Tongue-and-Groove Wood vs. Drywall Ceiling

Wood Tongue and Groove Ceiling
Getty / Spaces Images

Ceilings are usually made of entire 4-by-8-foot (or longer) sheets of drywall screwed to the joists of the floor above. Hanging ceiling drywall isn't easy for many homeowners, but the real trick is finishing it to create a flat, seamless surface. That's not something many beginners can pull off. Wood tongue-and-groove paneling offers a tantalizing alternative: a gorgeous natural-wood ceiling with an installation process that is easier than drywall.

But before you rush to your local home center or lumberyard for materials, consider some of the main advantages and pitfalls of both ceiling materials. 

Installing Drywall

drywall ceiling is at least a two-person job, and even with two people it helps to have a drywall lift, a rental tool that lifts the panels up to the ceiling and holds them in place while you fasten them. A 4-by-8-foot sheet of standard 1/2-inch drywall weighs about 52 pounds, but the weight is just part of the battle. Drywall sheets are notoriously unwieldy, especially when you're working on the ceiling.

Once the sheets are fastened in place, the job is still less than half done. The next step is taping and mudding the joints, with gravity fighting your every move. All of the joints will need at least three finishing coats to blend them into the surrounding panel surfaces. This is where a professional's skill really shines and where an amateur struggles the most.

The challenge is compounded on the ceiling because ceilings are particularly visible—we don't cover them with artwork or furniture—and usually there's a lot of light playing across them, which highlights imperfections. 

Installing Tongue-and-Groove Paneling

Installing a tongue-and-groove paneled ceiling is possible as a one-person project, but parts of it are much easier with two people.

The basic process involves cutting each piece so it fits nicely to any neighboring pieces and it ends, or "breaks," over the center of a ceiling joist (or a roof rafter, on a cathedral or vaulted ceiling). The planks are nailed directly to the framing with finish nails. Most of them are "face-nailed" through the tongues of the planks so that the nails are hidden by the grooved edges of the planks in the next row. 

The tricky parts of tongue-and-groove paneling are getting the boards to straighten out (many will be slightly warped or otherwise imperfect), getting the joints to fit tightly, and keeping the rows in straight lines so they remain parallel to the walls on both sides of the ceiling. If you finish the planks with stain or other finish material, it's usually best to apply the finish before the installation. Other than the finishing work, installing wood paneling is very low-mess work, especially compared to drywall. 

Benefits at a Glance

Drywall CeilingTongue-and-Groove Ceiling

Nearly flat, smooth surface can be achieved

Easy to lift individual boards

Easier to paint than tongue-and-groove

Attractive, rustic appearance 

Traditional to most houses, therefore will not attract unwanted attention at time of house sale

Conforms to less-than-perfect surfaces

Drawbacks at a Glance

Drywall CeilingTongue-and-Groove Ceiling

Very difficult for two DIY installers to manage sheets overhead; impossible for one DIY installer to manage

Difficult to paint

Requires "upside-down mudding" of drywall joints, also difficult for beginning DIYers

 

Not as sound-resistant as drywall

 

Threshold of perfection for finished joints is high, since light catches drywall joints at an angle that will expose all imperfections

 

Slower to cover the ceiling than you would with the large sheets of drywall, but finishing is typically faster