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What Is a Tray Ceiling?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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A tray ceiling is a rectangular architectural feature that is either inverted or recessed. Tray ceilings can be plain, ornate, subtle or dramatic. Lighting is commonly featured in this design, and these ceilings are often found in dining rooms, hallways and living rooms.

The basic purpose of a tray ceiling is to break up an ordinary flat ceiling line and add a variation in height to create architectural interest. A feeling of spaciousness can be created by the look of the different levels and the tray design can make a low ceiling look higher. Inverted tray ceilings that have the extra level hanging downward rather than recessed, can call attention to an object such as a range hood or a pot rack.

For example, a small plain kitchen can be made more interesting by creating an inverted tray ceiling pot rack as a focal point. The pot rack area could be painted or finished to match the ceiling or it could be in a completely different color and/or material to really stand out. Tray ceilings, whether inverted or recessed, often have molding trim around them.

Crown molding around a large tray ceiling in a dining or living room can be a dramatic and beautiful feature. The style is adaptable to anything from contemporary to traditional depending on the type of lighting used in the space. Everything from a chandelier to a series of pendant lamps can be added to this type of ceiling. Some tray ceilings are octagonal rather than rectangular.

Paint color can really enhance a tray ceiling. For instance, a recessed ceiling can be painted a few shades darker than the main ceiling color to make it appear even more recessed and to give a stronger contrast to the look. Or, for almost a skylight type of look, a deeply recessed tray ceiling can be painted a light color such as pale blue. Some people even paint murals in the recessed or inverted part of this type of ceiling. Inverted tray ceilings are also excellent for displaying an interesting wood or metal surface as well as recessed lighting.

Tray Ceiling Ideas

Because tray ceilings are used to create focal points, they can be found in many types of rooms: Master bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, dining rooms and even hallways or landings feature tray ceilings. Although inverted tray ceilings are attractive in certain situations, recessed tray designs are more versatile.

If you’re considering installing a tray ceiling, what is your goal? Do you want to make the room look larger, more elegant? Do you plan to use it to provide better, more interesting lighting? Do you want to carry other design elements of your room into the ceiling to create a harmonious feel for the entire area? The internet is full of tray ceiling images. Find aspects that you do and don’t like and use those to plan your new ceiling.

Remember that unlike new throw pillows used to change the look of a living room, tray ceilings are permanent features. Find a design that flows with the rest of the room’s architecture instead of your decorating taste. You may sell your home at some point, and the buyer will probably prefer a beautiful but neutral tray ceiling.

Design choices include:

  • Shape — While most tray ceilings are rectangular, some are round or hexagonal.
  • Arched construction — Instead of vertical borders around a tray ceiling, you can use an angled framework.
  • Molding — Many designs use molding around the perimeter, from rather plain, more generic molding to ornate crown molding with elaborate corner pieces.
  • Surface material — Painted drywall isn’t your only option. If your home features hardwood flooring or shiplap, consider using complementary materials in your tray ceiling. This can bring aesthetic continuity into your room.
  • Tiered levels — Usually used in larger rooms, tray ceilings featuring multiple tiers can add even more depth to this feature. To create additional interest, you can use different paint colors or even surface materials for different layers.
  • Paint colors and lighting — Your lighting and paint choices can significantly enhance or diminish the overall effect of your tray ceiling.

Your new ceiling should not overwhelm a room. Although hallways sometimes feature tray ceilings, for example, ornate molding, multiple tiers and elaborate lighting aren’t the best choices for narrow halls.

Tray Ceiling Construction

Suppose you plan to add a tray ceiling by removing existing ceilings in your home. In that case, it’s essential to know what’s going on above the area. For instance, your plans must accommodate any ductwork, electrical wiring, or plumbing pipes.

It’s usually easier to add a box-type structure around the upper walls of a room, giving the look of a higher ceiling while not changing the height at all. However, you should be careful not to extend this box too low; it can make a room look too cramped or create inadequate headspace.

Tray Ceiling Lighting

You’ll choose tray ceiling lighting based on the room's size and function, existing light fixtures in the room, and the effect you want to create.

Recessed Lights

Multiple canister lights are sometimes used around the perimeter of a tray ceiling, either in the traditional ceiling around it or spaced throughout the vertical borders of the actual tray feature. You can use larger recessed lighting fixtures in the main tray area to center focus on the ceiling design rather than the lighting.

Hidden Lighting

Accent lighting can be hidden by appropriate-styled molding around the inside of a tray ceiling. This lighting is usually soft, but it can have a dramatic effect. You can use clear or colored LED rope lighting, although you should be mindful that certain colors might be distracting rather than complementary.

Pendant Lights and Chandeliers

Because chandeliers and pendant lights aren’t flush with the ceiling, they naturally draw the eye towards them. Choosing the correct type of focal lighting for your room can depend on different factors, such as whether you want the lighting to accentuate your tray ceiling or be a dramatic focal point.

Are Tray Ceilings Worth It?

Although tray ceilings aren’t necessary, they add a feeling of luxury to any room. Installing well-designed tray ceilings can increase the value of your home.

If you’re concerned about energy efficiency, don’t worry. Properly insulated tray ceilings built with energy-efficient materials don’t cause energy loss. Ceiling fans are sometimes used in deeper tray ceilings to circulate air and prevent stagnant air pockets.

Cleaning tray ceilings and their sometimes-intricate molding and lighting features can be more difficult and time-consuming than traditional ceilings. Still, many people feel that tray ceilings’ spacious and luxurious ambiance is worth the extra effort.

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Discussion Comments
By CrepeTime — On Jul 16, 2010

We have a 50s era home with ceilings that are lower than we would've like. It bothered me for the entire first year we moved into the house. Finally, I spoke with a decorator friend who suggested I convert them into tray ceilings. I decided if I couldn't have the high ceilings I always dreamed of, I could at least trick myself into thinking I did. With a little time and money, the ceiling was altered to a tray ceiling.

An illusion of space has been created by my tray ceilings. Nobody would ever know!

By clyn — On Aug 06, 2009

So, a tray ceiling has a border around the edge, or the center is recessed while the edges stick out? This is different from a paneled ceiling, like a tin ceiling, where the individual tiles may have designs and add visual interest. It's difficult for me to picture.

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