What Is a Tray Ceiling?

Bedroom with tray ceiling and light fixture

dowell / Getty Images

When deciding on the key design elements you wish to incorporate into a space, the look of the ceiling is not often considered. Perhaps crown molding or eye-catching light fixtures are used, but the texture or shape of the actual ceiling is usually left blank. While this may be preferred in some designs, there are more creative ceiling options available, including the use of tray ceilings. These can add a whole new dimension to a room, changing the feel completely. 

Learn more about what a tray ceiling is, the benefits and challenges of including one, and tips for creating a visually pleasing tray ceiling in your home. 

What Is a Tray Ceiling? 

A tray ceiling, also known as a recessed ceiling, is a ceiling with a raised center. These different levels of height make the ceiling appear as if it contains an inverted tray, hence the name. The height difference between the two ceiling layers can be anywhere from a few inches to over a foot, depending on the structure of the home and the height of the room.  

Pros and Cons of Tray Ceilings

Tray ceilings are both beautiful and practical, though they have their downsides. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons to consider before adding a tray ceiling into your home. 

  • Makes a space feel larger

  • Adds depth and visual interest to a room

  • Can be incorporated into almost any room's design style

  • Can be used to conceal unsightly wiring, plumbing, or venting

  • Can be expensive to install

  • Ceilings should be a minimum of 8 ft. tall to add this feature

  • Ledges need more maintenance and cleaning than a flat ceiling

  • Can be labor-intensive or impossible to add one to an existing ceiling

How Much Does a Tray Ceiling Cost? 

The cost of tray ceilings differs tremendously from one project to another. It all depends on the size of the space and the ease of installation. For example, adding a tray ceiling into an existing home may require work to be done to the ceiling joists or trusses, which requires a lot of labor and engineering expertise. Permits may even be required. This would make the ceiling a large expense. This can be anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000—if it is possible at all. 

On the other hand, adding a tray ceiling to a room with already tall ceilings can be as simple as installing a drop-down frame and covering it in drywall. This requires much less work and might even be a DIY project for an experienced homeowner.

If you decide to include tray ceilings while building a new home, the incorporation of this feature can easily be worked into the design, making the addition much easier and smoother than adding it to an existing structure. This can be anywhere from $500 to $1,500, or $2 to $4 per square foot. 

Decorating Tips for Tray Ceilings

This unique ceiling feature can be decorated in many different ways, depending on the desired outcome. Here are a few tips to help you achieve the look you are striving for. 


The use of color can make a tray ceiling stand out, blend in, or seemingly recede into the distance. For a simple, modern feel, try keeping things clean and minimal when it comes to colors. To add a touch of drama and elegance, paint the ceiling with a rich color that complements or purposely contrasts the other colors in the room. These can be added to the trims around the tray to really make the height difference stand out. Using dark colors inside the tray can enhance the feeling of height, making the tray look as if it is disappearing or further away than it is.

Stencils, Wallpaper, Tiles, or Murals

Tray ceilings create the perfect frame for ceiling artwork. Try adding stencils along the border for a more subtle hint of art, or go all out by incorporating wallpaper, painted murals, or patterned tiles inside the tray. 


Light fixtures have a big impact on the feel of a space, and tray ceilings only enhance this effect. For an elegant feel, hang a chandelier from the center of the tray. For a more minimal, sleek appearance, add recessed lighting or rope lighting along the edges of the tray ceiling. 

Experiment With Shape

Most tray ceilings are rectangular, as they follow the shape of the room. However, the inner shape can be anything you want it to be, from circular to diamond-shaped. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the design before installing it. 

Challenges of Tray Ceilings

Though there are many ways in which tray ceilings can be both beautiful and practical, there are still some challenges to consider. Here are a few to keep in mind.

Very Tall Ceiling Heights

Tray ceilings are hard to reach, which can make painting or installing lights difficult. Be sure to have a safe way to reach these ceilings before trying to work on them. 

Increased Cleaning

With their multiple layers, tray ceilings will need more cleaning than flat ceilings. Dust and dirt can accumulate on ledges and creases and will need to be maintained. Again, it is important to know you have a safe means of reaching these tall features before trying to clean them. 

Space Considerations

Depending on the height of your ceilings, the lower borders of the tray ceiling may impact head room, tall furniture, or built-in cabinet space. Be sure to take these features into account before installing a tray ceiling.  

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  1. Do I Need a Structural Permit? Building Codes Division, State of Oregon.