Floors, Walls, Ceilings, Surface Finishes

Reaching New Heights

The embossed patterns of yore are now showing their mercurial metal charms in houses old and new.

Chelsea Decorative Metal of Houston, TX, makes the Gothic Gold tin-ceiling pattern with a hand-painted finish.

By Gordon Bock

Economical, ever adaptable and unabashedly ornamental, the pressed-metal "tin" ceilings that put their decorative stamp on countless gaslight-era interiors are finding shiny new cache in the high-tech 21st century. From origins as ersatz plasterwork in commercial spaces of all kinds, they've made an easy leap in recent years to residential ceilings, walls and other interior spots by reinventing their industrial charm though what one designer calls "unlimited creativity."

Only in North America, perhaps, could a material born as a substitute grow scores more uses – and far longer appeal – than what it replicates. Along with sheet-metal shingles, cornices, storefronts and other mass-produced wonders of the Industrial Revolution, pressed-metal ceilings seem to have first appeared in the 1870s – the offspring of not only the age of invention, but also a shifting economy. "When labor started to get more expensive," says Glenn Eldridge, second-generation owner of Chelsea Decorative Metal of Houston, TX, "so did ornate plaster ceilings, and an economical alternative became putting up a ceiling of decorative metal and painting it white." The idea expanded into a flourishing industry in the 1880s that, by its heyday in the 1900s, had star trade names such as Wheeling Corrugating Company and Canton Steel Ceiling Company.

This tin ceiling was created using panels from Chelsea Decorative Metal.

Of course, manufacturers that already served a ripe market in public buildings like city halls, department stores and restaurants were happy to expand beyond ceilings. "Before long, metal was being used for wainscots, especially where there was a lot of traffic," says Eldridge. "The backs of chairs would still scratch the paint, but that was easier to repair than gouges in plaster or wood." Manufacturers also sold panels of stamped-metal brick and stonework for exteriors.

The dominant patterns of the day were decidedly late Victorian and reflected the era's eclectic tastes with embossed versions of Greek, Rococo, Empire, Oriental and Gothic motifs, as well as Colonial Revival and streamline idioms. By 1929, though, the vogue for tin ceilings was slipping. "It crashed with the stock market, largely for economic reasons," says Mark Quitno of Nevada, MO-based W. F. Norman, a company that's been in business since 1898. "World War II was the final nail in the tin ceiling coffin, because metal was diverted to make planes, tanks and ships – not decorations for ceilings." It wasn't until the urban renewal era and the investment tax credits of the 1970s and 1980s that people looked again for the tin ceiling that had defined the early years of the century.

A New Spin on Tin
For a material that started so commercial, pressed metal has undergone a remarkable reinvention as a surface that says "today" for homeowners. "We do more residential than commercial," says Eldridge, adding that "a commercial order involves more quantity, but there are more residential orders."

Part of the appeal of decorative pressed metal is the nostalgia factor. "People remember the ice cream parlor or the drugstore from their past and want some of the same look in their house," says Eldridge. Fortunately, the bulk of designs that long-term manufacturers sell are all historic patterns from the 1890s to 1920s.

The raised, embossed decoration of many tin-ceiling patterns makes a perfect canvas for faux-painting. Brian Greer’s Tin Ceilings, Walls & Unique Metal Work

The other driver is clearly pressed metal's versatility. The most common applications by far are for ceilings, walls and backsplashes, in that order, but intrepid designers and homeowners also apply the material to walls in bathrooms and powder rooms. Beyond this, "uses run the gamut," according to Brian Greer of Brian Greer's Tin Ceilings, Walls & Unique Metal Work in Petersburg, Ontario. He's sold panels for headboards, for tabletops (under glass or poured epoxy), bathhouses and even the insides of cars and trucks. Greer stresses that pressed metal can fit most any budget by, say, just installing a few panels in the center of a room for under $100, and that the material finds a home in houses of all sizes, from 1,000 sq. ft. on up. In fact, Greer reports residential jobs of 30,000 to 40,000 sq. ft., where there might be pressed metal in one, two or three rooms.

Regardless of a house's age or style, kitchen backsplashes have become the application du jour. "People have used our flatter, smaller-repeat patterns for backsplashes for years and years," says Quitno, "but there has been an upsurge in purchases for backsplash material in the last five years or so. My guess is homeowners got the idea from recent magazine features."

"It seems to have started with an article in a magazine about 10 years ago," agrees Eldridge, noting that small patterns work better for backsplashes – 6-in. rather than 24-in. repeats – even for the larger areas behind that are usually also covered.

