Painted white wood ceilings

Bob Borson —  January 16, 2012 — 50 Comments

Wood ceilings and heavy timber beams painted white … sounds pretty nice doesn’t it? It brings to mind bucolic summer vacations and Vera Bradley catalogs. I am sitting here on my couch … and I might need to wrap my head with an ace bandage because I think it is about to explode. Why you ask? (you are asking … right?) It’s because four years ago when we bought our current house, I mentioned to my better and smarter, more beautiful half that I thought we should paint the ceilings white because the house is really dark -

… and she said no

… until the other day when she said okay

… and now I am nervous about actually painting them out.

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wood ceiling and beams with plaster walls

I have dark rough hewn cedar beams and tongue & groove board ceilings through out my entire house. We also don’t have loads of windows so the overall natural light quality, while nice, is quite dim. Very dim. This is the Master Bedroom, (this picture is from the infamous “Ye Olde Sconces” and post I wrote about my ridiculous light fixtures that do not add to the overall light quality of the space.

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The final painted wall

Knowing that we had a problem, we decided to paint the walls an even white-ier shade of white … that was bound to help. It did but the process completely sucked … I wrote the post “Painting isn’t fun anymore” describing the process. Painting has never been fun but it didn’t really seem like work before either. Painting that stucco was a lot more work than we thought it was going to be and cutting in around all the beams and wood was how we spent 70% of our time. We kept mumbling to ourselves that this would be a lot easier if we simply masked off the floor and sprayed the entire room.

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wood ceiling and beams in kitchen

The kitchen – a black hole of light absorbing happiness … in this space, food tastes bland and that’s only if you can find it while groping around trying to feel for the refrigerator. I might be slightly exaggerating but you can see that this is a pretty dark space considering the fairly sizable window at one end.

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wood ceiling and beams

This might actually be my most favorite space – the office. It’s also the location of my embarrassing first water color attempt (“I’m learning a new skill“). I added the Louis Poulsen PF5 light fixture because it’s a classic and I think it looks good in the space but honestly, the light quality Sucks. (That’s right, sucks with a capital “S”). You can’t even tell it’s turned on unless you’ve loaded it up with a 200 watt light bulb (really) and that weighs on my semi- environmentally conscious soul.

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Bob painting the wall

Just looking at this picture makes my back hurt (and I’m sure my backside is making your eyes hurt…).

So what now … paint the ceilings? It most definitely freshen the place up and make it a bit more modern.

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Robert Young Architecture Montauk Lake House

So, what happens when you paint a wood ceiling white?…… glorious angelic illuminating white? I did a Google search on white painted wood ceilings and found about a million examples (it was actually 12,900,000) that served my purposes. I only needed a few to illustrate my point however.

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Robert Young Architecture Montauk Lake House

Yes, the view is rather nice and there is no shortage of natural light but just look at that beautiful ceiling. Still has texture and plenty of visual interest without a dark ceiling to visually weigh the space down.

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Gast Architects - Chalk Hill Residence

One of the things that my house has that is similar to the image above is rigorous geometry. The wood beams line up with everything – the architect who designed my house was painstakingly methodical about it and you can tell when you are in the actual space.  Yes … the ceiling needs to be painted out to take advantage of the layout, turning what I consider a liability into an asset.

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painted white wood ceilings

Of course, I don’t have the large windows or the the lot sited on Montauk Lake. I also don’t have all the super amazing furniture but it is easy enough to recognize that painting my dark ceilings white would change the look and feel of my house significantly. I know what some people are going to say … “your wood ceilings look great, don’t paint them!!” Yeah, they look okay in these pictures but up close … from where I am currently sitting and looking at them, I’d tell you that they are look filthy and despite the 50+hours of trying to clean them, you just can’t clean rough hewn cedar beams. I tried a feather duster once and I left half of the feathers behind stuck on the roughness of the beams.

Now I got that to clean up as well.

Anybody else gone through this process before? and have some words of wisdom for me? I mean, I’ve painted thousands of ceilings between my own house and my projects – this is going to happen. Has anyone else had wood ceilings that they painted out white to brighten the space and visually lift the room? I’d love to see it.

