The Mountain House: Refinishing the Ceilings & Is Good Enough Good Enough?
Let’s be clear – that is not our house, but I wish it were. A recap: mountain cabin ceilings need and want wood. Sure. I can get behind/under that. While I originally would have been absolutely fine painting the ceiling white, the more time I spent at the mountain house, especially in the winter, the more I agree that the wood on the ceiling is really cozy and lovely and yes, it just feels like a mountain house. Painting it would be fine, but it would be like dressing your child in all black for an Easter egg hunt – it’s not a big deal, but it just doesn’t feel right.
As a reminder, here is what our ceiling looked like pre-renovation:
It doesn’t look that bad in photos, but it just felt like a dark orange or almost a semi-translucent dark stain…closer to paint.
This is very common and YOU GUYS, let me be VERY clear here – it’s absolutely fine. If you have this in your house, do not look at it and judge it. It’s appropriate and normal and totally “mountain.”
But I had other dreams…I wanted my fantasy wood ceiling. I wanted these:
See! I like wood, I’m just pickier about its tone. I also have to make sure for my business and reputation that this house is a representation of my style. It would be like if I were an accountant and my files were slightly disorganized, with spreadsheets named improperly and zeros added where they shouldn’t be. I would never hire or trust that accountant (nor should you), so as a designer, I have to make sure that the stylistic decisions I make are something I want my clients (aka YOU) to see…and those inspiration shots above are what I want for myself.
What is beautiful about all of those is the tone of the wood – it’s warm without going too orange. Most of those are also not V-groove tongue-and-groove (with the little V-shaped indention between the planks) but instead clad like shiplap or flat stock. Perhaps they used a harder wood like oak, alder, maple or walnut…or maybe they used Douglas fir and pine (like most) but tweaked the stain or bleached it a lot.
Again, here is our ceiling in the mountain house:
I knew I wanted to do something to bring it closer to those dreamy inspo shots, so let’s talk through the options. What can we really do to this ceiling:
Paint It White
Coating it in white paint (or dark gray hue – more on that in a sec) would likely cost $5-6k. Well, saying this is an actual option is inaccurate because Brian will not budge on this. I also think my contractor and architect would walk off the job. You do NOT paint wood ceilings in this town. Fine. Again, I DON’T WANT TO EITHER, just discussing the OPTION. Here’s what that would look like (even if it’ll never happen).
Paint It Gray
Oh…but what about painting it a dark gray?? Would that be so bad? Would it give the same sense of warmth and coziness? Probably not, but maybe close? Is this an actual option? NOPE. Brian says no, even though it would make my life (and thus his life) so much easier because it would mean that I could choose ANY flooring we wanted (i.e., I wouldn’t have to worry about matching/coordinating wood tones overhead and underfoot).
But admittedly, it’s not as warm or “mountainy” as a wood-toned ceiling. How can we get closer to what I want, without losing the warmth of real wood grain? So, I searched long and hard for more options:
If you have ever had Douglas fir or pine in your life, you know that it’s extremely difficult to take the orange undertones out of them. This is why typically, you see them stained dark, because the darker a stain, the more overall consistent color you are able to achieve. The reason that these two kinds of wood are used so often is due to durability, availability and cost. Getting the same amount of material in hardwood would be insanely expensive, but believe me, refinishing isn’t really an option. I know this because of the ceiling beams in our living room in LA and what we had to do to get them up to snuff. The team that worked on them had to bleach the beams three to four times to ensure that the undertone wasn’t orange, and instead more white…and then we stained it. It was incredibly expensive and laborious and refinishing this ceiling with the same bleaching technique would be bonkers (like $20-30K). And I still might not get the look that I want. Dropping that kind of dough isn’t an option, especially without the guarantee of it coming out just right.
Re-clad it in beautiful wood in the perfect tone like some of those above
This was my original idea. Yes, this would be even more expensive, but I’d get my dream ceiling. It would be in the same range ($25-$35k), but at least there wouldn’t be any unknowns. The problem with this is that veneer does not come as long as the rafters are (probably 16 to 20 feet) so you would have to piece it together. The tongue and groove can be “easily” clad over, but the rafters, not so much. When we discussed this, everybody convinced me that seeing a seam in the veneer in the rafters would make it appear obvious that the rafters were indeed veneered. It would look fake, cobbled together and generally “mickey moused.”
