Coffered Ceiling Vs. Tray Ceiling: What Is The Difference?

Kathryn Flegal
by Kathryn Flegal

People often lump coffered and tray ceilings together, but there are many differences between the two. The differences span from price, ease of installation, and materials to the style options that come with each.

When it comes to coffered ceilings vs. tray ceilings, both have similar design elements like recessed areas and geometric expressions. Both treatments can also add dimension and depth to your space. Though, coffered ceilings are made up of two primary design elements: a crossed beam pattern and the infill panels that extend across between beams. Tray ceilings, on the other hand, consist of a single raised area in the middle of a drop-down border that goes around the room’s perimeter.

However, these aren’t the only differences between these two ceiling treatments. When deciding whether to add coffered ceilings or tray ceilings to your home, consider your priorities. If your focus is dramatic design, and your budget is high, coffered ceilings might be a better choice. If you want a less expensive, more subtle way to add something unique to your ceiling, we suggest tray ceilings.

In this article, we’ll go through the features of each type of ceiling. Then we’ll address the pros and cons of each, and which type of ceiling is best for your needs.

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What is a Coffered Ceiling?

The word “coffer” literally means “indentation”, in architectural terms. A coffered ceiling features a group of sunken panels in a variety of shapes in a ceiling. The grooved shapes give the ceiling a 3-D effect and are usually arranged in a grid-like pattern.

The indentations in the ceiling are framed by hollow faux beams. These beams are purely decorative and are not part of the structural integrity of the ceiling.

The coffered ceiling look has been around for centuries. Today, they are a modern nod to the baroque and early Renaissance style of architecture. In early iterations, coffered ceilings were made of stone, which was an impressive feat for the time.

Pros and Cons of Coffered Ceilings

Deciding between coffered and tray ceilings will require a look at the pros and cons of each type of ceiling. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of coffered ceilings:

Pros of Coffered Ceilings

  • Customizable: There are so many different options when it comes to tailoring coffered ceilings. The shapes and pattern choices are plentiful. You can also choose to put ceiling tiles in the center of the panels, use wallpaper or paint the beams.
  • Looks spacious: Coffered ceilings can give off the impression that a room is more spacious than it is, if done well.
  • Practical: The sunken panels of coffered ceilings can absorb excess sound and eliminate echoes, making coffered ceilings the ideal choice for acoustics.
  • Increases home value: This extra feature could potentially increase the resale value of the home.
  • Low maintenance: Once installed, coffered ceilings require no maintenance and are easy to clean. They are also resistant to mold, mildew, and sagging.

Cons of Coffered Ceilings

  • Expensive: Coffered ceilings require a considerable amount of carpentry skills, time, and labor to complete. Professional installation can cost at least $25-$30 per square foot. Other decorative details like paint and tiling will also affect the cost of installation.
  • The illusion of a small room: If the beams extend too far down, you run the risk of the room looking cluttered and less spacious. This is why experts recommend that your ceiling be at least 9 feet tall to install coffered ceilings. The deeper the indentations, the higher the ceiling should be.
  • Nonfunctional beams: If you want to use solid beams instead of faux hollow beams, you’ll probably need extra support for your ceiling.

What is a Tray Ceiling?

Tray ceilings are sometimes known as inverted or recessed ceilings. With a drop-down border around the perimeter, they look like an upside-down tray – hence the name. The center section of the ceiling sits anywhere from several inches to several feet higher than the outside perimeter.

Recessed ceilings are often used in large, open rooms like living rooms or dining rooms, or wherever you’ll be entertaining. Since the ceiling is usually the main focal point of the room, many people add elaborate molding. Contrasting colors and special lighting are also ways to enhance the effect.

Tray ceilings are constructed using dimensional lumber and are wrapped with drywall. They are usually constructed within the ceiling joists during construction, but can also be added in later.

Pros and Cons of Tray Ceilings

Like coffered ceilings, tray ceilings have many great qualities but are not for everyone. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of tray ceilings:

Pros of Tray Ceilings

  • Versatility: Most tray ceilings are square or rectangular shaped to follow the shape of the perimeter of the room. But that doesn’t mean that they have to be. You have the option to make the drop-down borders shaped in many different ways.
  • Customizable: As with coffered ceilings, you can customize the amount the ceiling is recessed, add contrasting colors and different kinds of molding.
  • Function: In older homes, when you want to add central air, you often have to run the ducting on one side of the room. The design of the tray ceiling can hide the bulk header. Tray ceilings can also hide any wiring or plumbing when it can’t be routed through the walls of the home.
  • Ease of installation: Tray ceilings are easier and quicker to install than coffered ceilings, and use more standard materials. This makes them less expensive to be installed by a professional. And unlike coffered ceilings, you can even fake the look of tray ceilings yourself.

