Tray Ceilings, The Good, Bad, & The Truly Hideous

Hi Guys,

This is part I and part II featuring tray ceilings. If you have already read the post, please scroll down to the double asterisks ** after the long row of asterisks.


Hi Everyone,

Before we get into our topic about tray ceilings, thank you so much for your kind condolences for Jeff (Richie) Richardson. Of course, we will all die one day, and it is not for us to know how or when. However, the circumstances of this one are particularly difficult to comprehend on many levels. If you missed that one, you can read about it here.

And with that, I just heard a clap of thunder.

So, back to the topic at hand.


Tray Ceilings.


What inspired this one is a recent email from a long-time reader and self-professed “fan girl,” Susan H.

Susan is about to move houses, but you’ve seen her previous house, as it was featured in this post from 2018. 


Let’s read Susan’s email that focuses on her new tray ceiling.


Hello lovely Laurel,

I’ve been pouring over your blogs about ceilings and looking for rules regarding tray ceilings.
However, I can’t find the rules specifically for them

I did find where you said to paint vaulted and cathedral ceilings all the same color.

But, what about these weird tray ceilings? 

There’s the bottom and side and then another crown moulding, and then the ceiling.


How do you paint these things?


Is it the same as vaulted and cathedral ceilings, where it’s sometimes best to paint the entire room the same color? Or, is it something else?

Sorry, I’m a little confused.


Attached, please find the tray ceiling in question.


Susan's tray ceiling to be

This is in the dining room of the home we’re purchasing. Nothing in that room will be there when we arrive.


I also plan to lower the chair rail because I know it’s not the right height.

I realize you’re super busy with your renovation. Everything is looking so beautiful thus far.
Please hang in there!

I’ve been through EVERY guide I bought from you and every post, and I see no guidelines for tray ceiling painting. I’m in a pickle here.

If it’s impossible to post on the subject, is there somewhere I can find that information?

Your fan girl,

Susan H




Okay, dear readers, there’s a very good reason Susan H. cannot find anything written about tray ceilings.


That’s because most of them need Mr. Clean to come by with his magic eraser mop and eradicate them.


Mr. Clean erasing tray ceiling


haha. Of course, not all tray ceilings, but many. Please read on to hear my response to Susan’s tray ceiling problem.


Hi Susan,

As I remember, I’ve only done two posts with tray ceilings; It was almost a year ago. Remember Flo-1 and Flo-2? However, these are two good posts to look at.

These additional posts might also be helpful: this one about problem ceilings
 And, this post is about rooms with low ceilings.


The one tray ceiling you’re acquiring you already realize is “weird.”

It’s not the weirdest one I’ve ever seen by a long shot. Still, it’s not quite right; and, also not uncommon. However, these aren’t your colors, and the room feels dated.


The builder is hiding the AC duct. That’s fine. And, judging from the entry door, the room appears to have a nine-foot ceiling under the AC soffit, which is a decent height. But then, he thought he would “go for the wow factor” and take the area in the middle as high as possible before he hit the roof line.

That’s where he went wrong.


It’s good that he wanted to give the ceiling some architectural interest.
But, it’s supposed to be a tray, not an upside-down box with the lid removed. I don’t think trays should be any deeper than the beams of a coffered ceiling unless it’s a decapitated pyramid tray ceiling. That probably has a better and more genteel name, but you get the point.


Those types of tray ceilings look okay if they’re a little deeper. But usually, they’re too deep too. 
The one above is an architectural gem by Suzanne Kasler and a photo by Emily Followill. This is a very high ceiling, and the tray is balanced.


However, I feel a tray with straight sides should be between one and eight inches for most of our rooms.


Yet, here we are with a box that’s three times as deep as is aesthetically pleasing for this space. Even if it were half as much, it would help considerably.

Can you fix it with paint and mouldings?


You can make it better.


