What is a Beam Ceiling?
A beam ceiling is a ceiling with exposed structural beams. The beams were originally squared off trees–or even the trees themselves–with branches and bark removed. Structural beams hold up roofs, second floors, mezzanines, and galleries.
Wood ceiling beams are often seen in vaulted ceilings. They are a staple of log home building. Many flat-roofed buildings use beams to support the roof. This design look has led to the incorporation of faux beams being added to conventional ceilings. Faux ceiling beams are decorative and add to the weight of a ceiling instead of supporting the weight.
Exposed ceilings are a popular design concept. Leaving floor or ceiling joists exposed is a way of having an exposed beam ceiling without the heavy beams.
Beam Ceiling History
Very early beam ceilings were made of trees, saplings, and branches used to support roofs. They spanned the open area between walls–allowing various materials to be added. As tools and design knowledge improved, so did beams. Trees were manufactured into longer, stronger beams capable of supporting larger, heavier roofs.
Exposed beams became a normal construction technique for most buildings–from cottages to castles. Examples can be found throughout Europe and most of the northern hemisphere. Exposed wood ceiling beams have been used in all countries where wood is available.
The use of large beams was gradually replaced by milled dimensional lumber in the 1800s. Post-WW II remodeling projects concealed beams by lowering ceilings to reduce heating and cooling costs or to add a second floor. Lower ceilings also make cleaning easier.
Structural or Decorative Ceiling Beams?
Structural and decorative ceiling beams are available in multiple designs. People like the natural soft aged wood look and feel of original beams or reclaimed wood box beams. Many have the original axe or saw marks making for a one-of-a-kind look. These beams can also be painted, stained, or oiled. Cleaning might be a challenge.
Decorative faux beams made of extruded polystyrene or fiberglass are easy to install. They can be painted or stained to match the house design.
Structural Ceiling Beams
Structural exposed beams are part of the building envelope construction. They support roofs, and second floors, and can be part of the system that keeps walls plumb. Manufactured of solid hardwood or steel, they weigh hundreds of pounds and require heavy equipment to install. Not to mention that engineering and design approval is required in most jurisdictions.
Decorative Ceiling Beams
Decorative ceiling beams–also called faux ceiling beams–are installed to mimic exposed beam ceilings. They provide the look without the weight. DIY faux wood ceiling beams are not difficult to make and install. Construct U-shaped boxes. Install cleats to the ceiling attached to the framing. Install the boxes over the cleats and screw them from the sides. Paint or stain them before putting them up.
Ready-made faux ceiling beams are also available. Made of polystyrene or molded fiberglass, they are light and easy to install. They are available in various styles and sizes that look like real wood or steel beams. They can be stained or painted before installation.
Types of Beamed Ceilings
Here are a few of the more interesting and/or familiar types of exposed beam ceilings.
Historic Structural Ceiling Beams
Prior to 1920, most houses used heavy structural beams for roof construction. Many had conventional plaster or wood flat ceilings added later. Removing the conventional ceiling from an older house may open up a world of vaulted ceiling beams that can be turned into a true exposed beam ceiling.
Hammerbeam Roof System
Hammerbeam roof support systems are typical of English Gothic Architecture. It keeps the majority of support close to the walls and roof deck. Leaving the center of the vault unobstructed.
Hammerbeams are roof trusses without the engineered central webbing used by modern trusses. Constructed of heavy timber, they not only support the roof but open up vaulted ceilings to provide large and airy rooms.
The design is very distinctive with heavy curved beams supplying support for heavy roof beams. Hammerbeam trusses can be added to existing sloped ceiling or vaulted ceiling designs using non-structural box beams.
Box beams are three-sided faux ceiling beams installed on various ceiling finishes to imitate solid wood. They are available in many manufactured textures and colors–including hand-hewn, band saw, and smooth–among others. Some companies make them with reclaimed wood.
Box beams are often used to create coffered ceilings. They are also used to imitate exposed beam ceilings–both conventional flat ceilings and vaulted ceilings. Any room with beams–solid or faux–needs more than average height to showcase the full effect of beam ceilings. Heavy-looking wood beams in rooms with nine-foot-high or lower ceilings can be overpowering.
Modern vaulted ceilings are constructed using scissor trusses. Then they are drywalled. Faux vaulted ceiling beams are added to provide rustic looks and design variety. Most exposed beams used on flat conventional ceilings are also faux beams attached to the trusses.
Steel I-beams can also be used in exposed beam ceilings. Steel beams–structural or faux–provide a commercial or industrial look made popular in converted warehouses. Either type of beam can be painted to match the room’s decor. Extruded polystyrene or fiberglass faux steel beams can also be stained.
Structural steel beams should only be installed with an engineer’s certification. Steel beams–especially any made of softer steel–can have more deflection distance than is safe or desirable.
Exposed Joist Beams
Exposed joists are technically exposed beam ceilings. Wood joists do not look like wood beams. They are narrower and taller–1 ½ “ wide and up to 12” high. Some are engineered Truss Joist I-Joist (TJI) made of solid wood tops and bottoms and chipboard in between in the form of an I.
Many exposed joist beams are part of an exposed ceiling. Quite often ducts, wires, pipes, and bracing are visible. Many exposed ceilings are painted all one color. Black or dark gray are popular options. A cleaner less cluttered look can be had by rerouting as much of the wiring, ducts, and pipes as possible. Be cautious removing braces. It may compromise the structural integrity.