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Coffered Ceiling Cost Guide for 2019

With historic home aesthetics very much in vogue, homeowners everywhere are looking for easy and affordable ways to add a little bit of craftsman character to their own spaces. And if there is one thing that screams architectural detail it is a coffered ceiling!

When many people think of coffers, they are transported to the ancient halls of the Greek Pantheon. Originally a structural prerequisite, coffers were first implemented to hold the great weight of heavy stone ceilings. Like so many things in architecture, this necessity caught on for the design elements it offered and the dimension it added to spaces.

Since those ancient times, the coffer has been mimicked throughout history. Just look to the Duomo in Florence, Italy– a 13th century Gothic design– or the French chateaus of the 17th century.

In both of these scenarios, the coffer was used as a canvas as each of the ceiling’s impressions served the purpose of highlighting intricate detail characteristic of the entirety of the building.

In modern times, however, the coffer has become a focal point of detail and character in and of itself. No longer essential to the structural integrity of a home, coffered ceilings can be a wonderful design touch able to add nuance to ceiling the way wainscoting and hardwood patterns can dress up wall bases and floorboards.

But design elements like these are way too difficult to take on as an amateur doityourselfer, right? And a contractor’s price for something like this would be out of this world!

Not necessarily! Below, I’ve outlined a the DIY cost, along with a step by step guide as well as the contractor’s price. It is up to you, after reading, to decide if your skill is up for the task, or you’re better off leaving your new coffer ceiling design up to your local professional.

Planning

Before you decide whether or not attempting your own coffered ceiling design is a good idea, it is first necessary to do the planning leg work. This is not as easy as sketching out your design on some graph paper (although that is definitely suggested).

Find your studs and joists

While it may seem counterintuitive to do this prior to sketching out your design, it is actually rare that you know the exact framing of your ceiling, or that any homeowner can predict where beams and joists will be.

Instead, use the framing as it is and build your design around this reality. It will also save you a ton of disappointment to follow this order. It can be extremely discouraging to scale draw your dream design only to find it isn’t a possibility.

To do this you will need a stud finder. These are fairly inexpensive to begin with, but spend on the higher end, as stud finders feature some faulty technology as they lower in price.

Once you have found the framing, take into account all of the light fixtures that may protrude from the ceiling. Marking all of this with painter’s tape is a good idea so that you can get a sense for what exists behind the plaster above your ceiling. From here, you can begin your design.

MaterialsCosts
Stud Finder$20-40
Painter’s Tape$2
Graph Paper$4

Perimeter Beam Construction

Now that you have your vision mapped out, you can begin to position your perimeter beams, or the outermost beams that will but up the the corners where the ceiling meets the walls.

Part of this process may require some tool construction if you are working alone. A “dead man” is the name given to a temporary ballast or support in engineering. It’s name is derived from the fact that typically these supports are buried in the ground. For our ceiling beams, we will not need to ground anything, and so our “dead man” will essentially be a free standing t-shape made of 2 x 4’s. The purpose of the dead man is to support the beams on one end of the ceiling while you work on the other end, and it is totally worth it to take ten minutes to measure, cut, and screw the two boards together. It will be a big help as you complete this project.

Once your dead man is ready to go, you can cut your first perimeter beam. For the beams themselves, you have a few options in terms of material:

  1. MDF, or medium density fibreboard, will be more “perfect” in terms of measurement and levelness.
  2. Plywood is a fine option for this type of project, becuase it will be painted and finished, and it is not structural. The problem with using any sort of ply is you will have to rip the wood into planks. This creates more opportunity for human error.
  3. Common board planks like pine or poplar are probably your best bet. These come in variable standard widths and lengths. While they aren’t going to be perfect, they are much more accessible, and land somewhere in between the prices of ply and MDF. Plus, we can doctor any flaws in the wood up at finishing time.

If is hugely important to cut the beam ¼ inch longer than the length of the room so that is fits snug between each wall. The beam will run perpendicular to the joists so that it can be securely fastened to the ceilings framing.

