My plank wood ceiling

I have a combination home office/man cave that I work out of. It’s a basement room the previous owner never finished. I fixed some mistakes and adapted it to my own needs. One thing it always lacked was a ceiling. After weighing my options, I decided to use wood planks. Call it rustic. Call it cheapo. Or whatever else you want. Rustic planks are in now, and for a do-it-yourselfer, planks offer a compelling option.

Advantages of a plank wood ceiling

wood ceiling example
This is my wood ceiling made of 1x3s and 1x4s that I installed myself. It’s rustic, but that look works in a basement.

Conventional ceilings are made of drywall. But drywall is heavy and unwieldy. Painting ceilings is miserable work, but taping and mudding over your head is worse. It’s difficult for a do-it-yourselfer to install a conventional ceiling and make it look good.

Planks cost more than drywall. But I figured I’d need about $50 worth of drywall and $15 worth of drywall mud to put a ceiling in that room. Or I’d need $100 worth of cheap lumber and $15 worth of screws. The $50 price difference would be worth it, because I could do it just by myself, without needing any tools besides a tape measure, saw, and drill.

Ease of labor

After all, one person can cut planks and screw them to the ceiling. I’d just need to cut boards of 2, 3, 4, or 6 foot lengths, hold them up to the furring strips with one hand, and screw them in with the other. A 4-foot length of 1×4 weighs about two pounds, so the task is very doable.

And yes, using GRK trim-head finish screws, I could get away with using screws and not need to drill pilot holes because they’re self-drilling. The heads are small enough they look like nails once you’re done. Some carpenters use them to install reclaimed wood floors.

Finally, I could work at as rapid or as leisurely of a pace as I wanted. On the low end, I probably could do the whole project in a single Saturday if I wanted. I could also go to the store for a box of screws, check the cull lumber in hopes of snagging some bargains, and build at whatever pace the cull lumber pickings allowed. It would be super cheap, but could take months.

I ended up taking about a week to do it, putting in a few hours on a Sunday and the following Saturday, and a couple of hours each evening in between.

Maintenance

Using boards also makes maintenance easier. It’s rare to have to tear into a ceiling in a finished basement, but it happens, and fixing it increases the cost. But tearing into a wood ceiling is easy. Just find the screws holding the boards, unscrew them, and take down the boards you need for access, then put them back. Removing the boards for access and putting them back adds maybe 15 minutes to the job.

If you use the screws I use, just remember the screws use a T10 bit.

Selecting boards

I didn’t have a ton of selection when I built mine. Between COVID-19 and numerous severe storms in the summer of 2020, lumber was in short supply, or at least, certain sizes were. Some of the stuff I bought would end up in the cull pile during normal times. Building from cull would be potentially interesting, but in 2020, it wasn’t very practical.

Some people use pallet wood. But I also figured between the time required to scrounge the pallets, disassemble them, clean them up, and sort the boards probably wouldn’t be worth it.

I chose an in-between option, using a combination of 1×3 and 1×4 furring strips. Furring strips are meant as spacing lumber. They’re the stuff you’re supposed to screw onto your joists, then screw the drywall onto. Instead, I made a ceiling out of it. Furring strips are rough cut, and generally made from whatever cheap softwood trees happen to be available. What I got was mostly pine.

Pine is actually a nice choice for a ceiling. It’s not dark, so it doesn’t make the room look smaller. It also diffuses the light almost like a white drywall ceiling would, but it’s a little less harsh. I liked the effect.

Getting picky

I needed around 32 boards for my project. What I didn’t do was just grab whatever 32 boards happened to be on top. I tried to get boards that were straight, and tried to avoid boards with knot holes in them. I couldn’t always find a straight board with no knot holes, so sometimes I had to settle. Visible grain patterns are also nice. A lot of white wood doesn’t have much in the way of grain. If I saw a board with visible grain, I grabbed it.

One way to increase the variety a bit is to not buy everything all at once. Either make multiple trips on different days, or buy from more than one store.

If you’re going for the rustic look, the boards don’t have to be perfectly straight. But straight boards are easier to work with. And when you’re working overhead, you want easy.

