I've been building and remodeling in northern Vermont for 30
years; my sons are the third generation to work in the family
business. When my dad started, there was a higher level of
craftsmanship in home building than we typically see today.
When I took over the business, I promised him I'd maintain the
high standards of quality that he established almost 35 years
One of the ways we do that is by focusing on interior millwork
-- built-ins, staircases, fireplace surrounds, and so forth.
The challenge has been to develop ways to install these
elements efficiently without sacrificing quality. In this
article, I'll describe how we build a coffered ceiling.
Making a coffered ceiling fit the room -- whether in a new
house or a remodel -- comes down to thorough planning. After
discussing with the clients what size coffers they want, I
start with a detailed drawing of the room. My drawings show the
ceiling dimensions as well as all door, window, fireplace, and
built-in locations. I work with the drawings to determine panel
sizes, so there won't be competition with existing
For example, when a fireplace is centered on the wall, I
typically try to make the ceiling panels align symmetrically
with the masonry. The key is not to draw attention to the
ceiling but to make it look like all the elements were designed
together. Sometimes symmetry doesn't work, however -- for
instance, when there are several competing elements in a room.
In that case, you have to decide which elements get priority.
Because the first impression of the room happens on entering, I
usually give priority to the entrance when laying out the
coffers. When the layout gets difficult, I always get the
Sometimes the coffer has to cut in around built-ins or
chimneys. In those situations, I try hard to size the coffers
so as to prevent tiny 2- or 3-inch runs of crown.
A Good Base
We've found that installing a layer of plywood or OSB under
the coffered ceiling is the fastest way to guarantee that we
have nailing where we need it.
In new construction, we install the plywood before the
drywall. In existing homes where everything is relatively
level, we install the plywood directly over the drywall (see
Figure 1). On older homes where the ceiling is out of level, we
sometimes use furring strips and shims to level the surface
before installing the plywood substrate. My rotary laser is the
perfect tool for that task.
Figure 1.A continuous layer of plywood installed
over the ceiling framing provides a solid base for
dimension-lumber nailers. After the drywall has been hung and
painted, the coffers are assembled from ripped strips of
plywood, prefinished flat stock, and crown
Layout and Nailers
After installing the plywood, we snap lines that mark the
location of the beams. This is our last chance to critically
look at the ceiling. We look for odd-shaped coffers and short
runs of crown, while double-checking beam locations.
Once we're sure everything is okay, we install dimensional
lumber between our snapped lines. We resist the temptation to
use short pieces of scrap, because long lengths of 2x4 or 2x6
can be more easily coaxed into a straight line. Some coffered
ceilings have drywall panels; others are all wood. On a new
home with a drywall ceiling, we'll install the grid of nailers,
then let the drywall contractor hang and finish the ceiling in
between. We return after the drywall is painted to install the
beams and coffers. For a wood ceiling, we install 1/4-inch
veneer plywood between the nailers, securing it with
construction adhesive and pneumatic brads. From that point on,
the process is the same for both drywall and wood
Once our grid of nailers is in place, we rip plywood into
strips and screw them to the nailers to form the boxes that
will support the finished material (Figure 2). The height of
the crown, plus the reveal below, determines how tall to make
the box.Figure 2.Half-inch or 3/4-inch plywood strips
screwed into the nailers form the sides of the beams. The
bottoms of the plywood boxes are 3/4-inch for easier fastening.
Because it is so dimensionally stable, the plywood substrate
helps to prevent gaps in the finish lumber.