What to Know About Surface Mount Ceiling Grid and Tile Systems

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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. 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 for homes with limited ceiling heights, that can be a deal-breaker. Not only that but it's difficult to correctly wire drop ceiling grids so they maintain level and flatness all the way across.

For many homeowners—especially those who are finishing their basements—surface mount ceiling grids and tile systems are an easier, more practical, and space-saving alternative to classic drop grid ceilings.

Surface/Direct Mount Ceiling Tiles

A system of ceiling tiles or planks that attaches directly to ceiling joists or to ceiling drywall on a metal grid.

What Surface-Mount Ceiling Grid and Tile Systems Are

The tiles of a surface mount or direct mount ceiling system 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 long grid metal tracks run perpendicular to the joists. Small clips snap into the metal tracks. Then, the grids are attached to the clips.

The ceiling grid will not cover up major base ceiling problems since it still must physically attach to the base ceiling. But the grid can mitigate some of the ceiling's problems by acting as a buffer. A suspended grid is the ultimate buffer, but a direct grid can smooth out some of a ceiling's gradual humps as well as bridge minor gaps.

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. Though simple, it's a method that has a few problems.

The biggest issue is that the ceiling must be in perfect condition before installing the ceiling tiles—somewhat paradoxical since ceiling tiles are often installed to cover up imperfect ceilings.

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 telegraph to the direct surface mount tiles.


A surface mount ceiling grid plus tiles is a compromise between directly gluing tiles to the drywall ceiling and hanging a suspended grid. In use since the early 1990s—a relative newcomer compared to drop ceilings—the direct mount system saves considerable time over wiring and dropping a grid.

Where to Install Surface Mount Ceiling Grid and Tiles

Surface mount ceiling grids are often 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.

Drywall Ceiling vs. Surface Mount Ceiling Grid and Tiles

Drywall Ceiling
  • Heavy

  • Difficult ceiling access

  • Drywall mudding and sanding

  • Needs drywall lift

Surface Mount Ceiling Grid and Tiles
  • Lightweight

  • Easy to access ceiling

  • Clean work, no sanding

  • Needs only a step ladder

  • 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, pulling out drywall is the best or only option. 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: Do-it-yourselfers can install drywall ceilings. This project is not limited to professionals. But it involves heavy lifting and can be a taxing project. Not only that but renting a drywall lift is often an added cost. By contrast, with surface mount ceilings, all of the materials and tools are light and easy to handle. Only a 6-foot step ladder is required to access the ceiling.

Types of Ceiling 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 tiles that suit your needs. Drywall cannot be adapted as drywall is too heavy for a direct-mount ceiling grid.

Tips for Installing a Surface Mount Ceiling Grid and Tile System

  • 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.
  • Surface mount ceiling grids and tiles can be an appealing alternative to standard drywall ceilings. In fact, surface mount ceiling grid systems can be installed in lieu of drywall ceilings. The metal tracks will attach directly to the studs.