Once you have your beam cut, use your dead man to hoist the beam and test your cut. You want to be exact here. If it is a little too short/long, take the time to cut or recut.

When you know your cut is right, apply adhesive to the bottom of the beam, the side that will grip the ceiling. It is important that you are using wood to drywall adhesive and not a run of the mill wood glue. This is due to the composition of your ceiling material, which won’t take a wood glue adhesive as well as a product specialized for fastening wood to plaster.

When the beam is good and snug, you can begin to drive nails into the joists above the plaster. This is why that first planning step, finding the framing, and the subsequent marking of the framing with painter’s tape, is SO important!

At this point, you will likely notice some gaps in between your beam and the ceiling plaster. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. First, the plaster itself may be an uneven surface. More likely, though, your wood beam is slightly warped. No big deal! We will hide those gaps with a little quarter round molding as part of the finishing step to this project.

MaterialsCosts
2 x 6 Common Board $10-12/board (8 footers)
Wood to Drywall Adhesive$5
Finishing Nails$5-7/pack

Perimeter Crossbeam Construction

Now that you have your two parallel main beams cut, glued and nailed to the ceiling at each end of the room, it is time to secure the cross beams. To do this, you will want to make scribe cuts to ensure you boards are snuggled up to the main perimeter boards already in place.

A scribe line is a line drawn by which material will be cut that was not measured and marked, but rather traced, for lack of a better term, off of an existing cut.

To create your scribe line, you will first need to know the distance between the two perimeter boards that are already on the ceiling. Once you have this number, add three inches and make a rough cut. The point of the extra three inches is to give you some material to trace your scribe line onto.

Hold the board in place with your dead man, marking where the rough cut crosses the existing perimeter beams. This is your scribe line: the exact distance from one perimeter board to the next, however, you will want to add an 8th of an inch to that line so that those cross beams will be nice and snug.

Once you have your 1/8th inch too long cross beams cut, follow the same procedure for securing the original perimeter beams:

  • Prop with dead man to ensure fit
  • Lower the beam
  • Apply adhesive
  • Secure with dead man

The only change in the procedure this time is to add shims. A shim is to wood work what a spacer is to tile work. Essentially, shims will ensure your two boards are perfectly even. It is important to note that these are only necessary if you find the edges, those of your first perimeter beams and those of your cross beams, are uneven. It is likely, because we are using pine or common board, that they are in fact not perfectly flush.

Adjust the leveling of those joint by inserting shims in between the beam and the plaster to lower or raise as needed until the cross beam is flush with the original perimeter beam. You will want to score and cut any excess shim sticking out from that gap. Again, this gap will be covered with molding later on.

MaterialsCosts
Shims$2/pack

Coffers

Now that you have your ceiling outlined with perimeter beams and cross beams, you can begin construction of your actual coffers. You should already have your design marked with painter’s tape. You will need to remove the tape at this point and snap a chalk line so that you still have a guide.

The only thing you will do different when you secure the boards for the actual coffer design is ensure a 90 degree angle at each corner of the squares. This lets you know that your measurements are true and you do not have any boards skewing off center.

Toe nail the boards together at the perfect 90 degree angle for extra stability.

MaterialsCosts
Chalk Line Set$5-7
Angle Square$5-10

Molding

Now it is time to add molding the the edges of all your beams for a beautiful finished look (and, of course, to hide those gaps between your beams and the ceiling, and the shims you used to level up the edges.)

Like your beams, you will cut molding ¼ inch too long so that you can snug it up tight. You will also need to miter the edges of all quarter round so that the edges meet flawlessly. Just as before, you should snug up your molding to test the cut, then apply the adhesive, and finally nail it into place. Use a smaller finishing nail this time to make sure you do not split the molding.

