When you watch HGTV or visit other peoples’ houses, how much attention do you pay to the ceilings? Do you ever really look at them? If they have a coffered ceiling, you might have. This architectural element is a timeless classic that not only offers a classy look to nearly any space, but also allows for several benefits as well. While it may be simple in design, it delivers big in terms of elegance, sophistication, and drama. A coffered ceiling in a space can place an emphasis on spaciousness, and is customizable to a variety of tastes and preferences.

What Is A Coffered Ceiling?

Coffered ceilings provide a decorative architectural element to an otherwise boring ceiling. Coffers (for which the style is named) are defined as a series of sunken panels with a boxed beam around them. Often these coffers form shapes like squares or rectangles, but they can occasionally be a little more complex with shapes such as circles or octagons. This element creates a very dramatic decorative ceiling that actually breaks up the space to make it feel more intimate and personal.

The named “coffer” comes from the French word “coffre,” meaning “box” or “chest,” and that is what the effect this type of ceiling has—it looks like a series of boxes. Because of the distinctive look that a coffered ceiling gives a room, it may also be called a waffle ceiling.  Other names may include:

How Is A Coffered Ceiling Different From A Tray Ceiling?

A coffered ceiling presents a series of smaller indentations framed by beams. A tray ceiling, however, is a larger element, more open in the space above. Tray ceilings are made of a single raised area in the center of a dropped border that runs around the perimeter of the room, presenting as one large indentation in the ceiling instead of several smaller ones. While a coffered ceiling can come in a variety of styles, tray ceilings tend to look similar in the fact that they are always covered with drywall and plaster and finished with crown molding. The effect tends to make rooms feel larger and more open rather than the intimate like a coffered ceiling.

Where Does The Coffered Ceiling Come From?

While they are a hip modern trend, coffered ceilings have been used in architecture for centuries, with some dating as far back as 79 A.D. While they may originally have been used to recreate the effect of carved stone ceilings, they have also been used to hide structural irregularities or quirks, give ceilings the appearance of height, or bear the weight of domed roofs.

They have been historically popular in large public buildings like courthouses, historic churches, and art galleries, but have gained traction in private homes as well. The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina is one example of a famous residence that includes examples of coffered ceilings, and they can also be found in the Frick House in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Where they were once considered a necessity for absorbing sound, they are now an optional design element that can add flair and value to your home.

Is There A Need For A Coffered Ceiling?

Coffered ceilings are a beautiful decorative element in just about any room, but there are several benefits beyond just looking pretty. Some of the benefits of coffered ceilings include:

  • Helping rooms with high ceilings feel cozier and more intimate
  • Hiding design flaws or unwanted architectural quirks
  • Affecting the acoustics of a room, dampening echoes and unwanted noise transference
  • Helping provide a sense of structure to spaces that otherwise lack definition

The consensus is that a coffered ceiling can potentially add to your home’s resale value. Not only that, but they are easily customizable, allowing for a wide range of looks that you can tweak to suit your style.

How To Use A Coffered Ceiling

Because coffered ceilings are easily customizable, you can use them in a variety of ways. The most common shapes, of course, are squares and rectangles. However, you can design your coffered ceiling in almost any shape or pattern you can imagine—including hexagons, triangles, circles, octagons, and more. There are no shape limitations when it comes to coffers.

While there are several different styles of coffered ceilings, some of the most popular include the traditional ceiling, which features a square or rectangular grid of beams with decorative crown molding. The geometric ceiling features a geometric pattern of octagons, hexagons, or triangles with crown molding. The rustic style has a square or rectangular pattern of rough sawn or distressed wood beams without the classic molding. A contemporary feel can be achieved with a minimalistic pattern of beams wrapped in drywall. Of course, these are only examples of different styles, and there can be many different combinations of elements within each style.

The finished grid of a coffered ceiling can look reminiscent of a waffle or a deeply grooved checkerboard with the indentations bordered by beams. The beams can be painted to match the rest of the ceiling or be stained to look more like rustic wood beams. You can dress up the ceiling by adding personal details. For example, you can paint the center coffer panels or even install tin ceiling tiles or wallpaper to create a more visually impactful element.

Ceiling Height

Something to keep in mind if you are considering installing your own coffered ceiling is the height of the room. Coffered ceilings draw the eye up, but the beams themselves extend downward into the room. These ceilings work best in rooms with high ceilings of around nine feet or more. The deeper the indentations (the lower the beams extend into the room), the higher the existing ceiling should be in order to keep the beams from interfering with headroom or overpowering the space.

Coffered ceilings are a great option for larger spaces such as living rooms, theater rooms, or kitchens (basically anywhere you’d like to add a classy touch that can double to make things homey and cozy). You may be able to have a successful coffered ceiling in a smaller space, but you’ll want to make sure that the beams do not extend too far into the room. If the beams are too large and the ceiling too low, it may cause the space to feel tight, claustrophobic, or cluttered. You can achieve the same effect with shallower indentations.

Faux Or Functional Beams

Something else to consider is whether the beams in your coffered ceiling are load-bearing. In most cases, they are merely decorative and constructed from hollow faux beams. If, however, you want large and deep coffers, you may require extra ceiling support to account for the added weight of the beams.

Another instance in which you may need to consider ceiling support would be if you are adding a second story to a ranch home. You may opt to install a coffered ceiling to camouflage the support beams for the second story.

Can I Have A Coffered Ceiling Installed?

Coffered ceilings are usually installed as part of the original construction of a home. However, if you would like to create a coffered ceiling in your home, you can always add one as part of a renovation or enhancement upgrade.

Coffered ceilings are not only customizable by their look, but you can also customize the installation according to your needs and budget. Traditionally, hardwood beams have been used to achieve the look, but modern building techniques can also allow for similar results at a lower cost. Materials such as plywood, medium density fiberboard, and high-density urethane board are cheaper than the hardwood option and can make the installation process faster and easier.

Installation Process

As with almost any home improvement project, you can either go the DIY route or hire a professional to install your beams. This basic summary of installation should help you know what to expect.

In either case (DIY or contractor), you’ll need to start by sketching out your design on paper. Figure out the dimensions of the room, and then make sure you know how many coffers you’d like as well as how deep and how wide you want the beams to be. Chalking the completed design on your ceiling can help you visualize what the finished product will look like.

The first beams to be installed are the main base beams which run perpendicular to the existing ceiling joists. Next, the base crossbeams, which run parallel to the ceiling joists, should be connected to the inner edges of the main base beams. The end result should look like a waffle or checkerboard on the ceiling.

The faux beams are next. To make your life easier, you may decide to paint or stain the wood before installation. You can either frame the sides and bottoms of the faux beams directly on the base beams, or you can choose to construct them as three-sided boxes and fit them over the base beams. Install any trim or ornamentation you have planned, and you have a dramatic effect that breathes new life into your space!

final thoughts

Whether you choose to install your own or have a professional do the heavy lifting, chances are there is a space in your home that can benefit from the added design element of a coffered ceiling. It may be inspired by Baroque and Renaissance architecture, but this classic design doesn’t have to be all old-world. You can easily add a modern flair to it and keep it fresh and new or keep things rustic and hearty. The only limitation on your coffers is your imagination.