open floor plan home with white tray ceilings

Tray Ceilings: Pros, Cons, Tips And Design Ideas To Inspire You

Kim Porter6-Minute Read
February 12, 2021

When planning your next home project, don’t stop at the furniture, wall decor and rugs. Make some plans for the most-overlooked surface: the ceiling.

One option is to install a tray ceiling, creating a beautiful focal point for any room in your house.

Here’s what to know about building and styling your tray ceiling.

What Is A Tray Ceiling?

A tray ceiling has a raised center section and drop-down border that resembles an upside-down tray. Also known as an inverted or recessed ceiling, this design creates a focal point above a room and often features woodwork and painted trim. The tray ceiling is a cousin to the coffered ceiling, which has multiple recessed sections in a grid pattern.

The Pros And Cons Of A Tray Ceiling

Tray ceilings add a stylish touch and may even boost your home value, but they could be difficult to install in an existing home. Here are some points to consider before installing a tray ceiling:

Pros

  • Tray ceilings make a dramatic focal point.
  • They look good in several house styles.
  • Your ceiling will look higher, which creates more visual space.
  • Your home value may increase.
  • Tray ceilings can help separate different areas of a large room.
  • Recessed lighting can add a soft glow to the room.

Cons

  • Tray ceilings may make a space feel confined.
  • These require specific ceiling heights.
  • You may need to apply for a building permit.
  • These ceilings are difficult to paint and clean.
  • You might affect the type of cabinets you can install.

Adding A Tray Ceiling To Your Home

The process — and the price tag — of building a tray ceiling will vary, depending on whether you’re adding one to a new home or updating an existing structure.

New Construction

Tray ceilings are easier and cheaper to build into a new home because the builder can plan for the correct ceiling height. Check building codes in your area; most require a minimum height of 8 feet. Based on your specific home, the builder can decide whether to use roof trusses or stick-framing when building a roof over a tray ceiling.

Retrofitting An Existing Home

Retrofitting an existing home to add tray ceilings will be more costly — and in some cases, you won’t be able to add one at all.

First, you’ll need to check whether your ceiling is at least 8 feet tall. Keep in mind that tray ceilings reduce headroom because the borders drop down. So even if you technically have space, your room might feel cramped.

In some cases, you’ll need to modify the framing to accommodate the tray ceiling. A structural engineer will need to check whether the ceiling joists or trusses are sound enough for this type of project. They’ll also help you apply for a building permit, which may be necessary because you’re altering the home’s structure.

The process is a little easier if the ceiling is already high enough to install a drop-down tray ceiling. You’ll just construct a drop-down frame of the tray ceiling border, cover it with drywall, and style it accordingly. Depending on the project, you might not even need a permit — but it’s best to double-check.

Construction Process

A contractor can walk you through the steps of building a tray ceiling, but here’s a quick overview:

  • Hire a contractor: Gather quotes from several professionals in your area. Compare costs and the reputation of the builder.
  • Make a wood perimeter around the ceiling: Dimensional lumber, such as wood, is best for this piece.
  • Coat with drywall: Leave the finished drywall for a minimalist look or add corner molding to cover the drywall seams.
  • Add trim, molding or a light fixture: Make this decor as simple or ornate as you’d like, but most homeowners try to match the style to the rest of the room or the house.
  • Paint the tray ceiling: The possibilities are endless. For example, you could paint the recessed ceiling one color and the drop-down border a contrasting shade.

Associated Costs

Prices vary in every city and for each project, but homeowners typically spend $2 – $4 per square foot to install tray ceilings. In a new-construction home, you might spend $500 – $1,500 total per ceiling. But if you’re adding a tray ceiling to an existing structure, expect to pay $1,500 – $3,000 per room for the materials and paint. But if you have to remodel the home extensively to fit a tray ceiling, the price tag could easily exceed that range.

Faux Tray Ceilings

You can also DIY by installing a faux tray ceiling with flat trim molding and paint. First attach trim molding to the ceiling where you’d like to create the tray effect. Then, paint the tiers. A darker color in the center and lighter paint on the surrounding border will add depth to the room.

Some homeowners skip the flat trim molding and instead create the illusion of a tiered ceiling. With paint, use a darker shade on the ceiling, then add one or more painted borders around it.

Another cost-effective option is to create a reverse tray ceiling, where the middle part comes down instead of going up. However, you’ll need a slightly higher ceiling of at least 9 feet.