Cheers

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  • Stephanie Morgan Rogers

    Hi! I just had to comment – your post has me in a constant state of LOL.
    this is me to the T and by the looks of it…many others suffer from the feather snagging happy sucking darkness that somebody decided was a great look in the late 70′s.
    i too am totally daunted by the prospect of DIYing a solution. What if it doesn’t work? I hate painting already! I”m frozen in a state of depression from this darkness.
    My kids call our house Mordor. I’m convinced i can diy this cave into a beautiful european farmhouse with just a few swipes of ????
    Do tell me, did you do it? what did you use? let me see! :)
    love your writing!
    Cheers!~
    Stephanie

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I didn’t do it … I ended up added a giant window that brought in tons of light – which was really the problem we had with the room. Now that we can see out and the room is bright, the darker wood ceiling doesn’t bother me anymore.

      Good luck – let me know what you decide.

  • HA

    Hello- Any suggestions on what to do with unpainted knotty pine ceilings, painted white pine beams and unpainted knotty pine walls? I like the walls, not sure if painting the ceilings completely white would look good. The floors are wood. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      hard to say just based on your description. Do you like the white painted beams?

  • CC

    Hi!
    I am in the process of painting the wood ceiling panels and beams white. I tried semi-gloss on the wood panels and you can see every flaw. I might paint the beams semi-gloss and the wood panels (main ceiling area) flat. Any thoughts on your experience? Thanks

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      flat paint is always the way to go on ceilings … ALWAYS

  • KK

    my painted wood beams are separating from the painted ceiling; there’s about a 1/4″ thick crack running along the sides of the beams where they meet the ceiling. Has this happened to anyone lese? Is this a problem other than cosmetically? If I wanted to return them to unpainted wood and stain them, would it be a mess?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Are they real beams (solid wood)or built up box beams? I have cracks running through some of my beams but it’s just cosmetic, the beams aren’t close to being in jeopardy of failing – if your really concerned about it, call a local structural engineer and pay them for an hour of their time to come look at it for you (this isn’t something that can be resolved here).

      If you want to remove the paint off you beams and then stain them – yes, it will be a big mess. If they are rough beams, you will probably have to sand-blast them to remove the paint (I would turn towards chemicals or scraping). Sandblasting = Mess

      • KK

        Thanks Bob. I believe they are real wood; I had someone check them out last night and it looks like its just the textured paint on the ceiling separating from the paint on the beams, likely from settling of the house. I would love to turn them back to a cedar type wood look but yea, I thought getting the paint off would be a big mess. Any chance a semi-solid exterior wood stain would cover the paint enough to look like stained wood again?

        • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

          Glad to hear that it’s not structural – that would have been a bummer. As far as a stain that covers paint – I’ve not ever come across one so far. You can call the help line at major paint providers (Benjamin Moore or Sherwin Williams as two examples) and they will typically be able to steer you in the right direction. It’s what I would do.

          Cheers

  • Alexis

    hello bob, In my home we have a large exposed beam in our living room that is nearly 20′ up. it is beautiful but the surrounding ceiling is white, which i believe makes the room seem much brighter (granted we also have two large windows and skylights). I would suggest painting (and maybe sanding smooth for easier cleaning later) the beams and leaving the boards in the ceiling that warmer color. if you decide that you dont like the contrast you can always paint the rest of the ceiling later! and if you are up for the project and cost involved, skylights would look good in what i have seen in your home. hope the response helped!

  • Candles

    Hello Bob ,Hi from Australia , female DIY here . I have a small pole home on the coast . All pine just awful and depressing , easy here I taught myself to air spray and I am now painting every wall, ceiling and floor pine board white . I also have painted every picture frame and piece of furniture white , every cane basket every object in my home . Secret is no yellow in the wall , ceiling , floor paint only pure white with a few drops of black added . Everything else open market on different shades of white . I am happy turning a unhappy house to a wow coastal cottage . I will then add coastal shades of colour . Love your site .

  • Jenny Cronan

    Hello Bob

    I found your website searching for images of painted beam ceilings.

    We are selling our house after 20 years – downsizing. It is an architect
    designed house built in 1972, with exceptional detailing and beautifully
    proportioned. I am a landscape architect, and have studied
    architecture subjects at university. So I have some understanding of the
    design intent and influences – Japanese and vernacular. We love
    the house and have painstakingly maintained it in original condition.

    Feedback from prospective buyers indicate that the house is dated and too dark.
    It lacks mass market appeal, so our real estate agent is pushing for us to
    paint the ceilings white. We haven’t decided yet, but we are feeling very
    stressed.

    The comments on your website
    indicate that it is personal preference so we are no closer to deciding.
    But it is great you have a debate going.

