The Ultimate Guide to Coffered Ceilings

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It’s hard NOT to appreciate the charm of even a simple coffered ceiling. You simply look up and see a waffle – no relation to the one you pour syrup on and eat. But it’s not accidental that coffered ceilings are also known as waffle ceilings. The resemblance is astonishing! If you think that once upon a time, engineers and techs worked on stone ceilings in order to carve them to create coffers, our appreciation for this special ceiling design becomes deeper.

What is Coffered Ceiling?

…and why is it named like that?

What’s distinctive with coffered ceilings is their pattern. No matter how they are structured, they always create either a deep or shallow 3D effect that resembles the looks of a waffle. The finished product has indentations, which are also known as sunken panels, or recessed panels, or lacunar, or coffers, or caissons. All these words are (more or less) derivatives of the word ‘box’.

So, where did it the whole idea of coffered ceilings start?

If we want to trace the history of waffle ceilings, we have to take a very long trip back to the ancient times. The technique of coffering was used in ancient Greek architecture and was the dominant method of Romans. One of the best examples is the Roman Pantheon. Centuries later, the original designs became far more complicated in the hands of Renaissance architects. The coffers were richly ornamented and often carved.

It’s not surprising why coffering was mainly a ceiling technique in public buildings & chapels. They often served to disguise structural imperfections, provide architectural symmetry, bear the load of cathedral ceilings, or make spaces seem higher. The coffers often served as the canvas where stories were told with artwork. The coffer technique was so popular that Michelangelo used the trompe L’oeil or fool the eye technique to paint the Sistine Chapel in a way to fool the eye that the ceiling has 3D beams. As an overall, coffering was very expensive and thus one more reason why it was reserved only for public properties. Circa 1800 coffers entered the homes of the rich. Mansions started coffering ceilings to enhance their status.

Which reasons drove waffle ceilings into our homes?

Over the centuries, a lot has changed. For starters, technology. Our needs. Homes. Interior design. Take your pick. Whichever way you see it, we had plenty of good reasons for welcoming coffers into our homes. Once upon a time, they had to carve stone to create coffers. Today, most waffle ceilings are created with the addition of beams. There are still some constructions with ceilings made with structural coffers. But they are only the minority. The rest are simply ‘man-made’ waffle patterns with the use of either drywall or wood beams (whether faux or solid).

Why do we all love the idea of coffering ceilings?

  • First of all, they have the advantage prototypes had to hide structural flaws.
  • If the house has a historic value, waffle ceilings enhance its authenticity.
  • They add texture, drama, and architectural interest.
  • They are perfect ceiling décor solutions in high rooms because large beams reduce the floor-to-ceiling distance.
  • The go well in any room – from the living room and dining room to the kitchen and basement.
  • There are unlimited designs and ways to coffer ceilings.
  • In rather low rooms, like basements, where there is also need to hide ductwork or wires, one can install tiles which provide easy access to equipment.
  • With the right coffer panel, average rooms seem to be higher.

The Crisscrossing Beams Are Key to Successful Patterns

The most distinctive feature of waffle ceilings is the sunken panels. And since most modern designs are created with the use of beams, the way beams crisscross one another makes all the difference. The whole idea depends on the grid system. The beams might be installed in any direction and in any shape. They can be arched, straight, or circular. And the way they crisscross defines the pattern of the ceiling. The distance between beams defines the size of the recessed panels.

And since we talk about the shape and size of the sunken panels, it’s important to pinpoint one main thing:

Not ALL Coffered Ceilings Have the Same Shape

The waffle ceiling shape is formed by the way beams are installed. They can form ovals, diamonds, or octagons although the most popular shapes are square & rectangular. How big each coffer is depends on one’s preferences but mainly on the size of the ceiling. With expansive planes, one can create large coffers and thus use fewer beams which in turn will be more frugal.

Coffered Ceiling Materials Are Not the Same …

…but what you choose highly depends on the structure of the ceiling

Assuming that the waffle ceiling is not part of the structure but an add-on, most beams are made of faux or solid wood. For the same exact reason, which material you choose requires great attention. When you add beams to the existing ceiling, you need to be certain that the ceiling can hold the load of the grid system.

With that said, remember that solid wood is a lot heavier than faux wood.

  • Solid wood used to construct ceiling beams includes mahogany, red oak, maple, walnut, and cherry. Despite the unparalleled beauty of the real thing, wood is heavyweight and not as resistant as its counterparts. And so beamed boxes made of real wood must be fastened well and the structure of the ceiling must be checked (to be sure it can hold the weight).
  • Faux wood is usually made of polyurethane and is lightweight. Such materials are resistant to crack, insects, and damage and much easier to install.

As for their price tag, solid wood is always more expensive than faux wood. Today, beams might be structured with drywall or plaster. Faux wood can be covered with plaster if you prefer a less rustic style.

Ceiling beam sizes?

