Exposed Beam and Joist Ceilings: What to Know

A country kitchen with an open beam ceiling

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Stately, attractive, and open: an open ceiling beam look is one that many owners of conventional, flat ceilings would love to have. Exposed beam ceilings conjure up images of past ages; of a slow, simple, and true-to-the-earth time. Farmhouse, country, and rustic-styled kitchens tend to have open ceilings.

Some homeowners would love to have this look enough to remove ceiling drywall and expose joists above, with the notion that ceiling joists will automatically create an exposed beam look.  

Before undertaking this major project, it's important to look at the pros and cons of opening up the ceiling drywall to expose joists. Plus, it helps to understand the nature of joists and beams and what the project would look like upon completion.

What Exposed Beams and Exposed Joists Are

It's easy to think of exposed beams and joists are being the same thing, or close to it, since both are structural elements. Yet the items' differences become clear when exposure is considered.

Exposed Beams

Traditional building techniques that used beams for ceilings and floors relied on sheer size for strength. Span lengths could always be increased by increasing the width and height of the beam. At a time when old growth forests were prevalent, supplying massive beams for construction was not a problem.

Exposed beams in residential buildings were far less common than one might think. When possible, post-and-beam ceilings were closed up to help hide the roughly hewn beams and the floorboards supported by the beams. Ceilings allowed owners to heat homes far more efficiently by shrinking the volume of the home.

Exposed beams have experienced trends over the years. With the advent of cheap electric heating in the 1960s, tall, arching ceilings and exposed beams once again had their heyday. Inexpensive heating made it possible to keep large room volumes warm for less money.

Exposed Joists

Like beams, joists are structural members that hold up floors and roofs. Unlike beams, joists rely on multiplicity, height, and improved wood for their strength.

Joists are spaced every 16 inches, far closer to each other than beams. Joists can be tall, too: up to 12 inches and sometimes even more. More importantly, improved manufacturing techniques allow joists to be lean and compact, while still safely carrying weight.

Exposed joists are ceiling structural members that are made visible by removing the ceiling drywall or plaster. Sometimes, ceiling drywall is removed and the ceiling joists are substituted with other structural elements to create a completely open ceiling. Exposed joists are different: the joists stay in place to duplicate the look of beams.

How Exposed Ceiling Joists May Look

The post-and-beam, or post-and-lintel, style of construction does not apply to most modern homes. After removing the ceiling drywall, the exposed joists may have any or all of the following:

Joists and Beams Have a Different Look

A joist is sized differently from a beam. You may find joists that are two-by-ten inches or two-by-twelve inches, but not the thick, square six-by-six or greater dimensions that you might expect with the beam style. Wood joists do not look like beams.

The visual difference is highlighted even more when the joists are I-beam joists: a vertical section of OSB or plywood with horizontal pieces of LVL or solid wood at the top and bottom.

Close Spacing

Because they are smaller and thus weaker, joists are spaced more frequently than beams. Joists may be spaced as frequently as 16 inches apart from each other. It's a look that doesn't immediately register to the eye as beams, since beams are thicker and farther apart.

Wires and Vents

You need to contend with the various wires that might be snaking through holes drilled through the joists or nailed to the tops of the joists. This means rerouting wires around the perimeter of the ceiling.

Other wires and vents that are not running through the joists still must be dealt with in some way or another. They can be routed to the side or a false ceiling can be built just below the roof.

Lack of Insulation

If you're dealing with a one-story, with nothing but a roof above, you lose the attic insulation when you remove the ceiling. When building a home with a vaulted ceiling, the ceiling insulation is moved to the space below the roof and just above the vaulted ceiling. So, when exposing joists, the insulation would be tucked away similar to a vaulted ceiling.

All of this amounts to the fact that it is tough going to get that exposed beam style merely by taking down ceiling drywall. Taking down the drywall is the first project. The second project is to clear out and clean up the attic.

Exposed Joists Pros and Cons

  • Uses existing materials

  • Unique look

  • Greater airflow for warm climates

  • More ceiling height

  • Issue placing new insulation

  • Exposed joists don't look like beams

  • May have obstructions

  • Reroute wires, pipes

Alternatives to Exposed Joists

Make DIY Faux Beams

If you're intent on having a timber-beam look in your house, you might consider building your own faux beams out of clear, light pine. The beams are very easy to make, simple to attach to your existing ceiling, and can even come down with little effort if you move.

Faux beams are essentially three-sided boxes attach to cleats that are themselves attached to the ceiling. Screws driven in from the side attach the faux beams to the cleats.

Purchase Faux Beams

Another option is to purchase fake beams made out of high-density polyurethane. The beams look remarkably like the real thing. And since beams are up on the ceiling and cannot be examined close-up, they usually will pass for the real thing.

Faux beams look very realistic. Plus, they're lightweight and easy to install. The downside is that they tend to be extremely expensive.