To install a faux tray ceiling, you would install a flat trim molding on the ceiling around the perimeter of the room. Then, paint the trim and the inside of the trim contrasting colors to give the appearance of separation.

Cons of Tray Ceilings

  • Illusion of a small room: The drop-down borders of tray ceilings have the potential to reduce headspace in a room. For this reason, it is recommended that your ceiling be at least 8ft tall to install tray ceilings.
  • Limits other structures: If you’re installing a tray ceiling during the construction of your home, it may affect other design choices. For example, if you want a tray ceiling in the kitchen, it might restrict the size of your new cabinets.

Coffered Ceiling vs. Tray Ceiling

So, what’s the verdict? Both ceiling types have many advantages. They are similar in that they both can be retrofitted to an existing ceiling. However, installing them during construction is easier.

Both coffered ceilings and tray ceilings enhance the visual appeal of the room they are in. They are a great talking piece for guests, and both offer many options for customization. While they have similar benefits, tray ceilings do not have quite as many drawbacks. If we base this strictly on the pros and cons, tray ceilings have our vote. Tray ceilings can be just as beautiful as a coffered ceiling but are easier, faster, and cheaper to install. If you want a budget-friendly, quick way to improve the look of your ceiling, this is the way to go.

While a tray ceiling can make a room feel bigger, more open, and have a more lavish architectural design, a coffered ceiling has the effect of breaking up a space and making it feel more intimate. Coffered ceilings can also be designed with a variety of materials, but tray ceilings are almost always covered in drywall and plaster and then finished with crown molding.

However, as with most things, your choice should be based on your priorities. If you want to make a more elaborate visual statement, and time and money are no object, choose coffered ceilings.

Cost Comparison

Ceiling TreatmentCost per Square Foot
Tray Ceiling$2.50 to $10.50
Coffered Ceiling$17 to $60

With a cost range of $2.50 to $10.50 per square foot for an average-sized room, tray ceilings are quite a bit cheaper to install than coffered ceilings, which cost between $17 and $60 a square foot. Again, since coffered ceilings require more advanced carpentry skills, labor, and time to complete, they are more expensive to install.

Depending on the material and design you choose, coffered ceilings cost an average of $25 per square foot. You can expect to spend $3,750 on average to put in a coffered ceiling on a standard 150-square foot build.

Tray ceilings, on the other hand, are generally easier and quicker to install and use more standard materials. Like coffered ceilings, the price of a tray ceiling will depend on several factors, like the size of your room and the details involved. It also depends on whether you’re adding it during construction or afterward.

Tray ceilings usually cost anywhere from $500 to $1500 during a new home construction. Whereas, to add in a tray ceiling afterward, it will probably cost around $1500 to $3000.

Paint Ideas

Once you’ve decided which type of ceiling you want, one of the most common questions that people have is how to paint it. There are so many different options for ways to paint both tray and coffered ceilings. The way you paint either ceiling can dramatically change the whole look of the room.

Here are some ideas that will make your ceiling look like it’s straight out of a magazine!

Tray Ceiling Paint Ideas

  • Paint the tray ceiling a different color from the walls to make a more dramatic statement. If you have the ceiling in a room that’s somewhat plain, this will draw the focus upward and add style.
  • Paint the ceiling a similar color to your wall, but darker. This will have the effect of bringing more attention downwards, to the room itself. Keep in mind that dark ceilings will make the room itself appear darker.
  • Paint the tray ceiling in a way that coordinates with most of the furniture in your room. This will help to tie the design of the whole room together.

Coffered Ceiling Paint Ideas

  • Make the beams and the recessed areas the same, neutral color. This works best if you’re going for a clean, modern look.
  • Paint the beams and the areas they frame contrasting colors. This looks especially striking in rooms with higher than normal ceilings. This draws attention to the beautiful design and makes the room feel bigger.
  • Give the beams a textured wood paint, and the sunken areas a plain, light color such as white. This can give the ceiling a more of a trendy and rustic, yet modern feel.

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Related Questions

Can you add a tray ceiling to an existing room?

Yes, you can add a tray ceiling to an existing room. However, it’s important to note that the drop-down border of a tray ceiling will reduce headroom in the space. So, it’s recommended that you only add tray ceilings to rooms with ceilings that are already more than eight feet high.

Is there a quicker way to install coffered ceilings?

Some ceiling companies offer coffered ceiling kits that you can install yourself. The company customizes the kit for the size of your room. They also give you detailed instructions and videos on how to install the ceilings. Depending on the size and details, this might be an easier and more cost-effective way to add coffered ceilings.

Kathryn Flegal
Kathryn Flegal

Kathryn is a craft aficionado who loves writing about DIY home improvement projects. When she's not writing, she loves reading, listening to musicals, and playing with her kids.

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