MaterialsCosts
Quarter Round Molding$13-20

Finishing

Now that the structure is all in place, and the edges are nicely molded, it is time to finish off your coffers to create that clean, professional look. In order to do this, start by setting all your nails deep into the material. Certainly, this is a finishing tactic, but can most efficiently be done as you are working on constructing the coffer design instead of after the fact.

Fill your set nail holes with a wood putty. You will also want to putty any edge lines between two boards so that the entire design appear to be continuous. With puttying, apply generously. It is always better to have too much than too little as you will be sending the excess off until your surface is again flush.

When this is done, you can begin priming and painting. It is likely the plaster ceiling is white, so if you are going with another color for your beams, you will want to take your time taping off the edges.

Do you homework on the type of finish you want. Coffers are in most cases an extension of moldings for many rooms, and since moldings are typically high gloss, you will want to match that finish. However, if you are going with an accent color to really highlight your new design element, a matte or satin finish is perfectly reasonable. In any case, you are apply the paint to a wood surface so you will want to prime so that the paint takes to the wood in fewer coats.

As this is all happening within the shelter of your home, it is fine to use an oil based paint because it will have plenty of time to cure after the paint is applied and appears dry. An oil based paint will last longer and be more resistant to dust and water when you decide to clean it down the road. If you are using oil based paint, make sure your primer is also oil based, or the paint will not take to the wood quite as well.

MaterialsCosts
Nail Set$5-7
Wood Putty$7-10
Oil Based Primer$15-20/quart
Oil Based Paint$30-40/gallon
Drop Cloth$3

DIY Costs Vs. Contractor Costs

There are many factors that affect costs when it comes to installing your own coffered ceiling design. First and foremost, is the size of the room. Generally speaking, a contractor will charge $25 per square foot for labor of installing your coffered ceiling. This cost is on top of material.

The average sized dining room is roughly 200 square feet. Figure these dimensions to mean 20 feet by 10 feet. Right out of the gate, without accounting for cost of material, you are looking the implications of material, you are looking at $5000.

For your own DIY coffered ceiling project, there is more to consider, but potentially for a lower out of pocket expense.

For all intents and purposes, let’s assume your coffered ceiling is going into a 20 foot by 10 foot dining room. Your design calls for three, 20 foot runs (one at each end of the room, butted against the walls, and one in the middle), two, ten foot runs (at either end), and six cross beans that makeup the square coffers at roughly five feet a piece. This will give you eight total coffer squares. The sum of the material needed is roughly 160 square feet. At an average cost of about $4 a square foot, you will spend about $600 in pine planks.

Molding at about $.60 a square foot will cost you about $80 for the 140 square feet you will need. All of the other tools and materials listed above in the costs table for the DIY project come to around $160 on the high end. That brings your total, plus building materials to $900.

Clearly the do it yourself option is the more cost effective, however, it is always important to consider your own handyman skills and whether or not your lack thereof will end up costing you more in the long run as you backtrack on the many potential miscues of this project.

If you do concede that you are admittedly too novice to undertake the project yourself, here are some questions to ask your contractor:

  • What is the price per square foot of labor?
  • What material do you recommend using?
  • Are there cheaper alternatives that will not compromise the look and integrity of the project (remember this is an aesthetic detail and not a structural necessity)?
  • What type of paint do you recommend using?
  • Will painting be an additional cost?
  • Do you have references?
  • Can you provide pictures or examples of previous work?

Conclusion

Ultimately, the DIY coffered ceiling will give you a tremendous sense of satisfaction each time you sit beneath it to dine with company. More importantly, you will be able to stretch your dollar much father if you attempt to take on the project without professional help. That said, if you’re not up for the task in terms of your craftsman abilities, or if you just do not have the time that you will need to commit to the project to ensure it comes out right, than hiring a pro is a viable option. Just make sure when you do, that you are considering all the questions outlined above, and constantly reminding yourself that this is an aesthetic detail and not integral to the structure of the home. This fact as a reality to underlie your thought processes as you begin your research will do wonders to help you decide who you hire, or if it is the right time for you to make this home improvement at all.

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