A coffered ceiling—multiple flat panels, or coffers, recessed between decorative ceiling beams in a grid pattern—will make a room special by adding depth and detail overhead.

Softwood has become the wood of choice for coffer beams and for good reason. It has an informal look and feel that matches today's architecture. It's forgiving to work with. It can be painted, stained or coated with a clear finish, depending on the customer's tastes.

Before
Before
After
After

Elaborate beam designs can pose layout and detailing challenges for even the most experienced woodworker. By contrast, a simple softwood coffered ceiling like the one shown here is easily completed by anyone with solid carpentry skills. It consists of boxed beams—softwood nailers clad with pine—infilled with drywall.

1 – Select the WoodThe first step is to decide what type of softwood to use. The job shown here used Eastern White Pine, which has a fine grain and holds finishes beautifully. Whatever species you choose, use the lumber grade with characteristics – such as knotty or clear grain – that best suit the look your customer wants to achieve. Finger-jointed pine is also a good choice for painted coffers.
1 – Select the Wood
The first step is to decide what type of softwood to use. The job shown here used Eastern White Pine, which has a fine grain and holds finishes beautifully. Whatever species you choose, use the lumber grade with characteristics – such as knotty or clear grain – that best suit the look your customer wants to achieve. Finger-jointed pine is also a good choice for painted coffers.
2 – Prep the CeilingThe existing drywall or plaster can be removed or left in place. On this job, removing the ceiling allowed the finished beams to sit higher off of the floor. Removing the ceiling also simplifies the rough wiring, as it need not be fished through the drywall.
2 – Prep the Ceiling
The existing drywall or plaster can be removed or left in place. On this job, removing the ceiling allowed the finished beams to sit higher off of the floor. Removing the ceiling also simplifies the rough wiring, as it need not be fished through the drywall.
3 – Design and Calculate the GridMake a drawing of the room including locations of doors, windows, built-ins and other architectural elements to determine how they will interact with the ceiling. If, for instance, there's a fireplace in the center of the wall you may want to align the center row of coffers with it.Layout is easy for a basic rectangular room. Add the total width of the beams and subtract this sum from the total room width. (Beam width is a matter of taste, but as a general rule the higher the ceiling the wider the beams should be.) This difference yields the total width of the drywall panels, which you can divide by the number of beams to get the width of each panel. If there will be no beam against the wall but simply a piece of trim, treat the wall surface as if it were the untrimmed edge of a hidden nailer.
3 – Design and Calculate the Grid
Make a drawing of the room including locations of doors, windows, built-ins and other architectural elements to determine how they will interact with the ceiling. If, for instance, there's a fireplace in the center of the wall you may want to align the center row of coffers with it.

Layout is easy for a basic rectangular room. Add the total width of the beams and subtract this sum from the total room width. (Beam width is a matter of taste, but as a general rule the higher the ceiling the wider the beams should be.) This difference yields the total width of the drywall panels, which you can divide by the number of beams to get the width of each panel. If there will be no beam against the wall but simply a piece of trim, treat the wall surface as if it were the untrimmed edge of a hidden nailer.
4 – Install the NailersTransfer the measurements from Step 3 to a story pole, then use it to check the layout and make adjustments before installing the softwood nailers. Transfer the marks on the pole to the appropriate locations around the room perimeter, then snap lines on the ceiling. If the existing ceiling has been removed, install blocking where needed to fasten the nailers. Install all the nailers in one direction (in a parallel pattern across the ceiling), then fill in with the perpendicular nailers.
4 – Install the Nailers
Transfer the measurements from Step 3 to a story pole, then use it to check the layout and make adjustments before installing the softwood nailers. Transfer the marks on the pole to the appropriate locations around the room perimeter, then snap lines on the ceiling. If the existing ceiling has been removed, install blocking where needed to fasten the nailers. Install all the nailers in one direction (in a parallel pattern across the ceiling), then fill in with the perpendicular nailers.
5 – Hang the DrywallInstall additional blocking if necessary to support all edges of the drywall, then measure and cut the drywall to fit each recessed coffer. Use 1/2 in. drywall for 16-inch on-center framing and 5/8 in. drywall for 24 in. framing. (Some codes may also require 5/8 between occupied floors.) Use standard Type W drywall screws that are long enough to penetrate the framing by at least 5/8 inch. (If you left the existing drywall in place you will, of course, need longer screws.) Drive screws every 8 inches along the edges and every 12 inches in the field.
5 – Hang the Drywall
Install additional blocking if necessary to support all edges of the drywall, then measure and cut the drywall to fit each recessed coffer. Use 1/2 in. drywall for 16-inch on-center framing and 5/8 in. drywall for 24 in. framing. (Some codes may also require 5/8 between occupied floors.) Use standard Type W drywall screws that are long enough to penetrate the framing by at least 5/8 inch. (If you left the existing drywall in place you will, of course, need longer screws.) Drive screws every 8 inches along the edges and every 12 inches in the field.
6 – Clad the BeamsFinishing the beams is the easiest part of the job. Start by nailing the pine boards you chose in Step 1 to the bottom of the nailers. Clad the perpendicular nailers first, so that the joints on the finish boards and the nailers don't align. For an interesting 3D look, rip the trim for the sides to a width that creates a 3/4 in. reveal. If the design calls for locating light fixtures on the beam, use a hole saw to cut the necessary holes. The inside edges can be finished with crown molding or not, depending on the beam depth and the customer's wishes.
6 – Clad the Beams
Finishing the beams is the easiest part of the job. Start by nailing the pine boards you chose in Step 1 to the bottom of the nailers. Clad the perpendicular nailers first, so that the joints on the finish boards and the nailers don't align. For an interesting 3D look, rip the trim for the sides to a width that creates a 3/4 in. reveal. If the design calls for locating light fixtures on the beam, use a hole saw to cut the necessary holes. The inside edges can be finished with crown molding or not, depending on the beam depth and the customer's wishes.
7 – Stain and TrimUse a wood filler to fill in all visible nail holes. If staining, make sure to use a stainable filler. Scrape away excess with a putty knife, sand the beams, and then paint or stain. Mud and paint the drywall and install light fixtures.
7 – Stain and Trim
Use a wood filler to fill in all visible nail holes. If staining, make sure to use a stainable filler. Scrape away excess with a putty knife, sand the beams, and then paint or stain. Mud and paint the drywall and install light fixtures.

What began as the room's most overlooked surface has now become its most interesting.

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