    Best wishes,

    Jenny.
    Sydney
    Australia

  • bitsbarnes

    having the same problem because you can’t go back . we have considered sheet rocking between the beams and painting the sheet rock white. if we don’t like the white we can always take it down (just a suggestion). we painted all of the wood ceilings white in the rest of the house but are afraid to do the living room for fear the house will look generic… so we have been deciding this for about a year with no decision yet.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Once we added the large window to the rom, the additional light – along with the fresh coat of white paint on the walls, has transformed the space into what we wanted. I am glad we did not paint the wood.

      I’m not sure I would conclude that the painted white ceiling would make the house look generic – I would focus on what improves the light quality and whether or not the space looks “clean”

    • Candles

      You can go back . If wood is painted white you can stain it with the grain and the add the gloss . Looks great , but takes time .

  • Dinklochen

    White ceilings only work when the walls are white as well. Are you going to paint them, too? I like the natural wood ceiling. Looks scandinavian. Less meiresque (architect bingo.)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      The walls were a faded dingy white so we repainted them white and left the wood dark. Now that we’ve added a large new window, there is plenty of light and I’m glad we did not paint the ceiling/ beams.

      (good bingo word)

  • Tafmak

    Definitely painted white beams is the way to go. What’s your take on painted timber floor though? I bought a house with old timber floors that have seen better days and I’m thinking of painting them white…or maybe chocolate.

  • Amclean

    Shop vac +elbow brush attachment = Best cleaning / dusting apparatus in the universe!

  • Heather Large

    This is quite amusing since the only reason I found your page is because my husband and I are thinking of doing the same to our ceiling. We bought an unfinished house this past year and the guy did some really shotty work on the finish aspects of the house. You can see the lumber stamps on our knotty pine ceiling! We were thinking of painting it white because it feels so dark and my family thought I was crazy! I can’t wait to see the after pictures, maybe they will inspire me to get the courage up to do my own.

    • Ray

      Just do it Heather!

  • Ken@bluedotdesign

    Kitchen yes, 
    The rest is up to debate. I like the beadroom with the Dark beams, but I like precense of materials. Or paint it all white, Richard Meier will thank you.

    K

    • Ken@bluedotdesign

      presence

  • Mac

    Add light first. A white ceiling in a dark room is still a dark room. You already have white walls which is a ton of surface area for light bouncing off a white surface. So if its still dark with the white walls then you need to add lights. Use either track lighting or indipendant fixtures and run the track or wiring on the top sides of the beams where you can’t see it. Use nice small fixtures to up light the ceilings and some for down lighting the room. This will make a world of change. If you still don’t like it then go back and paint. But if you do paint get a pro and pay very close attention to the knots in the T&G ceiling boards. There is absolutely nothing worse then brown knot holes weeping through your white paint a year after you spent thousands to paint the ceilings. And if you do paint, paint everything. White beams with a wood ceiling is going to look really weird. If you can only afford to paint one then paint the T&G white and leave the beams stained black. The black and white contrast will look like it was done on purpose. But white painted beams with a natural ceiling looks like you spent you money on the ceiling finish and cheeped out on the structure of the building so you had to paint it. Just my $.02

  • Mac

    Add light first. A white ceiling in a dark room is still a dark room. You already have white walls which is a ton of surface area for light bouncing off a white surface. So if its still dark with the white walls then you need to add lights. Use either track lighting or indipendant fixtures and run the track or wiring on the top sides of the beams where you can’t see it. Use nice small fixtures to up light the ceilings and some for down lighting the room. This will make a world of change. If you still don’t like it then go back and paint. But if you do paint get a pro and pay very close attention to the knots in the T&G ceiling boards. There is absolutely nothing worse then brown knot holes weeping through your white paint a year after you spent thousands to paint the ceilings. And if you do paint, paint everything. White beams with a wood ceiling is going to look really weird. If you can only afford to paint one then paint the T&G white and leave the beams stained black. The black and white contrast will look like it was done on purpose. But white painted beams with a natural ceiling looks like you spent you money on the ceiling finish and cheeped out on the structure of the building so you had to paint it. Just my $.02

  • Benny G

    Bob, start with one room first, maybe that really dodgy bathroom that you showed us some time back.  I’m sure it will be an improvement.

  • ShellyM

    Since you’ve already made it clear that “this is going to happen”, I will only suggest that this is not a “do-it-yourself-er” job.  The ceiling boards – OK, but not the beams.  Call in a professional.

    With that being said, I completely agree with everyone who separated the beams as the issue.  The ceiling boards look beautiful (in the photos of course) and if the beams could be refinished to the same color and the ceiling expertly lighted – magic!

