A guide to installing a metal ceiling to add value and character to your home.
Older Victorian homes were adorned with elaborate trim and molding pieces. Another expensive addition was to install tin panels onto the ceilings. Back then tin was easier to work with and least expensive. Today metal ceilings are sheet metal, which is made of steel. It used to require talented mechanics to install the ceilings, but today you can order the material from a manufacturer and they will provide all of the material, 2 by 2 sheets, that you need with custom cornice pieces to cover the gap between the wall and the edge of the metal sheets. All you need to do is cut out for fixtures, nail it in place and cope the cornice pieces to make a tight fit.
The steel comes either powder coated or bare; to be left looking like metal that is colored in different finishes, or for painting. Traditionally, tin ceilings were painted; if you have any concern about installing the ceiling neatly, you should probably plan to go that route. That way, you can caulk and paint over mistakes. If you leave the metal showing, you can still cover imperfect joints with clear caulk and metallic touch-up paint, but these spots will be more visible. Like wallpaper, there are patterns on these ceilings that have a repeat; a smaller repeat is better for a smaller room.
The metal used for the panels is heavy, so you can’t hang them directly off of drywall or the plaster nails will pull out. You will need to cover the ceiling with plywood to create a secure nailing surface. This is the most time consuming part of the job to find the joists and then raising and screwing plywood sheets to them. Think about layout before you start putting up panels. A row of panels should be centered over the entry to the room, and the joints between panels should overlap in such a way that cut edges face away from the room's entry. This will make the ceiling look neater to someone walking through the door.
Once you have your plywood up and your layout scheme established, nailing up the metal, especially if you rent a brad nailer and compressor, it will just take a little practice to get the panels and cornice pieces into place.
The basic installation for the 3/8 inch plywood underlayment is to find and mark the joists in the ceiling. Make a pencil mark on the wall about ½ down; the cornice pieces will cover the marks when you’re done. Turn off the room's power at the circuit breaker and remove ceiling fixtures. Use a stud finder or awl to find a joist and then measure across the ceiling in 16-inch increments to locate other joists.
Snap a chalk line along the center of a joist near the center of the room. Use this line as your starting point. Secure the plywood to the joists with 2 ½-inch decking screws spaced every 8 inches. If you don’t have someone to help hold the plywood in place, you can make a T-brace, also called a “dead-man”, out of an 8-foot, or longer, 2 x 4 stud cut to the height of the ceiling with a 3 foot piece of 2 x 4 screwed across the top to form a “T”. This will allow you to wedge the T-brace up tight with the plywood in between and you can screw the plywood until it is supported. You can also make two T-braces if this allows you to position the sheets easier.
When you get to an electrical box or other ceiling fixture, use a square or compass to draw its outline on the plywood. Make the cutout with a jigsaw.
Fitting and Nailing the Ceiling Panels
The panels will look best if one row is centered over the room's entrance. Begin by locating the midpoint of the doorway. Next, measure one foot, half the width of a panel, to one side of the midpoint. Snap a chalk line perpendicular to the opening to create a layout line that centers a row of panels over the door.
The first panel will go up at the middle of this chalk line. Mark the midpoint of the line and use a framing square to draw a line perpendicular to that. Then snap a chalk line across the ceiling.
The panels have an edge that overlaps so as you start nailing up panels, leave one or two sides unfastened so you can tuck the edge of the next panel to be installed underneath it. The panels should always overlap with exposed edges facing away from the entrance to the room.
Align the corner of a panel at the intersection of the layout lines. Using a brad nailer, fasten it to the plywood every 6 inches along the edge. Angle the nails slightly. Be careful not to nail the edges that need to overlap the next panel.
Ceiling panels have raised areas or bubbles along their edges, which create a perfect ¼-inch overlap. Tuck the edge of the second panel under the first panel, lining up the bubbles. Nail through the two layers of metal at the bubbles and continue nailing up panels until the field of the ceiling is completely covered.
Follow the shape of the cut out in the plywood to make a similar cutout in the metal. Use a sharp pencil or marker and a straightedge to draw the fixture's outline. If the cutout is a circle, use a compass to mark the piece. Find the center of the circle and measure over to it from the edge of the nailed piece of metal. Transfer this dimension to the piece you are cutting. You will want to make the cuts in the metal about a ¼ smaller so that you can bend the extra metal over the edge of the plywood to keep the sharp edge from cutting wires or you when you are re-installing the fixtures.
To cut the metal sheets, first place a block of wood behind the panel and drill a ½-inch hole. This will allow you to insert the point of a pair of tin snips or sheet metal shears into the hole. Cut along the line, and then make ¼-inch cuts along the cutout edge so you can fold over the metal in separate flaps. Install the panel over the fixture opening and bend the metal inside the plywood.
Continue installing full panels until you get close to the wall. Measure the distance between the last full course and the wall. Using snips, trim the panels to fit. Install them with the cut edges facing the wall.
The seams of the sheets need to be sealed. This is where the bubbles were that allowed you to slide the next piece into the first. Take a short 1x4 block and hold it at an angle against the thin groove at a seam between two ceiling panels.
Tap the block gently with a hammer along the seam to close any small gaps. Be careful not to tap on the raised dimples or they will be crushed. Seal all the seams between the ceiling panels in this manner.
You should have purchased and received precut, coped, and mitered cornice pieces. Arrange them on the floor to see how they need to be arranged on inside and outside corners.
The starting piece should have square cuts at both ends, while the coped pieces slide into square-cut pieces at inside corners. Mitered pieces meet at 45-degree angles at outside corners.
Hold a cornice to the ceiling on the starting wall, overlapping the edge of the last row of panels to determine where the edge will hit on the wall. Mark this edge on the wall.
Use a level to extend this mark across the wall and around the room, creating a level reference line for positioning all the cornice pieces. Tip: It is best to flip your level over after drawing each line so that if your level is slightly off it will not show up at the end when you get back to your starting point. Each time you flip the level over you are canceling out any inaccuracy in the tool.
Place the first cornice on the line and against an inside corner. Nail it to the wall and ceiling every 6 inches. Continue installing square-cut cornice pieces until you reach the next corner. Cut the last piece to fit.
After installing cornice pieces across the first wall, move on to the adjacent wall. Cut a coped joint on a length of cornice and then slide it tightly into the corner. Then, install the rest of the cornice around the room. See my Factoid about installing trim for cutting coped joints. You will need to seal the cornice seams with the wood block and then caulk any gaps and touch-up with matching metallic paint. If desired, you can prime and then paint the ceiling.
Either finish you decide to go with, a painted metal ceiling to replicate a Victorian-Era feel or a designer metallic finish, will certainly add value and character to your home.