Never forget that it all comes down to the size of the room and the height of the ceiling. Such factors should shape your decision. You don’t want beams large enough to stand out too much and put architectural symmetry out of balance but not to look like toothpicks either. There are about ten standard sizes or you just go custom. One more time: the size (width x height) of the beams will affect their weight and so you need to check how much load your ceiling holds.

Let’s talk style

The Box Beam Shape Defines the Coffered Ceiling Style

The box beam layout will create a 3D pattern which is so much like a checkerboard. But what you see when you look up will be different based on how the beams are arranged, their size, and the color.

Box beam layout

This is the main consideration since it will shape the pattern. Based on how beams crisscross, the coffers will be either big or small. They will be square, rectangular, oval, or hexagons. But then again, coffers are not necessarily of the same size. Though, you need to watch out. There must be symmetry in the ceiling. Common patterns apart from the traditional square texture include a repetitive but intricate motif. This would be a geometric form. Another pattern would be a large circular or rectangular caisson at the center of the ceiling and multiple coffers around it or stiles extending from the center to the edge of the ceiling in all directions (like sunrays, like a cross etc.) It depends on the shape of the room.

Speaking of style and how the beam shape affects it, let us pinpoint that the grid system is often used to create the illusion that the room is longer – that’s by using longer rectangular coffers. In other words, when you are trying to choose the shape of the beamed box, think out of the box. If you intend a specific visual effect, use the beams accordingly. Another example? Take cathedral ceilings. The goal in high rooms is to make them friendlier, control echoes, and reduce coldness. And so the beams are larger and often trimmed with crown.

What else affects the waffle ceiling style?

Colors!!!

Theoretically, the sky is the limit. But this is not always the case. Here comes the famous chicken and egg dilemma. Which comes first? In our case, the dilemma is formed like this: should you paint the coffered ceiling according to the interior home style? Or should you let the waffle ceiling color define your interior style? Either is good. It depends. If you are determined that your living room is minimalistic and that’s it, there is no question about it. You let your style define the ceiling color. In this case, you want nothing more than an all-white ceiling. But if you are trying to find a room style or want the ceiling to be the focal point, choose a bold box beam shape and perhaps paint the coffers black or gray.

Whether we like it or not, there is a third version worth considering. Sometimes, the room size and height will give you the answer you are looking for. And that’s very important. Whether you are inclined towards the ‘egg’ or ‘chicken’ version, your hands are tied if the ceiling is of average height or rather low. In this case, go monochromatic. If the ceiling is average or a bit higher than average, you can paint the recessed panels dark hues and thus add depth. This will create the impression that the room is higher. On the other hand, if this is a cathedral room, it’s best to paint the beams. It will bring the ceiling further down.

From Traditional to Modern Waffle Ceilings

The traditional coffered ceiling style is often rustic. It consists of wooden beams. If you like traditional elegance but not rustic, paint wood or any material used for the beams white. The trick is to use crown molding in each coffer to bring out the vintage charm. The larger the beam the better because you have the opportunity to install wide and ornate crown moulding.

Although it’s not common practice, you can transform a simple waffle design into a Tudor design. This era is distinguished by the embellishments and strong decorative elements even in the ceiling.

If you like a more casual ceiling look or to dress the coffers of the country house, nothing beats beadboard for the sunken panels.

A modern approach will include either minimal patterns or heavy geometrical shapes. A ceiling design might incorporate combos of geometric figures. But what they all have in common is symmetry no matter how intricate the pattern is. There is always balance in order to give a pleasant result.

Waffle Ceilings Pair with Most Lighting Fixtures

 

Coffers match perfectly with recessed lighting. One classic example of a traditionally modern waffle ceiling is having a pot light in each coffer. It’s trendy, minimal, and enables even light distribution. The good news when it comes to coffered ceiling lighting ideas is that you can make any combinations you like but always based on the grid’s pattern. For example, if there is a circular coffer at the center of the ceiling, you can hang a chandelier and install pot lights to the rest of the coffers. You can use all sorts of pendants too – after all, you need all sorts of solutions for high ceilings. If there are coffers in a tray ceiling, cove lighting will also go well. There are many and great solutions and so you don’t sacrifice lighting options and thus brightness or ambiance for the ceiling décor.

 

To sum up:

Waffle ceilings go nearly everywhere and you can make any box beam combo to create the pattern you want and thus shape the style in the room. But never forget to take into account the ceiling’s structure before you choose beam materials and sizes. Besides that, there are solutions for everyone. Today, waffle ceilings are not meant to distribute the weight of domes but define our space. They are mainly decorative ceiling elements. And so why not decorate your ceiling too! Have lots of fun planning & choosing designs!


 

Alexia

Alexia studied sociology at Essex University and did postgraduate studies at Sussex University in the media field. In Greece she worked for many years in printed and electronic media. She has written and illustrated the children's book "Little Bobby Steps Into the World", which is available on Amazon. Today she is spending endless hours with homedearest.com, regularly writes articles for websites in America and Europe, and is a top rated content writer on Upwork. Alexia has always been interested in interior design and has written relative content over the years.

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