In case you are thinking “oh, but that dark brown you have right now looks pretty!” allow me to correct you – the light in the room is pretty. The windows are large and beautiful and let in a ton of light, but the dark brown wood looked like a painted dark orange ceiling in person.
Right around the time that we bought the house, I went on the Dwell on Design tour and saw this house:
I asked the architect that day about the ceiling and they said that it was an original Douglas Fir ceiling from the ’60s that had been walnut blasted and left raw, with no stain. The gave me SO MUCH hope. So the last option:
Walnut Blast the Ceiling
Walnut what?? Walnut blasting…it’s a thing, evidently. We did a whole bunch of research for those of you interested as well as picked the brain of Mike from Culwell Abrasive, who, spoiler alert, did our walnut blasting because it’s what we ended up going with, which you’ll see later on in this post.
First and foremost, you might have heard of “sandblasting”, which it seems is just the “Kleenex” of the abrasive grit blasting world (i.e. people just use the term, even if sand is not the blasting medium being used). FYI, sand comes with some warnings, which we’ll get into in just a sec.
Here’s a super formal straight-from-the-dictionary definition of abrasive blasting: “…a process by which an ‘abrasive media’ is accelerated through a blasting nozzle by means of compressed air.” The abrasive used varies based on the surface treatment required. Some abrasives commonly used in the process include steel grit, glass beads, crushed glass, plastic, corn cob, baking soda, copper slag, steel shot, coal slag, aluminum oxide and, why we’re here today…walnut shells.
Mike told us that for customers who ask for basic “sandblasting,” he actually uses copper slag, which is a copper byproduct. Blasting with sand is messier and can create a mess long term because the sand gets stuck in the wood and falls from the ceiling for years to come. From Mike’s mouth to your ears (eyes?).
As for the cost, it varies job to job as many things in remodeling/construction do. In this instance, factors that could change the quote are whether or not you have beams, surface conditions, different ceiling heights, etc., but Mike gave us a “guesstimate” average cost of $3-4 per square foot for sand and 25-35% more for both walnut and glass blasting options. It’s important to note that most pros doing this charge per square foot as opposed to per hour. On the low end, you can expect to pay $1,500 for “sandblasting” with corn cobs on a 1,500 square-foot log home, while on the high end, using copper slag on something like metal and masonry (with cleanup, because that’s def not something you can do yourself) on the same size home is more like $5,000.
For anyone asking “wait, what does abrasive grit blasting (or “sandblasting”) do exactly,” it can be used in tons of ways – plus, it’s chemical-free. For example (according to our research), it can remove paint from stucco and other textured structures, rejuvenate concrete with no color fading, strip back rust from fancy antique metals, remove oil and stains from concrete driveways and garage floors, and bring back the original look of brick, pebbles or other rock designs. While the process is relatively simple, the prep work is labor-intensive. Your contractor will have to take care to protect your windows, roof and landscaping (not to mention everything in your home that’s currently there) before beginning the process because that stuff gets EVERYWHERE.
So, while we went with walnut shells for our ceilings, there was also the option to use glass as the media. Here’s some info on both, because each has its own pros and cons:
Ideal for indoor blasting on softer surfaces like wood, plastic, fiberglass, aluminum and various composite materials. Pros include less prep (you don’t have to cover your glass/windows because, unlike sand, walnut shells don’t etch glass), speed (it’s a dry process which reduces additional drying time that can eat into tight production schedules) and safety (organic walnut shells don’t produce harmful toxins and require no solvents or additives during the blasting process…they are reusable and biodegradable, as well). One of the most notable cons though is price. Walnut blasting is the more expensive option (when compared to copper slag or sand) due to material costs.
Ideal for steel, metal, sometimes concrete (depending on what finish you want), brick and wood (depending on the type of wood…if it’s too soft, the crushed glass could etch the wood which isn’t ideal). It’s often used on things like cars that are being repainted rather than in a residential building and is the most expensive option. Pros include cleanliness (glass is “dustless”, so the mess and clean up is minimal), and limited embedment (crushed glass doesn’t embed very much into the surface, making it ideal for applications where that’s problematic, like log cabins). It’s also environmentally friendly – crushed glass is inert, which, depending on your location, means it can be safe to use around water. If you’re looking for a speedy turnaround, though, glass is softer than some harder abrasives like, say coal slag, so it can be slower at removing coatings depending on the surface.
