How to Build a Tray Ceiling

The icing on the cake in any remodel is undoubtedly the trim. Whether it be door and window casings, elaborate crown moldings to ease corner transitions and add accent to a room, or trimwork added to a ceiling to break up the monotony of a solid plane, nothing creates a finished look like an elegant molding job.

A tray ceiling can be built up to be as elaborate or simple as the room calls for

One type of accent that truly adds dimension to a room is the creation of a tray ceiling. So called, due to the fact that the finished trim work built down around the room's perimeter, resembles a three-dimensional tray, upside down on the ceiling. A tray ceiling is a fairly easy modification for the do-it-yourselfer to build onto an existing ceiling without any demolition, adding a timeless elegance to any room.

Selecting the Appropriate Molding

Unless the intention is to completely strip the entire house of all trim and start from scratch, the biggest consideration is selecting molding that is in keeping with the rest of the house's trim. It is important not to outshine or dwarf the effect the rest of the moldings and casings have on the home's overall appearance. There are many different dimensional stages for each type of available trim style, but in the end, this is a decision that may well come down to nothing more than personal preference. A good tactic is to purchase a variety of sizes and shapes of the different components and actually dry fit them by holding them in place on the wall or ceiling to get a proper visual.

The Components of a Tray Ceiling

Regardless of the style or complexity of the given design, you will basically be dealing with three integral components in any tray ceiling. There will be a backer board used to build down the perimeter to the desired elevation and width, the crown molding that will cover this newly created corner between the backer and the wall, and finally a sub-crown, or basecap added between the existing ceiling plane and the vertical surface of the backer. The thickness of the backer is essentially the height of the basecap, plus any desired reveal left showing on the corner of the backer. The width of the backer is the horizontal coverage of the crown, plus its reveal.

Measuring the Moldings to Find Design Dimensions

In order to arrive at the proper dimensions for your backer boards, as well as deciding on reveal widths, it is necessary to hold the crown molding in its proper orientation while taking a measurement. A very common mistake is to forget that this molding goes on the wall, then touches part of ceiling with the hollow back not showing. When you can visualize this and hold it in the proper orientation as it will look on the wall, then the right measurement, plus the reveal -- usually between one-quarter and one-half inch -- will be easy to pick off and a piece of trim grade dimensional lumber, usually S4S -- surfaced on 4 sides -- can be selected for the backer. The same technique is then used for the basecap height to determine the right size of trim for that dimension.

Attaching the Backer and Trim

In most cases, the best method of attachment will simply be the use of long trim nails, shot through the backer perimeter boards at an angle and into any available stud or ceiling joist behind the existing drywall. The top plate board in the framing, located directly at the top of the vertical wall, will usually suffice. If additional nailing support seems necessary due to a loose or uneven fit, the use of the ceiling joists as nailer boards may be beneficial. Located with a stud finder, nails may then be shot straight upward through the backer board into the ceiling plane itself for reinforced support. The trim may then be attached with smaller trim nails into the backer and into the walls and ceilings, as needed, then caulked and painted or puttied and stained to taste, depending on personal preference. The beauty of this modification is that no alteration to the existing ceiling is necessary, as the entire perimeter trim package is applied right over the existing finished ceiling, then finished to match.

Variety and Elaboration of Design

There are literally as many versions of this look as one can imagine, leaving the final look and design entirely up to you -- the thicker the backer wood, the more drastic the dimensional change will affect the finished look of the room. Design alterations to consider are the use of multiple steps, achieved by calculating and adding multiple steps of backer board, each with its own molding and reveal covering the surface. Another great way to add depth and accent is to alternate between stain-grade and paint-grade trim as the layers of crown and backer progress. Even upon reaching the original ceiling plane, steps of trim border may be added to provide an easy embellishment. From a simple, stepped-up crown molding, to a multistage, elaborate tray ceiling design, this type of carpentry can add the flare most people are used to seeing only in mansions for very little money and effort.