I would paint the top ceiling and crown a soft white. Making the crown part of the ceiling will make the wall seem a little lower. Then, for the wall, you need a crown that comes down no more than 3″ on the wall but extends at 5″ or more under the soffit. This will make the walls look higher. I would do this anyway.

If the tray were a lot more shallow, I’d paint all that a light color, or soft white, including the underside and lower crown. Then, you can paint the walls whatever you like and do the rest of the trim in soft white.


Too bad the builder had no idea how to put up a chair rail, and his crown proportions are also off.


BTW, it made my day that you googled Gil Schafer tray ceiling. (I could see this on the original screenshot Susan sent me.)

Yes, you’ve got it right, girlfriend!

I just looked at your old home, and you got the mouldings exactly right.

Okay, I will turn this into a post, but it would help to see the other side of the room. Actually, if you could send all four walls and what’s beyond them, that would be terrific.




And, here we are. I will begin by showing y’all what I think is awful to seriously wrong regarding the majority of tray ceilings.


For today, I have made some boards of images of tray ceilings.


If someone owns one of these rooms and you’re deeply offended, please accept my apologies. It is not personal. I don’t know you, and I don’t care how other people live. I aim to help anyone who wishes to see what I see as a mistake so that we can learn a better way.

Okay, I tried to follow Done & Done’s great advice by grouping like with like. ;]


red and white dining room tray ceilings

One reason not to do such a high contrast of colors is the stripe effect. That is unless you want stripes. I think it’s a bit much.  It’s better if they’re one color or there’s a more subtle difference.


Tacky tray ceilings

#4 perplexes me. It had to be exceedingly expensive to build this weirdness. The rest require no explanation.


Do y’all remember the lovely reader, Laura, with the fugly family room?


And then, with very little money, she turned it into a gorgeous room. She had an imposing coffered ceiling. Come see how she handled it.


Too much, and bad proportions.

Tacky overscale beams and brown tray ceilings

What’s uglier than a plain open coffer? It’s one  that’s impaled with very dark beams against a white ceiling.

Now, guys, don’t get me wrong. I adore a beautifully executed tray ceiling. However, when it comes to tray ceilings, less (waaaaay less) is definitely more.

Devon Grace came up with a very good solution for #20 which you can see here.
(No, she didn’t set the house on fire.) ;]

Below are a few images from other posts that show what I mean by less. In fact, the first three images are so subtle because they aren’t actually tray ceilings. However, they give the illusion of a tray ceiling.



This a wonderful trick to make a lower ceiling look higher.


The Painted House

Jeff Branch

Jeff Branch


Opal Design Group

This hall is a wonderful place to put a small tray ceiling. This is so interesting because the mouldings are in what looks to be a double tray. However, there’s no crown on the wall and no casing on the door frames. I think this is a fantastic blend of traditional and contemporary.

Ceiling detail and lights basement Boston Athenaeum


Above is my image from the Boston Athenaeum. This triple-layered coffered tray ceiling is magnificent.

Now, there are two more boards of tray ceilings. These are all gorgeous.


I think Steven Gambrel is the king of the ceiling, crown, and subtle tray. I hadn’t been on his website recently. If you haven’t, I highly recommend that you take a look. Steven is a true artist. His rooms feel like he painted on the decor if that makes sense.

The first board features four incredible rooms by Steven Gambrel.


Steven Gabmbrel subtle tray ceilings

These trays are done with mouldings and, in some cases, flat boards.

This next board has tray ceilings by Steven Gambrel and one by Gil Schafer.

Steven Gabmbrel & Gil Schafer tray ceilings


The two on top are Steven’s. The one on the left is a wonderful coved tray ceiling, followed by another large and layered cove. I love the repetition of the curve in the doors. In addition, it is subtly repeated in the chandelier and dining table. This is interior design at its finest.


But, Laurel, why is this big tray okay and the others are not okay?


