Excerpt from my regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Question: We just recently purchased an older home in Santa Barbara that had a complete kitchen remodel about 10 years ago. All the kitchen cabinets and countertops were replaced which we are really happy with but the kitchen ceiling has long florescent tube lights set inside a recessed area on the ceiling that is covered with plastic panels which my wife thinks looks just terrible! What can we do to make the ceiling and lighting more attractive without tearing out the entire ceiling?
Answer: Your kitchen has what is often referred to as a drop ceiling with a lighting recess or alcove which was a very popular way to finish off a kitchen ceiling in the 1970’s and 80’s, but has mostly gone the way of the avocado green refrigerator, the burnt orange counter tops and bright orange shag carpeting. Typically very basic shop or garage style florescent light fixtures with 4’ long light tubes were screwed to the top of the ceiling alcove, either a wood or metal grid was suspended over the opening of the recess, and then opaque plastic diffuser panels were set into the grid as a way to hide the light fixtures and evenly illuminate the kitchen. These plastic diffuser panels had a textured surface on the exposed side which quickly accumulated oil and grease from cooking, lint and dust was attracted to the oils, and the panels required regular cleaning or replacement in order to look fresh.
There are a couple of relatively inexpensive ways to redo this type of ceiling without breaking the bank or causing a giant disruption to your household. The first option is to remove the old plastic panels, grid and florescent lights, finish off the old recess drywall surfaces, and then install a new surface mounted light fixture(s) or LED can lights using the same electrical circuit and switch that the florescent tubes were on. Usually the recessed surfaces were covered with drywall when the kitchen was built but often the drywall was not textured completely when the rest of the ceiling was textured, since the plan was for it to not be exposed. If the drywall texture matches and the exposed perimeter outside edges are finished, then possibly no additional drywall work will need to be done. This typically is not the case and a metal corner bead will need to be installed on the outside perimeter edge, there may be a patch or two required in the recess, and it will usually require texturing and then of course painting. A nice finishing detail after the drywall work is completed is to install crown molding along the top inside corner that can either be a stand alone detail or match a crown molding already installed along the cabinet tops or the dining area ceilings.
Installing new light fixtures or can lights on the new exposed ceiling of the recess is a relatively easy task for an electrician and a larger light fixture can be set into the recess without it becoming a low hanging obstacle. A dimmer switch can be installed in place of the old wall switch so that the level of light intensity can be adjusted for the occasion. If your new light is LED, be sure that the new wall switch and dimmer are compatible with LED lighting.
The second option for redoing the ceiling is to simply cover over the recess with a new layer of drywall and install recessed can lights into what was the old recess. This new drywall work will probably mean that the entire ceiling needs to be texture sprayed in order to blend in the overall appearance before being painted, which will require that all the cabinets, counter tops and appliances are masked off with plastic prior to being sprayed.
LED (Light Emitting Diode) provides a very clean and bright illumination that does not distort colors and has a very natural feel. LED is still relatively expensive however LED can lights can use as little as 6 watts of electricity per can and many are rated to exceed 50,000 hours of service.
I personally prefer the first option of leaving the recess open because it gives new height to the kitchen and creates a space for an attractive new light fixture. When finished off with a larger crown molding your kitchen ceiling has been given a simple yet very attractive make over without breaking the bank or creating a huge remodeling headache.
Owner, YourHandyman & Construction
CA License #935259