Cutting boards

Having a miter saw made quick work of the cutting. I generally cut my 8-foot boards into 2, 3, or 4 pieces. I didn’t worry about getting exact measurements. It looks better if there’s a little bit of randomness in it. I also tried to mix the boards up a bit. By that I mean I’d cut multiple boards to the same lengths, then mix the pieces up when I put them on the ceiling. If I did use pieces from the same board on the same span, I tried to rotate one piece or flip one of the pieces over so the grain pattern wouldn’t be continuous across two adjacent pieces.

If you don’t have a miter saw you can use a circular saw, or whatever saw you have.

Finishing your boards

plank wood ceiling
This ceiling cost around $110 to install and I got it done in about a week, working one weekend and a couple of hours each evening.

You can finish the boards if you’d like, but I chose to leave mine natural. Finished wood works best on a tall ceiling, and your basement might be lacking in the height department. Mine is.

Sanding the boards can take some of the rough finish off, and sometimes the boards have markings on both sides of them. Sanding the better side fixes that. I used 60-grit sandpaper to make quick work of the marks. Following up with finer grit would give a smoother board, but I didn’t do that.

If you’re after a more finished appearance, you can absolutely stain and polyurethane the lumber, or finish it however you like, then hang it on the ceiling.

Fixing knot holes

I did try to fix my knot holes. I don’t mind the look of knotty wood, but I’m not fond of holes in my ceiling. Stuff a bit of paper into the hole, then fill over the paper with whatever wood filler you have. It’s OK if the color doesn’t match the rest of the wood. Knots aren’t the same color as the adjacent wood. It won’t quite look like a natural knot when you’re done, but if you only have the occasional board with a knothole patch on your wood ceiling, no one will notice.

Hanging the wood ceiling

plank wood ceiling
Hanging furring strips across my joists allowed me to work around this pipe.

I hung 1×2 furring strips perpendicular across the joists, about two feet apart. I could have just screwed the boards straight into the joists, but I had to avoid some pipes, and using furring strips was an easy way to do that.

Start on one side of the room and work across to the other side, or start in the middle and work your way to the edges. Don’t work from the edges and try to meet in the middle. That last space where the boards meet won’t be the width you’re expecting, and the width won’t be uniform. Your cut-to-fit boards will be much less noticeable on the edges of the room. It’s up to you to decide if you want to start on one side and deal with the light fixture box, or start at the light fixture box and have to make custom angle cuts on both edges.

I found that by alternating 1x3s and 1x4s just right, I could meet up with the light fixture in the middle of the room without having to cut an opening for the fixture in my boards. The occasional run of 1x3s mixed in with the 1x4s doesn’t look bad, at least if you’re going for the rustic look. If anything, it adds a bit of visual variety.

Tips to make installation go easier

I like to hold a board up to the ceiling, mark the position of the furring strips, then drive a couple of screws into the board so they’ll hit the strip. Sometimes, just depending on the angle I’m standing at, I can hold the board up with my left hand, hold a screw with my left thumb and forefinger, and drive the screw with my drill in my right. But sometimes I can’t, and pre-driving a screw or two makes it much easier.

A single screw will easily hold a board in place without you having to hold it. Subsequent screws add holding power, but their job really is to hold the board straight. I wouldn’t count on these tiny screws being able to hold 40 pounds like a construction screw does, but you’re only asking them to hold four.

If you use the screws I use, and you buy two boxes, you’ll have two bits. You can put the second bit in a screwdriver and start the screw by hand. Sometimes that’s easier than trying to start the screw with a drill.

I did most of the work with a regular drill. I have an impact driver, and there were a few times I used it and was glad I had it. But I preferred a regular drill the majority of the time. When driving thread-cutting screws into pine, even an electric screwdriver can do the job pretty easily.

Dealing with gaps

There will be times, no matter how careful you are, that you end up with gaps. It’s extremely unusual for a room to be perfectly square. Not all of your boards will be perfectly straight. Not all of your cuts will be perfectly square either. Eventually, all these little errors will compound and manifest itself in a gap.

I think the best thing to do is square it up with the wall when you notice, so the error doesn’t keep compounding and get worse. Then, there are two things you can do about the gap.

Take the board out that has the gap, and cut the ends at a slight angle, around 5 degrees or so. Then you can maneuver the board into place to give yourself a small gap on either side of it, rather than one huge unsightly gap.

Or, if you have a jigsaw and you’re pretty proficient with it, measure the size of the opening and cut a piece that fits it tightly from a larger board.

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