Mary Beth Klatt is a freelance writer with a passion for architecture and home design.
Tin Ceilings Bring Vintage Flair
The revival of the Victorian-era tin ceiling is providing a modern-day, decorative flourish that is getting many home owners to look up.
August 1, 2009
Tin ceilings can add drama to a home's ceiling. Coming in a variety of patterns and styles, this pressed tin artwork can be identified by its three-dimensional ornate swirls and floral designs.
While popular in the 1890s, tin ceilings became less prevalent after the Depression, replaced by today's mostly plain white ceilings.
However, tin ceilings are making a comeback and giving buyers a reason to look up again. In fact, these quaint tiles have quietly been making a resurgence for the last 30 years, particularly among home owners and real estate practitioners rehabilitating Victorian homes and wanting to recreate the authentic period details.
Other home owners are being drawn to the juxtaposition of exposed brick, virgin timber, and the new tin in downtown loft conversions. You might also spot the fashionable artwork in backsplashes, wainscoting, or other household details.
Designers such as Shabby Chic (Regan Books, 1996) author and interior designer Rachel Ashwell and magazines such as Country Living have more recently incorporated the well-worn vintage tiles into a modern look, using originals to create mirrors and picture frames.
In their heyday, the pressed metal square tiles were used as an inexpensive alternative to ornate plaster ceilings. Americans first used them during the Civil War, and in the post-war building boom, these tiles were often found in schools, storefronts, and residences.
During the height of their popularity in the 1890s, the most widely requested tiles had the dramatic flourishes and embellishments of the Art Nouveau movement; in the 1930s, geometric motifs were prevalent.
Part of the overall appeal of tin ceilings are they easy to install—you simply need furring strips, nails and hammer, and the ability to stand on a ladder for long periods of time. They can be a glamorous way to mask pesky, stubborn cracks. Plus, when painted white, the tiles resemble expensive plaster.
Could Your Home Already Have It?
Many real estate practitioners and home owners tend to find original examples of tin ceilings hidden underneath unattractive contemporary dropped acoustic ceilings, or behind drywall in storefronts dating back to the early 20th Century.
Usually the old tin, nailed directly to wood framing, is rusty with missing pieces and raw, sharp edges. But they can be repaired with matching new tiles and a fresh coat of paint.
Frequently, home owners start from scratch and create an entirely new fourth wall with tin because it's difficult to find originals. Glen Eldridge, owner of Chelsea Decorative Metal Company in Houston, offers prices starting at $18 for an unvarnished square; other firms' fees vary.
Redecorate With a Touch of Tin
Tin ceilings remain more costly to install than the conventional variety, but they don't need to be repainted and retouched like their plaster counterparts. One disadvantage, though, is that the tin doesn't absorb sound—although that can be offset by installing thick carpet and drapes.
Jane Boswell and her husband in Lafayette, Ind., acquired nearly 2,000 square feet of tin ceiling from an old school in Rockford, Ill., during the late 1970s and early 1980s to refurbish their late Queen Anne home.
"We had been looking for tin ceiling to replace acoustic tile in our ‘remuddled’ home, but couldn't afford the new reproduction tin ceilings that had just hit the preservation market," she says.
They hauled their $100 slew of steel cornices, medallions, and moldings back home in a van. The couple then stripped them, used what they needed, and sold the rest to neighbors and friends.
The result? "Gorgeous ceilings in the surrounding neighborhood," Boswell says.
Real estate pro Meg Zoller didn't have to work quite so hard to redecorate her residence. She had been looking for something unique and purchased some tin for a backsplash in her modern log cabin near Cleveland, Texas.
The squares she selected had a five-point star just like the state flag, complementing her stained-glass windows with a similar theme. She has opted to seal the panels with a clear coat satin finish to keep rust at bay.
Architect Stuart Cohen, co-author of Great Houses of Chicago: 1871–1921 (Acanthus Press, 2008), likes tin because it gives the ceiling—which often gets forgotten during home decorating—equal presence in terms of defining a space.
The inherent drama and texture of realistic vines, leaves, berries, and trelliswork draw the eye upward. Consequently, he says tin ceilings work best in rooms with high walls since this adornment tends to visually lower the ceiling.
While embossed tin in a residence might appear trendy now, Eldridge and Cohen say tin never really went out of fashion.
"Some people say, 'Oh, you're bringing it back,'" says Eldridge. "I say, 'Not really. I've been doing this forever.'"