What is a coffered ceiling?

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Craven, Jackie. "What is a coffered ceiling?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 1, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-coffered-ceiling-177263. Craven, Jackie. (2016, October 1). What is a coffered ceiling? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-coffered-ceiling-177263 Craven, Jackie. "What is a coffered ceiling?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-coffered-ceiling-177263 (accessed September 20, 2017).
Coffered ceiling hand built by master craftsman
Coffered ceiling built by Irish carpenter Brian Moloney in Virginia. Photo ©Brian Moloney, Crown Molding on flickr.com, Brian at the Finishing Company, CC BY 2.0

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.

Examples of Coffered Ceilings:

Other Names for Coffered Ceilings;

  • caisson ceiling
  • plafond à caissons
  • lacunaria
  • cross-beamed ceiling
  • zaojing

Alternate Spellings: coffer ceiling

Common Misspellings: cougher ceiling

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 (see photo of unfinished ceiling). Brian Moloney, owner of The Finishing Company in the Richmond, Virginia area, is a finish carpenter. That doesn't mean he comes from Finland—in fact, Moloney 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 Amazon.com—that purportedly can be "installed right over Pop Corn ceiling." It's your choice.

Learn More:

  • Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter by Norm Abram, 1996
    Buy on Amazon