How to DIY a Professional Looking Coffered Ceiling for <$800 in Materials




Introduction: How to DIY a Professional Looking Coffered Ceiling for <$800 in Materials

We built our home back in 2011. Most of our money went towards location and land vs. custom options. My wife and I pursue projects that give the house a custom look,we can DIY, and get the biggest bang for our buck.

I am a DIY enthusiast. I'm addicted to learning new things by building the plane while in flight. This is my first time doing any type of ceiling and working with crown molding. If I can do this you can too.

About a year ago, my wife and I saw a really nice looking bedroom coffered ceiling on remodelaholic. The site shows the list of materials, progress pics, and describes basic techniques. It was enough to spark my imagination and curiosity; however didn’t have a lot of details. It certainly is not a step-by-step walk through for beginners. Prior to this project, I had zero experience with crown molding. If learning to work with crown is on your bucket list and you have patience (or at least know when to quit for the day) this is the project for you. For technique, I leaned on this site from Ceiling Panels: How to Install a Beam and Panel Ceiling. My approach was a hybrid of the two sites. I followed the family handyman site for beam framing and panel installation, but used the beam materials (1x4 and crown) and painting techniques from remodelaholic.

Time and cost commitment – End to end the project took me approximately 2 months. This isn’t actual work time. My wife and I didn’t have a deadline. I worked on it between other projects, my full time job, spending time with my family, and when I felt inspired. My guess is that if I worked on it every day for 3-4 hours a day it would take 2-3 weeks. 3 weeks if you are learning as you go, like me. The other approach that added time to the project was staining and applying lacquer on all the wood in the garage then waiting for the lacquer to dry and not smell like…well lacquer. I didn’t turn the bedroom into a dedicated construction site. Therefore I didn’t want to put down and remove plastic sheeting to protect the carpet, furniture, and walls every project day. Plus, the lacquer I used has a very strong odor, so after applying, I would let sit in a vented garage for 2 days. If you have the option of putting up all of the wood first, then applying the stain and lacquer at one time, you could probably finish the project closer to two weeks.

The project cost approximately $730 in materials. Attached is the spreadsheet I used to calculate cost. Obviously, cost is going to vary based on ceiling size, what materials you use and cost of locally sourcing wood. This is an approximation, as there were times I ran to the local big box store to pick something up, but didn’t record. The spreadsheet should get you 99% there as it covers the core materials.

Tools you’ll need:

· Miter saw (cutting crown , 2x4, and 1x4s) with 12” clearance and fence if you use a crown 4 ½” or greater and the crown Pro tool jig)

· Circular saw (cutting panels to size)

· Level or chalk line (mark ceiling joists)

· Brad nailer (compressor and brad gun to hang panels and crown)

· Screwdriver (hang 2x4 and screw anchor pilot holes)

· Counter sink bit

· Hammer and screwdriver or punch (making screw anchor holes in drywall)

· Needle nosed pliers (removing misbehaving brads)

· Stud finder (finding joists)

· Brushes (foam for stain and quality brushes for applying and feathering lacquer)

· Angle finder (to determine cut angle on crown)

Materials and Material definitions

· Panels - ¼ plywood I used knotty alder wood. Our cabinetry throughout the house is knotty alder

· Beam Grid - 2x4s

· Beam skin - 1x4 knotty alder.

· Beam sides - 4 ¼ “crown molding – crown width (installed) needs to equal the width of 2 layers of 2x4s, ¼” paneling, and 1x4, minus the ¼. The beam attaches to the ceiling the molding attaches to the paneling.

· Mineral spirits (to clean brushes between applications)

· Stain – Minwax Dark Walnut

· Polyurethane – statin

· Oil rubbed bronze spray paint - to paint registers

· 1” brad nails

· 1 ½” Screws and screw anchors


· Laser level ( that can project on ceiling)

· Magnets (finding joist drywall screws)

· Crown Pro-tool (jig) (I consider this a must, but technically you could do without)

· Adobe Illustrator (used this for making measuring schematic)

· Chalk line (mark center of joists)

Step 1: Measuring and Marking

The first and most important step is to measure the ceiling accurately. This is going to be the foundation for the entire project and give the ceiling the 3 x 3 grid symmetrical look. You don’t want find out your project isn’t measured correctly well into the project.

Measuring for the beam grid.

My ceiling is 174” (14 ½’) x 120” (10’). I divided 174 by 3. This gives 58” increments. My midpoint grid marks are 58’, 116’, and 174’. Dividing 120’ by 3 gives increments of 40’. Midpoint grid marks are at 40’, 80’ and 120’. I then made 1 ¾’ marks on either side of the midpoint grid marks to mark the width of the 2x4 These serve as guides for the first 2x4 grid.

Attached is my measuring schematic in PDF. I used Adobe Illustrator to take advantage of the rulers and to quickly make straight lines. This isn’t necessary; it satisfied the planning nerd in me.

