Overview: Materials, tools and costs
Paneling a ceiling is a great way
to add character to a plain
room. And if the existing ceiling
is cracked or water-stained and in
need of a makeover, all the better.
Covering it with panels and beams is
more elegant and less expensive than
hiring a pro to restore a damaged ceiling
to its original condition.
A paneled ceiling like this normally
calls for expensive tools and lots of
carpentry skill, but we designed this
project to be DIY-friendly. It’s made
easy by a homemade circular saw ripping
jig, the installation of a simple
2x4 framework and miter-free joinery
(Figure A). The visible finished material
over the framework is MDF. It’s inexpensive, readily available
at home centers, and smooth and
easy to work with. However, cutting,
sanding and routing MDF is extremely
dusty, so do all your power tool work
outside or at least in the garage with
the overhead door open, and be sure to
wear a dust mask.
While the ease of construction is a
big plus, the real beauty of this project
is its low cost. The materials for this 12
x 12-ft. ceiling cost less than $350,
including the paint.
Three Shortcuts Make This Project DIY-Friendly
1. Miter-free joints: There is no such
thing as a miter on this project.
Every end joint is a straightforward
square cut. Just get the length right,
cut at 90 degrees on your miter
saw, and all the joints will look like a
2. Chamfered edges: Small
45-degree chamfers routed on the
edges of all the exposed trim hide
all but the worst imperfections.
3. Overhangs: The vertical side trim
overhangs the ceiling panels to hide
any sloppy cuts. And the caps overhang
the side trim, so small gaps
there will be hidden as well.
Step 1: Choose the design for your room
Our system is ideal for dressing up any
ceiling whether it’s damaged or perfect,
textured or flat, drywall or plaster.
If your ceiling is flat and in good
shape, you can omit the MDF panels
and simply paint the ceiling and apply
the grid work and trim right over the
existing material. But keep in mind
that you’ll have to make the side trim
strips 1/2 in. wider to account for the
missing panel thicknesses.
The nine-panel pattern works for
rooms up to 13 ft. wide and 33 ft. long.
The use of materials is efficient and
the shape of the panel will automatically
be proportional to the shape of
the room. A square room will have
square panels; a rectangular room will have rectangular panels.
Figure A: Ceiling Cross Section
In a nutshell, the MDF trim fastens to a 2x4 grid that’s screwed to the ceiling.
If you love the natural look, you can
panel your ceiling with any type of
wood and still use the techniques we
show. Use painted MDF for the panels
and solid natural wood for the
beams, or go all out and use matching
veneered plywood for the panels.
To save money when you use this
technique, rip plywood for the side
trim pieces. That'll look fine since the
plywood edges will be hidden. You
can also use any type of wallpaper or
covering on the panels, or on the
existing ceiling drywall if it's in good
Step 2: Lay out and install the 2x4 grid
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Photo 1: Mark the grid on the ceiling
Mark out the beam pattern with chalk lines. Then make it easy on yourself by
marking the joists with a different color chalk.
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Photo 2: Install 2x4s
Screw 2x4s to the ceiling perpendicular to the joist direction with a couple of 3-in. screws into each joist.
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Photo 3: Add crossing 2x4s
Screw the overlapping 2x4s to the first ones at each intersection.
Fill the spaces between the lower 2x4s to complete
the grid work. Space screws every 16 in.
The first step in laying out the grid
work is to chalk lines around the
perimeter of the room 4-1/2 in. away
from the walls. That will allow the full
5-1/2-in. cap to fit against the wall and
match the rest of the finished trim.
Then measure the length and width of
the space inside. It’s up to you how
many panels to use and how big to
make them. Most average-size rooms
work well with nine panels. In other
words, divide both room dimensions
by three. You’ll only be able to have
perfect square panels if the room is
square. Otherwise, you’ll have rectangles,
which is fine—they’ll look great
as long as they’re a consistent size.
And you can always make the panels
exactly the same size. Make them as
large or as small as you wish, as long
as they’re under 4 ft. wide and 8 ft.
long, as much as the sheets will allow.
Once you figure out the panel sizes,
snap the grid layout on the ceiling
(Photo 1). To avoid some confusing math
(accounting for the width of the 2x4
grid), just snap center lines to lay out
the grid and then snap lines 1-3/4 in.
on both sides to mark the outsides of
the 2x4s. It’s a good idea to snap lines
marking all the ceiling joists at this
point so you’ll know where to put the fasteners for the grid and ceiling panels.
Step 3: Cut and install the panels
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Photo 4: Install the panels
Cut the panels to size, prime them and then nail them
through the drywall into the joists.
Cut the panels 1/2 in. shorter than
the grid openings to make them easy
to slip into place. Cut them to width
first and set aside the 8-ft.-long
waste pieces to use for trim caps and
hubs. Then cut them to length. You
can just snap chalk lines and cut the
panels “freehand” since the side
trim pieces will hide imperfections.
Then roll on a stain-blocking primer
(KILZ and BIN are two brands) with
a 3/8-in.-nap roller sleeve. If you’re
working alone, make yourself a support
crutch (Photo 4) to hold the panels
tight against the ceiling while
you nail them into each floor joist
with 2-1/2-in. nails spaced every 8 in.
Fill the nail holes with wood filler.
Sand down any excess filler and surface
imperfections and spot-prime
those areas. Then roll on two coats of
Step 4: Assemble a jig and cut the side trim and cap trim
1 of 1
Photo 5: Cut the trim
Rip the top cap trim using a ripping jig. The simple three-part
jig gives you straight cuts and perfect widths.
MDF panels are heavy—90 lbs. for a
3/4-in. sheet! So even if you have a
table saw, you’re better off cutting side
trim and caps with a ripping jig (Photos
5 and 9) and a circular saw.
Here’s how to make a jig that will
accurately cut the trim pieces you
need for the ceiling:
- Rip an 8-ft.-long, 3-in.-wide “fence”
for a top cap ripping jig (Figure B).
- Rip one 2-1/2-in.-wide “stop” out of
1/2-in. material for ripping the trim
strips for the side trim (Figure C) and a
3/4-in.-thick stop for ripping the caps
and hubs. Rip the stop and fence from
the edges of new sheets, and always
face the factory edges toward the saw
for straight, true guide surfaces.
- Screw each stop to the jig base with
countersunk 1-1/4-in. screws spaced
every 12 in., and then screw the fence
to each stop wherever it needs to be to
match the width you’re ripping.
The key to both jig setups is the distance
from the left side of your circular
saw’s base to the edge of the saw blade
(Figure B). That distance will determine
You’ll have to set up the ripping jig
twice with two different fence locations
and the stop that matches the
thickness of the material you’re cutting
(1/2-in.-thick side trim or 3/4-in.-thick
caps and hubs). The base of the jig is
the same for both jig setups—a 1/2-in.
or 3/4-in. sheet of any flat sheet good.
Or use one of the MDF sheets and
make panels with it later.
Hubs are cut from the 5-1/2-in. cap
strips, so while you still have the jig
set up, make sure you rip enough stock
for those, too.
Figure B: Top Cap and Hub Jig
Assemble the jigs from MDF or plywood.
Figure C: Side Trim Jig
Assemble the jig from MDF or plywood.
Step 5: Rout, prime and install the trim
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Photo 6: Install the side trim
Nail the side trim to the framing. Paint and mask the panels
with painter's tape first to avoid fuss when you paint the
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Photo 7: Rout the hub edges
Cut the hubs to length, then rout the edges using a “corral”
tacked to your workbench to safely hold the small pieces in
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Photo 8: Install the hubs
Center and nail the hubs at each intersection. Don't forget to
prime the freshly routed edges.
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Photo 9: Rout and install the caps
Use the top cap ripping jig to hold the caps in place while
you rout the edges. Cut them to length and nail them to the
grid with 2-in. brads.
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Photo 10: Finish the beams
Patch the nail holes, lightly sand, spot-prime and then
paint the grid-work trim.
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Photo 11: Pull the tape
After you paint the trim, slice through the tape at the
inside corners and peel it away.
Figure out roughly how long the
caps will be and cut and rout the
hubs from the extra material. Sand
off any saw blade marks on the
edges of the cap stock and rout
those edges (Photos 7 and 9). Prime the
pieces. Cut the side trim pieces to
length and nail them to the grid
sides. Then nail on the hubs. Cut
each top cap to length. Chamfer the
ends and nail each into place.
Install an extension ring
Improve Your Lighting
Since you’re covering the drywall with panels, this is a great
time to add or move ceiling light fixtures. If you have a floor
above, just cut channels in the drywall and drill holes through
the middle of joists, or staple the cables on the sides of joists to
get the cables to the new electrical
boxes or recessed light canisters. If
you have an attic above, you’ll
have to crawl up there to run
the cables. Just remember
that when you mount the
new boxes, they should be
flush with the finished
MDF surface. You’ll need to
add 1/2-in.-deep plaster
rings to existing boxes before you install the finished ceiling.
Hollow beam pipe cover-up
DIY Success Story
When Brian Dohrwardt added a
small second-floor bathroom, he
ran into a big problem. The undersized
floor joists didn't allow a
path for the drain lines (drilling
4-in. holes through 7-in. joists is a
recipe for floor collapse!). His only
option was a bad one: He had to
run the pipes under the floor joists
and along the ceiling of the dining
room below. But those ugly,
exposed pipes inspired a beautiful
solution. Brian built false, hollow
beams to enclose the pipes. The
resulting coffered ceiling is the
best feature of his home, Brian