What to Consider when Hanging Wood Planks Overhead
By Matt Weber
A wood plank ceiling offers the same classic décor as a wood plank floor, so why not hang one in your house? This ceiling treatment has become increasingly popular over the years and presents an interesting way for DIY homeowners to dress up an often overlooked aspect of the home.
Although the basics of installation of both a plank floor and ceiling are essentially the same, working on a ceiling can present some unique challenges that some DIY’ers might not consider.
PREP & PLAN
As shown in this article, Keith Lively installed a tongue-and-groove solid pine ceiling on his 35-ft. long covered porch. The plan was to install the boards lengthwise, and with such a long span, there was no way to avoid end joints between boards. Keep in mind, however, that if you’re installing the boards in a small room—say, 12 feet long—then you could opt for 12-ft. boards and install them from wall to wall with no visible end joints.
Since Lively couldn’t avoid end joints, he selected boards measuring 8-, 10- and 12-ft. long to stagger the end joints during installation.
The long boards minimize the presence of the joints compared to most bargain wood flooring, which is a mix of short and medium lengths, and no long ones. Another problem with random-length boards is they won’t be the right size to work exactly with your joist spacing. To fasten the ends to the joists would require cutting a lot of the boards to the exact length needed (and a lot of waste).
To avoid the problem of locating the end joints on exact joist spacing, Lively installed a layer of plywood over the joists just like a subfloor, which provided a flat, level and uninterrupted fastening surface. For this project he used 1/2-in. plywood on joists that were 12 inches on center.
The presence of end joints was one of several reasons Lively chose to stain and seal the boards prior to installing them on the ceiling. This installation was located in the unconditioned space of a porch, and seasonal temperature shifts were sure to affect the expansion and contraction of the wood. Staining and sealing the planks (including the end grain) before installing them helps to disguise joints when the wood shrinks. Furthermore, trying to stain the planks on the ceiling would be very tough on your upper body and make a huge mess.
Another thing to consider is the style of the board’s edge joints. With boards that have square joints which butt flush against each other to create a smooth floor surface, the planks can have slightly different heights. This height difference results in a bit of lippage when installed. After a normal floor installation, a floor sander usually levels out the boards, but you won’t be able to sand that aggressively on a ceiling, so the lippage would remain. Depending on lighting, such an installation could look amateurish if you’re aiming for a smooth ceiling surface. However, the V-shaped channels formed by planks that have beveled edges will do a good job of hiding those slight discrepancies in a ceiling. Lively selected a plank pattern with beadboard-style joints, which achieved the same effect as the V-joints.
Although you can’t use a floor sander, keep in mind that unfinished wood needs to be sanded in order to take the stain uniformly. You’ll have to hand-sand the boards before finishing them, otherwise the rough spots will drink too much stain and become dark blotches.
Ceiling installation is generally the same as for a floor, and you should take the same steps to prepare, such as acclimating the wood to the space where it will be installed.
In general, floor planks should be installed perpendicular to the ceiling joists, although the presence of a plywood sub-ceiling or a layer of perpendicular furring strips will allow you to install parallel to the joists.
For finished ceilings, first disconnect the electricity and remove all light fixtures and other obstacles. If the framing is not exposed, use a stud finder on the ceiling to locate ceiling joists. Snap chalk lines along each joist location.
You’ll face the same general layout issues as with any standard floor layout. Measure the ceiling for area and divide by the exposed face of a plank. Make sure you won’t be left with a small sliver of boards on the final row of the ceiling. If this is the case, then begin installation with a ripped partial board to allow room for a larger board on the final row.
Also, check the ceiling for square. If the diagonal measurements in each corner aren’t the same, you should create a square straight line as a starting point. Measure from the far wall to the tongue of the starting row. Use a long, straight piece of flooring material as a gauge to show where the front of the row should lay. Adjust its position along the starter wall until the measurements from the far wall to its tongue (which faces the near wall) are the same in each corner of the room. Mark the tongue edge and use that line as a guide to lay your first row. The key is to create a line parallel to the end wall. Remember, this first row is the place to make adjustments because you can tuck the starter board under trim or molding to hide the gap. You can also rip the tongues off the first row to reduce the size of the gap.
The reason to establish the square first row is to avoid having odd pie-shaped planks at the final row.
Begin installation of the wood flooring at the corner of your starter row. The tongue side of the plank installs against the wall. Depending on type of flooring, some planks will not only have a tongue-and-groove edge but also tongue-and-groove ends. Stagger the end-joints from row to row. The tongue edge of the second row will fit into the groove of the installed first row.
It’s smart to place 1/4-in. spacer blocks between the wall edges and the ceiling planks to allow for expansion of the wood. You can remove these spacers after the planks are installed and conceal the gap with molding.
Fasten the planks into the joists with nails or screws. You can blind-nail into the tongue-and-groove joint, or you can drive fasteners into the board face and cover with wood filler later (or do both). Construction glue such as 100-percent urethane flooring adhesive will help anchor the planks securely to the wallboard or plywood (if applicable) while reducing the need for fasteners. Gluing will also prevent the planks from rattling and vibrating.
Butt the planks’ end-joints closely together but avoid driving fasteners closer than an inch from the end grain to avoid splitting the wood.
A pneumatic nail gun will speed up installation dramatically. Fastener gauge is usually determined by board thickness. In addition to a nail gun, keep a saw on hand to cut the last board in each row to size. Use a hammer and strike-block to push the planks together and lock the tongue-and-groove joints. Scaffolding will also be a huge help when hanging the planks on the ceiling.
When you encounter any air vents or electrical boxes, trace the cutout on the wood planks with a pencil and make any curved or intricate cuts with a jigsaw.
To add a finishing touch, the cut edges of the planks along the wall edges can be hidden with molding or trim strips stained to match the new ceiling.
Transform a Suspended Grid into a Wood Ceiling
WoodHaven prefinished ceiling planks from Armstrong Ceilings have a natural woodgrain look but are made of MDF (medium-density fiberboard), so they’re easy to handle and can be installed in a single weekend. If you have an existing 15/16-in. suspended (drop) ceiling grid, then you can snap Armstrong’s Easy Up clips onto the grid and slide the WoodHaven planks securely onto the clips without the need of additional nails or screws. Learn more at armstrongceilings.com.