Great question. It’s a few things. One, this is at least a 12-foot ceiling. Plus, the coves are not as large as they appear because of the additional ceiling moulding. It’s an optical illusion and the same thing for the bathroom ceiling. The illusion is that of a tray ceiling.


my Boston living room February 2022
Hell, I have the same situation in my own living room! There’s another large “tray” in the middle. But, again, the illusion is created with mouldings.


main hall-Boston Athenaeum


Above, these coffers at the Boston Athenaeum are only a few inches tall.


And, the ceiling is super-high. It enhances the architecture without overwhelming it. For more beautiful images of the Boston Athenaeum, please go here.

The last image in the lower right of the board has Gil Schafer’s signature Georgian-style crown moulding. I plan on using something similar to help hide a couple of inches of an unfortunate small soffit surrounding the downstairs chimney in my bedroom. More on that one later.

Okay, that’s all for now. Please stay tuned on Monday evening when I share 2 ideas for Susan’s tray ceiling. One will cost some dollars, and the other is far less expensive.


** Okay, I’m back. I forgot to do the expensive version. I guess because I already know that Susan doesn’t want to do that. However, it entails lowering the ceiling by about 8 inches. Still, I might not be necessary because a lot can be done with paint and mouldings.

Susan wants to repeat the apple green wall color from her old dining room. If you’d like to see her lovely dining and living room and the great job she did with the mouldings, please go here.

So, this one is a very short post.

I made two boards to deal with the tray ceiling.

Susan's tray ceiling dining room yellow-green walls
Okay, what I did is lower the wainscoting that Susan would like to do. I added a pilaster to deal with the weird crown ending. I didn’t put a crown on the pilaster, but I would. This is just to show you the basic changes.

I also beefed up the door casing.


Now, for the tray ceiling.


I painted everything the same color as the walls. However, the trim is in a satin or semi-gloss finish.


And, as you can see, I didn’t change colors until I reached the crown and ceiling. I added a decorative trim similar to what Susan did in her old home. It looks a little darker than the ceiling, but only so that you can see it. I’d paint it the same color as the ceiling. Of course, the trim can be left off.

Let’s bring back the original dining room with a tray ceiling.


Susan's tray ceiling to be


For version two of the tray ceiling, I only made one small change.

(Please excuse that this board isn’t as polished as the previous one.)

Susan's tray ceiling green walls green crown

I painted the upper crown moulding the same as the lower crown moulding. Now, the only change is with the ceiling. I don’t think either one is wrong. However, I’m leaning toward #2 because it doesn’t visually lift the ceiling.


What I don’t recommend doing in this case, is to paint the underside of the soffit the same as the ceiling.


I think it calls attention to the fact that there’s a box attached to the wall. Plus, it begins to look stripey.

Now, I know that many of you have tray ceilings, and if it’s one tray, it’s fine to paint it the same as the ceiling as long as the contrast isn’t too extreme; for example, navy and white.

As for the double and triple tray ceilings, it takes skill and artistry to pull them off.


Plus, they need to make sense in the context of the space, not just slapped on because the builder thinks that’s what everyone wants.



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28 Responses

  1. Wow, did you find some great pics of what not to do with ceilings! And the construction cost of those designs! The how to do it examples are also great.

    Great job with the pilaster. I like the first option, just having been in this position. We have two deep trays ourselves and I must say that I prefer them to some other options that we’ve had. No more boxy 20 footers for me. But proper paint choice is challenging and I hope I continue to like our new paint. The trays work here because of the views from the two rooms, and the way the scale of the view and the ceiling height complement each other, I think. I’ve tried to imagine a lower or flatter ceiling and just can’t make that fit.

  2. I despise my builder grade tray ceiling. In my case they are actually NOT tryinng to conceal duct work. I guess they were going for architectural interest. But its just painful. I intend to paint wall, tray and ceiling one color to try to make it go away.

