Planning Your Suspended Ceiling

A suspended ceiling in a wood-paneled office.

Whether you’re adding a new room, renovating your basement, or just need to replace an old ceiling that has been damaged, a suspended, or drop ceiling should be on your list of options. Suspended ceilings make for great home improvements for several reasons: they’re relatively inexpensive, they can cover existing plumbing or wires without making them inaccessible, and they are available in a wide range of designs and patterns. The best part, though, is that installing a suspended ceiling is a job most competent DIYers can do themselves.

How Many Tiles Do You Need?

As with any project, the first step to getting your suspended ceiling right and not wasting time, money, or effort is proper planning. Make sure your ceiling is tall enough to accommodate having another ceiling suspended from it. Drop ceilings usually require about 4 inches of clearance below the floor joists, so measure down 4 inches from your joists to figure out if you have sufficient clearance according to your local building code. (Note: if you’re installing lights in your suspended ceiling, allow for 6 inches below the joists.)

To calculate how many tiles your new ceiling will require, find your room’s dimensions. In any room, but particularly in an oddly shaped room with walls that jut out or curve, it’s a good idea to draw your room to scale on graph paper.

Ceiling tiles are usually either 2 feet by 2 feet or 2 feet by 4 feet, so you can estimate the number of tiles you’ll need by dividing the square footage of the room by either 4 square feet or 8 square feet (depending on the size of the tiles you choose).

Since the dimensions of your room might not be perfectly divisible by the size of your tiles, calculate the number of tiles you’ll need, starting in the middle of the room and working your way out to the walls. Your ceiling will look best if the rows of tiles against the walls are the same width, rather than having full-sized tiles on one side of the room and narrow tiles on the other.

What Holds Up the Tiles?

The grid in which the tiles are placed is composed of “L”-shaped edge pieces that go around the perimeter of your room, main “tees” that are suspended from the joists by wire, and “cross” tees running perpendicularly to the main tees. Main tees come in 8-foot, 10-foot, and 12-foot lengths and can be joined together, end to end. Cross tees are either 2 feet or 4 feet long and snap into the main tees. For oddly shaped rooms, the tees can be cut to length using common tin snips.

Finally, if you’re unsure about your ability to install your own suspended ceiling, you might be able to attend a free class at your local home-improvement store.