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The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Beams for Your Home's Ceiling

Beams add interest to ceiling interiors

Ceiling beams add texture and dimension to your living space. Some invoke the feeling of a bygone era when hand-hewn and rough-sawn beams were used in 18th and 19th-century homes, barns and other structures. Such beams provided essential support to upper floors and roof systems. Exposed solid wood beams appeared in many residences around the world. You'll find them in every kind of structure, from cottages to castles. Unfortunately, this practice depleted forests of old-growth oaks.


Craftsmen now invoke the look of these historic building materials by installing lightweight faux wood designs. Polyurethane ceiling beams reduce demands on declining timber reserves. They also reduce waste.


Specify ceiling beams for your new home construction, add them to an existing living space or use them in an addition. Architects and homeowners consider ceiling beams for use in many parts of the home. Examples include living rooms, family rooms, country-style kitchens, entertainment rooms and master bedrooms.


Follow this step-by-step guide to end up with a design you'll love! There are a variety of things you'll want to do to prepare for a successful ceiling beam installation. You'll want to carefully consider the different styles, sizes and colors. You'll want to create an attractive layout that balances the size and spacing of the beams. Finally, you may want to accessorize your ceiling beam installation with brackets, straps and/or plates.


Select a Beam Style


There's an endless array of ceiling beam designs on the market. Homeowners select from solid, boxed-in and hollow-core designs. Polyurethane beams mimic the look of traditional wood beams without the weight or the expense.


Lightweight polyurethane beams


Polyurethane "faux wood" beams are an increasingly popular alternative to these alternatives. Solid wood beams can weigh hundreds of pounds, while polyurethane beams usually weigh just 15-20 percent of that. As a result, they are typically safer, faster and easier to install.


Get an authentic look


How do manufacturers of rustic beams make them look so authentic? First, craftsmen create molds from actual knotted, distressed or weathered boards. When the liquid resin is poured into such a mold, the material fills every knot and imperfection. When the resin hardens, the surface of the beam includes the desired textures. It is possible for manufacturers to mix a fire retardant into the liquid resin used to fabricate polyurethane beams. It is also possible to coat beams with a fire-retardant to achieve the desired fire rating.


As with all building materials, you'll want to select ceiling beams that withstand the test of time. The high-density polyurethane used in faux wood beams resists damage common to wood beams. For example, high-density polyurethane products are chip, stain and insect-resistant. Wood beams are sometimes subject splitting, cracking and warping caused by humidity changes.


Lightweight polyurethane ceiling beams offer homeowners a cost-effective way to increase visual appeal. They may increase property values as well.


Custom millwork complements these polyurethane beams. For example, you may want to coordinate the look and feel of crown moldings and other millwork with your ceiling beams.


Enjoy design flexibility


Rustic-look polyurethane beams often blend beautifully with stone and brick fireplaces. Coordination with wood-plank, slate or other flooring materials is another potential goal. At the same time, rustic beams provide contrast with modern furnishings often favored by homeowners. Arched beams are typically available with different radius options. Gracefully arched beams are less expensive and quicker to install than their wooden counterparts.


Accommodate obstructions


The three-sided design of a polyurethane beam makes it easy to hide wiring for lighting and surround-sound installations. Such beams also hide pipes used in sprinkler systems. It is easy to trim polyurethane beams to cope with unusual ceiling layouts or obstructions. Cut beams to size with handsaws, circular saws or table saws.


Use in renovations


Lightweight polyurethane beams are easy to use in a renovation project. Designers and homeowners select have many sizes to choose from. When appropriate, custom millwork completes a faithful reproduction of historic interiors. With solid wood beams, the addition of expensive structural support in aging buildings may be an issue. Beams fabricated from lightweight polyurethane usually don't need structural support. For a major installation of larger beams, it is helpful to consult with an engineer about structural support.


Solid wood


Solid wood beams deliver authenticity, but at a price. They are usually more expensive than alternatives. Solid wood beams are often heavy enough to require structural work. This work is needed before the renovation project or building addition proceeds. It is often necessary to employ an engineer to calculate beam sizes. This expert can develop detailed plans required to obtain a building permit.


It takes time to safely move big, heavy beams into place. Some beams are so heavy that they require placement by crane. Solid wood beams often require the use of heavy-duty steel straps, hangers and plates for safe, code-compliant support. For these reasons and many more, labor requirements tend to drive up the final cost.


Salvaged wood


Beams recycled from old barns and homes are also an option, although their extreme weight presents a challenge. An article in This Old House says, "old, salvaged-wood beams are usually very heavy, cost prohibitive, and are often compromised by warping or insect damage." Even when old beams are salvageable, cleaning and preparation drive up costs.


Boxed wood


Boxed wood beams are another option. They are fashioned from three pieces of lumber. Labor costs increase because carpenters must create the "beam" before installing it. Many types of wood are used to fabricate boxed-in beams. Rough-sawn softwood, select hardwoods and weathered barnwood are options.


Measure the Area


If you are fitting a new wraparound beam over an existing one, careful measurements are necessary. You'll want to confirm that the exterior dimensions of the existing beam are smaller than the interior dimensions of the new hollow-core beam. This is a key concern if you are covering an existing beam that has a rough-hewn or otherwise irregular surface. Careful measurements cut costs and reduce waste.