Of course, anyone who wants to use pressed metal for backsplashes, or any location with high humidity, needs to protect the metal with a good coat of oil-based paint or varnish, priming and top-coating both sides of the panel. Properly treated, pressed metal works in bathrooms and even bath houses. But for added insurance, most longtime manufacturers will custom-stamp their panels out of moisture-resistant metals, such as galvanized steel or pure sheet zinc – even solid brass or copper if the budget allows.

Pattern no. 704 is one of the many patterns available from W.F. Norman in 2x2-ft. panels.

Hot Off the Presses
Indeed, "custom" is the operative word when it comes to pressed metal because of the material's malleable nature. As the term implies, pressed-metal ceilings and other products are stamped from sheet metal, typically 29- to 30-gauge steel, by forming the sheet between male and female dies. Hydraulic presses of one type or another are most common. At Chelsea Decorative Metals, for example, each panel is shaped by hand-feeding sheet metal into an hydraulic press that sandwiches the metal between male and female dies to forge the raised pattern. "This isn't like printing newspapers with a continuous stream coming off the press," says Eldridge. W. F. Norman, in contrast, uses rope-actuated gravity drop hammers, a time-honored technology once used to make products from table flatware to auto-body parts. Here, the weight of a heavy hammer falls under the force of gravity to bring the dies together – very quickly. "Our old drop hammers still serve us perfectly well," says Quitno, "and because we have precise control over the distance the hammer head drops, we can produce very fine, sharp detail in the panels and moldings we make."

Generally, die size is what determines panel size, with 2x4 ft. being the traditional standard dimension. "You sometimes see old panels that are 2x8 ft.," says Eldridge, "but that means they still had a 2x4-ft. die and just stamped the sheet metal twice." Older panels and dies might also be designed to specialized dimensions, such as 24x30-in. panels for wainscots. More common today are 2x2-ft. panels, which can be made on smaller presses. "Panels in the 2x2-ft. size are also easier for one person to install on a ceiling," says Greer. Small panels are increasingly popular for use in dropped ceilings, "which is sort of ironic," notes Eldridge, "because a lot of old metal ceilings got holes punched in them to hang dropped ceilings."

Moldings, cornices and filler pieces (border panels in nondescript patterns) are typically 4 ft. long and vary in width; some manufactures make these with a hemmed edge for safer installation. Panels, however, are un-hemmed because of the need for an overlapping bead. Historic die patterns used by longtime manufacturers can yield repeats as small as 3 ins. or, in some cases, as large as 96 ins. and can be combined with moldings and fillers for an almost unlimited range of designs, from deep ceiling coffers to crystalline-looking walls.

It's no surprise that tin plating is the basic finish for pressed-metal ceilings, an appearance that Greer likens to the tin on a grocery store tin can. "Some people like the look of tin plating because it reflects what's on the walls," he says. Depending upon the manufacturer, the finish choices expand widely from here, from galvanizing and electro-plating in metals such as copper and chrome to the broad color choices of powder-coating. Many installations, though, are simply hand painted, and whether to paint before or after installation – especially with ceilings – is a matter of personal preference. The raised, embossed decoration of many patterns makes the perfect canvas for faux-painting, too, where the relief details are picked out in a color that contrasts with the background color.

A painted decorative metal ceiling, such as this one by Brian Greer’s Tin Ceilings, Walls & Unique Metal Work, is an economical alternative to plaster.

Installation methods vary somewhat by project, but most ceilings are attached with nails or other recommended fasteners to a base of furring strips or ¼-in. plywood anchored to joists. For wall projects, such as backsplashes, construction adhesive applied to sound drywall may be sufficient. Whatever the project, Chelsea Decorative Metal, W. F. Norman and Brian Greer's Tin Ceilings, Walls & Unique Metal Work make a point of supporting their product and meeting the particular needs of architects and clients alike. "We work with architects, homeowners and building owners every day," says Quitno, "assisting them with technical questions about design, layout and installation." For making new panels to match an existing historic installation, this may go so far as creating new dies if the manufacturer doesn't already stock something similar. More likely, though, the issue is not the material itself but its new home. "A lot of orders are putting up metal ceilings for the first time," says Greer, and to help he has a crew that will do local installations or consult on finicky jobs further afield. In fact, the hidden beauty of pressed metal is its ease of use. "When people call, we're happy to answer questions – it's a very do-it-yourself material," adds Eldridge. According to John Crosby Freeman, longtime contributor to Old-House Journal magazine, "A quick decorative technique is to carefully paint the panels with your favorite dark color using a short nap roller (to avoid filling in the pattern with paint), followed by an application of a gold glaze on the corners and centers of each panel."

Gordon Bock, longtime editor of Old-House Journal magazine, is a writer, architectural historian, lecturer and technical consultant who shares information about historic buildings on his blog at www.bocktalk.com.

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