  • http://twitter.com/SBDSLLC SB Design Studios

    Bob, 

    Well done on the bravery to go white! Although that’s the only color you learn to use in school (because the form and function are supposedly the highest of elements to consider) white can be a very enlightening color. Especially to visually lighten heavy timbers. The black definitely made the heavy, well, heavier. White applied correctly, can really brighten a space and visually enlarge it. Both of which you have accomplished.  

  • Anonymous

    Like some others have said, the problem lies with the BLACK beams. Lighten those up by whatever method necessary (leave the T&G stuff alone) and it’ll look great.

    And Bob, it looks like your ceilingas are real. In this world of so many fake wood ceilings (and cheap, so that’s why they’re painted), don’t end up having your ceiling look like theirs.

    Doug

  • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

    Awesome comments and feedback today – you folks are the best! You know that whatever happens I will share it – the good news being that no matter what I do, it will be an improvement over the existing.

    Thanks again :)

  • http://twitter.com/adeleyoung Adele Young

    I don’t have any words of wisdom to offer, but all I want to say is GO GO GO! It’s going to look amazing. Can’t wait to see the AFTER shots.

  • cooper

    Paint, Paint, Paint.  I’d even offer to help since I really enjoy painting.  You have an awesome house, but that kitchen is screaming for a white ceiling.  But stick to your Rule of FLAT PAINT ONLY ON CEILINGS, that last photo you posted as an example does not look good with the gloss. 

    GOOD LUCK – keep us posted, looking forward to more pictures.

  • JM

    I vote paint the tongue and groove boards and walls bright white. Leave the timber natural. High contrast, bright, awesomeness.

  • http://profiles.google.com/gcorwith gayle pickering

    definitely paint them.  Paint the entire ceiling a cool white, then make the walls pale tinted grey, blue, or ochre.  it will make all the rooms much fresher!

  • http://twitter.com/Splintergirl Amy Good

    I agree that the beams are too dark (like you needed my opinion at all to come up with that one.)  Might I suggest possibly staining or painting the timbers a lighter color, but not white.  You’d still have a rustic look and could keep the room light.

    Honestly, we often urge a client not to stain the timbers dark, partly for this reason and partly due to checking and the need to redo the stain. 

    You could likely obtain a color very close (maybe a few shades one way or the other) to the T&G boards and it would give the room a completely different look.  Have you also considered the color of the floors being very dark and adding to the dimming effect?

    Just my thoughts/questions….

  • William Smith, IIDA

    Go for it Bob! If you paint all the beams white, however, consider painting the ceiling (and walls) another color, probably on a room-by-room basis. Having some variety will allow you to bring out the character of each room, use the color schemes you’ve already established (instead of buying all new white everything), and probably please your better half. 

  • JohnO

    If I were you, I would consider treating the beams and slats as separate.  I am of the opinion that painting the whole ceiling white brings about a very “New England”-ish feel, which is completely antithetical to the design intent behind your house (from what I can tell…).  Perhaps paint just the beams in order to bring the beams/slats into gentler contrast with one another?  Painting just the slats would bring them into greater contrast, probably not something you wish to do…  Please let us know what you decide, I’m sure most of us would like to see the finished product.

  • Garth Russo

    My wife and I have a house with a very similar ceiling configuration to yours.  V-groove panel with dropped 4×6 rafters at roughly 33″ oc.  When we bought the house everything was painted a cringingly, dirty yellow.  Some rooms had stained redwood paneling making them particularly dark, but the biggest issue was that 90% of the lighting for the house was intended to be supplied by switched outlets.  We painted the ceilings a semi-gloss white (somewhat warm white but still very white).  Painting the ceiling is 100% not fun.  Your neck gets sore, the paint runs down your hand and you’re balancing on the top of your ladder with a can of paint and your brush to paint the higher portion of the ceiling and the ridge beam.  I did most of our ceilings this way and then when we re-did our bedroom, I paid to have someone come in and spray the ceiling.  It was of course easier because I wasn’t doing it.  They taped everything off so that they didn’t get over-spray on anything.  I would really recommend that you have someone do it…you can rent an airless sprayer yourself and try it, but it does take a little technique to handle the sprayer and not get runs.  It might be better to get an HVLP  to spray with if you are going to do it yourself, since the sprayer pressure is lower and I think a little easier to handle (it will take a lot longer and you will probably have to use oil based paint in order to have something thin enough for the sprayer to handle). If your ceiling is stained or has an existing oil based paint, then pay special attention to the prep, which you probably already know.  With the rough beams someone will need to run a brush over them while they are still wet after they’re sprayed.  It’s still a lot quicker than brushing them alone.  Our house is very bright now, but that may have more to do with all of the lighting that I installed.