  3. Hi Laurel, always a fan! Love your transformation of Susan’s dining room.
    The lowered wainscoting and chair-rail are appropriate in height and no longer chop up the room – a more stream-lined appearance.
    Although transformation #2 works, I feel it makes the ceiling tray look even more cavernous. I really like #1. The continued wall color over the first crown moulding and tray visually makes it disappear. I think painting the ceiling crown the ceiling color (but in a gloss finish) helps celebrate the decorative element and enhances the ‘tray’, especially with your addition of the stripe on the ceiling.
    Now the room becomes one – much more unified!

  4. It looks so much better after your treatment! It actually looks like a nice feature instead of a mistake.

    Do you have any advice for ceilings that have weird angles because of the roof? Every room on our second floor has weird angles, especially our bedroom.

  5. Laurel, I can’t believe the transformation with mostly just paint, and lowering the wainscoting! That is terrific and I’m sure Susan H will make it lovely! I love what she did in the house she is leaving.
    I actually prefer version #1 a little better. I think it visually makes the room look wider. But either version is great. I wasn’t sure how you were going to improve it — without Mr. Clean’s assistance.

  6. Dear Laurel. This was a fascinating post and feels well within the realm of the DIY enthusiast! One question I had was whether there are decisions re lighting placement or directionality that would enhance or worsen the effects of a tray ceiling. I’ve seen so many of these tray ceilings with LED light strips hidden in various places to create up lighting which on the surface seems like a good idea (no pun), but on further thought might not work. I thought that wrongly-placed sconces might create shadows that accentuate the errors that you have corrected with the ideas in this post. I would love to hear your incredible “deep-dive” thoughts on how to not undo one’s successful illusions with unsuccessful lighting. As I have learned, it all comes down to the plan, man!! With the deepest respect for your efforts, Barbara.

  7. Holy Crown, Batman. You are talented. I stared at that tray ceiling thinking how do you rescue that? Love what you did and it is oh so simple. Bravo!

  8. Thank you for excellent explanations and redesigns which made it easy to understand a difficult concept (for me anyway!). I think I’ll be more grateful for my eight foot flat ceilings after all!

  9. I love #1 much more than #2 because the white crown visually makes the height of the box seem less tall than it really is. Kind of has the same effect as lowering the ceiling a little bit.

  10. Example number two is vastly better than example number 1 and example number 1 is also way better than the original. I am building a house at present and am trying to get my builder to make my living room look like the SK version you posted toward the top of your examples but he doesn’t seem to get it and is a big fan of the ugly box style you discuss here. If he can’t do it right I’m going to settle on a lower ceiling all around and have him make it flat. Perfectly timed post and very much appreciated. Thank you!

  11. Hello Laurel – great content as always, and thanks to the reader for presenting her home. Forgive me if someone has suggested this already, but at the beginning of your post where you mention where the newest section begins, it would make for easier reading if a link to that section was inserted.

  12. Ahhhhh. Much better! Love the pilaster to deal with “the crown to nowhere.” I loved #1 until I saw #2. The less contrast the better. We are now shopping for a home in a resort/retirement town consisting almost exclusively of 90s bungalows. Tray ceilings, sunken living rooms, weird arches and the like are common. I’m sure I’ll have at least a few bad architectural “features” to eliminate. Not to mention the vinyl siding. Many homes have a little turret bay window in the front. Sigh… It’s a challenge after my gorgeous 1911 four square. Oh well. I had a BIG mortgage. Now I don’t.

  13. Laurel, you must have ESP because your posts are always so timely for me. You may remember we are building a custom home in Idaho right now and we had planned a tray ceiling for the master bedroom. Based on your post, I drove over there and took a second look at the room and decided to nix the entire idea because the room is not huge to begin with (18′ x 15′) and the ceiling is just 9′ high. Since we have roof trusses, the builder can’t build the tray “up,” he would have to build it “down” – if that makes sense. I think it would make the room look smaller. Thank you for saving me from a ceiling I would probably hate.
    I missed the original post on your son’s music teacher; I am so very sorry for you both, and for his family. I trust he is making beautiful music in heaven.

