The old-fashioned charm of pressed-tin ceilings

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Obsolete Design Elements, Home Improvement Tips, Technology, Historic Preservation

Tucked away in the tiny town of Centerville, TN is a cafe on the square. Breece’s Cafe has long been a place of pride for the town, and it shows in the historic touches that have been preserved since the building opened its doors in 1946. That building was already old at that point; how old, who knows? Among the beautiful hardwood staircase and the heavy wooden entry door are the things that I consider favorites: The Dr. Pepper sign that stopped working decades ago but still adorns the high walls, and the pressed tin ceilings that rise at least 20 feet above the tables.

I have always been fascinated by decorative ceilings. When I walk into a room, I always look up — I’m always curious as to what is above my head. In modern buildings, that is often just a flat, white span of space that has no character at all. But in an older building, it is possible to look up and find a magnificent work of art staring back at you.

The history of pressed tin ceilings

Tin ceilings can be a mark of a building’s age. The heyday of tin ceilings was between 1880 and 1930, but corrugated iron was used on ceilings as early as 1868. These ceilings became common because they were inexpensive, easy to obtain and very lightweight, thus making them very easy to install. In some homes, the pressed tin was used as a wall covering as well, eliminating the need for expensive wallpaper.

Tin ceilings aren’t actually tin — they are steel coated with tin, much like a tin can. Some steel might be finished with other coatings, such as chrome or bronze. If it is covered with a white finish, it can mimic the look of expensive plaster without the weight. The ceilings were seen as a great improvement over other materials, as the tin couldn’t be harmed by insects or vermin, was fireproof, and wouldn’t shrink, peel or crack. In addition, tin ceilings were often much easier to clean during a time when fireplaces were used for primary heating.

Today tin ceilings are very affordable, starting at about $3.00 per foot for mass-produced tin pressings. The tiles can be dropped into a ceiling just like the popular acoustical tiles, thus giving your ceiling a fresh new look in a matter of hours. If you’re looking to create a tin ceiling that is as historically accurate as possible, you’re in luck — many of the old die sets and processes used to create tin pressings are still in use today. Panels are often created one at a time with drop presses, made from the original molds that were used in the late 1800’s. Though these are much more expensive at about $13.00 per square foot, the price offers a true period reproduction that simply cannot be duplicated with modern machinery.

Breece’s Cafe might have replacement windows, modern appliances, air-conditioning and a flat-screen television. But it also has that heavy wooden door, a cash register that dings rather than hums, and pressed tin ceilings that shine down upon the patrons as they eat their meat-and-three. As historic touches go, there are few that can compare with the charm and nostalgia of pressed tin.