There are several options for a ceiling installation, also referred to as the fifth wall, and you will see why. Drywall or gypsum board is not the only choice, though it may be the most common ceiling finish used today.
There are many reasons why you may want to consider a different ceiling type, depending on the application, structure, and interior environment.
While drywall is tried and true, it might not be the best return on your investment and there are several alternatives to drywall ceilings that you can consider.
Drywall is heavy and labor-intensive to install and not always appropriate for the conditions of a particular space.
Also, it is fairly “vanilla”, meaning it is a flat painted surface with little to no detail unless the ceiling is uniquely framed with recesses, vaults, soffits, or coffers.
In this post, we will go through the other available ceiling finishes, including their advantages and disadvantages.
Table of Contents
1) Drop Ceiling
The term “drop ceiling” refers to a ceiling that is suspended from the structural framing with wires. In essence, it is dropped down below the framing.
A basic suspended or drop ceiling is a grid system that has metal tracks that lightweight mineral fiber ceiling tiles are supported by.
This system is also referred to as a lay-in ceiling. The reason for that is because the tiles are simply laid on the track that supports them and are removable or replaceable.
The advantages to a drop ceiling are many. The entire system is lightweight and can be installed fairly quickly.
The panel sizes are typically 2 ft x 2 ft and 2 ft x 4 ft. Rectangular ceiling light fixtures fit perfectly into the system.
One of the biggest advantages of a drop ceiling is that it offers easy access to plumbing, electrical wiring, and HVAC components that sit in the space above the finished ceiling.
Also, the tiles you choose can be fire-rated, water-resistant, or acoustically sound. For these reasons, drop ceilings are great for finished basements, rooms with high humidity, noisy playrooms, and attached garages.
There are many styles and colors to choose from for drop ceilings and the track system. You never need to paint a drop ceiling, though you can. If a tile becomes damaged, it can be replaced.
The one disadvantage to a drop ceiling is that many people simply do not care for the commercial look of the grid pattern. The system does not have that warm feeling of a flat painted ceiling that drywall offers.
2) MDF Planks
A plank ceiling is usually comprised of either wood planks or medium density fiberboard (MDF) boards that come in a variety of finishes. Here we’ll discuss MDF planks.
MDF is a composite material that is made from sawmill debris, such as wood shavings and sawdust, mixed with resin. It is a dimensionally stable material that won’t expand and contract the way solid wood does.
The planks are generally available in 84-inch long by 5-inch wide boards. The finish can be wood grain or solid paint.
In addition to the stability and prefinished surface, the ease of installation is another advantage of using planks for your ceiling.
The edges are v-grooved so that they slide into one another and lock into place with no gaps.
This can be a DIY project if you are handy. Using the clips and screws, you are able to level the ceiling over an existing one that is out of alignment.
The finish options allow you to create a warm or rustic wood look or a modern and clean solid appearance. You won’t have to refinish the ceiling and the planks can update a room and hide a multitude of imperfections.
The only downside that I can see with ceiling planks is that they do have resin binders that may or may not outgas VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
Not all MDF boards are processed the same way. So, contact the manufacturer to ask about the material composition and the chances of outgassing. They can provide you with detailed technical and testing data for your peace of mind.
3) Trusscore Wall & Ceiling Board
Trusscore is lightweight ceiling panels that install quickly and easily without the need for taping, compounding, and sanding.
Trusscore panels are made of Polyvinylchloride (PVC). A sheet of drywall weighs about 45 pounds, while an 8-foot length of Trusscore weighs 8 pounds.
PVC ceiling panels interlock with a tongue-and-groove edge. They can easily be removed and popped back into place if you need to gain access to wiring, plumbing, or ductwork for repairs.
An advantage I like a lot is that PVC sheds water. If you are unfortunate enough to spring a leak, the panel can be wiped dry and is not a surface that encourages unhealthy mold growth. PVC also doesn’t swell or shrink the same way drywall and wood can.
While Trusscore panels are cleanable, they are not terribly diverse in terms of available finishes. PVC is bright white. That is a plus for adding light to a space but leaves a little bit to be desired if trying to create ambiance.
I think these panels are great for kitchens, bathrooms, and dark basements. I also find Trusscore to be perfect for commercial spaces where sanitary conditions are a consideration.
Shiplap is the new “it” word in home décor. Shiplap is a term for horizontal wood boards that have cut edges that make it possible to overlap one board on top of or next to the other so they are nestled together.
If you have ever watched any of the home remodeling shows on TV, you will see that shiplap is the preferred material for covering up older walls and ceilings that are not in the best of shape.
