 1-in. finish nails - two a couple of inches away from each end, the third near the center.


Install 3/4 x 1-1/4 in. cove molding to cover gaps where the ceiling meets the wall (Photo 14).

When all the woodworking is complete, apply stain to any exposed cut ends, apply colored putty to nail holes and gaps (Photo 15), then apply a second coat of clear finish. Confine the putty to nail holes and gaps - we found that putty residue or thumbprints left on the wood surface resisted the second coat of the clear water-based finish.

We added built-in book-cases and wainscoting to complete the rich, warm feel of the room. (See "Library Room," July/Aug. '89, p. 33, for general information on bookcase construction, and "Classic Wood Walls," Nov./Dec. '91, p. 38, for details on wall paneling.)

Way to go, Michelangelo - your ceiling creation is complete.


It took more than 1,200 finish nails to hold the oak boards, moldings and corner blocks together for this ceiling. Predrilling the holes, driving the nails, then sinking the heads with a nail set is time consuming - and, physically exhausting - when working overhead on a project of this size.

We used a pneumatic air powered) finish nailer for most of the nailing. Why? Because one squeeze of the trigger and the nail is in place with its head sunk to the proper depth. It not only allows you to work faster and with less effort, but more accurately too, you can hold the piece in position with one hand and drive the nail in with the pneumatic nailer with the other. To top it all off, you get cleaner looking results, with a pneumatic nailer the nailhead is smaller, the wood is less likely to split and you eliminate things from misdirected hammer blows and nail sets.

Pneumatic equipment isn't cheap, it's designed for rugged everyday use in the construction trades and is built and priced accordingly. You'll spend $300 or more for a good finish nailer and an equal amount for a 1-hp air compressor. Fifty feet of hose, oil and miscellaneous connections will add another $100.

Fortunately, rental centers, especially those catering to contractors, will rent everything you need. Prices range widely, so shop around. All three stores we contacted offered package deals - nailer, compressor and hose - with prices ranging from $110 to $190 per week. Bring some scrap 3/4-in. oak along and try out the equipment beforehand to make sure it can handle the job.

See this month's "Using Tools" (p. 18) for tips on safe use of power nailers.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Home Service Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:includes related article on hand nailing versus power nailing
Author:Carlsen, Spike
Publication:The Family Handyman
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:The best workbench: supremely easy to build, this big workbench goes together like a custom-tailored kit.
Next Article:Hanging drapes and valances: a custom installation - without paying an installer.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters