How to Install a Tongue and Groove Ceiling

Updated: Jan. 11, 2024

Installing tongue-and-groove (aka T&G) boards is a fast, inexpensive way to panel any ceiling or wall. You can install T&G over bare framing, drywall or plaster, so it's a great cover-up for an ugly ceiling.

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Most of the tongue and groove you'll find at home centers and lumberyards is 1x6 or 1x8 spruce. But other wood options and sizes can be special-ordered. Some boards are rough on one face and smooth on the other. Others, like the 1x8 boards used here, have a groove down the middle of one face to give the impression of more, narrower boards. Most stores carry 1x4 beaded ceiling board as well. These tips apply to any of the styles.

Project step-by-step (10)

Step 1

Finish tongue and groove boards before installation

Finish before installation of your wood plank ceiling

Finish tongue and groove boards before installationFamily Handyman

Tongue-and-groove boards are notorious for shrinking and expanding with changes in temperature and humidity. Unfinished tongue and groove boards installed in humid summer conditions can be an ugly mess during the dryness of winter. As the wood dries and shrinks, unfinished stripes will appear where the tongues withdraw from the grooves. But if you apply finish before installation, the tongues will be completely finished—no unfinished stripes to appear later! You could also opt for paint to finish your boards for a white shiplap ceiling look. Check out these wood look plank ceiling ideas to cover an unappealing ceiling.

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Step 2

Start with battens on finished ceilings

When installing shiplap over drywall, start with battens on finished ceilings

Shiplap ceiling - battens on finished ceilingsFamily Handyman

If you’re installing tongue and groove boards over drywall (or plaster especially), it’s a good idea to install 1×2 battens and fasten them directly to the framing with 2-1/2-in. screws. They’ll give you a much more solid nailing surface. If you try to nail through the tongue and groove and the drywall, you can’t be sure the nail will penetrate far enough to securely hold. Also, the battens will somewhat flatten out uneven ceilings. Another plus: You can run the battens either parallel or perpendicular to the ceiling framing, depending on which way you want the tongue and groove to run.

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Step 3

Prep the tongue and groove board ends

Prep tongue and groove board endsFamily Handyman

Recut the ends of every board. You’ll remove staples left over from shipping wrap, cut away any splits and get clean, square edges. One of the best tricks to get a professional-looking installation is to add a 45-degree bevel, called a “chamfer.” This technique is called “V-grooving.” The V-groove will mask small inconsistencies in butt joints. You can either apply finish to the raw wood on each chamfer before nailing up each board or touch up the entire shiplap ceiling after it’s finished.

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Step 4

Blind-nail the tongues

Blind-nail the tonguesFamily Handyman

Always plan your work so the tongues point toward the direction of installation. One of the cool things about tongue and groove walls is that you can use a technique called “blind-nailing.” If you do it properly, you won’t have any nail heads showing or holes to fill. Drive the nails through the shoulder of the tongues into the framing at about a 45-degree angle. The next grooved edge will hide the nail holes. A 15- or 16-gauge brad nailer with 2-in. nails is the best choice for fastening, although an 18-gauge nailer will do the job, too.

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Step 5

Beat them in!

Beat in tongue and groove boardsFamily Handyman

Installing tongue and groove walls can be a real workout. Think about it: (1) You’re usually working over your head. (2) You have to seat the tongues and grooves together, and they don’t always want to marry. (3) Tongue and groove isn’t always flat, so you have to force the boards together to get them seated. The best way to do that is also the fastest way: Use the side of the nailer to tap (and sometimes pound) the boards together. If you start crushing the tongue too badly to get the next board seated, grab a short chunk of waste to use as a sacrificial board. Don’t beat yourself up trying to preserve a pristine tongue—it gets buried in the joint anyway.

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Step 6

Stagger butt joints

Staggering butt jointsFamily Handyman

There’s no reason to try to join butt joints directly over framing members. They can fall anywhere because the tongue-and-groove joints support one another. Plus, if you cut the boards so they fall directly over framing, you’ll waste a lot of material. Instead, choose lengths so the joints look as random as possible.

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Step 7

Sneak up on cutouts

Hold the board in place next to the box and mark the sides.Family Handyman

Hold the board in place next to the box and mark the sides.

Mark the front and back of the box on a scrap.Family Handyman

Mark the front and back of the box on a scrap.

Transfer those marks to the board and lightly draw a squareFamily Handyman

Transfer those marks to the board and lightly draw a square. Draw the opening using another box as a pattern. It’s really tricky to accurately mark cutouts for electrical boxes and other ceiling openings on tongue and groove. The secret is to scribe and/or mark as much as possible in place on the shiplap ceiling rather than to try to measure everything perfectly. After you draw the opening, make the cut with a jigsaw and test-fit the board. If it doesn’t fit, you can tweak the cut. But if you really blew it, don’t sweat it. Just cut out the bad spot, use the parts elsewhere and take another swing at it. You’ll be wasting only a few inches of material.

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Step 8

Break off the groove flanges

Break off the groove flangesFamily Handyman

On any installation, you’ll have times when you can’t fit the groove in the previous tongue and seat the board. In fact, it’s almost always the case with the very last board. But it can also happen at shiplap ceiling protrusions or even at projecting inside corners.

The only option is to eliminate the back of the groove so you can lift the board directly into place without locking the joint together. The easiest way to do this is to break off the flange with a few hammer raps. These pieces can’t be blindnailed—you’ll have to face-nail them and fill a few nail heads.

Step 9

Close the joints

Close the jointsFamily Handyman

Once you get a board seated, go ahead and add a nail or two. But before you permanently nail the entire piece, check the butt end to make sure it’s tight against the neighboring board. If there’s a gap, tap on the end with a block to close it. Then finish nailing off the board.

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Step 10

Cut problem boards shorter

Cut problem boards shorterFamily Handyman

Don’t fight warped, twisted or bowed boards; cut them shorter. In fact, it’s OK to install boards that are only a couple of feet long. They’ll look great, and you won’t waste any expensive wood.

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