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Traditional Hall by Boston Architects & Designers Studio One-Off Architecture & Design

Tin ceilings are one of those rare sights that will make your guests do a double-take. Though original tin ceilings are hard to come by these days, tin ceiling tiles can make quick work of transforming your existing ceiling, creating a beautiful look that is definitely a conversation starter.

When tin ceilings were first introduced, they were seen as an affordable and easy alternative to plaster and wood. Tin ceilings were seen as much more practical, as they didn’t crack, offered protection against dust, rodents, insects and fire, and offered the opportunity for a truly unique pattern. Though no one is certain as to when the first tin ceilings were pressed into use, a ceiling in Brooklyn, New York was patched with tin-plate squares in 1885. The experiment caught on, and by the end of the 1800s there were dozens of factories creating tin ceilings.

The rise of tin ceilings

Soon homeowners realized the value in tin ceilings. Not only were they much more affordable than plaster, the installation was a snap. Plaster required a master contractor to install, but tin ceilings could often be put into place by the homeowner. The light tin pieces could then be painted white to resemble the much more expensive plaster. In fact, these ornate tin plates could be stamped with such care that they appeared wildly opulent — and expensive! — to the untrained eye.

Original tin ceilings were created by heavy dies that were hand-pressed into each piece of tin. One half of the die set was placed on the bottom of the press, and the tin was placed on top of it. The other half of the die was brought down on the lower half, bending the tin by force. It wasn’t unusual to see dies that weighed 900 pounds or more. These massive dies were made of cast iron and thus could last for a very long time — in fact, tin ceilings can still be made the “old fashioned way” at places like the W. F. Norman Company in Missouri.

Today, tin ceiling tiles are much more common. These are stamped into decorative patterns with automated hydraulic presses, and they aren’t actually tin — they are aluminum, which is much lighter and easier to handle. Whether it is created by the old methods or the new ones, tin ceilings can literally last forever if they are given the proper care.

How to install tin ceiling tiles

Today’s tin ceiling tiles are surprisingly easy to install — in fact, you can create a totally new ceiling in a weekend. Start by measuring closely to determine the number of tiles you will need, then find the ones that suit your fancy. Choose powder-coated for tiles you want to leave as they are, and choose bare for those you want to paint.

Next comes the difficult part: You will have to locate the joists in your ceiling and screw 3/8″ or 1/2″ plywood panels to the ceiling. This will provide a firm surface for the tin ceiling tiles to hold onto. Make sure this is very well secured with decking screws of at least 2 1/2″ at every 12 inches or so.

Once that’s done, you can move on to the tiles, and now the job becomes simple. Find the dead center of the room and mark it with a chalk line, then snap more lines on either side, the width of the tiles you want to install. This provides you with a guide. Start at the back of the room and work your way forward, making sure the tiles overlap properly as you go. Take your time with this!

Nail divots on the tile will show you where to insert the steel nails. The key is making sure it all lines up perfectly. When you have the basic ceiling in place, it will be time to add molding and cornices. To get more information on these, take your exact ceiling measurements to an expert in tin ceiling tiles, and they can tell you exactly what you will need to complete the look.

Old-fashioned charm

Tin ceiling tiles are one of the easiest projects to handle, one of the fastest to install, and certainly one of the most beautiful. Put up the tiles and watch your guests be mesmerized by the old-fashioned charm.

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Shannon Dauphin Lee

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.