How to install a tin ceiling

The Old House Web
By Jean Morrison, Heritage Ceilings

Pressed metal ceilings can restore the history of an old house or give old-world charm to a new house. For all their ornate detail, tin ceilings are surprisingly easy to install.

In this article, I'll take you step by step through painting and installing a ceiling the way professionals do.

Tin ceilings are easiest to install on a plywood subsurface. In this photo the cornice, main panels and moulding have been installed. Space has been left open for the filler strip.

Aluminum, not tin

Although pressed metal ceilings are commonly called tin ceilings, most are made from an aluminum alloy, not tin. Aluminum is a corrosion resistant, durable product. Unlike steel, it doesn't rust. The terms tin, pressed metal, and aluminum are used interchangeably in this article.

Paint first, hang later

An existing metal ceiling must be painted in place, for obvious reasons. But with a new ceiling, you can do your back, arms and neck a favor by painting the panels before installing them.

Most pressed metal ceiling panels are sold primed and ready to paint. Use tough, long-lasting oil-based enamels on metal ceilings. You don't want to have to repaint your lovely ceiling soon, so be sure to use good quality paints.


Use a two to three inch brush to apply the base coat. Choose the best quality brush you can afford so that you are not continuously picking off hairs from wet paint. You'll need much smaller, artist brushes to paint the fine details. Try to be consistent in the way you paint. For example, always paint your leaves with brush strokes in one direction only. Have a small container of turpentine or paint thinner on hand. Any paint excesses or errors can be quickly and neatly wiped away with a cotton swab moistened with turpentine.

You will need to apply at least two coats of base color; dark colors may require a third coat.


yellow panel


Paint designs can vary from a simple one-color to a two-color monochromatic scheme to a complex four-color design. Keep in mind that too much detail can make a ceiling look too busy.

How much detail?

You can use one color over the whole ceiling, add just a touch of color to the mouldings, or go all out, with a multi-color scheme.

It is easy to paint too much detail into ceiling panels, so keep in mind that less may be best. Too many colors can make your ceiling look too busy. Remember that the ceiling will be several feet above your head, and very fine details will not be visible.

The patterns in aluminum ceilings are deeply pressed and create lovely shadows themselves just from electric or natural daylight. For this reason, many people choose to use just one color of paint over the whole ceiling. We strongly recommend that light shades of paint be used. Dark colors are appealing in theory, but in practice, they can give a heavy, oppressive feel to a room.

Every so often you should stand back from your work and assess it from several feet away.

Attaching panels to the ceiling

Now that your ceiling is painted, it's time for installation. Most reputable ceiling suppliers will offer detailed fitting instructions. If you're all thumbs when it comes to such projects, you may prefer to hire someone to install your ceiling. However, many homeowners successfully install their own ceilings.

One caveat: The existing ceiling must be dry and intact. Solving moisture and other ceiling problems is beyond the scope of this article.

It's easiest to install pressed tin over a sub-ceiling of plywood. Simply nail the tin to the plywood. Strapping can also be used, but plywood is much easier. Existing cornices and crown mouldings should be removed before screwing plywood to the ceiling.

Find the center lines of the room

It's very important to make sure your ceiling panels are installed square. But very few few rooms, even in modern houses, are built truly square. So, you need to find the center of the ceiling and also the center of the four edges of the ceiling. Draw clearly visible lines dividing the ceiling into equal halves and then quarters. You will start to lay your metal from the center of the ceiling and then work out toward the edges. This method will ensure that any discrepancies in your ceiling are halved by the time you reach the edges of your room.

Cornice first

These fitting instructions assume that you have already painted your panels before installation begins. Painting them first is the easiest way to proceed - especially if you want the panels painted in detail.

After drawing out your center line markings, attach your crown cornice. Most cornices have flanges along one side of their length which will later be covered up by the flat ceiling paneling. These flanges must be nailed to the plywood. The lower edge of the crown cornice is nailed to strapping supports which are attached to the walls.

Some manufacturers now supply aluminum strips which attach to the walls. The cornice clips onto these strips. Ask your supplier for advice on installing these cornices.

filler strip
The even, factory cut edge of the filler slips under the flange of the cornice. The strip is cut to size and the cut edge slips under the moulding of the main ceiling panels. Tacking nails are visible in this photo.

finished ceiling
The final ceiling includes corner rosettes to conceal border miters and corner ribbons to conceal miters in the cornice.

Lay it out on the floor

Before you attach the main ceiling panels, lay them out on the floor. This helps familiarize you with the pattern, which is useful practice for later on. When people walk into this room, from what direction do they see the ceiling? Always lap the panels away from the main entrance into the room to minimize the appearance of joint lines.

Installing the main paneling

Install the tin panels with tacking nails until you're sure that everything is in its final position. These long nails should only be partially nailed in so that they can easily be removed with pliers. When you are satisfied that everything is in the right spot, systematically remove the tacking nails and finish the job off with small nails.

Follow the manufacturer's instructions on nail sizes. And be sure to read your manufactures fitting instructions carefully. Certain parts of the ceiling must be nailed down in order for a professional looking installation.

Start nailing the main paneling from the center of the room out toward the edges, remembering to be consistent with panel lapping.

If you are using an all-over, small pattern, you can continue to nail your panels right out to the cornices. Trim the outside panels until they fit tightly up against the crown cornices.

If you are using a larger design, you will need to stop well short of the cornices so that molding strips and border/filler panels can be fitted.

Most of the larger designs require a border or filler strip around the edge, otherwise they don't look so elegant when installed. Border or filler panels usually have a small pattern which complements the larger main panels in the center of the ceiling.

It's worth consulting an expert on border widths. It's easy to upset the balance of your ceiling by having a border that is too wide or too narrow. Ask your supplier for help on this topic.


Many delightful aluminum accessories give a classy finish to ceilings. Corner attachments hide any rough cutting in the area where the cornices are mitered. Rosettes can be placed at the junction of the moulding strips.

Ceiling Medallions

If budget and ceiling height permit, you might consider installing an aluminum ceiling medallion. These are truly works of art. Cut by hand, they're not particularly cheap to buy. However, the effect they create is absolutely stunning.

After the ceiling is installed

When the ceiling is nailed up you should take a look at the nail heads -- if you can find them. Because such small nails are used you may find that they are not visible. If necessary you can paint a tiny amount of paint on the nail heads.

Jean Morrison ownsHeritage Ceilings in Western Australia. The company specializes in pressed metal ceilings and ships world-wide. Also available are hand painted tin ceiling and wall panels and hand painted plaster ceiling medallions, roses, domes and cornices. Authentic Australian tin ceilings from a century ago are the inspiration for the company's designs.

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