Joist hunting and marking

Joist are 2x4s running parallel, spaced 16” apart, just above the ceiling drywall. I wanted to ensure that the 2x4s (first beam layer) were screwed into the joists. This creates a solid base for the perpendicular 2x4s that attach to drywall instead of solid wood.

To find the joists I used a stud finder to get a rough idea where the joists were. Builders place joists approximately 16” apart. I then used neodymium (rare earth) magnets to find the drywall screws that attached the drywall to roughly the center of the joists. I used 4-5 magnets to determine the trajectory of the joist across the ceiling. To ensure I was accurate and the joist continued to the other side I used 4-5 magnets on the opposite side of the ceiling. I then used a beam laser level to approximate the middle of the joist. The magnets wont line up perfectly center as the magnets will attach differently and the screws aren’t always center; however you’ll see a pattern in the magnets to find center.

Mark joist lines across the ceiling. The easiest way would be to use a chalk line. Since, I have carpet, furniture, and no drop cloth, I used the laser level to connect lines drawn on opposite sides of the ceiling, then used a level and pencil to make the marks. Chalk from chalk lines contains iron and doesn’t mix will with carpet. I learned this the hard way.

Marking the beam grid

The Ceiling Panels: How to Install a Beam and Panel Ceiling site recommends that you chalk line the joist lines and beam grid line in different colors. I couldn’t use chalk and I didn’t want to draw the beam grid lines across the ceiling. When installing the 2x4s, I just lined the end of the 2x4s with the beam grid marks on both sides of the ceiling. When buying the 2x4s I made sure the boards were straight. I also took several measurement from the edge of the 2x4 to the edge of the ceiling to make sure it was parallel.

Step 2: Installing Beam Grid and Panels

First beam grid layer

You’ll want to start by installing the 2x4s perpendicular to the ceiling joist marks to have a solid foundation to attach the next set of first layer, second layer of 2x4s and the beam skin.

To make installation of 10ft 2x4s easier, I measured and made marks to match the joists lines on the 2x4 made a pilot hole, then used the counter sink bit to make sure the screw head was below the surface of the 2x4. This is so the next beam layer (2x4) will be flush. I also made pocket holes to attach the ends of the 2x4 to the edge of the ceiling. I had wood I was able to drill into vs. just drywall. This is important as you want the crown width to be even with the grid layers on the ends. Tip: the 2x4 don’t need to match the length of the ceiling in one board. The 1x4s and crown will cover the 2x4s up. You can save money using leftover 2x4s from another project. Also, separate 2x4s pieces are easier to install if installing alone.

As mentioned above, line up your 2x4 to the grid marks or chalk line. Screw the two rows of 2x4s perpendicular to the joists. Tip: use your angle finder to ensure you have 90 degree angles between the pocket ceiling and 2x4.

For the 2x4s going in the other direction, I lined up the beam marks on the ceiling, used anchor screws (spaced 16” apart) in the ceiling drywall, then used pocket holes to screw the 2x4s into the installed 2x4s and edges of the pocket ceiling. Double check the 2x4s are parallel to the ceiling by taking multiple measurements along the 2x4 and that you have 90 degree angles.

Second grid beam layer

Now you have a parallel and 90 degree angle grid, the second layer should be a snap. Simply measure out the 2x4s and screw the boards onto the first layer. Again, I used pilot holes, the counter-sink bit, and 16” spacing. You don’t need to use pocket holes on the ends for the second layer. Since you have a solid first layer foundation you can simply screw the ends straight into the first layer. Don't forget to counter sink the holes.

9 Panels

For the panels I used ¼” knotty alder plywood. Ceiling Panels: How to Install a Beam and Panel Ceiling recommends ½”. My rationale was: it is easier to hold lighter panels (55”x37”) when installing (I did the entire project myself), lower cost (shorter crown length needed), and lighter (ability to use fast install 1” brads in the ceiling drywall).

I re-measured each ceiling panel pocket (measure twice, cut once) and subtracted ½” on the length and width. This will give you ¼” panel space within the pocket. This gives you room for adjustments. The crown spring angle (2”) will be more than enough to cover the ½” around the panel, plus any tearing caused by ripping the board.

I cut 55” and 37” panels out of 9 96” x 48” panels. I had to use 9 96” x 48” boards as I could only get one panel out of each board.

Step 3: The Registers, Stain and Lacquer

The registers

Before staining the panels be sure to cut openings for the registers. When measuring the panel, remember to account for the ½” taken off the length and width of the panel. This isn’t too critical as the crown will cover 2” around the panels, so there is a lot of room to play with. We spray painted the white registers with oil rubbed bronze spray paint (shown in the materials).

Stain and lacquer

I spent a lot of time experimenting with different stains, lacquer, glazing, and pre-stain to find a look I liked. By “I,” I mean “my wife” liked. She (I mean “we”) wanted to match our cabinetry and furniture. The coffered ceiling on remodelaholic used a pre-stain, stain, and two coats of lacquer. The best look, for us, was one coat of Minwax Dark Walnut stain and one coat of clear satin lacquer.

