The Elegant Coffered Ceiling

What is a Coffered Ceiling?

Coffer means “box” in French. A coffered ceiling is, essentially, several recessed boxes in the ceiling to give detail and texture to a, normally, ordinary ceiling. The coffers, themselves, are usually squares, rectangles, or octagons decorated with ornate trim and detail. They not only look elegant, but also serve a purpose. They actually are faux acoustical ceiling tiles that absorb sound and insulate the room. They are typically made from wood such as poplar, ash or cherry, but cheaper materials such as drywall, plywood or fiberboard.

There are so many options available for coffered ceiling designs it would be impossible to list them all. You can vary the depth of the coffer, the sheen of the finished product, the trims surrounding the coffer, the beams supporting the coffer; the list goes on and on. If you can dream it, you can find someone to design and build it.

modern coffered ceiling

A coffer (or coffering) in architecture, is a sunken panel in the shape of a square, rectangle, or octagon in a ceiling, soffit or vault. A series of these sunken panels were used as decoration for a ceiling or a vault, also called caissons (‘boxes”), or lacunaria (“spaces, openings”), so that a coffered ceiling can be called a lacunar ceiling: the strength of the structure is in the framework of the coffers. The stone coffers of the ancient Greeksand Romans are the earliest surviving examples, but a seventh-century BC Etruscan chamber tomb in the necropolis of San Giuliano, which is cut in soft tufa-like stone reproduces a ceiling with beams and cross-beams lying on them, with flat panels fillings the lacunae. For centuries, it was thought that wooden coffers were first made by crossing the wooden beams of a ceiling in the Loire Valley châteaux of the early Renaissance. In 2012, however, archaeologists working under Andrew Wallace-Hadrill at the House of the Telephus in Herculaneum discovered that wooden coffered ceilings were constructed in Roman times. Experimentation with the possible shapes of the pole is coffering, which solve problems of mathematical tiling, or tessellation, were a feature of Islamic as well as Renaissance architecture. The more complicated problems of diminishing the scale of the individual coffers were presented by the requirements of curved surfaces of vaults and domes.

coffered ceiling rotunda of the pantheon rome-italyA prominent example of Roman coffering, employed to lighten the weight of the dome, can be found in the ceiling of the rotunda dome in the Pantheon, Rome.

In ancient Chinese wooden architecture, coffering is known as zaojing (Chinese: 藻井; pinyin: zǎojǐng).[8]

Coffered ceilings add a certain finese to any room. Whether you’re looking for a traditional or contemporary design, we’ve put together a collection featuring some of our best reader-submitted projects and articles highlighting coffered ceilings in living rooms, kitchens, and basements.  You’ll also find tips and techniques on building box beams, installing a coffered ceiling, and leveling old ceilings.

trost castle coffered ceiling

Ceiling coffers came into vogue during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when American architecture went retro with a revival of classical house styles. The hollow wood-panel grid was originally used during the Renaissance to dress up beams. Today, a handy homeowner can easily create coffers. The trick, says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva, is to build U-shaped beams on the floor to minimize overhead work.

How to Build A Coffered Ceiling

Map out your grid pattern on graph paper, using your room’s dimensions to determine the width and number of beams. Next, find the center of your ceiling, and snap two intersecting chalk lines, one spanning the length of the room and the other its width. Measuring off those centerlines, snap a series of subsequent lines to match the grid pattern on your graph paper. These lines represent the centers of the beams.

Now start building the U-shaped beams: full-length ones to span the width of the room, and smaller ones to fit in between, forming the grid. Rather than using plain boards and trimming them out later, the design below calls for baseboard molding with an integrated decorative cap for the side walls. The center is a 1x board that’s recessed between the sides to create a reveal. For the full-length beams, use tall baseboard moldings. For the small intersecting ones, use shorter moldings so that where the beams meet, their decorative caps will be offset, eliminating the need for complex mitering or coping.

Lift each full-length beam to the ceiling, sleeving it over 2x blocking that’s been centered and fastened along your chalk lines. To secure the beams, drive nails through the side walls into the edge of the blocking. Install the small lengths in the same fashion to complete your grid.

Coffered Ceiling Prices

A typical labor cost for coffered ceilings will be about $10 to $15 per square foot of coffered ceiling. Materials cost will be about the same, between $8 to $17 per square foot. Where your costs fall on that spectrum depends on if you go with a hardwood such as mahogany or cherry or the cheaper road of plywood and drywall.

There are many different costs for the various types and styles of coffered ceilings. Expensive woods such as maple, cherry, or mahogany are on the more expensive side. Using drywall or plywood will help keep costs down. Just be sure to count the cost of everything included. CalculateA coffered ceiling is very labor intensive; even more so if the room you are constructing it in has hard-to-reach areas.

Additional Costs

There are many other details you can use to supplement your coffered ceiling. Chandeliers or ceiling fans will add elegance to any room. Sometimes, a soffit around the perimeter of a coffered ceiling (with lighting reflecting up at the ceiling) looks graceful. Tin panels installed in the coffers can help reflect light, not to mention, give an added artistic appearance. Additions such as these may cost as little as $100, or as much as $3,000 to $4,000, on top of the total price tag.