Can You Expose Ceiling Joists For That Open Beam Look?

A country kitchen with an open beam ceiling
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Stately, attractive, and open: the exposed-beam ceiling look is one that many owners of conventional, flat ceilings desperately want. Desperately enough, in fact, to consider making the major step of pulling down ceiling drywall to expose joists above. Can you do this? What will it look like in the end?  

The answer to the first question is, "Yes, you can." The answer to the second one is, "Not so great, but there is an alternative."

Exposed Beams' Allure; Closed Ceilings' Practicality

Exposed beam ceilings call up images of past ages; of a slow, simple, and true-to-the-earth time. Country and rustic-styled kitchens tend to have open ceilings. In reality, exposed beams in residential buildings were far less common than one might think. Wherever possible, and whenever money allowed, ceilings were closed up; even back in those days of yore. Buttoning up the ceiling does two things:

  1. It Covers: Ceiling drywall hides the unpainted, unfinished wood of joists, beams or the floorboards supported by the beams (plus a lot of other junk detailed below).
  2. It Saves Energy: Ceiling board allows you to heat your room far more efficiently. Lower ceilings shrink the volume of the room to be heated. 

Joists Are Not Beams

The post-and-beam, or post-and-lintel, style of construction does not apply to most modern homes. This means that after ripping down drywall, you will be in for a big surprise.

After the insulation falls, you will find:

  • Small "Beams": A joist is sized differently from a beam. You may find joists that are 2 x 10 inches or 2 x 12 inches, but not the fat, square 4 x 4 or 6 x 6 dimensions that you might expect with the beam style.
  • Closer Spacing: Because they are smaller and thus weaker, joists are spaced more frequently than beams. They may be spaced as frequently as 24 inches apart from each other. In this photo, the stringers are 48 inches apart.
  • Wires, Vents, Etc.: 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. 
  • No Insulation: If you're dealing with a one-story, with nothing but a roof above, how will you insulate? Your attic insulation is now gone. 

All of this amount to the fact that it is tough going to get that exposed beam style merely by taking down ceiling drywall. 

I know this from hard experience, having tried this once before in the callow youth of my remodeling experience. It looked awful, and nothing that I did seemed to help. I fixed wires, rerouted to them, plugged the holes, hit the joists and floorboards with white primer, repainted them, but it looked like exactly what it was, an open ceiling with a forest of joists.

Faux Beam Alternatives

If you're intent on having a timber-beam look in your house, I recommend building your own "faux beams" out of clear, light pine. Or you can purchase fake beams made out of high-density polyurethane from a place called Faux Wood Beams. The beams look remarkably like the real thing. And since beams are up on the ceiling and cannot be examined close-up, they will pass for the real thing.