Simple ceiling restoration can be a decorative improvement as well

March 06, 1994|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Special to The Sun

A seriously deteriorated ceiling is a high-altitude problem, one that often seems to defy decorative solutions. Cracked plaster, sagging drywall and water stains that can't be camouflaged with a coat of paint call for radical remedies. Fortunately, there are several affordable and easy-to-execute options, including some that you may well have dismissed in the past.

Despite the fact that it is one of the most effective and affordable remedies for a defective ceiling, acoustical ceiling tile has often been regarded as the remedy of last resort. Common in classrooms and convenience stores, its use in homes has often been limited to basement rec rooms. For good reason: It has not been a particularly attractive material, often making an otherwise inconspicuous surface annoyingly conspicuous.

But that was then. Things are definitely looking up for ceiling tile and for suspended ceiling panels. Style has, finally, come to these ceiling fixes.

So, if you've dismissed these materials as too low-end, it's time to take another look. What you will find these days is color -- plum, rose, peach and tan, in addition to play-it-safe white -- and pattern. That's pattern, not just texture as in the old days. Some tiles and panels bear an uncanny resemblance to classic, turn-of-the-century plaster work. Others have finely beveled edges that produce a raised panel look or edges that are scalloped or fluted, as if framed with picture-frame molding. Armstrong, one of the major players in the ceiling tile industry, even has a 4-foot strip tile that mimics the look of a 6-inch-wide wooden plank.

There is a difference between ceiling tiles and ceiling panels, though both are made of a lightweight mineral fiber. Tiles are typically 12 inches square. They are attached with invisible clips to metal furring strips nailed or screwed to the old ceiling. Ceiling panels, on the other hand, may be 24 inches square or 24-by-48 inches. These rest on an all-but-invisible, color-matched metal grid suspended by wires from the original ceiling. Do-it-yourselfers with a modicum of talent and a few basic tools can install either ceiling in a weekend.

The advantage to suspended ceilings, especially for those working in older homes, is that they can hide new overhead wiring and exposed heating ducts and pipes. Usually, a minimum of three inches clearance is required. But if you have ceilings that are nine feet or higher, that won't be much of a sacrifice.

Both panels and tiles are washable and paintable (but avoid the deeply textured types). And, in addition to their acoustical properties, many are fire retardant.

Of course there are other remedies for a cracked, stained or perpetually peeling ceiling. While replastering is often prohibitively expensive, replacing plaster with gypsum wallboard is less costly and a once-in-a-lifetime job. Unless you're an experienced remodeler, though, hire a contractor to do the work. Installing 4-by-8-foot sheets of wallboard overhead is no mean feat. And taping and patching the joints and nail holes is as much art as science.

Another alternative is to cover an old ceiling with tongue-and-groove boards, usually nailed to wood furring strips nailed or screwed to the old ceiling. Six-inch-wide boards are the most popular, but 4-inch-wide bead board -- the material often found on ceilings of old porches -- produces a stunning look. In either case, the wood can be painted or stained to suit your taste.

If you live in a vintage home (or wish you did), don't overlook embossed metal ceiling panels, the kind used in turn-of-the-century general stores. Check the Yellow Pages for a local distributor.

If your ceiling is beset with spider-web cracks, wallpaper is another good option. Some wallpaper manufacturers are now offering embossed ceiling papers that mimic the look of elaborately plastered ceilings. If you only want to hide the cracks and restore a smooth surface, choose a good-quality wallpaper in neutral color. Ask your dealer to help you select one that is paintable so you can paint the ceiling in the color of your choice. Depending upon the severity of the cracks you may have to put up a liner paper first.

Remember, though, it doesn't do any good to restore an ailing ceiling if you haven't solved the underlying -- or, rather, overlying -- problem. A leak in the roof or a wobbly rafter in the attic has to be repaired first, or all of your investment in time, energy and money will have been wasted.

No matter what solution you settle on, consider adding some embellishment to exploit your ceiling's decorative potential. Think about painting it a buttery yellow, peach or sky blue; a color other than white can change the light and character of an entire room. A wallpaper border or painted border can add shape and dimension. A hefty crown molding or thin picture-frame zTC molding can add classic architectural detail. Ceiling medallions that resemble ornamental plaster but that are made of a lightweight synthetic material can help draw attention to a chandelier or a charming ceiling fan.

Though often overlooked, ceilings have enormous potential for adding color, pattern and surface variety that can elevate visual interest in any room. Just because a ceiling is out of reach doesn't mean it's out of sight.

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