The boards can also be applied directly to framing or furring or glued to other substrates.
The look of shiplap is what I would call farmhouse chic. It is warm, comforting, and a little rustic. The boards can be painted, pickled, or stained. It is a great material for covering up older plaster or popcorn ceilings.
While it is possible to install shiplap as a DIY project, you will need a saw to cut the boards, a level, a drill to screw in the boards, and then caulk or putty to fill the countersunk screw heads.
After that, you need to sand, prime, and paint the finished installation. Shiplap will need to be maintained just like any painted surface.
5) Tongue and Groove
Tongue and groove (T&G) is exactly what it sounds like. These are wood boards, generally softer woods like pine, that have a grooved edge on one side and tongue or projecting edge on the other.
Basically, the tongue slides into the groove to interlock the boards so they stay in place. The boards are often 8 feet long and 6 to 8 inches wide.
T&G ceiling boards are easy to lift and can be installed by one person. The finish options are varied.
Many T&G wood boards have a nice grain and can also have knots. The knotty pine look is distinctive, especially when stained and coated with a clear sealer, either acrylic or oil-based.
The boards can also be primed with a non-bleed sealer and painted. The beveled edge between each board is rustic and warming in look and feel.
Tongue and groove board ceilings are sturdy, solid, attractive, and can hide a multitude of subsurface sins. The look is cozy and inviting.
That said, T&G board ceilings are a bit labor intensive to install. The framing or furring strips need to be level. Moreover, you need a few power tools for cutting and nailing the boards in.
You also need a bit of dexterity because you are nailing the boards through the bevel at a 45-degree angle. Then, you have to apply a finish to the boards.
It should also be noted that T&G boards are susceptible to shrinking and expanding depending on the humidity levels within the interior environment.
6) Faux Wood Paneling
What exactly is faux wood paneling? There are a couple of answers to that question.
There are faux wood planks made of MDF (medium density fiberboard) that are installed over a suspended ceiling track with interlocking edges, similar to shiplap.
There are also faux wood ceiling panels that are composed of mineral fiber boards with a wood look layer on the outside. These are installed in a drop ceiling track.
The planks have the look of stained or painted wood boards. The panels are rectangular and have a wood grain look on the exposed surface.
Both offer the warmth of a wood ceiling look and both are ideal for covering up a ceiling that isn’t very attractive.
The panels have the added benefit of sound dampening qualities. Both are easier to install than drywall and solid wood and likely more cost-effective.
7) Gypsum Ceiling Board
While technically drywall, gypsum ceiling boards are labeled as such because they are lighter in weight than standard drywall.
The boards also have increased integrity in their core to make them more sag-resistant than traditional 1/2-inch drywall or wallboard.
Gypsum ceiling boards are installed the same way you would install drywall. The boards are attached to the sub-framing or floor joists above with screws, The joints are taped, compounded, and sanded. Then, the entire ceiling is primed and painted.
The advantage of gypsum ceiling boards over standard drywall is that they are easier to handle due to their lighter weight.
8) Plaster of Paris Ceiling (POP)
When I think of plaster of Paris, I am reminded of the volcanoes we made in middle school out of plaster and water. What a mess! But, what a fun material to work with.
The base ingredient in plaster of Paris is gypsum powder. When you mix plaster of Paris with water to form a thick paste, it becomes very pliable and workable.
This material is used as a coating over other mediums, such as drywall, wood, and concrete that have a metal lath or chicken wire mesh attached to it.
It is ideal for creating interesting decorative elements, such as cornices, and recessed light wells. What you can do with POP is endless.
There is a caveat to this creative and versatile ceiling material. It takes a skilled craftsman to do the installation and it is quite messy to work with including the applied many layers required. Though, it does accept paint well and may offer some fire resistance to the ceiling.
Plywood is likely not the first material that comes to mind when considering a ceiling surface. But there are reasons to add this great product to your toolbox of materials.
Plywood is comprised of veneers of solid wood that are glued together to form solid sheets that are generally the same size as drywall sheets.
Plywood is incredibly strong and dimensionally stable. There are different grades of plywood sheets that are meant for different applications.
For a ceiling, you will definitely want a sheet that has a paint or stain-grade finish layer for the exposed surface of the ceiling.
This layer is made from a variety of attractive wood species and has no checks, knots, or other imperfections.
While plywood is easy to saw and can be attached to framing with a nail or screw gun, a sheet of plywood is heavy to work with and may involve a helping hand.
Otherwise, plywood will last a very long time with periodic painting or staining. Another thing to consider is that plywood can be curved for a domed or vaulted ceiling.
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