Decorative Ceiling Tiles — How Can I Do That?


When I walk into a house with decorative ceiling tiles — the kind that look like tin or leather or some painted effect — my first is response is: Wow! And I’m not sure why. There’s just something about that look that I resonate with.

But here’s the issue: Whenever I resonate with something so strongly, I tend to put that thing on a pedestal, as if it’s out of reach for the average person, like me.

So when I came across ceiling tile expert Milan Jara, I wanted ask a few questions about the process. here’s what he said:

Q: Why do people like decorative ceiling tiles?

A: If you’re planning a room renovation or perhaps have just gotten tired of looking at the same old drywall or acoustical tile ceilings in your home, one of the easiest ways to create a fresh look is with decorative ceiling tiles. While tin ceilings might bring to mind houses from an era when Victorian masterpieces were known as “Painted Ladies,” the decorative tiles are just as popular and attractive when used in homes today.

Q: What is the history of decorative ceiling tiles?

Tin ceiling tiles were installed in those older homes as a less expensive alternative to the intricate plaster ceilings that were all the rage in many parts of Europe at the time. Builders found the tiles easy to work with and they could be installed in a fraction of the time that plaster normally required. Take those properties and add in the many styles and types of tiles now available to homeowners and you have some pretty good reasons to consider the product for your home remodeling projects.

Q: What are today’s ceiling tiles like?

Today’s decorative ceiling tiles are available in tin, faux-tin, Styrofoam, and faux-leather with each type having numerous styles and finishes that allow you to complement just about any interior décor. There are three primary installation methods for the tiles and each is very DIY-friendly — if you can use a hammer without hitting your thumb and know which end does the cutting on your tin snips and scissors, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to upgrade your own ceiling. Depending on the size of the room, installing the decorative tiles can often be done as a weekend project.

Q: What are the different types of ceiling tiles I could choose from? And how do I install them?

A: Here are some ideas:

Nail-Up Decorative Ceiling Tiles

Tin tile ceilingIf you want to install your tiles just as they did in the old days, nailing them in place can give your ceiling a dated appearance, but the method can also be used for a modern look. In most cases a layer of plywood should be installed over the existing ceiling to provide a good anchor for the nails and just like installing a sub-floor, the plywood should placed perpendicular to the existing framing.

Decorative ceiling tiles are normally about 24 inches by 24 inches and rooms often look best when installation starts at the middle of the space. Once you’ve determined the center, measure over to the outside walls to take into account any offsets or angles that may cause you to have a very small piece of tile along any wall. If that is the case, you may want to shift the tile starting point a bit as pieces of tile less than 6 inches wide should be avoided if at all possible.

Place a corner of your first tile on your starting point and work toward the outside perimeter of the room during the installation. Nail-up tiles are designed to overlap during installation so in most situations you’ll be nailing through two tiles — drilling pilot holes in the tiles may help the nailing process. When you get to the outside walls, a metal or wood trim can provide a finished look to the cut edges of the perimeter tiles. You can see some examples here.

Glue-Up Decorative Ceiling Tiles

FoamTileInstallation of a glue-up decorative tile ceiling is much the same as the nail-up variety, but in most rooms there will not need to be any plywood installed first. As long as your existing ceiling is stable and pieces aren’t about to fall down, the tiles can normally be glued directly to the sheetrock or plaster. If you have a popcorn or textured surface, any loose debris should be scraped off before the tile installation begins.

The ceiling layout and tile placement is the same as when nailing up the tiles but you’re using glue instead of nails. Use enough adhesive that the center and edges of each tile are firmly held in place. Here are some examples.

Drop-In Decorative Ceiling Tiles

A drop-in decorative ceiling tile installation is a little more complicated than using glue or nails. However, it can be the ideal choice if you have a rough looking ceiling and don’t want to go to the trouble of adding plywood or totally removing the existing material. A drop-in system can also be used in a room that has no existing ceiling and the framing is exposed.

A grid system much the same as those used for a commercial drop-in ceiling is installed in the room and while it may sound intimidating, after the first several pieces of grid most homeowners find the system easy to put into place. The arrangement consists of wall angles around the perimeter of the room and center pieces called Tees that divide the ceiling area into 2 foot squares. The grid spaces around the edges may be smaller than 2 feet to accommodate the measurements of the room. The tiles are simply dropped into the grids when complete.