I used foam brushes to apply the stain in one application. I then used paper towels to soak up excess stain and to help spread the stain evenly. You don’t want leave excess stain on the panels. It will cause dark spots and an uneven look. I allowed 24 hours after coats of stain and lacquer. Lacquer can be applied a few hours after the stain. The reason for doing this in the garage vs. after installing all of the wood was so that the smell of both would be gone before installation. I applied the lacquer in one application using a bristle brush, then back over a second time feathering (lightly dragging brush at a 45 degree angle to remove bristle marks in the lacquer).

After drying and de-stinking I used a brad nailer and 1” brads to hang the panels. Initially, I was concerned that brads in drywall wouldn’t be enough to hold the panels to the ceiling, but it worked well. The ¼” plywood doesn’t weigh that much and enough brads will do the trick. I wasn’t worried about brad placement or number of brads as the crown will cover. I shot brads approximately every 9 inches apart and in the corners.

Step 4: Skin the Beam and Installing the Crown

Skin the beam

The last layer on beam is the knotty alder 1x4s. I used the same painting technique used on the panels. Before installed the 1x4s you have to decide which direction of the beams will be a continuous board and which will be pieces of 1x4.

For me this was an easy decision. The longest 1x4s in knotty I could get were in 12’ boards. Since one length of the grid measured 10’ and the other 14’, the one board length had to be the 10’ section. The 14’ was broken up into 3 55” boards. To hang the 1x4s, I shot brand angled into the side of the 1x4 into the 2x4 vs. shooting from the bottom (visible side) of the 1x4s into the 2x4. Cleaner look and less potential brad holes to cover.

Dear crown, I love you. I hate you.

I really like the look of crown and the final project, but crown is a finicky date. There are two competing variables at play at the same time. Matching the inside corner angles and ensuring the bottom of the crown aligns with the bottom of the 1x4. Getting these both right give the nice professional beam look.

The challenge with stained crown is that there is no covering up mistakes with filler and paint. Prior to installing, I experimented with stainable wood filler on scrap to see how it would look. You can still see the filler after it is stained.

After researching, I learned that coping one side of the crown makes a seamless seam. The downside is that using a hand-held coping saw takes quite a bit of time. 36 coping cuts…no, thanks. Youtube instruction videos all show these cuts being made in high speed. I couldn’t cope with coping. There are other techniques using the miter saw fence. I decided to purchase a Kreg Crown pro jig.

The jig allows you to adjust to the crowns spring angle to make cuts that fit perfectly together. To me, the purchase was well worth it. Using the jig and 4 ¼ crown, you’ll need a miter saw with a 12” clearance. If you haven’t worked with crown, there is a small learning curve for inside cuts (for this project - they are all inside cuts). The crown is placed upside down, the right side cut the jig is placed on the left side of the miter saw blade, and the blade 45 degree angle is moved to the left side. Its opposite for the left side cut. After a few cuts, it becomes muscle memory. There are a lot of how to videos on you tube, just type in “cutting crown molding with compound miter saw”.

Before making miter crown cuts, it’s a good idea to go back and measure each panel, corner angle and crown lengths. Below is my updated schematic in illustrator. You’ll want to make miter cuts to match your panel corner angle.s e.g. if your angle is 90 degrees the right and left miter cuts are both 45 degrees. If the angle is 87 each angle is 43 ½”. Crown lengths are measured from the bottom of the crown to match the length of the 1x4

Cutting approach

I used my schematic to cut three pieces of crown at a time, hung the crown with a brad top and bottom in the center of the crown. This gave me ability to adjust the crown on each end, if needed. Before cutting the fourth length crown, I re-measured to make measurements didn’t change and it was a perfect fit. Once I was happy with the corners I nailed the corners in place

Step 5: Finishing Up

To fill in the brad holes, I used

Minwax 3.75 oz. Walnut Wood Putty.

That’s it. I was a big job, but very satisfying. I hope you enjoyed.

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    6 Discussions


    4 years ago

    Great looking ceiling! Have you ever been to Hearst Castle? I could be wrong, but I believe It's got the largest collection of European ceilings in the western hemisphere. Some are more simple, some are almost Sistine Chapel awesome. Seeing them in person might give you more inspiration. (not that I'm saying you need more inspiration) examples:


    Reply 4 years ago

    Thanks slo5oh, I haven't been the Hearst. I'll have to check out the website site for inspiration. appreciate the tip and the comment.


    4 years ago

    A couple of tubes of Loctite express construction adhesive would have made attaching the ceiling panels a lot quicker, and reduced the needed brad count. Great project!


    Reply 4 years ago

    Yep, good point. One of my other requirements was to be able to take it down at some point in the future and preserve the drywall as much as possible. I cant foresee this ever happening, but would just be filling small holes (brads and screws) and repainting. Thanks for the comment.


    Reply 4 years ago