What is a Barrel Ceiling?

Barrel ceilings are also known as barrel vault ceilings, tunnel vaults, wagon vaults, and wagonhead vaults. They resemble a tunnel or giant barrel cut in half lengthwise–which gives them the name.

What is a Barrel Ceiling?

They form a single continuous archway with a consistent radius. Often used in cellars and hallways, barrel vaults can also add a feeling of space and elegance to any room in a house.

Barrel Ceiling Construction

Barrel ceiling construction kits are available from suppliers in the USA. They can be incorporated into new homes or used to retrofit an existing ceiling. Cutting out truss webs or rafter bracing can compromise a building’s structural integrity. Have an engineer redesign the roof support system before adding a barrel vault ceiling.

Barrel vault ceilings can be installed below existing ceilings if the walls are high enough. A half-round kit will fit in a four-foot wide hallway with 10’ high walls without losing any of the height and space.

The earliest known tunnel vault is found in Babylonia. It is dated from about 4000 BC. Barrel vault ceilings have been–and still are–built of bricks, stone, and wood. Most new barrel ceilings built from kits are finished with drywall and paint, or wood.

Barrel ceilings–whether built from scratch or from a kit–rely on three measurements to define the vault.

  • Length. Overall distance from end to end.
  • Width. Distance from sidewall to sidewall.
  • Height (Rise). Distance from the highest point (usually the center of the arch) to the lowest part of the arch. This measurement is most important to determine the style of the barrel ceiling.

All of these measurements are necessary when ordering barrel vault ceiling kits.

Barrel Ceiling Styles

Different rounded ceiling designs are all called barrel vaults. Even though they do not have a half-barrel look.

  • Half Round. Classic barrel ceiling design with the height (radius) measurement equal to half the width of the arch. Quite often modified into a soft arch or elliptical ceiling because of height restrictions. For instance, a half-round barrel ceiling in a 20’ wide room is 10’ high.
  • Soft Arch. Also known as eyebrow, segmented, or flat barrel ceiling. Most of the curve happens close to the wall junctions–then flattens out across the width of the ceiling.
  • Elliptical. Elliptical and soft arch designs are often used interchangeably. True elliptical vaulted ceilings have a gentle curve spanning the distance from wall to wall. It is a consistent curve.
  • Pointed. Pointed barrel vaults are often designed as two partially round sides that join at the roof peak.

Other barrel ceiling styles include bell curve, Tudor, and Gothic.

Wood and Tiles Barrel Ceiling

Barrel Vault Ceiling History

Vaulted ceilings are often thought of as sloped walls joining at a peak in the center of the room. Not true. Barrel vault ceilings are one of many different designs. Some of the options include groin vault, rib vault, fan vault, and double barrel vault.

Barrel vault ceilings have been known and used for 6000 years. From Turkey to Egypt to the Indus Valley. And in Northern Europe. Mostly constructed of stone or fired bricks, possibly because of a lack of wood building material.

Barrel ceilings have long been used to instill a sense of awe, magnificence, and grandeur. Often in places of worship, abbeys, and more mundane government buildings like the main post office in Toledo, Ohio.

Arguably the best-known and most stunning barrel vault ceiling is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The barrel spans the 89-foot-wide nave.

Barrel Ceiling Engineering Problems

The arrows in the picture represent lateral forces. The original barrel vault ceiling design makes no allowances for this issue except for heavy solid wall construction. Barrel ceilings in basements rely on surrounding soil to prevent walls from being pushed out. Roman and other ancient barrel ceilings were constructed on massive stone walls–some 14’ thick.

Modern construction eliminates much of the lateral pressure problems by constructing barrel ceilings inside the building envelope. Using scissor trusses or reinforced rafter framing prevents any weight from reaching the barrel vault and putting pressure on the walls.

Barrel Ceiling Benefits – And Drawbacks

Barrel Ceilings need not be limited to some of the grand historical buildings. They can add a feeling of space and grandeur to almost any room. They also offer flexibility and ease of finishing compared to other types of ceiling designs.

As beautiful and impressive as most barrel vault ceilings are, they can present significant problems.

  • Energy Costs. Barrel ceilings in large rooms can easily add 50% to the number of cubic feet you are heating.
  • Cleaning. Cleaning the ceiling and any fixtures at height is harder than cleaning at conventional heights.
  • Repairs. Even changing a light bulb that is 15’ – 20’ above the floor can be challenging.