DEAR TIM: I am doing an extensive redecoration of my home. I am not pleased with standard smooth or textured drywall ceilings. I would like a unique, classy effect. A 100 year old local ice cream parlor has a patterned metal ceiling that appeals to me. Is that material still available? If so, is it difficult to install? Do you think I can incorporate the look into other areas of my home? If so, where? Audrey P., Southfield, MI
DEAR AUDREY: Metal ceilings make me think of wide pin-stripped shirts, straw hats, handlebar mustaches and garter belts. These very classy ceiling materials are not only available, they are making a strong comeback. The great news is that they are affordable and fairly simple to install. If you are a talented painter, you can even finish them with an attractive two-tone paint job that really accentuates the relief of the metal panels.
The metal ceiling industry was introduced in America just after the Civil War. The industry peaked in popularity at the turn of the century as the middle class population used this decorative technology to copy the rich hand-carved plaster work found in the desirable mansions of the upper class. Commercial establishments quickly adopted the material because of its durability and fire resistance. As you know from your local ice cream parlor, these materials will stand the test of time if they are painted on a regular basis.
There are numerous manufacturers of metal ceilings and accessory pieces. There are nearly 100 different patterns to choose from and a multitude of decorative cornice and crown moldings that will produce an exquisite look in your home. Many of these patterns are exact copies of the original metal ceiling panels. They are often available in 2 foot by 2 foot squares or 2 foot by 4 or 8 foot rectangles. If you really want a distinctive look, some metal ceilings are available in solid copper, brass, or chrome. If you are not inclined to paint the metal panels yourself, you can also purchase pre-painted metal ceiling assemblies.
Installation of metal ceilings is not too hard. Most of the ceiling patterns are designed so that nails driven on twelve inch centers will blend into the pattern. As such, the instructions packed with your ceiling panels will probably tell you to install 3/4 inch furring strips 12 inches on center that run perpendicular to the ceiling joists. Check the furring strips with a string to make sure they are all in the same plane. If the strips have waves and humps in them, your metal ceiling will duplicate this look. To insure against rust from a future water leak above the ceiling, you need to prime the back side of the steel panels with an oil based primer.
Different manufacturers promote different methods of attachment. If you want an authentic look, you can still get the small decorative cone head nails. Believe it or not, you can also install the metal panels in an existing or new drop ceiling. If your existing ceiling panels are flush with the metal grid system, you simply install the precut metal panels between the grid work and the old ceiling panels. The old fiber ceiling panels keep the lightweight metal panels from floating up and down in response to wind blowing in windows and/or from pressure changes created when doors open and close. Specialized sleek suspension grid work is available with a narrow nine sixteenths inch wide flange. You can also purchase special snap in ceiling panels that completely disguise the suspension grid system.
Consider using the metal panels and decorative trim for hallway, dining room, den, bathroom, or kitchen wainscoting. With a minimum amount of preplanning, you can install full sized panels that only require trimming at each corner. The metal panels can quickly add a touch of class to a kitchen counter top back splash that will be the talk of your neighborhood.
Standard pattern metal ceiling panels are affordable when compared against other decorative ceiling treatments. Many patterns cost less than $4 per square foot. The brass and copper ceilings, however, will set you back quite a bit. They often cost $12 per square foot or more. If you choose to purchase and install these materials be sure to budget in an extra $30 for several pairs of heavy leather gloves. The metal panels have very sharp edges. You can cut yourself in a heartbeat if you are not careful.