Note Obstructions


In existing homes, it's vital to note any ceiling obstructions that will get in the way of the beam installation. For aesthetic reasons, you also don't want a beam running too close to any ceiling protrusions. The placement of things like ceiling lights and sprinkler systems guide beam placement. Sometimes, ceiling preparation includes repositioning light fixtures and other ceiling protrusions.


It's also vital to determine exactly where each beam will contact walls. For, example, you'll need to remove a precise section of a crown moulding so the beam fits snug to the wall.


Determine Dimensions and Quantities


Most designs call for beams spaced from three to six feet apart on-center. Larger beams might be, for example, 11 inches high and 11 inches wide. You'll also find beams as small as three inches high and five inches wide. You'll almost certainly find a size that meets your exacting requirements.


General recommendations:

  • The closer the spacing, the smaller the beams
  • The longer the span, the larger the beams should be
  • Higher ceilings typically call for wider, deeper beams
  • Use lattice designs across very large ceilings. Mix a large center beam with smaller side beams, for example


Consider a living room with a 24-ft span and a 12-ft ceiling. The larger living space might call for larger beams as much as 11 inches wide and 11 inches deep. By contrast, a space with a 12-ft span and a 9-ft ceiling might call for 4x8 or 6x8 beams. Finally, consider a great room with a 28-ft span and a cathedral ceiling. You might combine a large center beam with smaller side beams.


Choose the Desired Look and Feel


You'll want to make some fundamental design decisions as you select your ceiling beams. Ask yourself key questions:

  • Do you prefer a smoother beam, or one that is either lightly or more heavily distressed?
  • Do you like the texture of the rough-sawn look, or do you prefer the more dimensional look of a rough-hewn beam?
  • Do you want beams that match the color of a modern ceiling, or do you seek dramatic contrast?


Select a Color


With polyurethane beams, you'll select from pre-finished or unfinished designs. Choose unfinished beams if you have a precise color in mind. Simply stain them to your specifications. Either way, high-density polyurethane beams readily accept the stain color of your choice.


Decide whether you want to go with a complementary or contrasting color. In general, the color of smooth beams often complements the ceiling color. In contrast, rough-hewn and rough-sawn beams are often stained dark to contrast with light ceilings. In light-colored settings, darker beams deliver a dramatic, three-dimensional look.


Consider Accessories


Finally, you'll want to determine what accessory pieces you'll need if any. Select brackets, plates or straps for a more finished look. The added detail in these pieces creates a more detailed, textured and authentic look.




Manufacturers like Worthington offer a wide selection of decorative brackets. They work well with a variety of beam designs. Choose brackets that match the size and style of your desired beams. Determine whether you want a more classic, elegant or contemporary look. If you desire, select unfinished brackets so you can stain them on-site to match your beam color. Rustic brackets complete designs featuring beams with a hand-hewn or rough-sawn texture.


Beam plates, straps & end caps


You can use decorative beam plates and/or straps to make your beam installation look even more authentic. Metal plates provide crucial support in solid wood installations. Smooth or hammered metal plates deliver real visual appeal when used with polyurethane ceiling beams. Use them where the beam meets the wall, or to hide the seams of exposed trusses sometimes used with cathedral ceilings.


End caps add to the finished look of a ceiling beam installation. Eliminate the seam between the beam and the wall with a decorative end cap. Some end caps feature nuts and bolts molded right into the design.


Decorative beam straps also offer eye-catching appeal. Hide seams while you create a more authentic feeling. Like end caps, some designs feature nuts and bolts molded right into the strap.


Order Your Ceiling Beams


As you select your ceiling beams, you'll want to go with a manufacturer or supplier that:

  • Has an established reputation
  • Is committed to American-made products, not knock-offs
  • Promises timely delivery
  • Offers customized, complementary millwork


Fortunately, shipping costs are relatively modest with lightweight polyurethane ceiling beams.


The right decisions about beams and accessories will unify the look of your living space. With appealing ceiling beam designs, you'll often enjoy a decent return on investment (ROI) as well. When the time comes to sell, the right beams often get a positive response from prospective buyers. They may help you get a quicker and/or better offer.


Enjoy the Results


You might be featuring ceiling beams in your new home. Or, you're installing them to upgrade your current residence. You may be using them in an addition to your house. Whatever your plans for ceiling beams, you'll enjoy the look for a long time to come.


Regardless of your design preference, one goal remains. You'll want to create a calming, restful sanctuary that provides a welcome respite from the rigors of day-to-day life.


Extra care and planning now will pay off in the future. Family, friends and visitors will enjoy what you've created. And, you'll enjoy a decent return if you ever decide to sell.


Contact Us Today


Worthington Millwork delivers high-quality, American-made architectural products to homeowners and contractors. Enjoy the benefits of working with a company with a 30-year heritage.


Worthington delivers the styles you'll want in the sizes you'll need. Select from rough-hewn, rough-sawn and smooth rail designs. Select your preferred pre-finished color, or choose unfinished beams that are stained on site. Worthington offers a wide selection of colors ranging from light to dark.


The experts at Worthington Millwork can analyze your project plans. Experienced team members will use the details in the plan to determine your ceiling beam needs. They'll make recommendations to simplify the process.


For prompt, professional and friendly help, please contact us!