Regardless of what abrasive you choose, here are a few things to remember if you venture down this blasting path in your own home:
- “Sandblasting” is VERY noisy and messy. If you have nearby neighbors, you might want to tell them ahead of time as not to bother them or in the case that they also need to tarp/prep their property (anything within 30 feet of the job needs some prep).
- Some cities require permits for sandblasting, so always check with your town or city hall to see what you might need before starting.
- Better “soft” than sorry – If you’re not sure whether the surface you are blasting can handle a more abrasive material, you’re probably better off starting with a gentler medium. Walnut shells or corn cobs can be an excellent choice for softer surfaces such as wood; they won’t cause etching. They also provide the additional benefit of being biodegradable, making them among the most environmentally-friendly blasting media.
- You might want to avoid sand altogether. Why? Sand contains silica, which is known to cause serious respiratory illnesses for workers involved in the sandblasting process.
Our contractor gave us a quote of $5,700 and we okayed it. It would take two days and without feeling confident about any of the other options, we went for it. Here she is after succumbing to the power of walnut blasts. When I first walked in, I was relieved, thinking “okay this is good.” But the more I stared at it and experienced the space, the more I was like, wait…is this good?? The doubt starting setting in because it wasn’t exactly what I originally envisioned. The Douglas fir rafters and pine tongue-and-groove are different tones, the former pink, the latter more yellow. Neither of which I dislike, but together, it felt like a lot.
Furthermore, the texture was EXTREME (see top right photo in the grid below…that is some serious texture).
I like texture, but man when you blast wood, it takes it down to the grain and there was a lot of depth, knots and variation. I didn’t hate it but it just wasn’t what I had predicted. Also, remember that you all voted (but barely) for “refined” not rustic, so I was like “dear gosh, this ceiling is RUSTIC.”
But let me present another argument – perfection in all your finishes can look like a new build, which is fine if you want a new build. But if you want a mid-century cabin in the mountains then trying to shove the perfect finishes on it seems like a devil’s errand. Erasing charm is anti-everything that I’m for, though I also REALLY want to be happy with the ceilings. So while digging around Pinterest (as one does), I found the following photos of what appears to be a veneer on the rafters. Veneer that doesn’t stretch across and thus looks like what it is – beautiful veneer over cheaper wood.
You would NEVER notice it (at least I wouldn’t). It doesn’t look ‘mickey moused’ or silly. How often do you stare at the ceiling? Not often. So I showed my contractor, architect and Brian these photos to prove to them that you can veneer without losing visual architectural integrity. Heck, “visual integrity” is in and of itself a ridiculous aspiration. But everyone looked at me like I was crazy…and they weren’t wrong. The ceiling is fine. Good enough. Not bad!! The quote to re-clad was three weeks, at $1k a day (for 2 guys) plus materials. That’s just nuts and not something we can afford.
So I explored even other options – painting the rafters white, so we could leave the T and G, and therefore at least have less contrast and reduce the pink. Like so:
But I don’t LOVE that as much as much as I should. We would still have to stain the ceiling which would cost $7k at least (if you have a lower ceiling, it’s MUCH cheaper, but when you are up that high with scaffolding, the cost of labor skyrockets).
So as of right now, I want to work with the wood ceiling. I canceled my original wood flooring to ensure that the floor is pulling the best tones from all of the different tones of ceiling. I am embracing it from below and just like most of us, it’s not perfect but maybe it’s likable enough. And maybe that is more important than perfection.
You see, I started realizing that while renovating a quirky house, you can OBSESS about all the details that you might not actually notice when the house is finished. It’s easy to home in on a tiny little thing (LIKE AN ENORMOUS CEILING) when there isn’t anything else to focus on. MUST REMEMBER THIS. Mixing woods is pretty. Real wood in a mountain cabin is crucial. While I haven’t done much of it before and feel like a novice at the notion of mixing a ton of woods, I don’t want to spend more money unless it’s going to be my dream ceiling. Getting “closer” without nailing it seems like a waste of money and time. But because I have a wide audience with so much more experience than I have, I want to ask you – and not in an ‘I design, you decide’ sort of way because it’s too expensive to even propose, but in a PLEASE HELP ME way:
If you have a wood ceiling, have ever clad, stained or replaced a wood ceiling or maybe you have a general contractor in the family you can shake information out of…what do you/they think? What do you like? Am I missing any options? Do you like it as-is? Or do you think that I’m maybe projecting too much importance on a singular finish and should consider the importance that furniture and accessories and PEOPLE can give to a space?
I’m leaning towards the latter…