  • Skrelunas

    I’ve struggled with this issue for the past ten years. I have a cabin on a river and the walls, ceilings and beams are all stained and aged. With push pins, I have placed white index cards in various locations from floor to ceiling to see how light reflectivity might be. The index cards do pop from the light absorbing surfaces. 

     I am torn, because the space is comfortable at night, it is a warm amber space, perfect fro drinks by the fire.  By day we spend the majority of time outside, and only pass through the dark zone. For now it seems I am only comfortable brightening spaces that can’t be seen from the dark zone. If you have a ceiling that can be painted, that is not within the sight lines of other rooms, start there…..As for spraying, I think you could do a base coat or two with spray, but will want the final coat to be brushed in order maintain the characteristics of wood and plank. 

  • NikonNY

    While i agree the final effect is very pleasing… I always have a hard time justifying putting paint to wood. Even simple woodwork (baseboard, chair rails, etc) i have a real reluctance to reach for the latex instead of the stain.

  • Ddain

    The problem isn’t the ceilings or finishes, it’s the lighting.  For what you might spend on painting all of your ceilings vs. installing small but meticulously placed lights, I bet you’d receive pleasant results.  Lighting can truly transform any space.  From the photos I don’t think white ceilings fit the style and space.  You would need to make many other coordinated adjustments to other built-in freatures, including trim, and also furniture and assessories (fabrics, textures, art work, decor).  If you are looking for a total revamping, then go for it, but even if you painted all the ceiling white you should still consider lighting.  It’s amazing what LED’s can do today.

  • http://twitter.com/DoubleWSingleV Wermund W. Vetrhus

    I for one like those beams, perhaps only painting the parts inbetween? I think that would excentuate(?) the beams and bring the light into the rooms. Even though that would be a repetition of the painstaking process around the beams, an as such not an exeptable option. 

    My parents house has red beams and a white roof, with bare wood walls and flooring. Being in Norway, they have a lot of lighting fixtures, but still in the day-time it is sufficient with the natural light for normal tasks. And of course it is a refurbished old traditional timber house, so it is very compact, and the rooms are not very deep.

  • Gordon

    I’m working on a house now that had dark stained rough cedar beams and dark cedar panel walls. The interior designer on the project had the walls and beams lightly sand blasted and sanded, then a white wash acrylic in the deep grain recesses and then clear coated. Wow. they are gorgeous. Overall lighter feeling, but still with a touch of the rustic wood grain. I’ll have to take photos when they are done with the room and send them to you.

    • vette

      I would love to see the photos of the project you are talking about.  I have some beams in my home that someone painted a terracotta color.  Total bummer because they had a beautiful walnut brown stain on them.  I found out when I removed some blinds from one of the beams.  Can you post the photos somewhere? 

  • Kalind

    How about a light pipe or two? Cheap, efficient and mood enhancing!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      The addition of the window solved the need to consider a light pipe

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000107553738 John Wallace

    I’ve seen it done a lot on sunporches that people have decided to refurbish about 20 years later (although, alas, no pictures).  The best examples I’ve seen have the any and all knots filled in with wood putty first; the planks are then painted, at least, an eggshell (if not semi-gloss or gloss) white.  This winds up bouncing quite a lot of light into the space, which would be great with those light fixtures in your office (which I am now going to go covet for a little while).  Subtle tinting, such as hints of reds, yellows, and blues, will have a big impact on the ‘warmth’ of the spaces… although I’m NOT a color theorist, and you’d probably want to read a bit more into that.

    It might also look (and smell) nice to sand the edges on the beams and possibly then coat them with clear urethane (if you must); that will significantly reduce the post-Late-Modern-ness inherent to rough-surfaced wood.  Of course, if you’re not careful, you might accidentally unleash a Paul Rudolph Florida house condition upon the space… not necessarily the worst thing in the world, though.

    • Blingaliciousgirl

      Did you Ever do the project?? We are in the same predicament and I’m dying to see finished products! Thanks! XOX

      • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

        we haven’t done it yet – it is on the list of things to deal with this summer. There are so many moving parts on this house it’s hard to determine which problem to tackle in which order.

        As soon as it’s done, I guarantee that I will share the results with everyone.

        Cheers