  14. Dear Laurel,
    Thank you for exposing these ceilings for the problems they are. I have been looking for a home in the Fort Worth area for 3 years. So many feature these problems ceilings. If you find a way to deal with them, it would be so helpful. I have eliminated many houses, just because of these atrocities. Another feature they love to do is put the master closets in the bathroom. You have to pass by the shower or the toilet to get into your clothes closet – awful.

  15. Re: Your past post regarding the cost of custom French doors.
    I would never have thought to look on Etsy, but custom French doors popped up on my Pinterest suggestion list and led me there. HomeDesignbyTT shop shows “custom” “antique” French doors in many styles including one that’s similar to what you said you wanted. The ones I’m looking at this minute are $2,140 CA with free shipping worldwide. (I’m not sending the link because you requested that we don’t but I’m sure you could find the shop by searching Etsy.) Good luck.

  16. You gave me a great laugh! Some real doozies! I love tray ceilings that are the right size!

  17. Informative post, thank you. Two questions:
    1) Would creating a faux tray ceiling with paint and moulding add-to the appearance of height on an 8′ or higher ceiling?
    2) When a room/ceiling has angles (such as a ’50’s corner fireplace), would adding a faux tray ceiling w/paint and moulding be ill-advised?
    Thank you…

  18. Hi Laurel, Hailing from the East Coast, I so appreciate this post now that I’ve lived in Texas and now Southern California where there are not only hideous tray ceilings, as there called but tray ceilings with knock down texture. Please share your thoughts on dealing with knock down texture. Very truly yours, Desperate For A Solution

  19. I guess I’m fortunate that I’ve never had to deal with a tray ceiling. But I certainly look forward to learning about how to deal with them in case I ever move into a home that has them.

  20. Another great challenge and we KNOW Susan is up for it. The thing I find weird is that the lower crown just ends in the dining room without turning the corner into the adjacent space. Could, or should, that crown be removed? Definitely all one colour would help. I’d be tempted to drywall over it because so looks so dated. Looking forward to seeing you solutions.

  21. Such heartbreaking news about your family friend. Prayers lifted for all.

    I’m looking forward to part two of this post as I’ve had ceilings on the brain myself. Maybe part three could talk about how to plan/design shallow coffers. I’m thinking about doing that in my kitchen reno, but cabinet and lighting placement complicates things. You designed one years ago in an asymmetric room and it worked, so I hold out hope!

  22. WooHoo
    Thank you Laurel
    We’re not going to be in the house until August 9th and then the update begins.
    I’ve got my painter/handy fix it man lined up. He was recommended, so I hope he’s more carpenter than just handy.
    With your guidance I’m sure it will turn out lovely as everything has in the past.
    I totally trust your judgment. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
    Thank you again, you’re a doll

  23. I’d always wondered why tray ceilings existed, Laurel, and of course I’m stupid: it’s to accommodate ducts. One mystery solved. I must say that I think they’re an abomination, no matter how well done.
    In your “bad” examples, I think nos 7 and 19 could be made more acceptable by giving them the Laura treatment — she did a wonderful job. No 3 (what were they thinking? or were they thinking at all?) could possibly be turned into a circus tent ceiling, exploiting the stripes, with for instance white and mid blue on the ceiling, and pale blue on the walls. As for the rest, the less said the better.
    In your “good” examples, I notice that most of the Steven Gambrel rooms have considerable architectural interest on the vertical planes, the walls, which makes the ceiling less obtrusive. The mouldings and the graduated colours really catch the eye. Thanks for inciting us to look at SG’s website. Yum!
    I think Susan needs to look at the walls as well as the ceiling, perhaps beef up the door and window casings as well as move the chair rail, and perhaps add mouldings to the upper walls to SG it. The photo makes it look as if this is a long narrow room, but that may be just the effect of the photo. I had this problem and did painted panels (no attempt at trompe-l’œil, these are openly painted decor) to help correct the proportions.

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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