All About the Coffered Ceiling

The Pattern of Ceilings in Architecture

light-colored ornate ceiling, one color, deep indentations, designs within the indentations
Coffered Ceiling at Versaille in France. Photo by © Todd Gipstein/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)

A coffered ceiling is a pattern of indentations or recesses in the overhead surface of an interior. In architecture, a "coffer" is a sunken panel in a ceiling, including the interiors of domes and vaults.

Why is it called a coffer?

The word comes from the ancient Greek word kophinos, which means "basket." The Latin word for basket, cophinus, was adopted by the old French to mean various types of hollowed containers. The words "coffer," a chest or strongbox to hold money, and "coffin," a box for the dead, are both French derivations. The Latin word capsa, meaning "box," evolved into the words "caisson" (an ammunition chest) and "casket" (same as coffin). Caisson ceiling is another way to describe this type of ceiling hollow.

The Chinese name for this type of ceiling, zaojing, means a well for plants that grow in water. The Latin word lacus, meaning lake or basin of water, is also used for this type of sunken panel (lacunaria) ceiling.

Coffers have been used in ceilings for centuries. Sometimes they were used to disguise the architectural engineering, where one beam or brace would be structurally necessary but others were built for visual symmetry. Hollows were sometimes used for structural weight distribution. Coffers have always been used decoratively.

Coffered Ceilings in Architecture and Your Home

Coffered ceilings are sometimes called caisson ceilings, plafond à caissons, lacunaria, cross-beamed ceilings, and zaojing. Sometimes the English refer to these ceilings as "coffer ceilings" but never cougher ceilings. Coffered ceilings are found throughout architecture, from the Pantheon in Rome to the mid-century modern residence called Sunnylands at Rancho Mirage, California.

Creating Coffers

Coffers are the sunken geometric areas in a ceiling, but most ceilings begin as a flat surface. Where do the coffers come from?

Coffers can be created in at least two ways:

  1. Placing a roof beam or crossbeam framework that naturally creates a space between the beams. The space appears sunken because the beams protrude.
  2. Removing ceiling material, as you would carving a hole, or pressing into a flat surface to create an indentation, as you might create an sunken imprint into uncured concrete

Choosing the first method will take away ceiling height. Choosing the second method gains extra space for the room's overall volume. Most coffered ceilings are created using the first method carried out in different ways.

Creating the design framework can be handcrafted by a carpenter like Brian Moloney, owner of The Finishing Company in the Richmond, Virginia area. Maloney is a finish carpenter, but that doesn't mean he comes from Finland. In fact, he comes from Ireland. "Finishing" is just one of the many carpentry skills of a master carpenter.

An easier drop ceiling method is often used by commercial developers, manufacturers, and do-it-yourselfers (DIYs). Companies such as Classic Coffers can be hired to install a grid (sometimes beneath a fixed ceiling), then the panel coffers are placed within the grid. These aren't the tacky looking drop ceilings of your grandmother's basement. A coffered drop ceiling can be created to look exactly like the wood finishing of a master carpenter. Only Brian Moloney could tell the difference.

The DIY may buy a box of polystyrene foam tiles — Faux Tin Like from — that purportedly can be "installed right over Pop Corn ceiling." It's your choice.


  • Inline photos ©Brian Moloney, Crown Molding on, Brian at the Finishing Company, CC BY 2.0