Introduction: Ditch the Drywall! Hanging Plywood Ceiling Panels

After remodeling my house I can say with certainty, hanging drywall sucks. The sirens call of DIY videos makes hanging sheet rock out to be an easy dream. The limited hand tools promise a simple and quick job. It's neither simple, nor quick. Drywall is skilled labor. It requires a delicate touch to finish and is best left to professionals. I'm neither skilled, delicate or a professional.

Apart from those obvious reasons, drywall is also difficult to work with. It's heavy, brittle, and screws can punch through the paper coating ruining the surface. Not to mention all the dust from sanding everything smooth.

After taking four weekends to hang and finish our walls, l I began crying at the thought of refinishing the ceilings. Something had to give! I needed something that was light enough for me to lift and position easily, looked good and was fairly inexpensive. Enter plywood.

Plywood is lighter and stronger than drywall. Looks nicer after installation than drywall, is easier to work with, and doesn't require mudding and taping between seams.

Tools Needed

Impact Driver

Caulk Gun

5" hole saw (For light cutouts)

Circular Saw


Step Ladder

Hand Saw


1/4" Thick Plywood (Usually sold as cabinet backing or utility panel)

Construction Adhesive (Must be rated for ceiling tile and/or paneling)


3x 8' 2x3

latex caulk

Wood Filler

Step 1: A Pair of Helpers

My wife normally helps with the remodeling, but she's currently sidelined with a hip injury. I need some extra hands to help hold each panel in place while I screw it into the joists. I bought three 8' 2x3 and cut one in half. The half piece was screwed in perpendicular to make an 8' tall "T" shape.

My ceilings are a touch under eight feet tall, so as I pull the top up into position the whole T wedges against the panel and holds fast. This gives more then enough pressure to keep the panel in place, and the 48" long arms distribute that pressure across a fair distance.

These can be disassembled after the job is completed for use in other projects.

Step 2: Cut Outs: Measuring and Cutting for Closets, Stairwells, Etc

The living room has a closet by the front door which requires a sizeable piece cut out to make everything fit. We've opted for crown molding in this room as well, which gives me some room for mistakes, but I still want to get as close as I can. Measure both sides of the closet and to keep from forgetting, write the numbers down on the ceiling.

It's important to keep track of which side will be facing down into the room and to measure appropriately!

Then measure and mark the distances and use a short speed square to draw the initial line. A larger square is used to extend the two lines and ensure that they are perpendicular to each other. Make the cuts with a circular saw and then finish the corner using a hand saw.

Step 3: The Glue Up!

Use a caulk gun to spread the construction adhesive out on the back of the panel. Pay close attention to the corners and edges to make sure there's enough glue. Make big swooping "S" shapes with the glue across the whole panel. Go back and fill any bare spots with more adhesive.

Count on using one tube of adhesive per panel and you shouldn't run out of glue.

Step 4: Installation

Obviously this is easier with two people, but one person can do it. Take a little time and get everything into position before the lift and it will go much easier. I used a square to mark off a perpendicular line for each row off the same wall. This ensures that the seams are all parallel to each other and look straight.

Then use a stud finder to find the joists in the ceiling. Make a mark on each wall directly below where the joist is located. This will help to locate the joists when screwing in the panels. If you can't find the joists with a stud finder, most homes are framed 12" on center for joists. Measure out 12" from the wall and drill a small hole into your ceiling. If wood chips fall out from the hole measure another 12" out from that (24" total from the wall) and drill another hole. If wood chips fall out again, you're joists are framed 12" on center. Mark off every 12" from there on out.

Lift the panel into place and use one of the helpers to hold a side firmly. Gently, and I mean gently, work the panel into position. Loosen the helper a tiny bit if needed. Make sure the edge of the panel lines up with the marks drawn on the ceilings and begin screwing the panel into place. Start in the middle and work outwards towards the edge to help smooth any bumps out.

Use the hole saw to cut out for any ceiling electrical outlets as needed.

This is optional, but it gives a good balance to the room:

This room was just shy of 12' wide. My wife and I were still going back and forth on whether to paint the ceiling in this room or stain the wood. In case we decided to stain I wanted the seams to be equidistant from each other, so I installed full width sheets on each side.

Step 5: Finish Options

The easiest option is to paint. Simply fill the seams and screw holes with caulk, smooth it, and then paint when dry. The plywood panels available at Lowe's came with a side pre-primed making this option easy to execute.

Second is to stain the wood. Any stain will work, but I'd recommend something clear or lightly colored. For a seamless look, use wood putty to fill any gaps between the panels and screw holes. Try to match the putty to the color of the wood. If you want to get really fancy, scrape lines into the putty to simulate the wood grain of the panels. After everything dries, apply stain.

The most time consuming and difficult, is to install coffers or beams. In this option, the seam between the panels is hidden by another piece of wood mounted on top and arranged in a grid-like pattern. This requires planning out where the seams will fall before any of the panels are installed. Even without finish on you can see that it makes for a dramatic and impressive ceiling treatment.

Step 6: Why No Payoff Shot? and Pros and Cons of Plywood

I apologize for not having a photo of the completed ceiling. As of today (8/28/17) I'm still hanging plywood panels and filling gaps. I'll post and link a second instructable detailing out the finishing and final results.

After installing three rooms and almost 400 square feet of plywood I'm what you could call a novice. Here's how I see plywood stacking up against drywall.


Ease of installation: Plywood is lighter, more flexible and much more forgiving of installation errors like screwing to close to an edge.

Immediate Visual Impact: With tight seams and evenly spaced screw holes, you almost don't need to fill any gaps.

Structural: This doesn't apply to the 1/4" material, but thicker material will add an additional layer of structural strength to your walls and joists. Plywood is also more forgiving if you land between joists or studs.

Time: It took 18 hours over two days to install 400 square feet of ceiling. That includes cutting and installing beams for a coffered ceiling look as well. I'll be adding an addition 8 hours for filling seams and finishing. After that I'm done.


Cost: 1/4" plywood is almost double the cost of the cheapest drywall option. Factoring in the costs of joint compound and tape brings the cost of drywall up somewhat, but not enough for parity in cost.

Tools: Installing drywall really only requires a drill, a utility knife and a taping knife. Plywood needs a circular saw and a hole saw.

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