10 Ideas To Inspire Your Tray Ceiling Design

There are many ways to style and customize your own tray ceiling. Here are 10 ideas to get the creative process going:

1. Molding And Trim

Bedroom with subtle molding and trim on the ceiling

The trim is any border you put around the tray ceiling, while molding is more decorative and elaborate. Both features can dress up the tray ceiling, conceal accent lights, or showcase a chandelier or fan. You can use any type that suits your home style — but larger, ornate molding will create a more dramatic impact.

You can also buy moldings in interesting shapes or patterns and — instead of lining the perimeter — use them to decorate the upper part of the tray ceiling. 

2. Paint Options

ceiling tray edge painted a deep brown

While you can leave your tray ceiling bare for a minimalist look, paint can enhance the design. Make a statement by painting your walls a light, neutral palette and choosing a bright, contrasting color for the tray ceiling. The combination of colors adds depth and makes the recessed tray appear farther away.

Another option is to use a darker color on the uppermost part of the ceiling and a lighter, contrasting shade on the drop-down border. Dark colors typically make a room feel smaller, but with a tray ceiling, the darker shade creates a cozy atmosphere — especially in bedrooms. For a cohesive look, match the furniture and other decor to the tray ceiling colors.

3. Tube Lighting

tray ceiling in a movie room in a home with a tray ceiling with lighting strip inside the edge of it

Tube lighting is a string of small accent lights you can install along the perimeter to frame the tray ceiling, emphasize the layers, and highlight the architectural design. You can place these within the recessed tray or completely outside of the tray. However, you’ll probably need to combine the tube lighting with other types of lighting — such as a chandelier or floor lamps — for a complete look.

4. Chandeliers, Fans And Lighting Fixtures

view between two woods doors showing a room with tray ceilings and a chandelier hanging from inside tray ceiling

A tray ceiling directs your eyes upward, while fixtures like chandeliers, fans and recessed lighting become a focal point in the room. An oversized fixture will make an even bigger statement. Choose a new light fixture that works with the decor or update an existing one with a new shade. You can also hide rope lighting fixtures beneath the molding for a gentle, relaxing ambiance.

5. Mirrors

Tray ceiling with a mirror inside of molding in elegant foyer

Mirrors can make any room look bigger and brighter — and you’ve got dozens of options, depending on the shape and size of the mirror. Or you can create a glittering effect using mirrored tiles.

6. Tray Shapes

round tray ceiling with different shapes inside

You don’t have to go with a rectangular or square perimeter. Ovals, diamonds  and circles also look great as a tray ceiling. You can use the same shape for every tray ceiling in your house or use a different one in each room.

7. Double Trays

bedroom with double trays in the ceiling

A double-tray ceiling has two drop-down borders, which creates a more dramatic appearance. But to install one, you’ll need an even higher ceiling, around 10 – 12 feet.

You have the same decorating options, whether you’re looking to add color, patterns, mirrors or a light fixture to showcase your home’s distinctive design.

8. Wallpaper

Room with wallpaper inside of tray ceiling

Using wallpaper on the uppermost part of the tray ceiling adds elegance to the room, especially if the wallpaper has gilded accents. Coordinate the wallpaper color with your wall color and the room decor to pull the room together.

9. Wood Planks or Panels

kitchen with tray ceiling with wood paneling inside of it

Another option is using wood planks or paneling to create a beautiful focal point in your tray. Stained wood will create a rich, traditional feel, while an off-white panel gives the room a lighter cottage approach.

10. Tiles or Stencils

tray ceiling in a living room with tiling

Ceramic or tin tiles can create a dramatic look, especially in the dining room or living room. For a cheaper approach with the same effect, decorate the ceiling with a stencil.

Showcase Your Creativity

Tray ceilings are a great way for homeowners to get creative and play with their design instincts. Once you install a tray ceiling (or you bought a house with one), there are several factors to consider before finalizing the decor: which room it’s in, whether you can install lighting, and just how much attention you want to draw toward the tray. Tiles, stencils, paint and fixtures are all ways to make your tray ceiling look great — how you use them is up to you.

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    Kim Porter

    Kim Porter is an experienced personal finance writer who focuses on mortgages, credit cards, student loans, debt and more. She has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Florida. You can find her on Twitter at @kimsavesmoney or on LinkedIn.