Surface Mount Ceiling Grid and Tiles

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Drop ceilings or suspended ceilings are a familiar sight—in offices, of course, but also in many houses with finished basements.

Traditional drop or suspended ceilings consist of a suspended metal framework, or grid, and lightweight acoustic tiles that simply lie in the grid. The grid is suspended from the floor or ceiling structure above by metal wires. The space between the two levels hides heating ducts, plumbing, and wiring.

One issue with drop ceilings is that they eat up several inches of ceiling height. For offices and other commercial buildings, that's usually not an issue. But homes have limited ceiling height. So, surface mount ceiling tiles make more sense.

Direct Surface Mount vs. Grid Surface Mount

One alternative to building the suspended ceiling framework is the surface mount or direct mount ceiling, in which ceiling tiles are glued directly to the ceiling. It's a method that, for the ease of installation, does have its issues, as well. The biggest issue is that the ceiling must be in perfect condition before installing the ceiling tiles.

Direct surface mount ceiling tiles will transfer any base ceiling irregularities to the ceiling tile array itself. For example, if there are waves in the ceiling, these waves will show up in the direct surface mount tiles. It's a bit of an irony since ceiling cover-ups are often, but not always, meant to hide ceiling surface problems.

So, there is yet another option: surface mount or direct mount ceiling tiles that fit into a grid, though the grid is not suspended. It's an option that has been around since the early 1990s—a relative newcomer compared to drop ceilings.

What a Surface-Mount Ceiling Grid Is

The tiles of a direct mount ceiling do not mount directly to the ceiling, but the grid does. As with a drop ceiling, individual tiles are laid into the grid and are not attached.

The main difference is that the direct mount ceiling grid attaches directly to the ceiling framing—by means of screws or staples driven into the ceiling or floor joists above—rather than being suspended by wires.

The ceiling grid will not cover up major base ceiling problems since it still must physically attach to the base ceiling. But the plastic grid can mitigate some of the ceiling's problems.

Where to Use This

The majority of these surface mount ceiling grids are installed as part of basement finishing projects

Basement ceilings in older homes can be a challenging issue since few of them reach 8 feet tall, and adding a suspended ceiling below takes up additional headroom.

Most building codes require living spaces to have ceilings of at least 7 1/2 feet. Because a direct-mount grid is attached directly to the level above, with no intervening wires, no space is wasted.

Surface Mount vs. Conventional Drywall Ceiling

Surface mount ceilings are an appealing alternative to standard drywall ceilings for a few reasons: 

  • Accessibility: With a drywall ceiling, access to the area above the ceiling is difficult. If a pipe leaks or a wire needs to be replaced, nothing short of ripping out the drywall will do. With a surface mount ceiling, access is as easy as lifting out a tile.
  • Instant Coverage: An existing drywall ceiling with minor cosmetic problems can be effectively covered up with a surface mount system.
  • Quick Installation: A surface mount ceiling goes up faster and with less mess than a conventional drywall ceiling because no mudding or sanding is involved.
  • Easier: DIYers install drywall ceilings all the time; it's not limited to the professionals. But it involves heavy lifting and can be a taxing project for many do-it-yourselfers. By contrast, with surface mount ceilings, everything is lightweight.

Types of Tiles

You can use any standard 2-foot by 2-foot or 2-foot by 4-foot tile with a maximum thickness of 3/4-inch. Many tiles designed for drop ceilings work for surface mount ceilings.

Since drop ceilings have been around for decades, it's easy to find a tile that suits your needs. Just be sure not to use drywall in any form, as drywall is too heavy for a direct-mount ceiling grid.

Additional Tips

  • For disguising the ceiling grid, purchase a ceiling tile that has relief, or dimension, to it. Flat tiles tend to highlight the grid.
  • If an existing light fixture location conflicts with the ceiling grid layout, it's best to move the light fixture. With exposed joists, it's an easy matter to move the light fixture a few inches over to avoid the grid. If the ceiling drywall is in place, you'll need to cut out a small section of drywall to access the fixture's mounting fasteners.